Thursday, October 14, 2010

Week Six Preview: Saints Try to Salvage Season in Tampa

Two phrases Saints fans haven’t been shouting much lately are “Who Dat” and “Two Dat”.

The former because the hated division rival Atlanta Falcons was the first to “beat dem Saints” and last week’s loss to the not-so-good Arizona Cardinals have given fans and the Saints organization a harsh reality check.

The Saints find themselves in a tough spot to achieve the unprecedented by repeating as winners of their division let alone doubling their Lombardi Trophy collection.

If the defending world champion Saints can fall to a rookie quarterback starting an NFL game for the first time in his life, who can’t beat the Saints?

In the Dome Patrol days, the joke was that the defense would ask the lackluster offense to just score a dozen or so points and they would take care of the rest.

Under the Sean Payton era, the turbo-charged offense has been the team’s strongpoint. But that hasn’t been the case in the 2010 season.

The offense’s red-zone frustration from either a failure to score touchdowns or score at all due to an inconsistent kicking game has plagued the team. The Saints defense, while not being the ball hawks they were last season, has held opponents to an average of 20.4 points, well below the scoring capacity of past Drew Brews-led offenses.

Regrettably for the Saints, their offense has yet to score more than 25 points so far in 2010 and I must once again mention their biggest margin of victory was the five points that separated them from the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL’s opener.

Injuries have taken their toll as the Saints have to rely on scrubs for the running game and their 2010 first round draft pick to play more than probably anticipated.

But mistakes of all varieties have cost the team dearly, whether it be poor clock management, play calling, drops, ball handling, penalties and throws.

The NFC South third-place Saints will travel to Raymond James Stadium this weekend to take on the division’s second-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Hopefully the Black and Gold defense will keep that ridiculous pirate ship’s cannon discharges at an absolute minimum. I think they even fire it when the Bucs get a first down.

Though they handed the Saints their second loss of the season last year, the New Orleans organization has had a lot of success against Tampa. The Saints have led the series between the two teams since 1984, which currently stands at 21-15. For many many seasons, Tampa was the only team the Saints had a winning record against.

The weather is supposed to be gorgeous on Sunday, in total contrast to the tropical depression that drenched the fans and added to the Saints misery in 2008.

The Buccaneer offense isn’t any great shakes as a friend of mine in Jersey would say.

They’re 21st in points per game (18.5), 21st in total yards (313.8) and equally mediocre on the ground (18th -103.5 yards per game) as they are in the air (19th –210.2 yards per game).

Quarterback Josh Freeman isn’t likely to be starting anyone’s fantasy team, having thrown five touchdowns and three interceptions. Freeman has been sacked nine times.

But Freeman is a threat with his legs. The quarterback is the team’s second-best rusher with 112 yards, averaging 7.5 per scramble. As the Saints defense has not had much success chasing after a running quarterback, expect to see a lot of our front seven lunging in the dust of his cleats.

The defense, which the team invested heavily in during the 2010 draft picking two defensive tackles within the first 35 selections, has played better than the offense. The Bucs defense has picked off opponents 9 times already though have only four quarterback sacks. Brees is going to have to through carefully against the Buccaneer secondary, which means his offensive line needs to step up to buy #9 some time,

The Buccaneer defense has been weak against the run but then again, the Saints have been weak on the run.

If Brees can avoid being picked off multiple times, the Saints should be able to win. Otherwise it will be a replay of the Arizona game. The Saints’ defense has shown this season that they are up to the task of containing Tampa’s low-grade offense.

What Are the Numbers?

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan gives the Saints a four point edge. My first inclination would have been to make I would have make the Bucs a 3.5 favorite. Just as the 2008 road trip to Tampa provided Payton with the epiphany that he needed to back off the pass for the next season, perhaps this visit to Florida’s west coast will be where the Saints finally rid themselves of the gris-gris that’s been hanging over their helmets.

If the Saints win, they’ll probably win by more than four. Bad luck haunted them last week as the offense gave away a game the defense had mostly kept them in. As analysts wiser than me in this realm seem to believe the Black and Gold has gotten their act together, I say take the chalk.

But be forewarned: I have thrown a lot of good money trying to get bad cars fixed in the past. Bottom line is we will know what kind of team the Saints are after this weekend, for better or for worse.

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