Saints-Buccaneers Preview

Through five weeks last season, it’s possible no team was

playing better than the New Orleans Saints or faring worse than the

Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

What a difference a year makes.

While the visiting Saints haven’t played up to the caliber of a

defending Super Bowl champion, the Bucs have performed far better

than a team many pegged for a second straight last-place finish

heading into this NFC South matchup Sunday.

New Orleans (3-2) is coming off last Sunday’s 30-20 loss to an

Arizona team which was giving rookie quarterback Max Hall his first

start. It was the Saints’ second loss in three games, and the

victory in that span came on a late field goal against winless

Carolina.

It’s a stark contrast to 2009, when they won each of their first

six games by double digits and opened 13-0 en route to their first

championship.

“There’s an expectation level that we get accustomed to when we

perform at a high level,” coach Sean Payton said. “When you don’t

meet those expectations, certainly there’s disappointment.”

Tampa Bay (3-1) has more than exceeded expectations, already

matching its win total from last season when it finished in the NFC

South basement with the league’s third-worst record.

The Bucs, who didn’t win until their eighth game last year, are

riding high after a 24-21 come-from-behind victory in Cincinnati

last Sunday. Josh Freeman threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to tie the

game with 1:26 left, then completed a 21-yard pass following a

Bengals turnover to set up Connor Barth’s winning 31-yard field

goal with one second to play.

Freeman sat out two plays in the first half after a hit left him

dazed but came back to go 20 of 33 for 280 yards, earning NFC

offensive player of the week honors.

“Our goal remains the same – we’re trying to get to 10 wins and

solidify a playoff spot,” Freeman said. “Our main goal right now is

to continue to find ways to win. It’s a matter of who can go out

and execute the best and be a winner at the end.”

New Orleans’ offensive execution has been troubling. The Saints

rank 31st in the NFL with 75.6 rushing yards per game, partly

because of injuries to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. That’s forced

Drew Brees to throw an average of nearly 40 times a game, and he

has five interceptions over the last three games – he had just two

at this point last year.

“It’s little breakdowns. We don’t need a system overhaul here,”

right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. “There are groups across this

league that I think in their heart of hearts know that they can’t

produce a lot of points. This locker room doesn’t feel that

way.”

The Saints had 22 touchdowns through five games in 2009 but have

only 10 this season. They’ve yet to score more than 25 points,

something that happened only once during their 13-0 start last

year.

“We can’t dwell on what we did in the past,” receiver Devery

Henderson said. “We have to worry about this year and what we can

control. Things haven’t been going the way we expected, but we’ve

just got to keep going and get things corrected.”

To shore up the running game, New Orleans signed former Seattle

leading rusher Julius Jones on Tuesday and released John Carney,

who missed a 29-yard field goal against Arizona. Bush is likely to

miss a fourth straight game due to a broken bone in his right leg,

and Thomas will sit out a third in a row with a sprained left

ankle.

Their absences might make it tougher on the Saints to take

advantage of a Bucs defense ranked last in the NFC against the run,

allowing 143.2 yards per game.

The Tampa Bay defense has been opportunistic, however, forcing

12 turnovers – including nine interceptions. That’s a big reason

the Bucs are within reach of their first 4-1 start since 2005.

“They’re a young football team, they’re resilient,” coach Raheem

Morris said. “They keep getting better and better.”

That definitely could be said of rookie receiver Mike Williams.

His seven catches and 99 yards last Sunday were season highs, and

he caught the game-tying TD by outjumping the defender.

“I’ve got all the confidence in that guy to make the play

one-on-one,” Freeman said.

These teams last met Dec. 27 in New Orleans, with the Bucs

overcoming a 17-point deficit and pulling off a 20-17 upset on

Barth’s 47-yard field goal in overtime. The Saints entered that

game 13-1, a record which included a 38-7 win at Tampa Bay in Week

11.