The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will open this season for the second time in three years in New Orleans. A motley collection of high profile veterans has assembled in Tampa Bay. They have joined forces to form what resembles a mercenary army determined to seize a championship. Conveniently, their home stadium will host the Super Bowl.
Most of the New Orleans Saints' starters from last season have returned. They are seeking a fourth consecutive NFC South title. After three exits from the playoffs and falling short of the Super Bowl, the pressure has reached a critical level. It appears that Drew Brees will retire after this season. Therefore, Sean Payton's crew wants him to go by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy again.
The Saints lead the all-time series record versus the Buccaneers, 35-21. For games in New Orleans, the Saints hold an advantage of 19-11. The Saints have won the last three meetings.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 12 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Bucs curtail Alvin Kamara?
Kamara has played against Tampa Bay six times during his professional career. He started in three of those. He has averaged 11.3 carries for 54.8 yards and scored four touchdowns. His average yards per attempt exceeded 3.6 in every game, and he added an average of seven receptions per game for 67.5 yards, leading to two touchdowns. He averaged at least seven yards per reception in five of those contests.
Kamara and his agent have been trying to renegotiate his contract before he hits free agency after the season, and the ongoing haggling has remained a constant topic throughout training camp. Kamara could hardly find a more convincing way to justify a higher-paying deal than to pile up 50 or more yards, both rushing and receiving, in the first game.
2. How much cohesion does Tampa Bay have?
The Bucs feature multiple prominent members that played elsewhere last season. Among the new faces on offense are Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Even on defense, Ndamukong Suh (Rams) and Shaquil Barrett (Broncos) are only in their second years in town. Placekicker Ryan Succop is new as well, signing in early September when the team decided to move on from Matt Gay, last year's fifth-round pick who struggled with his accuracy last season.
Tampa Bay bolstered its tepid rushing attack. The Bucs retained Ronald Jones II, their leading running back from 2019, who gained 724 yards on 172 attempts on the ground for six touchdowns and added an intriguing back in the draft, Ke'Shawn Vaughn. In July, they signed journeyman LeSean McCoy who finished second among the Chiefs in rushing attempts (101), yards (465), and touchdowns (four). And just a week before the season started, they picked up free agent Leonard Fournette, cut by Jacksonville. Fournette compiled impressive raw totals (1,152 rushing yards), but he never lived up to his promise as a former No. 4 overall pick.
Fortunately for Brady, the Bucs' two most productive wide receivers will return from last season. Chris Godwin led the team with 86 yards, 1,333 receiving yards, and nine touchdown receptions. Mike Evans finished second in terms of receptions (67), receiving yards (1,157), and eight touchdown catches, although he's been bothered by a hamstring injury.
The question is how soon and smoothly will the recent arrivals mesh with the rest of the Bucs. Did Brady have enough work with the receivers in an abbreviated offseason? Can Fournette pick up the offensive playbook quickly enough to contribute on the field? Will the established members of the Pewter Pirates resent the presence of "hired guns?"
3. Will the Saints stumble out of the gate again?
The Saints narrowly escaped with a two-point victory in the Superdome in the first game of last year. Prior to 2019, the Saints had dropped five straight season-openers. Those losses include a lopsided and embarrassing defeat at home to the Buccaneers two years ago.
The Saints struggled in their past six season-openers, with just a 1-5 record including a 2018 loss to these very Bucs. And those occurred despite having a full-scale training camp and four exhibition games. Has Payton and his coaching staff ironed out whatever issues that have plagued the Saints in previous seasons' opening contests?
The lack of fans in the stands of the Superdome will hurt the Saints' home-field advantage. The typically raucous crowd would have hampered the Buccaneers' ability to call audibles at the line of scrimmage. Considering the lack of in-game action together, Brady would have inevitably needed to communicate more often with his new teammates. Without the deafening roar of the Who Dat Nation, he should have no problems making himself heard.
The Saints have come close to returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2009 season. A miraculous last-second touchdown, a glaring non-call of an obvious penalty, and an inexplicably awful performance by the offense have sabotaged their quests for the Lombardi Trophy. Is this the year that they finally reach their intended destination? The journey will start on a positive note with an important victory over a divisional rival.
Prediction: Saints 37, Buccaneers 23
— 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.