Tampa Bay Buccaneers: New Orleans Saints

When: Sunday, 1 p.m. Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa TV: Fox

While the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons play for the NFC South championship Sunday, there’s another division game that means absolutely nothing.

The New Orleans Saints play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season finale for both teams. The Saints were eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to Atlanta last Sunday. The 2-13 Bucs were out of contention long ago.

ESPN Saints writer Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview Sunday’s game.

Yasinskas: Mike, with the playoffs out of the question, how will coach Sean Payton approach this game? Will he play his starters, and how motivated will they be?

Triplett: Payton said the starters will play and that they’ll approach it like any other game that counts. But the motivation is obviously tough to predict. Players have insisted that there are plenty of reasons to play, from their pride and competitive nature to the fact everyone is being evaluated for the future. But this will be a tough week for them since they had realistic playoff hopes up until last Sunday. This game will definitely have an “Outback Bowl” feel to it -- to use terms that Tampa fans can appreciate.

I’ll ask you the same question. I’m guessing 100 percent of Buccaneers fans would love to see them “tank” for the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But it seems like NFL teams have never embraced that approach.

Yasinskas: Yes, Tampa Bay fans are rooting for the first overall pick, even if it comes at the expense of the Bucs' win-loss record. But coach Lovie Smith has made it clear the Bucs are playing to win. I wouldn’t expect anything else. Teams don’t tank in the NFL, and the Bucs aren’t about to break the trend. We’re talking about professional athletes with a lot of pride, so they’re going to play hard. Besides, the Bucs have some incentive in this one. They’re trying to avoid going winless at home. The only other time the Bucs didn’t win a home game was 1976, their expansion season.

Back in the preseason, I viewed the Saints as a playoff team and maybe even a Super Bowl contender. They have a ton of talent. But, obviously, things haven’t gone well. What’s been the biggest problem for the Saints this year?

Triplett: Do we have a word limit? The problems have obviously been widespread to reach this point. The biggest was their defensive collapse. They went from fourth in yards allowed last year to 31st this year. They blew coverage assignments, missed tackles, didn’t force enough turnovers, didn’t get enough pressure. It’s stunning because they had most of the same core players as last year, plus they added safety Jairus Byrd (who struggled before suffering a season-ending knee injury).

In general, I’d chalk it up to a “sophomore slump.” They were counting on a lot of young guys, and I think a lot of them expected to just naturally take that next step. Either they weren’t as motivated or offenses had a better plan for them, etc. I still think it can be salvaged, but we’ll see.

Meanwhile, the offense also underachieved on a smaller scale with Drew Brees forcing way too many passes that turned into crucial interceptions in big moments and Jimmy Graham not making as big of an impact as he should have on a consistent basis.

Again, I’ll throw the same idea back at you. I predicted the Buccaneers to finish second in the NFC South because I think they have so much talent on defense, and I thought the veteran coach and QB would stabilize them. Is there still hope this team can contend in the division as early as next year?

Yasinskas: I predicted the Bucs would go 8-8 and thought they might even be able to get a win or two more. I thought the arrival of Lovie Smith, combined with some good defensive talent already in place, would be enough to fuel a quick turnaround.

Obviously, I was very wrong. Like you, I could write a book about everything that has gone wrong for the Bucs. But we don’t have room for a book, so I’ll try to sum it up quickly. Things got off to a rocky start in the preseason when offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford had a heart procedure. He took a leave of absence and eventually left the team. I don’t think the offense ever recovered from that. Tedford was supposed to install an up-tempo, innovative offense. We never saw that and the offense never got into any sort of rhythm.

Despite Smith’s reputation as a defensive guru, the defense struggled early in the season. It took some time to learn the Tampa 2 scheme. The defense did improve pretty dramatically in the second half of the season, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the lack of offense.

I do think the Bucs can turn things around next season. But they’ve got to find a good offensive coordinator and they have to be a lot better on offense.

You mentioned Brees forcing a lot of throws. That’s what I think I’ve seen from a distance. But I’ve had personnel people around the league tell me that Brees is on the downside of his career. What’s your take on his season?

Triplett: I honestly don’t think we’ve seen major signs of regression, Pat. I think he has at least two or three more high-level years in him. But it has been a really weird season for Brees. He leads the NFL in passing yards (4,671) and ranks second in completion percentage (69.6, which ranks seventh in NFL history). But those interceptions have been really bad -- especially considering some of the situations. This last one against Atlanta with a chance to win the game in the final minutes was one of a few real stunners this year.

