The Fleur-De-Lis Report: Last chance for struggling Saints to make a playoff push against rival Buccaneers
The New Orleans Saints (4-8) are back in primetime this Monday night taking on heated division rival, The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-6). For the Saints, this is virtually their last chance at a possible division crown and a playoff spot. A loss would all but eliminate them from postseason contention. While the odds remain extremely low, a win would give the Saints some much needed momentum going into their bye week.
OBSERVATIONS FROM THE WEEK
Same song, different verse. The Saints come into this week with another lengthy injury report which seemingly has been the case all season. 15 total players were featured on the report with 5 players not participating all week. 4 players have been ruled out for tomorrow’s game including Tight End (TE) Juwan Johnson (ankle), Edge rusher Payton Turner (ankle), and safeties PJ Williams (knee) and JT Gray (hamstring). Losing Juwan Johnson is a huge deal. Johnson was already having a career year and emerging as the clear cut TE1 option. He’s been a touchdown machine, scoring 3 TDs in the last 4 games. The Saints will have to rely on Adam Trautman and Taysom Hill to replace his production.
The coaching staff is closely monitoring the health of All-Pro Cornerback (CB) Marshon Lattimore (abdomen) who is considered questionable to play. If he is able to suit up, it’ll be his first game back since week 5 against the Seahawks. Each of the last two weeks, Lattimore practiced with the team but was limited. He was questionable to return last week against the 49ers but didn’t play. When asked about his status for this pivotal game against Tampa, Dennis Allen responded with a “We’ll see.”
Linebacker (LB) Pete Werner (ankle) returned to practice for the first time in three weeks. He was limited all week long and is also considered questionable to play. While it's a great sign to see him back with the team, I find it hard to believe he will play coming off tightrope surgery to his ankle.
Other questionable players include CB Bradley Roby (concussion), Wide Receiver (WR) Kevin White (illness), and Defensive linemen (DL) Kentavious Street (illness) and Malcolm Roach (illness). Meanwhile, Center Josh Andrews (ankle), Runningback (RB) Mark Ingram (foot), and receivers Jarvis Landry (ankle) and Rashid Shaheed (back) are all expected to play despite being limited in practice.
The Buccaneers also have a laundry list of injured players questionable to play tomorrow. Star offensive lineman Tristen Wirfs was ruled out earlier this week as he rehabs an ankle injury. Other players like safeties Mike Edwards (hamstring) and Antonie Winfield (ankle), and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting (quadricep) are all considered doubtful to play. TE Cameron Brate (illness), WR Russell Gage (hamstring), RB Leonard Fournette (hip), and perhaps their best player on defense DL Vita Vea (foot) are questionable.
PREVIEWING THE BUCS
This is a do-or-die game for the Saints. Last week was a missed opportunity because had the Saints beat the 49ers, they’d be competing for 1st place in the division this week against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. Fortunately, the Bucs falling to Browns in an overtime thriller keeps the Saints in the fight for now but a loss tomorrow will virtually end the season for New Orleans.
These two teams have had oddly similar seasons. Both are struggling to consistently win games. Both are dealing with a string of injuries. And both are fighting for their playoff lives late in the season. The Bucs currently have the advantage over the Saints after beating them back in week 2, 20-10.
The biggest storyline for this week is obviously the heated rivalry between Marshon Lattimore and Bucs’ WR Mike Evans. Evans is expected to play after practicing fully on Saturday. As I said earlier, Lattimore is still questionable, however, if he is able to play against his arch-nemesis, that would be a huge boost for the Saints. Lattimore has been Mike Evans’ kryptonite throughout their careers. Evans has 7 straight seasons with 1000 receiving yards or more and is possibly on his way to an 8th. But since Lattimore entered the league in 2017, the star receiver is averaging about 93 yards a season against the Saints. Keep in mind, they play twice a year. He also only has 2 total TDs against New Orleans in a 6 year span. I also think, given the disdain these two have for each other, Lattimore would provide a fiery spark the rest of the team can feed off of. Although, if Lattimore is not able to play, I feel confident that rookie Alontae Taylor or Paulson Adebo can do enough to slow down the Bucs’ receiving corps.
This game will ultimately fall on how well the pass rush effects Tom Brady. In their first meeting back in week 2, New Orleans failed to pressure Brady much at all, sacking him just once in the ball game. Unrelenting pass rush has been the secret to beating Brady for over two decades and it’s no different now. Cam Jordan and the rest of the Saints front will have to lay it all on the line this week.
Offensively, Andy Dalton remains the Saints starter at quarterback despite a string of terrible offensive play over the last month. Granted, the offense as a whole has looked lifeless but in this league, everything always points back to who’s under center. Since shutting out the Raiders, the Saints offense has averaged an abysmal 12.5 points in a 4 game span including being shut out themselves against San Francisco.
Fortunately for the Saints, the Bucs are beat up defensively and are vulnerable, especially against the run. Tampa ranks 18th in the league in rush yards allowed with 1355. Teams average about 4.6 yards a carry against them. Much like the Saints, what once was a vaunted rush defense has turned average at best. This is an area the Saints must exploit if they can get anything out of Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, and Taysom Hill.
Something else to watch out for is Chris Olave being on the verge of Saints history. He’s on pace to finish with over 1200 receiving yards this season which would be a Saints rookie record. Michael Thomas currently holds the record with 1137 yards. Olave still leads all rookie WRs with 822 yards with five games remaining on the schedule and many have him as the front runner for Rookie of the Year. I believe this game presents another great opportunity to strengthen his case for the award.
Kickoff is Monday Night at 7pm.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for the Saints. This season has been rough to say the least and while I personally believe the odds remain too great, there’s still a glimmer of hope. They simply have to win tomorrow night or their season is definitely in the tubes. Mathematically, they wouldn't be officially eliminated from playoff contention just yet but losing gives Tampa the season series. Falling three games behind without any leverage over the current division leader is a mountain too steep to climb at this stage in the season. A win, however, places them just half a game out of 1st place a week ahead of their bye, giving them a huge boost of momentum at the perfect time.
Given the magnitude, this game suddenly becomes the most important game of Dennis Allen’s head coaching career. With so much talk of him possibly not returning next year, he has five games left to salvage this season starting with tomorrow night. Allen will have to be ready to make tough decisions including benching Andy Dalton in favor of Jameis Winston if Dalton starts to trend in the wrong direction.
The betting odds have Tampa as 3.5 point favorites but I think the Saints finally rise to the occasion, winning 21-17.
Follow the publisher of this post on Twitter @Chris_Lunkin98 for weekly content and up to the minute updates on your New Orleans Saints.
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