A battle of NFC South rivals opening their seasons
One of four divisional contests to open the 2018 NFL regular season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints will renew acquaintances in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday.
Tampa Bay entered last season with high hopes. Predictions of a playoff berth and even an NFC South championship flittered among the media and fans. Tampa Bay seemed to justify those prognostications by winning two of its first games. Then the Bucs sandwiched five-game losing streaks around two non-conference victories.
In 2017, Sean Payton extinguished all of the murmuring about his tenure in New Orleans being in jeopardy. He not only ended the Saints’ three-year run of 7-9 finishes, but he also led the Saints the divisional title. Only a heartbreaking defensive breakdown on the final play of their game at Minnesota prevented the Saints from reaching the NFC Championship Game for the third time under his leadership.
The Saints lead the all-time series versus the Buccaneers, 32-20. For games played in New Orleans, the Saints hold an 18-10 advantage. The teams split their meetings last season with the home team winning both times.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How will the Buccaneers’ offense function without Jameis Winston?
Winston will miss the first of three games due to the suspension handed down by the NFL resulting from a violation of the league’s Personal Conduct Policy. He made a de facto plea of no-contest following an allegation of groping a woman driving for him in 2016. By doing so, he avoided the league’s mandated six-game suspension for first-time violators of this policy.
In his place will step Ryan Fitzpatrick. During his 13 seasons in the NFL, Fitzpatrick has seen action in 133 games and started 119 times with seven different teams. This will be his second year with the Bucs, having played in six contests last season with three starts. He led the Bucs to two victories in his three starts in Tampa Bay, completing 58.9 percent of his passes for 1,103 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. In the Bucs' game at New Orleans last season, he completed 8-of-15 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown and added three rushing attempts for 30 yards. Though he did not throw an interception in that game, the Saints did sack him twice.
2. How will the Saints’ offense function without Mark Ingram?
Ingram will not suit up for this game, the first of four contests that he will miss due to the suspension handed down from the league in May after Ingram tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
The most notable option for the Saints to offset Ingram’s absence is Alvin Kamara. As a rookie last season, Kamara rushed for 728 yards and eight touchdowns last year, the team's second-highest totals in both categories. Additionally, Kamara’s 826 receiving yards ranked second among the Saints in 2017, while his five receiving touchdowns were tied for first.
The Saints signed Mike Gillislee three days after the preseason finale. He had done two-year stints with the Dolphins and the Bills before the Patriots cut him in training camp after one year in New England. He experienced his most productive season in 2016, his second year in Buffalo, when he rushed for 577 yards and eight touchdowns while also catching nine passes for 50 yards and a touchdown in 15 games. For his NFL career, he has accumulated 258 carries, 1,248 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. His meager receiving statistics include 16 receptions for 94 yards and a touchdown.
The Saints have few options to carry the ball other than Kamara and Gillislee. Fullback Zach Line has appeared in 47 games during his five years in the NFL with 20 rushes for 53 yards and two touchdowns. Last season, his first with the Saints, he had seven carries for 28 yards and no touchdowns.
3. Status of the Saints’ defensive line
Alex Okafor returns from a torn Achilles tendon that ended his 2017 season in November. Before going down in the tenth game, Okafor had started every game to that point. Despite the premature end to his season, he still tied for the second-most sacks (4.5) on the squad and tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles. Has he returned to his pre-injury level of complementing Cameron Jordan on the other side of the line?
The Saints traded up to draft Marcus Davenport in April. Davenport had surgery on his left thumb in June, and he missed three weeks of training camp, including the first two exhibition games, due to a groin injury. Is he ready in case Okafor is not completely recovered or simply needs to sit out some plays?
Both teams will be lacking a key component on offense. However, not all parts have the same value. A journeyman with more than a hundred professional starts but only a handful with the Bucs will be replacing Jameis Winston. A Pro Bowl running back will replace another Pro Bowl running back for the Saints. New Orleans holds the advantage in this comparison.
Prediction: Saints 30, Buccaneers 16
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.