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NFL Preview - New Orleans (9-0) at Tampa Bay (1-8)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It just might be possible that the New Orleans Saints are the most unhappy undefeated team in football right now. Thirteen turnovers in four games will do that to a club.
Still, the Saints are in position to record their first-ever 10-game winning streak this Sunday in a road matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
While the also 9-0 Indianapolis Colts were celebrating their rally over the New England Patriots, whom New Orleans will host next Monday night, last weekend, the Saints are trying to figure out how to cut down on their rapid turnovers that are sure to cost them at some point.
They haven't yet, though games against Miami, Atlanta, Carolina and St. Louis might have something to do with that. New Orleans' last four victims are a combined 14-22 this year.
The Saints, who lead the NFC South by four games over the Falcons, turned the ball over three times in Sunday's 28-23 victory over the Rams, as quarterback Drew Brees threw a pair of picks and Marques Colston lost a fumble. However, strong second-half defense and running back Reggie Bush's first two-touchdown game of the season helped the Saints prevail.
Bush ran for 83 yards, helped by a career-best 55-yard run, with a touchdown and also caught a 15-yard scoring pass from Brees, who threw for 223 yards and two touchdowns in the victory.
New Orleans, which has already surpassed its win total of a season ago by going 9-0 for the first time ever, has won nine straight for the third time in club history. The Saints first won accomplished the feat from November 1- December 27, 1987 and again from December 23, 1990-October 20, 1991.
While the Saints have been relying on their defense to stand tall after turning the ball over, New Orleans comes into Tampa Bay limping in the secondary.
Safety Darren Sharper missed last week's game due to knee injury, while corner Jabari Greer sat out due to a groin issue. Already without two starting defensive backs, cornerback Tracy Porter then went down with an MCL sprain that will sideline him indefinitely.
With both starting corners unlikely for this game, the Saints signed former Raven Chris McAlister, who was released by Baltimore in February after missing most of last season with a right knee injury.
The Buccaneers and rookie quarterback Josh Freeman will aim to take advantage of that injury-riddled secondary just one week after nearly winning the team won its second straight contest.
Tampa Bay lost its first seven games this season before Freeman rallied his club past Green Bay, 38-28, on November 8 in his first NFL start. The 21-year- old nearly did it again this past weekend, helping the Bucs get in position for running back Cadillac Williams' go-ahead one-yard touchdown run with 1:14 remaining versus Miami.
However, the Dolphins drove down the field in response and kicker Dan Carpenter hit a 25-yard field goal with 10 seconds left to hand Tampa Bay a 25-23 defeat, the team's 12th loss in the last 13 games.
Freeman completed 16-of-28 passes for 196 yards with a touchdown and an interception, while tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. caught seven passes for 102 yards.
New Orleans has a 20-14 lead in its all-time series with Tampa Bay, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home. The Saints recorded a 24-20 victory when the teams met at the Superdome in Week 1, and the Bucs returned the favor with a 23-20 triumph at Raymond James Stadium in Week 13. New Orleans is 0-2 in Tampa Bay since last winning there in 2006.
Saints head coach Sean Payton is 3-3 against the Buccaneers in his career, while the Bucs' Raheem Morris will be meeting both Payton and the Saints for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
With the Saints having turned the ball over 19 times this season, it is a good thing they rank first in yards (426.1) and points (36.8) per game. A lot of it comes down to Brees (2559 passing yards, 19 TD, 9 INT), who can move the ball upfield quickly when needed. Brees, who is among the league leaders in passing yards, touchdown throws and quarterback rating, also spreads the ball around well, though Colston (39 receptions, 6 TD) remains his favorite target. However, the quarterback has no issues with getting the ball to tight end Jeremy Shockey (37 receptions, 3 TD), wideouts Devery Henderson (30 receptions, 1 TD) and Robert Meachem (14 receptions, 4 TD), or Bush either. Bush (29 receptions, 6 total TD) has served a dual purpose, getting some rushing touches while also factoring in the passing game. However, Mike Bell (439 rushing yards, 2 TD) and Pierre Thomas (492 rushing yards, 5 TD) continue to handle the bulk of the rushing duties. The three combined for 150 yards rushing versus the Rams, while Meachem added a 41-yard run and also caught a 27-yard touchdown pass. Henderson led the club with 72 yards last week, while tight end David Thomas had a team-high five catches for 45 yards.
