Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-12) at New Orleans Saints (13-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
SURFACE: Artificial turf
TV: FOX (Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa)
SERIES HISTORY: 36th regular season meeting. Saints lead the all-time series 21-14. But the Bucs have won seven of the last 12 games, including four of the past six road contests. The Bucs were blasted 38-7 by the Saints in Tampa in November, leading to the dismissal of defensive coordinator Jim Bates.
PREDICTION: Saints 34-19
KEYS TO THE GAME: Bucs RB Carnell Williams is wearing down a bit, but is sharing more of the load with Derrick Ward. The tandem is important Sunday because the Saints' run defense has been the team's one consistent place for opponents to attack. A productive ground game also protects rookie QB Josh Freeman and would keep New Orleans' offense on the sideline. With the Bucs' defense displaying an improved pass rush of late and Saints QB Drew Brees getting knocked around by Dallas, look for New Orleans to get back to a more balanced attack with Tampa Bay ranked 30th defending the run.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Saints RB Pierre Thomas vs. Bucs LB Geno Hayes. Thomas is the Saints top ball carrier and Hayes has played much better in the two-gap scheme at weak-side linebacker. Last week, he had a sack, INT, fumble recovery and four tackles for a loss.
Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Bucs coach/defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. Brees shredded the Bucs' defense under Jim Bates. Now Morris returns the Bucs to the Tampa 2. But he's creating a lot more pressure with blitzes and mixing up the fronts. Brees will have to work harder to read the Bucs' defense.
Bucs WR Antonio Bryant vs. Saints CB Malcolm Jenkins. Bryant has to have a big impact in this game and the Saints' secondary is beat up. Jenkins did a respectable job in their first meeting.
GAME PLAN: The biggest difference in this game could be the improvement of the Bucs' defense over the past four weeks.
It won't be as easy for Sean Payton and Drew Brees to anticipate what Raheem Morris will dial up on defense in the Tampa 2 scheme. Morris has been pretty aggressive on sure passing downs, bringing a lot of blitzes. But his schemes are sound and he is going to try and make the Saints go the long way. Getting turnovers, as always, will be a key. The Bucs forced Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck into throwing four interceptions and losing a fumble.
Offensively, the Bucs have to try and continue to be committed to running the football and taking the pressure off QB Josh Freeman. His job will be to convert on third down. That's tough against the Saints, who bring an array of blitzes.
"They have a lot of different blitzes," Freeman said. "They run some unorthodox coverages that they run behind their blitzes. We just weren't able to get to them. They ran a number of plays where we just didn't execute. It would have been a different game if we would have made some plays right before half. We would have gone into the half with a tie ballgame or maybe even up a score. But, we weren't able to capitalize and they were. I'm trying to think, a 17-point swing right before halftime leading into the second half. We just didn't recover. We have to avoid those types of swings, the negative swings. We were turning the ball over and they were capitalizing every time. We have to avoid the turnovers and try to sustain drives because we know what type of quarterback and type of offense they are working with."
FAST FACTS: The Bucs have a six-game losing streak against NFC South rivals. ... Brees has thrown 40-plus pass three times this season, all in the past three games.
--WR Antonio Bryant has a groin injury and was limited in practice Thursday but had full participation on Friday. He is listed as questionable and is expected to play against the Saints.
--WR Michael Clayton, who missed three games with a left MCL sprain, had full participation in practice Thursday and Friday. He is listed as questionable and will play against the Saints.
--S Tanard Jackson has a knee injury that forced him to leave the game at Seattle last week. He was limited in practice Thursday but had full participation on Friday and is expected to play against the Saints.
--C Jeff Faine was added to the injury report with an elbow injury and was limited in practice Thursday but had full participation on Friday. He is expected to play against the Saints.
--TE John Gilmore (illness) returned to practice Thursday and is expected to play against the Saints.
--WR Michael Spurlock could return punts and kickoffs against the Saints. He took reps with RB Earnest Graham on kickoffs.
--FS Darren Sharper was held out of practice again Thursday with a knee injury and was limited on Friday. His status for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Bucs is questionable..
--WLB Scott Shanle, who suffered a concussion in last week's loss to the Dallas Cowboys, didn't work Thursday or Friday. The Saints will follow protocol for the head injuries before deciding if they'll play Sunday and he is listed as questionable.
--FS Usama Young did not work Thursday or Friday and will not play against the Bucs after having sports hernia surgery within the last week.
--WR Lance Moore was sidelined for Thursday's practice as well as Friday with an injury to his right ankle and he is out for Sunday’s game. Moore just returned last week after missing six games because of a sprained left ankle.
--LCB Randall Gay, who had a concussion in the Cowboys' game, worked on a limited basis Thursday and Friday after being held out Wednesday. He is listed as questionable for Sunday.
--LCB Jabari Greer, who's missed the last six games with a groin injury and sports hernia which required surgery, worked limited once again Thursday as well as Friday. He is questionable for Sunday.
--RB Reggie Bush was limited Thursday and Friday because of a right hamstring injury. Bush said he should play Sunday after leaving last week's game with a cramp in the hamstring. He is listed as probable.
--DT Sedrick Ellis, who missed Saturday's game with a knee injury, was limited again Thursday and Friday, but hopes to return to the lineup this week. He is listed as questionable.
--TE Jeremy Shockey was limited with a toe injury on Thursday as well as Friday. He is questionable for Sunday’s game..
--SLB Scott Fujita, who played last week after missing two games following surgery to clean out a staph infection in his left knee, was limited Thursday and Friday. Fujuita is questionable for Sunday.
--RT Jon Stinchcomb was limited again Thursday and Friday by a knee injury and he is probable for Sunday.
--DE Bobby McCray, who has battled a back problem for most of the season, worked limited in Thursday and Friday’s practice. He is questionable for Sunday.
--MLB Jonathan Vilma was again limited by a sore knee Thursday and Friday, but should play Sunday.
--RG Jahri Evans worked limited Thursday and Friday with a toe injury, but should be ready to go Sunday.
--C Jonathan Goodwin, who's been bothered by a left ankle injury since midseason, was limited in practice Thursday and Friday but should play Sunday.
--T Jermon Bushrod was limited Thursday and Friday with a thumb injury and should play this week.
--TE Darnell Dinkins continues to be limited by a foot problem and is questionable for Sunday.
INJURY IMPACT: With Sammie Stroughter (foot) joining Clifton Smith (concussion) on injured reserve, the Bucs have lost two valuable and explosive kick returners. They were forced to sign Micheal Spurlock as a free agent this week. More importantly, Stroughter was a highly productive rookie slot receiver who made huge plays on third down.
With Clayton expected to return this week, he could move into that role. WR Maurice Stovall and Antonio Bryant are expected to continue to be the starters.