Saints at Buccaneers preview


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.