1:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: Buccaneers -2.5, Over/Under: 44
Division rivals clash in an early afternoon highlight from Week Two, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints look to get a leg up in the NFC South in this encounter from Ceasars Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. For all intents and purposes, this season was intended to be the beginning of a new era for the Buccaneers (1-0, T-1st in NFC South), who were prepared for significant turnover across the board. In addition to losing a number of influential figures on both sides of the football (and not to mention the sidelines), they were initially set to embark on life without (future Hall of Fame Quarterback) Tom Brady, who announced his retirement not long after the Super Bowl. However, life away from the gridiron must not have set well with the 45-year-old, who stunned the football world nearly six weeks later with the news that he was in fact returning to the field for his twenty-third campaign. Of course, a lot had happened during that brief sabbatical; (Head Coach) Bruce Arians stepped away in favor of taking an elevated consultant position within the organization, while the likes of (Receiver) Antonio Brown, (Tailback) Le’Veon Bell, (Tight End) O.J. Howard, (Offensive Linemen) Alex Kappa and Ali Marpet, (Edge-Rusher) Jason Pierre-Paul, and (Defensive Lineman) Ndamukong Suh all departed in the offseason. Furthermore, (Wideout) Chris Godwin was rehabbing from an ACL injury, while (veteran Center) Ryan Jensen suffered a serious knee malady of his own early on in Training Camp and has since been placed on Injured Reserve. Brady himself played sparingly during the preseason, leaving camp altogether for nearly two weeks to deal with a personal issue. So, with all that in mind, how did the ageless Quarterback and the Bucs handle their season opener at Dallas, you ask? Exactly how you would expect a group led by the seven-time Super Bowl Champion to do so.
Behind a makeshift Offensive Line and a new-look Receiving Corps, Brady nevertheless led Tampa to a tough 19-3 victory at AT&T Stadium, piloting the visitors downfield for field goals on four of their first five drives before effectively ending the affair with a five-yard strike to (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Mike Evans in the end zone. It was an unspectacular performance from many perspectives but watching TB12 operate despite a number of concerns in the face of the most opportunistic Defense in the NFL from a year ago was a thing of beauty. Brady completed 18-of-27 passes for 212 yards, a touchdown and an interception, with the ground game controlling the affair throughout. The Buccaneers rushed for 152 yards on thirty-one carries, with 127 yards coming courtesy of (veteran Tailback) Leonard Fournette, who silenced the critics who questioned his conditioning with his most yardage in a single since joining the team three years ago. Evans hauled in five receptions for seventy-one yards and that aforementioned score, while (new addition) Julio Jones made quite an impression with sixty-nine yards on three catches and another seventeen yards on two carries. Dogged by injuries over the last two seasons, a healthy Jones would be an absolute coup for Brady and the Bucs, particularly as Godwin limped off the field of play with a hamstring strain early in the second half. (New Head Coach) Todd Bowles continued to call plays on Defense despite succeeding Arians on the sidelines and put together a masterful gameplan in shutting down the highest-scoring team in the league from last season. Tampa Bay relegated the Cowboys to a scant 244 total yards on just twelve first downs, including 173 net passing yards, 3-of-15 on third down, and 2-of-5 on fourth down. (Young Safety) Antoine Winfield had an interception, while (Pro-Bowl Linebacker) Devin White had half of his team’s four sacks, as (Dallas Quarterback) Dak Prescott was forced to withdraw from action after breaking his thumb on the helmet of (Edge-Rusher) Shaq Barrett. We’ll see if Bowles’ troops can build off this performance today, for as we’ve seen in the past, they’ve struggled mightily with the Saints over the past two years, losing each of their four regular season meetings since 2020. Brady has had a particularly rough go of it, completing just 61.1% of his passes for an average of 259.2 yards on 6.4 yards per attempt, with six touchdowns and EIGHT interceptions, while suffering THIRTEEN sacks to boot. With that said, they did manage to get the better of New Orleans in the 2020 playoffs, eliminating them in the divisional round behind 199 yards and a pair of scores from the goat. Tampa has lost seven of their last eight confrontations with their division rivals straight up, covering just once along the way. Furthermore, they are 3-7 in their last ten trips to the Superdome (4-6 against the spread) and have covered only three of their last ten when designated as a favorite against the Saints. On the injury front, Godwin has already been proclaimed out of action with that aforementioned hamstring, while Jones, Evans, Fournette, and (Right Tackle) Tristan Whirfs were all limited throughout the practice week, with (Left Tackle) Donovan Smith doubtful to participate in this affair after being held out of action on Friday with a sore elbow.
