By Barry Hirstius – Contributing Writer
The New Orleans Saints will open their 2018 NFL Regular Season schedule this Sunday, when they host their NFC South division rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Kickoff is slated for 12 noon Central time, and the game will be televised regionally by FOX.
Coming into this game, the Saints (11-5 last season) are heavily favored to defeat the Bucs (5-11 last year); thanks to the absence of Tampa Bay starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who is serving a 3-game suspension for violating the League’s Personal Conduct policy.
Back-up Buccaneers QB Ryan Fitzpatrick will start for the Bucs, and odds-makers apparently feel that very fact alone gives New Orleans an advantage; as the Saints are currently a 7-point favorite.
Nevertheless Tampa Bay should not be taken lightly as NFC South divisional games are ALWAYS hard-fought, no matter what the circumstances are coming into the game.
With that in mind, here are Big Easy Magazine’s 5 “bold’ predictions, for this Sunday’s contest.
And we’ll start at #5, and work our way down to #1 — beginning with this one………….
5. STILL STRUGGLING TO STOP THE OPPONENT’S RUNNING GAME “EARLY” IN THE 1st QUARTER OF GAMES, THE SAINTS RUN DEFENSE HAS ONE OF THEIR BEST PERFORMANCES OF THE PAST CALENDAR YEAR
It’s been well documented that the Saints run defense hasn’t been the best aspect of the unit’s otherwise outstanding play early on during the beginning of games last year, in which they’ve gotten gashed at times by the opponent’s running game in the 1st quarter — and that very same trend continued in the Pre-Season.
However, it is important to note that they’ve been able to bounce back strongly games; particularly in which it seems they are able to make the proper adjustments at half-time and are able to “shut down” the opponent’s running game for the remainder of the contest.
In this Sunday’s season opener, the Saints run defense will face a Buccaneers running game that has completely transitioned from one Era of Buccaneers football to the next; as the talented tandem of 3rd year Tampa Bay RB Peyton Barber and rookie Ronald Jones have combined to now lead the way for a Bucs running game that used to feature veteran RB Doug Martin (who now is the back-up RB with the Oakland Raiders).
That will be to the Saints defense’s advantage; as the run defense opens the 2018 NFL schedule by limiting the Buccaneers to 60 total rushing yards on 25 carries, a paltry 2.1 yards per carry average — in what easily is their best performance at defending the opponent’s running game in the past calendar year. That will go a long way in helping to determine the final outcome, since the defense could potentially have problems with this next prediction on our list.
4. BECAUSE THE BUCCANEERS PASS RUSH CAN’T GENERATE MUCH PRESSURE ON DREW BREES, #9 HAS A BIG DAY “NUMBERS-WISE” FOR THE SAINTS
The Tampa Bay defense has struggled against the pass last year and likely once again this season; which no doubt has been a combination of several factors that have seemingly conspired to work against them. Last year, now 3rd-year defensive end / edge pass rusher extraordinaire Noah Spence was placed on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury; and because of the less-than-expected output and unhappiness of 5-time Pro Bowl DT Gerald McCoy, the Buccaneers pass rush finished the 2017 season ranked dead-last in the NFL in both sacks and QB “hits”.
Now we fast forward to the start of this season, and their pass-rushing issues continue onward. 9th year veteran defensive end and top Free Agent signee Jason Pierre-Paul had a relatively quiet Pre-Season; and prized rookie defensive tackle and first-round draft pick Vita Vea still hasn’t returned to practice after missing over a month with a strained calf muscle.
Vea likely will miss this Sunday’s contest; and he’ll be replaced in their starting line-up by veteran Beau Allen, who signed with the Bucs as a free agent from the Philadelphia Eagles and has manned the position throughout their Training Camp and the Pre-Season.
Bottom line: the Buccaneers in all likelihood will fail to generate all that much of a pass rush against the Saints’ top-ranked O-Line, and won’t be able to get any significant “heat” on Saints starting QB Drew Brees to make him uncomfortable. Which then allows #9 to have a big-day numbers-wise / statistically-speaking, to the tune of 400 plus passing yards and 4 TD passes.
#3. SAINTS 2nd YEAR CORNERBACK MARSHON LATTIMORE “SHUTS DOWN” BUCCANEERS WIDE RECEIVER MIKE EVANS ONCE AGAIN AT THE SUPERDOME
Saints fans of course will remember the “marquee match-up” that occurred last season back in the Week #9 game between Lattimore and Evans in which the Saints rookie and eventual 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year winner completely “shut down” the 6-foot-5 Evans, one of the NFL’s top receivers, as he finished with one catch for 13 yards on six targets.