Those interceptions have always been a part of Brees’ game, though -- especially in years when the defense has been bad and he feels like he needs to do it all himself. This season has been an exact replica of 2012 in that sense.

The other thing that’s disappearing is the downfield passing game. Brees’ arm strength doesn’t seem much different than past years, and his completion percentage on deep throws is still among the league’s best. But he’s not taking as many shots down the field, constantly settling for checkdown throws. I’m not sure if that’s because of defenses changing or his receivers getting older or because he has lost some of that deep-ball accuracy. I’m sure it’s a combination of all three -- but that’s probably not an area that will improve as he gets older.

What’s the Bucs’ future at quarterback? Could next year’s starter be gearing up for the College Football Playoff right now?

Yasinskas: It’s very possible that Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston could end up with the Bucs next season. The Bucs have been dismal on offense and they need to make major changes. Why not start with the quarterback position? Josh McCown is 35 and he probably is best suited to be a backup. Second-year pro Mike Glennon got a five-game look when McCown was hurt earlier this year. But it doesn’t appear that Glennon won over the coaching staff. With a high draft pick, it’s time for the Bucs to find their quarterback for the long term.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted safety Mark Barron specifically to help them defend New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, according to testimony from former Buccaneers assistant coach Butch Davis.

ProFootballTalk unearthed that interesting nugget after obtaining a portion of the testimony from Graham’s recent franchise-tag grievance hearing.

“We took Mark Barron in the first round simply because of Jimmy Graham,” said Davis, who served as a special assistant to the head coach.

Davis was testifying on behalf of the position that Graham was a wide receiver. But as PFT pointed out, the testimony was actually turned against Davis on cross examination by the NFL, when Davis admitted that the Buccaneers didn’t draft a cornerback to cover Graham and that they would never have drafted a safety to cover Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Jonathan Casillas has obviously liked what he’s seen so far from new quarterback Josh McCown. While praising McCown on a recent radio interview, Casillas compared him to former New Orleans Saints teammate Drew Brees.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaJosh McCown is turning heads in Tampa, as the offseason signee has already earned praise.
Casillas, who began his career with the Saints from 2009-2012, said repeatedly that he didn’t want to take anything away from second-year quarterback Mike Glennon. But he said on ESPN New York’s Dave Rothenberg Show that McCown is just “on another level right now, I believe.”

“McCown looks like he’s played a couple of years in this game,” Casillas said of the 12th-year veteran, who shined with the Chicago Bears last season as a replacement for injured starter Jay Cutler before signing with the Buccaneers as a free agent. “It’s a strong comparison, but he reminds me of Drew (Brees), not just the way he throws the ball, but his approach to the game. The first one in, the last one out, he’s always around. He’s very communicable, very personable. And you can tell he’s a born leader.

“You know, he’s not even trying to do much now, but people are following him, just his approach to the game. And like I said, Glennon is learning a lot from him. So, if Glennon can beat him out this year, that will be great. Because at the end of the day, if Glennon can beat McCown out, then we’re going to get a good quarterback.”

Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who played with McCown early in their careers, also praised McCown while participating in the Drew Brees Passing Academy, according to the Tampa Tribune.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC South

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
10:00
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video
The NFC South too shall pass.

Three of the division's first-round picks in May were wide receivers: Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at No. 7), Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints (No. 20) and Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers (No. 28). And offensive tackle Jake Matthews, drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Falcons, should give quarterback Matt Ryan more time to throw to his star wideouts.

 The Bucs had a void opposite Pro Bowl veteran Vincent Jackson and filled it with Evans, giving the team a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers. The Saints parted with Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, two key components in their pass-happy offense. In steps versatile Cooks, who hauled in 128 receptions for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State. The Panthers released their No. 1 receiver -- diminutive, 35-year-old Steve Smith -- and replaced him with 6-5 Benjamin.

First-round picks aren't the only NFC South rookies with a chance to make some noise. Keep an eye on Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and Saints cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton for Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas for Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division's rookies, among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which NFC South rookie will make the biggest impact this season?



