Tampa Bay Sports Day

NFL: Tampa Bay Hosts NFC South Rival New Orleans

The SportsXchange’s  Chris Cluf previews this weekend’s matchup between the New Orleans Saints (5-7) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5).

KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Raymond James Stadium. TV: FOX, Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, Chris Spielman.

SERIES HISTORY: 49th regular-season meeting. Saints lead series, 30-18. After the Saints took seven consecutive games in the series, the Bucs finally ended the run with a 26-19 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Week 2 last season. The Saints, however, rebounded to take the rematch at Raymond James Stadium, 24-17, on Dec. 13 for their fourth win in a row in Tampa. The Saints have won six of the last seven meetings at the site of Sunday’s game, outscoring the Bucs 187-118. Since Sean Payton took over in 2006, the Saints are 13-7 against the Bucs.

KEYS TO THE GAME: After having a difficult time throwing the ball in Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Lions, the Saints now get to face the Bucs’ 15th-ranked pass defense, which has allowed just 249.9 yards per game.

That likely means the Saints will try to move the ball on the ground and loosen up the Bucs’ 25th-ranked run defense, which gives up 116.1 rushing yards a game and 4.4 yards per carry. Yet, that doesn’t mean Drew Brees won’t be highly motivated to atone for their clunker of a game a week ago.

The Bucs have given up 22 touchdowns and 12.7 yards per reception, which will provide opportunities for Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas and Willie Snead to make some plays, especially if running backs Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower are successful early.

The Saints have done a decent job in their last seven games of pressuring the quarterback while the secondary provides coverage down the field. They will need more of that against the Bucs and quarterback Jameis Winston, who has completed 61.7 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Winston has been sacked 24 times and the Saints have recorded 13 of their 24 sacks in the past four games, so getting enough pressure from all angles will be a key.

If they can do that reasonably well, Winston might have trouble trying to get the ball to dangerous wide receiver Mike Evans.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Bucs secondary. The Saints’ top-ranked passing game struggled mightily last week against the Lions and Brees will be trying to take it out on the Bucs, against whom he has had a lot of success over the years. The 16-year veteran, who rarely has back-to-back bad games, has completed 66.6 percent of his passes for 5,714 yards in 20 games against the Bucs since signing with the Saints in 2006. Brees, who is coming off a no-touchdown, three-interception game against the Lions, has thrown 42 TD passes in those 20 games vs. the Bucs.
–Bucs WR Mike Evans vs. Saints RCB Delvin Breaux. Breaux, the Saints’ top cover corner, will have to be at his best against Evans, who has topped the 100-yard mark in three of his past five games. He had 150 yards on 11 receptions in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 3 after being targeted 17 times by Jameis Winston. Evans, who has 76 catches for 1,058 yards and 10 TDs, is averaging 11.5 targets per game. That means Breaux and the Saints’ secondary likely will have a busy afternoon trying to keep him from having another big day.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: DT Sheldon Rankins. The Saints used the 12th pick in the draft last spring to select Rankins, who was valued for his ability to stop the run and pressure the quarterback up the middle. While they were forced to wait a bit to see it after Rankins fractured his fibula in training camp and underwent surgery, the Saints are getting what they thought they were getting when they drafted the former Louisville star. In just five games since being activated, Rankins has recorded 18 tackles, three sacks and one forced fumble. In that stretch, the Saints have allowed 76 rushing yards per game and 3.1 yards per attempt.

FAST FACTS: This is the first of two meetings in the next three weeks between the teams. … Saints QB Drew Brees is averaging 325 passing yards, with eight TDs and two interceptions, in his past three road games. He has averaged 335 yards in his past five at Tampa Bay. … Saints RB Mark Ingram has six TDs in his past five road games vs. division foes. He has scored a rushing TD in his past two games vs. Tampa Bay. … Saints LB Dannell Ellerbe has recorded a sack in four straight games. He has 17 tackles and a sack in his past two games vs. Tampa Bay. … Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston has 15 passing TDs and four INTs in his past eight games. In the past three vs. the division, he has 761 passing yards, eight TDs and an interception. … Buccaneers RB Doug Martin is averaging 102 scrimmage yards in his past five games vs. New Orleans. … Bucs WR Mike Evans ranks third in the NFL with 1,058 receiving yards and is tied for the NFC lead with 10 TD catches. He has 23 receptions for 320 yards and four TDs in the past three home games.

PREDICTION: The Bucs are riding a hot streak, with four very good wins in a row, and they look prepared to end the Saints’ four-game winning streak in Tampa.

THEIR PICK: Buccaneers, 34-23.