Meanwhile, just as last season was the beginning of a new era for the Saints (1-0, T-1st in NFC South), this current campaign also has the feel of turning the page as the franchise parted ways with yet another of its pillars. A year after bidding farewell to (longtime Quarterback) Drew Brees, New Orleans said goodbye to (veteran Head Coach) Sean Payton, who decided to step down from his post after sixteen successful seasons with the team in which he amassed a stellar 152-89 record (.631), including seven division titles, nine trips to the postseason, and a Lombardi trophy in 2009. Mirroring their division rivals, succeeding Payton is (former Defensive Coordinator) Dennis Allen, who becomes Head Coach for the second time in his career with the hopes that his stay in the Big Easy will be far more kind to him than his first gig leading the Raiders (8-28 in just over two seasons). Of course, Allen had a heavy hand in the improvement of the Defense, which prior to his arrival ranked dead-last in the NFL in points allowed and thirty-first in total yards relinquished. Over the last five years, his unit ranked new worse than fourteenth in points allowed, including three top-ten finishes, along with fourth and seventh in total defense in 2020 and 2021 respectively. However, defense wasn’t the reason that the Saints missed the playoffs for the first time in five years, for it was a once-prolific Offense that plummeted due to a wealth of injuries and COVID-related absences. Taking over for Brees was Jameis Winston, who after spending the 2020 campaign learning by the veteran passer looked solid in his first starting gig since he was effectively jettisoned by the Bucs prior to Brady’s arrival. The former no. one overall pick completed 59.0% of his passes for an average of 167.1 yards on 6.40 net yards per attempt with fourteen touchdowns in comparison to just three interceptions, en route to posting a QBR of 64.4 and most importantly a record of 5-2. Unfortunately, his comeback tour ended after just seven games, tearing his ACL during his team’s 36-27 victory over Tampa. Coming into this season, the expectations are high for the 28-year-old to continue to grow, particularly with a reloaded Receiving Corps, bolstered by the healthy return of (2019 Receiving Champion) Michael Thomas, (free agent signee) Jarvis Landry, and (eleventh overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft) Chris Olave.
Even with that infusion of talent, it still appears that the passing game will take some time to build the requisite chemistry to reach the levels that we have grown accustomed to seeing in New Orleans over the past decade and change. This was very clear in the season opener at Atlanta, where Allen’s troops were forced to rally back from an early deficit against a division rival. After leading 7-3 at the conclusion of the first quarter, the hosts ran off thirteen unanswered points to enter intermission with a 16-7 advantage. Apart from a 77-yard drive culminating in an eleven-yard Taysom Hill jaunt into the end zone, the visitors could muster just thirty-two yards on their other five drives of the half. The second half started better with a field goal on their opening possession, but a lost fumble and another punt coupled with ten more points from the dirty birds saw the Saints trailing by sixteen points heading into the final period of play. Thankfully, Winston & Co flipped the proverbial light switch in the fourth, stringing together back-to-back touchdown drives ending with short throws to the aforementioned Thomas, along with a converted two-point attempt to cut the deficit to two points. The Defense would in turn force a punt with just fifty-four seconds left to play, setting up Winston engineer the game-winning drive, traveling forty-seven yards in just two throws, teeing up (Kicker) Will Lutz for the go-ahead 51-yard field goal. However, the Falcons weren’t done quite yet, driving to their opponents 45-yard line, and attempting a 63-yard field goal courtesy of Younghoe Koo, only for the kick to be blocked at the death by Payton Turner to secure the 27-26 victory. It was an uneven performance from New Orleans who despite amassing 385 total yards, with 151 coming on the ground, only possessed the football for 26:16 of game time, while relinquishing 416 total yards, including 201 versus the run. Winston completed 23-of-34 passes for 269 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but was sacked four times, hit on eight occasions, and pressured on a total of eleven snaps. Landry logged 114 yards on seven receptions in his debut for his hometown team, while Thomas reeled in fifty-seven yards and those two scores in his return from a lingering ankle injury that cost him the bulk of the last two seasons. Defensively, the Saints were gashed against the run, but did manage to make plays when they needed to, stripping the home side of the football twice and flipping the field. With that said, Allen’s charges did not emerge from this one unscathed for they could be without a number of contributors for this pivotal early matchup with the Bucs. (Rookie Right Tackle) Trevor Penning was placed on Injured Reserve with a foot injury, while (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Alvin Kamara was limited throughout the practice week due to bruised ribs. Furthermore, Winston and (fellow Tailback) Mark Ingram were limited during Friday’s practice due various ailments. Keep an eye on the Quarterback, who may hold a slight grudge against the team that drafted him with the top overall pick back in 2015; Winston went 28-42 in five controversial years on Florida’s Gulf Coast, in which he was benched multiple times before the aforementioned Arians sent him packing following a 30-interception campaign in 2019. Turnovers were a MAJOR problem for the former Heisman-winner, committing an NFL-worst 111 during that period of time, though it appears that spending two years resetting himself under the guidance of Payton and the coaching staff have helped him greatly. New Orleans is 6-4 straight-up and 7-3 against the spread in their last ten meetings with Tampa in which they’re an underdog, including each of the last three encounters.