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NFL Preview - New Orleans (1-4) at Tampa Bay (2-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's an arduous task to put back-to-back impressive wins together in the NFL given that defenses can make adjustments on the fly.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't enjoyed such consecutive performances in more than a year and could find it tough to string wins together with the NFC South-rival New Orleans Saints set to invade Raymond James Stadium Sunday.
Tampa Bay slaughtered the Kansas City Chiefs, 38-10, this past weekend in its second of three straight home games and the offense exploded for 463 yards -- the ninth-best total in franchise history. The Buccaneers were prepared in all phases of the game following their bye week and ended a three-game losing streak in the process.
Josh Freeman passed for 300-plus yards (328) for the fourth time in his career and recorded three touchdowns passes to one interception. Mike Williams had 113 yards and a score on just four receptions and Vincent Jackson was on the receiving end of two TDs and 66 yards on four receptions. Williams, who had a rough sophomore season in 2011, and Jackson are becoming a nice combo.
"Vincent has helped make me a better player," Williams told the Tampa Tribune. "We know our potential and how high we can go."
The Buccaneers were able to run the football successfully on Kansas City, grinding out 145 yards, including 76 on 13 carries for rookie Doug Martin. LeGarrette Blount had seven touches for 58 yards and a score, and is still a vital cog in the offense even though Martin took the starting job.
Tampa Bay's defense held the Chiefs under 300 yards of offense (260) and made life miserable for K.C. quarterback Brady Quinn. In his first start in nearly three years for the Chiefs, Quinn wasn't sacked but was picked off twice. Bucs veteran defensive back Ronde Barber had a 78-yard interception return for a score and rookie safety Mark Barron recorded the first of his career. Barber has 15 touchdowns in his career, including one on the playoffs, and will pass Derrick Brooks (221 games from 1995-08) for the most games started in team history on Sunday.
"I've always been ball aware. I see the ball out a lot because I'm always around it," Barber said afterward. "I can't tell you why. I'll just take them as they come, though."
The Bucs are still 31st in the league in pass defense (312.2 ypg), but have the fourth-best run defense (75.0 ypg). They could be in for a long afternoon since the Saints have the best air attack (326.8 ypg) and are fourth in total yards (402.0 ypg). New Orleans, though, is only 30th in rushing with just 75.2 yards per game.
New Orleans is coming off a bye and hopes its momentum from the first win of the season hasn't evaporated. In a 31-24 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Oct. 7, Drew Brees made history and completed 29 of his 45 pass attempts for 370 yards, four touchdowns and an interception.
Brees broke Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas' record by throwing a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game. Brees hasn't had a game without a TD pass since Oct. 4, 2009 against the New York Jets.
"I'm very happy for him. I know him and I am proud of him," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. "It couldn't happen to a better player and person. The way he prepares and approaches the game is great. And I told him that right after the game."
The Saints registered 404 yards of offense -- mostly by Brees -- and didn't have to settle for a ground attack that mustered only 53 yards. Marques Colston finished with 131 yards and a career-high three scores, while Devery Henderson had 123 yards and a touchdown catch for the Saints, who ended a season-opening four-game losing streak and posted the 300th win in team history.
The Saints are 0-2 on the road this season and have lost three straight as the guest, including last season's playoff loss at San Francisco. However, they have the third-best road record in the NFL at 30-20 (.600) since 2006.
In other news for the Saints, linebacker Jonathan Vilma reportedly could return for Sunday's game against Tampa Bay. Vilma is currently on the physically unable to perform list as he again appeals the year-long suspension issued by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his involvement in an alleged bounty scandal. Vilma told WVUE-TV on Sunday night that he will come off the PUP list on Tuesday and could be ready for game action this coming Sunday.
"I'll be allowed to practice, I'll be allowed to play versus Tampa Bay," Vilma told the TV station.
Vilma is rehabbing a knee injury that sidelined him for five games last season and eventually required three operations in an eight-month span.
Tampa Bay has won six of the last 10 meetings with New Orleans, including four of the previous seven home contests in the series. The Bucs and Saints split the 2011 season series.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Brees will be the reason why the Saints will win Sunday because he pulls the strings for the top pass attack in the league and Tampa Bay is 31st in pass defense, allowing 312.2 yards per game. Brees already has four 300-yard passing games this season and four games with three-plus TD passes. How can the Saints not take advantage of this opportunity? Colston and Henderson both had 100-yard receiving games before the bye. Colston owns 18 receptions for 284 yards and four touchdown catches in the past two games.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham hasn't reached the end zone in back-to-back games and needs to get more involved. He is dealing with a balky ankle, but that shouldn't deter him from suiting up Sunday.
Acting head coach Aaron Kromer spoke Monday about staying focused for this game after having a week off to relax.
"I don't think we'll have a problem getting refocused. We know what is ahead of us," Kromer said. "Tampa Bay has a very strong defense and they did a nice job against Kansas City yesterday. We know it's a formidable opponent, we are at their place, and it's a divisional rivalry. We need to play our best football to win on the road and we can do that."
In 13 career games against the Bucs, Brees owns 25 TD passes to 13 interceptions. In the red zone this season, the Saints are third in touchdown percentage and have scored 12 touchdowns for a red zone effectiveness rate of 66.7 percent in 18 situations inside the 20-yard line. Having the league's top-ranked offense (401.2 ypg) since 2006 helps, too.
Don't be surprised if New Orleans tries to test Tampa Bay's run defense.
Can the Buccaneers' offense keep its foot on the proverbial gas pedal for a second week in a row? Probably, but they have to limit turnovers and keep Freeman clean in the pocket. Kansas City had only one sack last week on Freeman, who has won two of his last three meetings with the Saints. He has five touchdown passes and no interceptions for a 108.6 rating in that time.
Tampa Bay shouldn't have any problems moving the ball on the Saints, as they are near the bottom in every major defensive category. New Orleans may get Vilma back on Sunday, but it doesn't erase the fact that it's 26th in both pass defense (283.2 ypg) and points allowed (30.8).
The Saints are 31st against the run (172.8 ypg) and last in yards allowed (456.0 ypg). Perhaps Sunday would be a good time to get the ground game in gear with Martin and Blount. Many speculated the Bucs would struggle on the front line with Jamon Meredith starting for Davin Joseph at guard. Well, Meredith impressed his teammates with his effort and athleticism.
"He stepped in and played very well," Martin said. "He had a good practice and he's doing an awesome job. He did a good job staying on blocks and staying low."
According to the numbers, the Bucs have a better defense than the Saints because of their ability to slow down the run and keep opposing teams off the scoreboard. Bucs' defensive lineman Michael Bennett and Gerald McCoy lead the team in sacks with four and three, respectively. Disrupting Brees' timing will be key in coming out with a win.
There will be a "sea of orange" Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, as the Bucs will wear their old creamsicle uniforms from the team's inception. The throwback week is always a popular event for Tampa Bay fans, but unfortunately it will be spoiled by Brees and the Saints' high-powered pass attack. Yes, the Bucs have been playing well on defense lately and the offense just dismantled Kansas City. However, this is a division game and the Saints appear back in gear despite a 1-4 record.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 32, Bucs 23
10/18 12:03:04 ET