Having already triumphed at home against an Atlanta Falcons team many think is a Super Bowl contender, the New Orleans Saints now visit a Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization that could be in disarray.
Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman overslept and missed the team photo. There was a players-only meeting. Freeman wasn’t voted a team captain. And Tampa Bay lost its season opener to a New York Jets squad led by a rookie quarterback.
But the Saints say they aren’t putting much stock in any of that, despite winning three of their past four games at Tampa Bay. They’re certain the Buccaneers would be 1-0 had linebacker Lavonte David’s late penalty not set up a game-winning field goal for the Jets. And they haven’t forgotten their past two trips to Raymond James Stadium, when they lost by a touchdown in 2011 and won by just seven points last season.
“They’re going to be ready to play,” Saints receiver Lance Moore said. “They’re coming off a tough loss, and whatever else is happening in-house there doesn’t concern us.”
What does concern New Orleans is containing the bulky, mobile Freeman — who was 15-of-31 for 210 yards, a touchdown and an interception against the Jets — and the players he’ll be throwing or handing off to.
Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay’s 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver, promises to test the Saints secondary after he caught seven passes for 154 yards in the 18-17 defeat to the Jets. The last time the Buccaneers hosted New Orleans, a 35-28 Saints win Oct. 21, he had seven catches for 216 yards and a touchdown.
Then there’s running back Doug Martin, who amassed 1,926 yards from scrimmage last season, third-best ever by a rookie. Martin scored a touchdown against the Jets but was held to 65 yards on 24 carries.
The Saints defense and its coordinator, Rob Ryan, can be confident facing Jackson after limiting Falcons receiver Julio Jones to 76 yards on seven receptions, one of which was a touchdown.
As for Martin, New Orleans should be encouraged it held Falcons running back Steven Jackson, a perennial 1,000-yard rusher, to 77 yards.
But the 5-foot-9 Martin’s diminutive size presents a challenge the Saints didn’t need to address with Steven Jackson.
“He’s like 4-(foot)-11,” defensive end Cameron Jordan joked. “Wherever he goes, he’s able to hide behind (offensive linemen).”
It could benefit the Saints’ mission to pressure Freeman and corral Martin that guard Carl Nicks is questionable for Sunday after coping with a staph infection in his foot and previously injuring a toe. Conversely, fatigue may be a factor for a depleted Saints defensive line. Nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley (calf) and defensive end Tyrunn Walker (knee), and rookie defensive end Glenn Foster (ankle) won’t play.
That essentially leaves the defensive line four deep: Jordan, defensive end Akiem Hicks, defensive end Tom Johnson and rookie nose tackle John Jenkins. The Saints on Thursday re-signed Jay Richardson, an outside linebacker and defensive end whom they released Aug. 31.
Ryan said he’s comfortable with what he has at his disposal.
“We rotate our (defensive) line in and out,” he said. “That’s how we do it each week, and especially in a road game in the heat, you have to play everybody on your roster.”
On offense, Saints quarterback Drew Brees will attack a Tampa Bay secondary counting on two marquee additions: cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson.
Tampa Bay traded the No. 13 pick in this year’s draft and a conditional selection in 2014 to the Jets to acquire Revis, a four-time Pro Bowler with 19 career interceptions. Revis’ six-year deal with the Bucs reportedly is worth $96 million with no guaranteed money, unprecedented for a player at his position.
Goldson, a two-time Pro Bowler who spent six seasons with San Francisco, reportedly signed a five-year, $41.25 million contract with $22 million guaranteed to join Tampa Bay. He had 14 interceptions for the 49ers.
“They got a little bit of a facelift” in the secondary, said Brees, who was 26-of-35 for 357 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the 23-17 win against Atlanta. “It’s something ... (to) force us to be even more efficient and aware of what are doing.”
The Saints will continue their quest for a reliable running game against a Bucs defense that limited the Jets to 90 yards on the ground last week. New Orleans running backs Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas combined for just 76 yards on 26 carries in Week 1, but Ingram insisted that an effective ground game was a matter of time.
“(The team’s) commitment to the running game means a lot to us,” he said. “But ... the run game takes patience.”