Because the season is so young there are still a lot of unknowns in terms of what we can expect from the Saints, or anyone else. The Saints do look to have improved significantly on defense after week 1, but it would have been almost impossible for them not to. The Saints were fortunate to win that game against the Falcons. Yes they were the better team and deserved the victory, but they let the Falcons hang around and it almost cost them right there at the end. Conversely, the Bucs probably deserved to win their game and got robbed at the gun on a Jets field goal. So you have two teams going in different directions based solely on how the final seconds of each of their games went. But as has been documented throughout the national media this week, the Bucs seem on the verge of implosion. Are they going to show up ready to play a big divisional game?
It's been floated that the Saints may just need to get up a couple scores early and watch the Bucs self-destruct from there. I would love nothing more than to see this. A carbon copy of the last time these two teams played, a 41-0 win by the Saints, would be a nice relaxing way to spend my Sunday afternoon. But I know better, and you should too. This Tampa team has given the Saints a lot of trouble in the past. Josh Freeman has a measly career rating of 79.6 but it jumps up to a 83.6 career per game average against the Saints in 8 games played. If you take away his performance against the Saints in that 41-0 loss, his career rating average in 7 games against the Saints is 89.8. You get the idea, he seems to play better against the Saints than he does the rest of the league. And that should really be no surprise because the Saints' defense during his career has largely been quite poor. In fact, if you take away the Super Bowl season of 2009 and the 41-0 game, he averages a 105.5 rating in 5 games. So he had a 5 games stretch against the Saints were he was legitimately playing like a Pro Bowl quarterback. Now hopefully the defense isn't as bad now as it was then, but remember only one of those five performances included Steve Spagnuolo as a defensive coordinator.
And while the win last week was massive for the Saints as they took down the reigning 13-3 NFC South Champion and NFC Championship game loser, the team still showed some holes. The offensive line remains a huge question mark, perhaps even more in run blocking than in pass protection. By all accounts the Bucs' defense should be much better than the Falcons'. They have Gerald McCoy, one of the best DTs in all of football, a blossoming linebacker in Mason Foster and Darrelle Revis, one of the best cover corners in the game. And the Falcons were able to slow down the Saints due to a poor run game, poor run blocking, and Brees missing some passes over the top. Tampa should be able to showcase more of a pass rush, too.
All that stuff aside this is a road game, in Tampa, against a division rival. That is never a given, especially in the second game of the season. Further, this is do or die pretty much for Josh Freeman. He senses his career could be in jeopardy if he doesn't respond to this disastrous week. So yes, they could get down a couple scores and implode, or they could play the best football they are capable of at home when their back is against the wall. This is a must win for Tampa, because if they drop to 0-2 their season is already in flames. You may think that seems excessive, but Tampa doesn't strike me as a team with the type of leadership to rebound from turmoil and historically you've only got a ~10% chance of making the playoffs when you start 0-2. And while you consider that, a road loss right now to the Saints wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Tampa needs this game much more desperately than New Orleans does, but their psyche is also a lot more fragile. That said, going 2-0 in the division 2 games into the season would be a massive coup and set the Saints up perfectly for a playoff run.
The key for me in this one, just like the Falcons game, is stopping the run. This Tampa team goes as Doug Martin goes. If the Saints can shut him down as they did with Steven Jackson, it turns Tampa one dimensional and Josh Freeman is unlikely to carry the team on his back. Making Tampa's pass game worse this year is the fact that they have nothing down the middle of the field. Subpar slot guys and no threat at tight end. Their wideouts in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are good, but where does Freeman go when he needs reliable hands on 3rd and 4 for a short gain to move the chains? Nothing that even comes close to being as reliable as about 4-5 players the Saints have (Graham, Sproles, Colston, Watson, Moore). Expect this to be a low scoring affair like the Falcons game.