Vaughn McClure: Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans should get plenty of chances to show he was worthy of a top-10 selection. His size (6-5, 230 pounds) is enough to give opponents fits. Having a proven big receiver such as Vincent Jackson on the other side should help Evans make a smooth transition. Josh McCown is a smart quarterback who won't put Evans in bad situations. And Lovie Smith is the right head coach in terms of helping a rookie adjust to new surroundings. Evans has to overcome some of the knocks on him, including that he's too stiff and doesn't have great speed. It still will be hard to match up against him one-on-one, though, because the former basketball player will win the jump balls. And he has already impressed coaches with his range.

David Newton: This is a tough one because I really like the first-round picks for all four division teams. Each will make his team significantly better. But for me, it comes down to New Orleans' Brandin Cooks and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin because both receivers will get plenty of opportunities. I'm going with Cooks because he has quarterback Drew Brees and a veteran unit around him. Rookie receivers often struggle. Cooks will break that trend with 60-plus catches.

Mike Triplett: I'll go with Saints receiver Brandin Cooks because I think he'll have the flashiest season. You could make a great case for all four first-round picks, and Jake Matthews will probably play the most vital role because of the Falcons' need at offensive tackle. But I think Cooks will make the biggest splash -- and even be a strong contender for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even though New Orleans spreads the ball around so much, I expect Cooks to catch a high volume of passes and hit some home runs with deep balls and a punt return or two.

Pat Yasinskas: That's an easy one. I'm going with Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. He's going to be an instant starter, and he's going to be active in the passing game. Vincent Jackson remains the top receiver, but Evans will be a nice No. 2 to start his career. Evans someday will be a No. 1 receiver, but for now he'll be a complement to Jackson. Evans and Jackson, both 6-5, will form one of the league's largest starting receiver tandems, and that's going to cause problems for opposing defenses.


Second Down

What is your team's top position battle to monitor in training camp?



McClure: Although there will be plenty of competition among Falcons linebackers, I'm turning my attention to the running backs. Steven Jackson is the starter. He turns 31 next month and probably has one good season left in him -- but if he is slowed by nagging injuries, the Falcons will turn to someone else. They drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round with thoughts of grooming him as the three-down back of the future. If he looks as good in pads as he did in shorts, Jackson might have a battle on his hands. Even the battle for the third running back will be interesting with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith in the mix. The running backs, as a whole, have an improved offensive line to run behind. Let's see whether that helps them.

Newton: Most might say the left tackle battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. And although finding a replacement for retired Jordan Gross is key, the Carolina competition that intrigues me the most will be between Charles Godfrey and Melvin White at cornerback. Godfrey is making the transition from safety to corner after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Godfrey played cornerback for most of his college career at Iowa before the former Panthers coaching staff moved him to safety in 2008. Although White was adequate last season, Godfrey is a more physical player with the potential to be a shutdown corner. If he can win that battle, it's a huge upgrade for the league's No. 2 defense.

Triplett: The battle at cornerback is by far the most compelling on the Saints' roster. For one thing, it's a vital position in today's NFL. For another thing, the Saints are loaded with fascinating candidates behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis. Does surefire Hall of Famer Champ Bailey have enough left in the tank? Can former first-round pick Patrick Robinson bounce back from injury? Can third-year pro Corey White take that next step? Can rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste make an instant impact? Can second-year pro Rod Sweeting or someone else emerge as a dark horse? And did I mention this is an important position?

Yasinskas: The best competition will be at tight end. The fact Austin Seferian-Jenkins was drafted in the second round probably means he'll get the first shot at the starting position, but don't overlook his competition -- theoretically, the Bucs have four guys who could end up as the starter. Free-agent pickup Brandon Myers can catch and block. Tim Wright had 54 catches last season and has worked to improve his blocking. Veteran Luke Stocker is returning from injury; he isn't a huge threat as a receiver, but he could play a big role as a blocker.


Third Down

Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?




McClure: I like safety William Moore taking on more of a leadership role and sparking the Falcons' defense, and I like receiver Roddy White rebounding from last year's injury-plagued campaign. But the guy I'm going to single out is return man Devin Hester. After his role diminished in Chicago, people forgot he was the greatest return man of all time. All Hester needed was a change of scenery: In watching him during organized team activities, it was evident he still has his quickness. With special-teams mastermind Keith Armstrong drawing up the blocking scheme, Hester could be the X factor in the Falcons' quest to return to playoff contention. Whatever Hester accomplishes on offense would be a bonus.