Lattimore’s play obviously became a source of frustration in that game for Evans, which of course led to the 3rd quarter incident that day in which Evans gave Lattimore a hard shove in the back along the Tampa Bay sideline, leading to a brief melee involving several players. The entire incident appeared to be provoked by QB Jameis Winston, who started “trash talking” Lattimore and eventually poked him in the back of the helmet). Winston was later fined $12,154 by the League for his provacation.
Evans eventually was suspended by the League for his cheap shot on Lattimore; and while he went on to have a ‘down year’ by his standards, he still managed 71 catches for 1,001 yards and five scores. In their “rematch” at Tampa a few weeks later in the 2017 NFL Season Finale, Evans fared a little better, with 5 receptions for 55 yards; but far below what he’s capable of doing normally against lesser DB’s than Lattimore.
Evans will continue to be one of the most consistent pass catchers in the game, and should excel even with Fitzpatrick starting in place of the suspended Winston in Week #1. However, this Sunday in what will be Round #3 between the two elite-caliber players at their respective positions, Lattimore will limit Evans to 6 receptions for 75 yards, and just enough to render him a “non-factor” for the majority of the contest.
2. ALTHOUGH HE’S NOWHERE CLOSE TO BEING “ELITE” – CALIBER AS A STARTING QUARTERBACK, BUCS BACK-UP RYAN FITZPATRICK SURPRISES THE SAINTS DEFENSE IN THE 1st HALF
Buccaneers 4th year QB “Famous” Jameis Winston will of course be missing this contest as he serves a 3-game suspension for violating the League’s Personal Conduct policy; and 14th-year veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick obviously will get the start for this Sunday’s game.
But Fitzpatrick is more than capable of leading an extremely dangerous Bucs passing offense that features WR’s Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson along with the “double duo” tight end threat of Cameron Brate and 2nd year TE O.J. Howard; to big performances.
True to form: in the 1st half, Fitzpatrick shocks the Saints defense by passing for well over 100 yards and helping to put 14 Tampa points up on the scoreboard. But Fitzpatrick’s ‘Achilles Heel’ has always been a combination of poor decision-making and inaccuracy, which normally can lead to some ill-timed interceptions. And once again in this contest, that will become an issue.
The Saints pass rush will “rattle” Fitzpatrick in the 2nd half; and both Lattimore and 2nd year safety Marcus Williams will grab interceptions thrown by the big-bearded gunslinger. Those factors will combine to allow the Saints defensive secondary to “lock down” the Bucs passing game for a majority of the 2nd half, which eventually will help lead up to an unforgettable 4th quarter finish for the ages (more on that coming right up) of this now 42-year rivalry (since Tampa entered the League in 1976).
1. WELCOME TO THE NFL, TRE’QUAN SMITH
It’s been one heck of a “break out” year thus far for Saints rookie WR and 3rd Round draft pick Tre’Quan Smith; who blew every one away in Training Camp and showed why many NFL scouts felt that he should have been taken much higher than where the Saints got him (91st overall).
Smith finished the Saints Pre-Season schedule with 15 catches for 189 yards and a touchdown in fairly limited action; but yet he was still named by the folks over at Pro Football Focus to their 2018 All-Pre-Season 1st Team. PFF noted that Smith had the 2nd-best first down conversion rate among rookies with 11 or more catches at 66.7-percent (10 of 15) but perhaps the most notable fact that they shared was that Tre’Quan never took a single snap with Drew Brees under center in any of the Pre-Season games.
You can certainly believe that Smith will feature heavily in the Saints passing attack starting from Week #1 against the Buccaneers. and in this coming Sunday’s contest, Smith will have one of the more impressive (and unforgettable for some) rookie debuts EVER for a Saints wide receiver.
Smith will catch a total of 7 receptions to the tune of 172 yards along with 2 TD receptions from Brees; that includes a 69-yard “catch-and-run” early in the 4th quarter that brings a sold-out Superdome crowd to its feet in celebration — as New Orleans puts the game ‘on ice’ for the season-opening victory. Welcome to the NFL, Tre’Quan…….
FINAL SCORE: SAINTS 38, BUCCANEERS 21
Editor’s Note: If you enjoy Barry’s writing, be sure to check out his detailed story on the how the Saints and their fans are tackling the controversial NFL-National Anthem issue, featuring his interview with Saints linebacker Demario Davis! Don’t forget to also check out our series on things to do in New Orleans as well as a piece we released today on a controversial movie filmed in New Orleans!