It’s hard to imagine the Buccaneers starting off their season any worse than they did in their 42-14 loss to the Titans last Sunday. In just the second game of 2015, Tampa Bay’s season could be on the line.
That may seem like an overreaction to the Bucs’ opening loss, but the nature of the loss should concern the team over its long-term prospects. Another blowout, and questions of the team’s ability and Lovie Smith’s competence will be unavoidable.
It is unlikely that the Bucs will again lose in such a humiliating fashion. The Saints are as vulnerable as they’ve been since Drew Brees signed with them in 2006.
Over the offseason New Orleans lost its two top playmakers on both sides of the football, tight end Jimmy Graham and linebacker Junior Galette. They may also be without safety Jarius Byrd, LB Danelle Ellerbe, and cornerback Keenan Lewis as none practiced this week so far.
Regardless of injuries, the Saints are no automatic win. New Orleans won its last seven matchups with the Bucs, scoring more than 30 points in four of those contests.
The Bucs have too many issues of their own to consider any game going forward a gimme. Every aspect of the team needs improvement, none moreso than the coaching.
Here are the four keys to this week’s game in New Orleans:
1. Remediate the Winston Project
Jameis Winston had a rough first outing as the Bucs quarterback last Sunday. While many of the offense’s problems are on him, there are ways to get him back on track.
Winston’s problems began almost the instant he took the field, beginning with the protection he received, or didn’t receive, from his offensive line.
According to PFF, the offensive line allowed 14 total pressures including four sacks. Rookies Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith were expected to struggle, but Gosder Cherilus made it apparent why he was unsigned through most of training camp.
The Titans knew the Bucs’ line was not entirely up to the task and blitzed often. The Bucs can expect the same treatment from the Saints.
Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter needs to relieve the pressure with max protection schemes and short pass plays early to get Winston into a rhythm. He won’t be able to completely eliminate Winston’s or the offensive line’s mistakes, but he can help them create more positive plays than negative.
2. Play Mike Evans
Lovie Smith is notoriously stubborn when it comes to hamstring health. If a player’s hammy is not 100%, he doesn’t play.
That fear kept wide receiver Mike Evans out last week. It should not keep him out of New Orleans.
NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reported before the game Sunday that Evans was “feeling good and optimistic about playing.” Obviously, Evans’ feelings were wrong as he remained inactive.
The Tampa Bay Times‘ Greg Auman reported Thursday that Evans says his hamstring feels “100 percent.” Again, this means nothing as Lovie Smith owns the final word.
That final word needs to be “go.” Evans was sorely missed against the Titans and if he believes he can play, he should play.
The Saints may be without Keenan Lewis this week, enhancing the potential size advantage Evans could bring.
3. Emphasize The Fundamentals
Tackling was a serious problem on Sunday. While Lovie Smith likes to teach his players to try and force fumbles, it was clear he didn’t spend enough time working on basic tackling.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Bucs missed 10 tackles against the Titans, but that’s only half the story. Marcus Mariota completed exactly zero passes over twenty yards but still managed four plays of over twenty yards.
In fact, most of the Titans’ offensive production came after the catch or contact. On the ground, the Titans gained 94 yards after contact, and the Tennessee receivers picked up an additional 117 yards after the catch per PFF.
These three stats begin to paint a picture of an undisciplined defense that doesn’t wrap up and doesn’t gang tackle, hallmarks of Lovie Smith’s defense in Chicago. Whatever it takes to tighten up the Bucs discipline, Smith needs to pull the trigger.
4. Feed Doug Martin
There was one positive takeaway from last week: Doug Martin is back. The fourth-year running back looked like his rookie self and should remain the centerpiece of the Bucs offense this year.
Martin ran for 52 yards on 11 carries, which seems unimpressive until considering 30 of those yards came after contact per PFF. The second effort that seemed to be missing last year found its way back.
Martin is the most reliable weapon in an offense led by an erratic Jameis Winston. Until the rookie passer can get firm footing, the Bucs need Martin to lead the way.
Last week the Saints allowed 120 yards in 25 carries by the Cardinals run game. Martin could be as, if not more, successful if given as many opportunities in New Orleans.