Newton: It feels strange calling wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a veteran since this is his first season with the Panthers, but the sixth-year player out of Rutgers was the first to come to mind with this question. Underwood was brought in to replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver. Ginn went from two catches with San Francisco in 2012 to 36 for five touchdowns with the Panthers last season before moving on to Arizona. Underwood had 24 catches for four touchdowns in Tampa Bay last season. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was high on him when they worked together in Jacksonville. Throw in what wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl will teach Underwood, I could see him doubling his production in 2014.

Triplett: I've been touting Saints defensive end/tackle Akiem Hicks all offseason. He's a third-year guy who's big and really powerful at 6-5, 324 pounds, but athletic for his size. A former third-round pick out of the University of Regina in Canada, he had 4.5 sacks last year in his first stint as a full-time starter. I'm not sure Hicks will post 10-plus sacks as an interior guy, which means he might not crack the Pro Bowl. But that's the level of impact he can have as someone who can both push the pocket and stuff the run. Opposing offensive linemen in the NFC South certainly know who he is.

Yasinskas: Middle linebacker Mason Foster is set up for a big season. Foster has had a decent career to this point, but he's about to get a lot better. Hardy Nickerson and Brian Urlacher excelled as middle linebackers in coach Lovie Smith's defense, and now it might be Foster's turn. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David is the star of this unit, but Foster has a chance to be a nice complementary player. Smith likes to have his middle linebackers call the defensive plays, and that means Foster will be putting on the radio helmet this year.


Fourth Down

What is your predicted order of finish in the NFC South standings?



McClure: That's a tough one. I see a lot of parity within the division, and the Buccaneers really have a chance to close the gap based on their offseason moves, including the hiring of Smith as coach. But I'm going to go with New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina. As long as the Saints have Drew Brees in the lineup, they have a chance to be contenders. The Falcons bulked up on both sides of the line, which should bode well for them in terms of putting up points on offense and preventing big plays on defense. The Bucs' defense could be devastating. Carolina will sorely miss Jordan Gross and Steve Smith -- and it will show.

Newton: Since nobody has repeated as NFC South champion since the division was formed in 2002, it would seem a bit crazy to pick the Panthers, who edged New Orleans for the title last season. The Saints are considered the favorites by most, and it's hard to argue otherwise with Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham on offense. But I'm a believer that defense wins, and even with changes to the secondary, there's not a better defense in the division than Carolina's. I like what Atlanta has done in free agency and the draft, so I look for the Falcons to finish second with the Saints third and Tampa Bay fourth. Having said that, I could see the division winner going 9-7 or 10-6. It's going to be tight.

Triplett: I'm confident the Saints will finish first with at least 11 wins. Although their offense lost some key pieces, it's still one of the NFL's elite, and their defense is legit. After that it's a virtual three-way tie. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the others flirt with a playoff run or finish last. I'll go with the Buccaneers second because they're on the rise. They have a great defense and run game and now seem to have a solid coach and quarterback. I'll pick Carolina third because it lost so much in the receiving corps and secondary. As much as I like the Falcons' passing attack, there are questions everywhere else.

Yasinskas: Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers. This was a tough call because all four teams have a chance to be good. I gave the nod to the Saints because they have Brees, the best quarterback in the division. I think Atlanta will have a dramatic turnaround after last season's debacle. Tampa Bay is going to be much more competitive than last year. Carolina might have taken a step back with some of its offseason moves, but I still wouldn't count the Panthers out.

 
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.
There's nothing like following a little offseason taunting between NFC South rivals over weather.

Unless, that is, your furnace has been broken since Thursday in the NFC South city that is being bombarded by Winter Storm Pax that at this moment has no rival.

It all began in Charlotte, three miles from my freezing abode. The person in charge of the Carolina Panthers' official Twitter site tweeted a picture of snow blanketing Bank of America Stadium.


Then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who perhaps are stinging from a couple of losses to the NFC South champion Panthers this past season, tweeted a picture of the entrance to One Buc Place.


According to my trusty weather app, it is 72 degrees and sunny in Tampa. It is 30 and snowing in Charlotte.

And if anybody cares, it is 49 and dry in my house.

Not to be outdone, the Atlanta Falcons got into the mix by tweeting a picture of quarterback Matt Ryan, known as "Matty Ice."