Tampa Bay's secondary figures to be put to the test this weekend, as it is allowing 211.9 passing yards per game and ranked 15th in the NFL. The Buccaneers held the run-happy Dolphins to 175 passing yards, but did see Miami rack up 199 yards on the ground. That wasn't too surprising, given that the Bucs rank 31st in the league versus the run (167.3 ypg). That could cause the Saints to run the ball a bit more, especially since Tampa Bay ranks fifth in the NFL with 12 interceptions. That includes one pick versus Miami, which was pulled in by linebacker Quincy Black (45 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT). Safety Tanard Jackson (32 tackles, 3 INT) had nine tackles, recovered a fumble versus the Dolphins and has three interceptions in his past four games. He has taken two of those back for touchdowns. Corner Aqib Talib (33 tackles, 5 INT) has five picks in his last six games, but has been limited in practice this week because of a hamstring issue. Safety Sabby Piscitelli (54 tackles, 1 INT) had nine tackles last weekend and linebacker Barrett Ruud (76 tackles, 1 INT) added eight. Defensive back Ronde Barber (38 tackles, 1 sack) has a pair of three-interception games in his career, with both coming versus the Saints.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Freeman (417 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) has put his team in position to win in both of his starts, helping to spark an offense that ranks 25th in points (17.4) and 28th in yards (276.2) per game. The Kansas State product, who threw for 205 yards in his starting debut two weekends ago, completed a touchdown pass to wide receiver Maurice Stovall, one of four catches on the day for the wideout. Rookie Sammie Stroughter (21 receptions, 1 TD) added two catches for 13 yards. Winslow (42 receptions, 5 TD), though, continues to be Tampa Bay's leading receiver. Freeman could get to throw to No. 1 wideout Antonio Bryant for the first time this weekend. Bryant (16 receptions, 2 TD) has missed the last two games with a nagging knee injury, but practiced on a limited basis Wednesday. If Freeman can get the passing game going, it could open up things for Tampa Bay's 25th-ranked run attack. Williams (418 rushing yards, 3 TD) ran the ball 14 times for 52 yards versus the Dolphins, while Derrick Ward (217 rushing yards, 1 TD) added 34 yards on 10 carries. Freeman, meanwhile, tallied 36 rushing yards on seven runs.
The Saints secondary, which ranks 19th versus the pass (227.7 ypg) but leads the NFL with 17 interceptions, will hope to force the young Freeman into making mistakes. Things will be easier for New Orleans if veteran safety Sharper (35 tackles) can return from a knee ailment that caused him to miss last week's victory over the Rams. Sharper is second in the NFL with seven picks, returning those for a league-high 317 yards and three touchdowns. The loss of Greer (37 tackles, 2 INT) and Porter (44 tackles, 3 INT) will be tough to overcome, though. Corner Randall Gay (19 tackles, 1 INT) will likely get his second straight start after making four tackles a week ago, while 2009 first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins (10 tackles) could get his first NFL start. Pressure could also be key for the Saints. Defensive end Will Smith (25 tackles, 7.5 sacks) had a sack last weekend to give him five in his past three games, while defensive tackle Remi Ayodele (12 tackles, 1.5 sacks) also had one. Safety Usama Young, starting in place of Sharper, had an interception versus the Rams, while fellow safety Roman Harper (66 tackles, 1 sack) and linebacker Jonathan Vilma (62 tackles, 1 sack) had eight tackles each.
Turnovers aside, the Saints' offense features a host of solid plays. Brees, Colston and Shockey are must starts, while Thomas is also a good play. Although he gets limited touches, Bush is also a viable flex start due to his play in the red zone, while both Meachem and Henderson are risk-reward starts because they can score on any given week. The Saints' defense has been solid all year and is a good play this weekend. The unit's value is helped out by the fact that return man Courtney Roby took a kickoff 97 yards for a score last weekend, adding another threat alongside Bush, who takes back punts.
Outside of Winslow, Tampa Bay doesn't host a lot of options. Freeman is showing signs of being a good quarterback, but is still young and could turn the ball over a few times this weekend. Bryant is a huge injury risk and should be avoided, and none of the other Tampa Bay receivers are solid plays. The Buccaneers' defense is in line to give up some points this Sunday. Keep an eye on kicker Connor Barth, who became the fourth player in NFL history to connect on three 50-plus yard field goals in a single game last weekend.
Although New England's 16-0 finish in 2007 is still fresh in most people's minds, one has to remember how hard it is to finish a season undefeated. However, it is tough to imagine this being New Orleans' letdown game. Tampa Bay just doesn't have the firepower to match the Saints' offense, though the team is even in turnover ratio for the year. Even if the Bucs can force some turnovers on Sunday, their offense has to be able to do something with them. A franchise-record winning streak is more likely for the Saints than a Buccaneers' victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Buccaneers 14
11/19 17:49:54 ET