Friday, December 31, 2010

Week Seventeen Preview: Playoff-bound Saints Host Bucs, Pray for Panthers

When the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers last met during week six in Raymond James Stadium, the results were not pretty for the home team with the visiting Saints winning 31-6. New Orleans dominated the Buccaneers on both sides of the ball, with the Black and Gold defense limiting the Bucs offense to a single score- and that was in the fourth quarter.

The Saints’ offense was as prolific as the score implies. Quarterback Drew Brees completed 21 of 32 passes to ten players for 263 yards and three touchdowns and was picked off once.

Most notably, undrafted rookie free agent Chris Ivory had a huge day, rushing for 158 yards on 15 carries and had a 17-yard reception.

Last year, the Saints also beat down the Bucs in Tampa by a 38-7 margin. However, it was a different story when the Buccaneers came to the Superdome in week 16. Tampa Bay’s record was 2-12 and appeared to be a mere speed bump for the Saints en route to securing the first seed in the NFC playoffs, yet Tampa Bay slipped past the NFC South division champions with an overtime win.

Tampa Bay is still in the hunt for a trip to the post-season, surprising most football observers with their strong record (courtesy of sweeping the weak NFC West, a pedestrian task the Saints could not perform) and will arguably be hungrier than the Saints.

The Buccaneer offense has played well with the emergence of young talent including 2009 first round draft pick quarterback Josh Freeman, 2010 fourth round draft pick wide receiver Mike Williams and undrafted rookie running back LeGarrette Blount.

Freeman has had an impressive sophomore season, passing for 3,196 yards, 23 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. Freeman has also rushed for 353 yards. Tight end Kellen Winslow, in his seventh year, has had a strong season with 63 receptions for 702 yards and 5 touchdowns.

The Buccaneers’ offense ranks 20th in points per game (21.2), 18th in total yards per game (336.3) with an average of 208.5 yards in the air (21st in the NFL) and 127.8 yards on the ground (7th in the NFL), with Blount accounting for a plurality of the Buccaneers’ rushing yards.

The Tampa Bay defense has been relatively stout, ranking 12th in points allowed per game (20.3) and 15th in total yards allowed per game (334.5). The Buccaneer defense has been stronger against the pass than the run, ranking 6th in the former (201.1 ypg) but a lowly 28th (133.4 ypg) in the latter.

One major blow to the Buccaneer secondary was when cornerback Aqib Talib, who had 6 interceptions in 2010, was injured in the Atlanta game and was placed on injured reserve. The Buccaneers are tied for seventh in the league in picks with 18.

The Saints’ offense has been pass heavy with Brees’s arm and his receiving corps’ hands and legs accounting for 75% of the offense. The Saints’ offense ranks 10th in scoring average (24.7) and 6th in yards per game (377). The Saints are 2nd in the NFL in passing yards (282.8) per game and 27th in rushing yards (94.2) per game. Ivory, the Saints’ top running back, hasn’t played since straining his hamstring during the Saint Louis Rams game in week 14 but practiced “full” on Thursday so he will likely see some playing time on Sunday.

One key Saint nursing an injury is Brees’s favorite target, Marques Colston. The tall wide-out hurt his knee against the Falcons and received a scope on Tuesday. Though Saints head coach Sean Payton didn’t rule him out for the Tampa Bay game, it’s unlikely Colston will play with the playoffs around the corner.

Kick return specialist Courtney Roby, who had suffered a concussion against the Seattle Seahawks, was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Roby, who is also slated as a wide receiver but rarely used in that capacity, was replaced on the roster by wide receiver Adrian Arrington, who has spent most of 2010 on the team’s practice squad. Payton conceded that the former Michigan star was brought up due in part to Colston’s injury.

The Saints’ defense has allowed the 6th fewest points per game (18.9), 5th in yards allowed per game (305.5), 2nd in passing yards allowed per game (191.3) and 18th against the run (114.2). Despite the improved defense in terms of yards given up, the Saints are not the ballhawks they were last season, thus far ranking 30th in interceptions with nine.

The Saints’ defense must contend with an opposing quarterback who can pick up yards with his feet and arm and a running back who has been averaging 5.2 yards per carry and ran for 164 yards last week against Seattle.

Brees should be able to exploit Talib’s absence and though Colston will see limited if any action, the Saints quarterback is known for spreading the ball around. Expect wide receiver Lance Moore, number Nine’s second favorite target, to have an expanded role.

The Other Games That Matter

The Saints’ playoff path will be impacted by two other games. If the Atlanta Falcons lose to the visiting Carolina Panthers and the Saints beat the Buccaneers, then the Black and Gold would win the NFC South and clinch the first seed in the conference playoffs. However if either the Saints lose or the Falcons win, then New Orleans would retain their status as the fifth (top) seed wild card team traveling to the winner of the Seattle Seahawks-Saint Louis Rams contest.

And the Bookies’ Picks?

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan chalks the Saints as an 8-point favorite and the Falcons as a 14.5-point favorite over the Panthers. With the Buccaneers playing for a shot at the post-season and the Panthers looking to send coach John Fox out of Carolina with a win, I’d take the points in both games, though both New Orleans, especially with their full complement of running backs active, and Atlanta will likely win their games outright.

Visiting Saint Louis is currently a 2.5 favorite over Seattle and starting quarterback Charlie Whitehurst.

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