Ryan did indeed have rather cold performances against Carolina and Tampa, going 1-3 against his rivals, including six interceptions in the three losses.

The Bucs apparently thought that was the message, reminding us in a tweet including a picture of cornerback Darrelle Revis.


Revis, by the way, had no interceptions against Atlanta or Carolina this season. But don't let facts get in the way of a good tweet.

The Panthers retaliated in this now Twitter weatherfare by challenging the Bucs and Falcons to a snowball fight. They even brought New Orleans into the mix, suggesting the Saints and Falcons might have to carpool.

That could take a while if Atlanta becomes gridlocked for 24 hours like it was a few weeks ago when Winter Storm Leon passed through.

Sorry, that was cold.



Atlanta, in an attempt to forget a 4-12 injury-plagued season, began looking ahead to 2014 with a forecast tweet.


The Falcons forgot to mention their not-so-hot defense.

Sorry, cold again.

Not to be left out, the Tampa Bay mascot that refers to himself as @TheCaptainFear joined in.



To which the Panthers tweeted -- and this may have been the best of all -- "Ice Up Son!"

In case you hadn't heard, this was the message Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith gave to New England cornerback Aqib Talib during a Monday night victory when Bank of America Stadium wasn't covered in snow.



Yeah, baby, it's cold outside.

And if you're writing this blog, it's cold inside, too.

Upon Further Review: Buccaneers-Saints

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
11:00
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Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Bucs reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the state of their teams after Sunday's game.
Vincent Jackson and Cameron JordanGetty ImagesVincent Jackson and the Bucs would love to keep Cameron Jordan's Saints out of the playoffs.

Technically, Sunday’s regular-season finale between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is meaningful for only one team.

The Saints (10-5) haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet, and they still have an outside shot at the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Coach Sean Payton and players have said they plan to treat this like a playoff game. And they certainly need to get some momentum back after back-to-back losses at St. Louis and Carolina have threatened to derail their playoff hopes.

However, the Buccaneers (4-11) would love to end their season on a high note by playing spoiler against their NFC South rivals inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Bucs have a history of doing that, with December wins at New Orleans in 2009 and 2010.

ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas break down the matchup.

Triplett: Tell me what kind of effort you expect from the Bucs in this one. Are they still passionate about winning this late in the season? Fired up about the chance to possibly keep New Orleans out of the playoffs? Fighting for coach Greg Schiano's job?

Yasinskas: Mike, the one thing the Bucs haven't done this season is quit. Even during the 0-8 start, the effort was still there. I don't know that the players are playing to try to save Schiano's job as much as they are simply playing for pride. I have no doubt they'll show up on Sunday. The Bucs aren't big fans of the Saints, and they'd love to play the role of spoiler. That said, I don't know that the Bucs can hang with the Saints in the Superdome.

Do you think the Saints will be playing with anger because they're in this position?

Triplett: It's hard to guess what kind of emotions will be most prevalent. There could be anger. There could be determination, knowing they can't afford another loss. Or there could be a deflated feeling, since they never expected to be in this position. One way or another, though, they'll have to figure out a way to channel those emotions. As receiver Lance Moore said, if the Saints can't bring their best effort to this game, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs. And it obviously helps that they'll be back in the Superdome, where they're 7-0 this season -- often dominating opponents.

How do you think Mike Glennon will handle that dome atmosphere? Has he reached that stage yet where people like to say he's "not a rookie anymore"?

Yasinskas: About a month ago, people were starting to say Glennon didn't look like a rookie. But that's changed in recent weeks. He has had some rookie moments in the past four games and his numbers have dipped. I don't think Glennon is regressing. I think he just ran into some good defenses and struggled against them, and he has received no help from the running game. The deck would seem to be stacked against him coming into the Superdome against a New Orleans team with a lot on the line.

Mike, tell me about the New Orleans defense. Before you joined us and I was still covering the whole NFC South, I visited Saints camp this summer and had very real doubts that they had the right personnel to run Rob Ryan's defense. As it turns out, this is a very good defense. Why has Ryan's defense worked so well?

Triplett: How could you not have seen this coming?! Obviously, you're right -- the Saints' defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season, especially considering all the injuries you witnessed in summer camps. The success is due to a combination of Ryan's coaching and talent emerging. End Cameron Jordan is having a bona fide Pro Bowl season as a power rusher. Cornerback Keenan Lewis is a true No. 1 corner who was a great pickup in free agency. Outside linebacker Junior Galette, end Akiem Hicks and safety Kenny Vaccaro are young players who have emerged (though Vaccaro is now out for the season).

