Top storyline: Saints, Bucs need to establish the run
As NFC South rivals for the past 11 seasons, the Saints and Bucs have had some rough-and-tumble matchups highlighted by a lot of physical play.
That should be the case again Sunday, when they meet in Raymond James Stadium as the teams try to get their stagnant running games going.
The run game was almost nonexistent in the Saints’ 23-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons and the Bucs’ 18-17 loss to the New York Jets as they netted just 78 and 65 yards.
It’s certainly not what coaches Sean Payton and Greg Schiano wanted to start the season.
Upon his return to the Saints after a season-long suspension in 2012, one of the things Payton talked most about was running the ball more effectively.
He envisioned the Saints running it like they did in 2009 and ’11, when they averaged more than 130 yards per game.
But it didn’t happen last Sunday, when they ran the ball 29 times and averaged just 2.7 yards a carry.
Payton knows that won’t cut it, so getting Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles some holes to run through against the Bucs, who gave up just 3.1 yards per carry against the Jets, would help rectify the problem.
For the Bucs, Doug Martin was a shining star as a rookie when he rushed for 1,454 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
But other than a 17-yard run against the Jets, he was rather ordinary in gaining 48 yards on his other 23 attempts.
So the goal for both teams will be to average better than 4 yards a pop, which could be one of the keys to victory.
About the Buccaneers
The Bucs went 7-9 in 2012 under rookie coach Greg Schiano, but they know it could have been a lot better in the final analysis.
Schiano’s team had two big lapses that cost it a shot at a winning record. The Bucs lost three games in a row after opening the season with a win and then dropped five of their final six games to fall out of playoff contention.
Two big things stuck out to Schiano, who was a successful head coach at Rutgers: quarterback play and a leaky secondary.
Schiano decided to give Josh Freeman another chance at QB, but he made some bold moves to shore up a pass defense that ranked last in the league in allowing 297.4 yards per game and 30 touchdowns.
He traded for shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis after signing safety Dashon Goldson in free agency with the hope that they, along with promising second-year strong safety Mark Barron, can make a difference against the quarterbacks who shredded them mercilessly a year ago.
Key matchup: Doug Martin vs. Saints front seven
Second-year pro Doug Martin had great success against most of the NFL last season but had mixed results against the Saints’ old 4-3 scheme.
While he rushed for 1,454 yards, which ranked second among NFL rookies, Martin gained 85 yards and a 36-yard TD on just 16 carries in their first meeting — averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
But in the rematch, the Saints held the 5-foot-9, 215-pounder to 16 yards on nine carries — mainly because the Bucs were out of the game early en route to a 41-0 loss.
Akiem Hicks and the Saints will have to keep him in check in order to put pressure on erratic quarterback Josh Freeman, who threw four interceptions in that loss in December.
X factor: Saints WR Lance Moore
Yes, the Saints want to get their running game going Sunday. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to abandon their record-setting passing game.
Moore didn’t have a big day in last week’s win against the Atlanta Falcons, catching just two passes for 23 yards.
But he could play a bigger role against the Bucs, especially if they pay too much attention to two players who have had some monster games against them — Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham.
Coming off a breakout season in which he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career, Moore has a knack for finding the soft spots in defenses with an ability to do a lot of damage.
He’s especially good at the underneath routes, which could be a key if the Bucs suddenly have their hands full with Colston, Graham and speedster Kenny Stills.
A little success running the ball early will give Drew Brees a lot of freedom to take his shots with the passing game and keep the Bucs on their heels.
3 and out
1 GETTING PICKY: The beleaguered Saints defense that set an NFL single-season record in allowing 7,042 total yards a year ago had just 15 interceptions in 16 games — but four of them came off the Bucs’ Josh Freeman in a 41-0 blowout of Tampa Bay on Dec. 16.
2 PROTECTING THE FRANCHISE: Saints quarterback Drew Brees has gotten solid protection from his offensive line — which has allowed a league-low 150 sacks in the 113 games the team has played — since he signed with the team in 2006.
3 FUN AT RJS: Since joining the NFC South in 2002, the Saints have had good success against the Bucs in Raymond James Stadium when the teams were put in the same division. The Saints are 7-4 there in that time, including a 35-28 win last season.