But Ryan deserves a ton of the credit. He's creative and adaptable, switching from a true 3-4 defense to build around his best players. And he mixes things up from week to week and even snap to snap. Players love that, because they're all involved in certain packages. And they love his personality and attitude, saying he has made the game "fun."

Tell me about the evolution of the Bucs' defense. I thought they lived up to the hype when I saw them give the Saints all they could handle in Week 2 (with both legal and illegal hits). How are they playing heading into this game?

Yasinskas: The defense is the least of Tampa Bay's problems. An anemic offense is what held Tampa Bay back all season. Overall, the defense has played very well.

After finishing last in the NFL against the pass last year, the Bucs went out and got cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson, and they have made the secondary respectable. But I think the two best players on this defense are in the front seven. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are having huge seasons. These guys have what it takes to be Pro Bowl regulars, and this defense should only keep getting better. Still, facing the Saints in the dome is a tough task for any defense.

The thing I've always admired about Drew Brees and Sean Payton is how much they spread the ball around. How have the receivers beyond Marques Colston and Moore panned out this season?

Triplett: The Saints' receivers have actually been more up and down this year than at any other time in the Payton-Brees era. At times, Colston and rookie Kenny Stills have had some big moments, and Stills looks like a great find who has actually supplanted Moore as the Saints' No. 2 receiver. And the Saints still have good depth with Moore and Robert Meachem. But they rely most on tight end Jimmy Graham and backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in the passing game.

Some defenses have done a good job of getting physical with the Saints' receivers and Graham downfield (including Carolina last week) -- which is the best way to slow down New Orleans' offense. But all bets are off inside the dome. Almost all of those quiet receiving days came on the road.


TAMPA, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 16-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

What it means: The Saints improve to 2-0. Since 1990, 63 percent of the teams that have started 2-0 have gone to the playoffs. Tampa Bay falls to 0-2. Since 1990, 12 percent of teams to start 0-2 have made the playoffs.

Lightning delay: The Saints marched down the field and made a field goal on their opening drive, but that’s when the game stalled. Officials ordered both teams to the locker room, and fans were ordered to go to the concourses because of lightning in the immediate area. The game was delayed for 69 minutes.

Play of the day: Marques Colston's last-minute catch of a Drew Brees pass to set up the game-winning field goal.

Almost play of the day: Middle linebacker Mason Foster picked off a Brees pass and returned it for a touchdown to give the Bucs the lead with 12:40 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Non-play of the day: Vincent Jackson caught what appeared to be a touchdown bomb from Josh Freeman with 6:58 left in the third quarter, but the play was nullified because Tampa Bay was flagged for using an illegal formation.

Non-play of the day II: The Saints kicked a field goal with 20 seconds left in the second quarter to (briefly) take a 13-7 lead, but Tampa Bay was called for a penalty, putting the ball at the 2-yard line. The Saints took the points off the board and went for the touchdown. A Mark Ingram run was stuffed. Think coach Sean Payton would like those three points back?

Stock watch: Freeman lost a fumble and threw an interception. That’s not going to silence his critics.

Injury watch: New Orleans cornerback Patrick Robinson was carted off the field with what appeared to be a leg injury and did not return.

What’s next: The Bucs play at the New England Patriots next Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET. The Saints are home against the Arizona Cardinals.

Live blog: Saints at Buccaneers

September, 15, 2013
9/15/13
2:30
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the New Orleans Saints' visit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 p.m. ET. See you there.
Freeman-BreesGetty ImagesBucs QB Josh Freeman faces off against Saints QB Drew Brees in a Week 2 division rivalry game.
Two of the biggest stories in the NFC South in Week 1 were that New Orleans played good defense and Tampa Bay never was able to get into an offensive rhythm.

Will that continue as the Saints and Buccaneers play one another?

ESPN’s Matt Williamson and Buccaneers team reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the matchup.

Yasinskas: Matt, I have to admit I was stunned by the Saints holding the Falcons to just 17 points in the opener. I saw the Saints in training camp and had serious doubts about whether they had the personnel to run the 3-4 defense successfully, and they have endured several major injuries since then. Yet, the Saints kept one of the league’s best offenses in check. Was this just a fluke or is the New Orleans defense actually for real?

Williamson: If I were an optimistic Saints fan, I would take this stand: The Saints' young, talented three-man defensive line, led by Cameron Jordan, looks simply exceptional and fits the new scheme very well. Their secondary is also clearly improved from a year ago -- which isn’t saying much. If I were taking a more pessimistic view on New Orleans’ defense, I would say that Roddy White was a shell of himself and completely ineffectual, and the Falcons’ offensive line might be among the worst in the NFL right now. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but I also believe that as long as the Saints’ defense isn’t among the very worst in the league, that this is the team to beat in the NFC South. So, in return, here is my question: Even if the Saints’ defense isn’t noticeably improved and is closer to the 2012 version than what we saw last week, is Josh Freeman capable of exploiting it? Vincent Jackson played a great game in New York, but Freeman has looked terrible throughout the preseason and now into regular-season action.

Yasinskas: After watching Freeman in the New York game, I'm not so sure he's capable of exploiting any defense right now. He never got into any sort of rhythm in the passing game and, at times, look flustered. Over the past few years I've been steadfast in my belief Freeman has what it takes to turn into an elite quarterback. But that hasn't happened yet, and I'm starting to doubt if it ever will. He has plenty of weapons at the skill positions, but it seems like Freeman is regressing, instead of progressing. Speaking of regressing, what's your take on the Saints' running game? Coach Sean Payton has said he wants to run more, but the Saints got very little out of the running game in the opener. Now, they'll play a defense that was No. 1 against the run last season. Can Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas move the ball against the Buccaneers?

Williamson: That’s a great question and I know it is extremely early, but I have forecasted Ingram to have a breakout season in 2013. But I am having second thoughts on that, as he is a volume runner who needs to be fed the ball to be most effective, and I just don’t know if that will ever be the case here, as Thomas is such an effective all-around player and Sproles needs to be on the field. I do think Payton believes in balance and he wants to have a physical offense with a very good interior offensive line paving the way, but running against Tampa Bay doesn’t seem to be the prudent move. Of course, the Tampa secondary is also vastly improved, but Drew Brees is the type of elite passer who just produces no matter the competition ... and can the Buccaneers match up to Sproles and Jimmy Graham? I have my doubts they can. Therefore, I say this is a game Payton puts on Brees’ shoulders -- which is never a terrible idea. Along those lines, the Buccaneers clearly made a concerted effort to improve their pass defense by using numerous valuable resources to improve their secondary. Mission accomplished there. But this pass rush still has to be a concern, and if Brees is given time, he is going to find someone to his liking to eventually distribute the ball to. Brees is a tough guy to sack, but can the Bucs at least disrupt him in the pocket with some consistency?

Yasinskas: One of the few encouraging things to come out of the loss to the Jets was that the Bucs recorded five sacks. Four of them came from the linebackers, which shows a willingness to blitz. But the front four can be more productive and several guys have the ability to bring some heat on Brees. End Adrian Clayborn and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy both have the talent to get to the quarterback. But the real wild card could be Da'Quan Bowers. The team wanted him to start, but he didn't play well enough to earn the job in the preseason. For the moment, Bowers is being used as a situational player. But he has more upside as a pass-rusher than anyone on this team, and this game would be a good time for him to start showing. Brees is tough to slow down under any circumstances, but you absolutely have to have a strong pass rush to have any chance. Speaking of Tampa Bay's pass rush, that brings up another question. The Saints let left tackle Jermon Bushrod depart as a free agent and they've replaced him with Charles Brown. Can Brown be an effective left tackle?

Williamson: Because of their strengths on the interior and the need for the shorter Brees to have a clean pocket up the middle, the Saints construct their protections schemes from the inside out, which makes life for their offensive tackles easier. And, of course, Brees has a great feel for the rush to go along with underrated, but highly effective pocket movement and athletic ability to elude the rush, particularly from the edges. Bushrod never impressed me much, considering some viewed him as a Pro Bowl caliber left tackle. In fact, I think Brown has more natural ability when it comes to movement skills and length for the position. Brown played quite well in the preseason and that carried over to Week 1. It appears the Saints just might have found their starting left tackle for the foreseeable future.

TAMPA, Fla. – Gerald McCoy gave the usual high praise when asked for his scouting report on New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Wednesday.

McCoy
McCoy
“It’s the same scouting any first-ballot Hall-of-Famer that’s still playing,’’ the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle said Wednesday. “We’ve got him, and then we’ve got another one right after him [in New England quarterback Tom Brady]. You scout them the best you can, you know what they can do, then you just try to figure out a way to contain them, not really stop them. There’s really no way to stop them, but you figure out a way to slow them down.”

But McCoy, who might be the most candid player in Tampa Bay’s locker room, continued to give one of the best assessments of Brees that I’ve ever heard.

“I think you’ve just got to disrupt him,’’ McCoy said. “Everybody has a weak point, and the weak point, for him, is his height -- he’s a short guy. If you can get in his face, you can slow him down a little bit. That’s why they put so much into their center and two guards, so much emphasis on those guys being good, because if you can protect his middle, he’ll kill you. So that puts a lot on me and the guys in the middle to get in his face.”

That’s all very true. That’s why the play of McCoy and rookie defensive tackle Akeem Spence will be so important Sunday when the Bucs host the Saints. Unlike most teams, the Saints build their line from the inside out.

Guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs are the strength of the offensive line. The Saints are very good at keeping the middle of the pocket wide open and giving Brees room to throw.

McCoy and Spence will have to come up with big games if the Bucs are going to have any shot at slowing Brees.

A cautious first step for Carl Nicks

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
3:29
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- Carl Nicks took a major step in his comeback Wednesday, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ guard still might be a long way from playing in a game.

Nicks practiced for the first time since being diagnosed with a MRSA staph infection in his foot in August. Nicks said he had been doing some running on the side in recent days. But coach Greg Schiano said Nicks was “very limited" in what he did in practice.

“I’m going to do everything in my power to play (Sunday)," Nicks said.

Part of that may be because the Bucs host Nicks’ former team, the New Orleans Saints. But I think the possibility of Nicks playing against the Saints is a long shot. Nicks admitted his conditioning is not where it needs to be.

“You can run sprints until you’re blue in the face, but you’re not going to get into football shape with anything except football,’’ Nicks said.

I’m guessing it will be another game or two before Nicks plays. Whenever Nicks returns, it will mark the first time he and fellow guard Davin Joseph have played together in a regular-season game. The Bucs signed Nicks thinking they could pair him with Joseph and have one of the league's best guard tandems. But Joseph suffered a knee injury prior to last season and Nicks missed half last season with a toe injury.

In other injury news, Schiano said reserve cornerback Michael Adams had knee surgery, but is expected to return sometime after the team’s bye in Week 5.

Bucs need to bring rush on Drew Brees

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
8:00
AM ET
It’s very difficult to rattle New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, but that’s what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have to do if they’re going to have a chance against the Saints on Sunday.

One of the few encouraging things that came out of the season-opening loss to the Jets was that the Bucs recorded five sacks. Four of them came from linebackers, which shows that defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan isn’t afraid to blitz. He’ll need to do some of that against the Saints.

But the Bucs really need to bring a pass rush from their front four. New Orleans builds its lines from the inside out, so I wouldn’t count on defensive tackle Gerald McCoy having much success as a pass-rusher. But the Saints are a little shaky with Zach Strief starting at right tackle and Charles Brown at left tackle.

That means the door could be open for defensive ends Adrian Clayborn, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and Da'Quan Bowers. If those guys can get near Brees, the Bucs might be able to slow the New Orleans offense.

Around the NFC South

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
8:22
AM ET
Time for a quick run through the morning headlines:

ATLANTA FALCONS

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that the Falcons will be watching the waiver wire for help on the offensive line. They should be, because the offensive line hasn’t looked good in the preseason. And it remains to be seen if Lamar Holmes is ready to be the starter at right tackle.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Larry Holder tops off his list of five players to watch in the final preseason game with receiver Preston Parker. He appears to be in competition with Andy Tanner for the final roster spot. But Parker could have the advantage because he also has ability in the return game.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive end Da’Quan Bowers said fans shouldn’t be concerned about the team’s lackluster showing in the preseason. Bowers said the Bucs intentionally have kept things bland and will unveil a lot more flash in the regular season. I think what Bowers said is very true. The Bucs have been very cautious and not shown much in the preseason. They’re saving it up for the regular season.

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