So here we are. Game 1 without Jameis Winston. Against the Saints. In New Orleans.
Las Vegas has the Buccaneers as 10-point underdogs. They don’t stand a chance Sunday. They’re going to eat another L.
We’re hearing there’s only one way for the Bucs to win.
They have to run the ball.
Drain the clock. Shorten the game. Keep Drew Brees and the Saints offense off the field.
Ask Ryan Fitzpatrick to be a game manager. Protect the ball. Throw only when necessary.
If they do that, maybe, just maybe — no, not maybe — they will lose.
Running the ball doesn’t secure a team against defeat; it makes defeat more certain. If the Bucs were to take this approach, they might very well extend the game, but they would do so at the expense of opportunity.
They’re not going to win gaining 3 or 4 yards at a time. Playing keep-away won’t work against Brees, especially when he’ll be facing a patchwork secondary.
And don’t you think Saints coach Sean Payton might want to prove a point? The man’s an antagonist. He has made choking gestures toward Falcons players, mocked Vikings fans' ‘Skol’ chant and gotten handsy with Dirk Koetter. He’s not going to be content to merely win.
This isn’t to say the Bucs shouldn’t run at all. They should — if they have a lead in the fourth quarter.
Otherwise, they should pass. Again and again and again. Early and often. On first downs. In the first quarter. They have enviable depth at receiver and tight end. Get the ball in the hands of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.
Skeptical? Yes, Fitzpatrick, 35, is playing his final games in the NFL. His right arm might retire before his mind does. He is a steady, calm and respected presence, but he is not a particularly great decision maker. His career interception rate of 3.4 percent is the highest among active players.
The Bucs could win without relying on him to pass, but it’s not likely. How do we know? Because the Bucs have tried. Over the past few seasons, they’ve repeatedly tried to establish the run, and they’ve repeatedly failed. They fall behind in the first quarter, and, as they try to catch up, they become predictable in the second quarter. Here’s what it added up to last season: 136 first-half points, the sixth fewest in the NFL.
Still skeptical? Look at the teams that beat the Saints last season. Three of them — the Rams, Patriots and Falcons — had the lowest percentages of first-quarter runs. The Vikings also beat them but not because they ran the ball often or effectively. They beat them because Sam Bradford completed 17 of 20 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.
The Bucs, of course, also beat the Saints in Week 17, and they indeed did so in part because of their run game, as they gained 101 yards in the first half. A third of those, however, were the product of Winston scrambles.
That game was the exception. Let’s revisit a three-game stretch in late October and into early November, when the Saints played the Bears, Bucs and Bills. Chicago’s running backs gained an average of 2.8 yards on 19 carries in the first half. Tampa Bay’s running backs gained an average of 2.3 yards on 11 carries in the first half. Buffalo’s running backs fared better, gaining an average of 5.4 yards on nine carries in the first half.
Each team tried to strike a balance, and each lost badly. The Saints won by a combined score of 97-32.
Still skeptical? Despite Fitzpatrick’s limitations, he has proven he can do this. He did it as recently as last season.
In first-and-10 situations in the first quarter last season, the Bucs leaned more heavily than most teams on runs and were less effective than most, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. When they passed, however, they were effective, more so than anyone else. They averaged a league-high 10.8 yards per pass and gained another first down more than half the time.
Winston wasn’t the one inflating that number, either. He averaged 10 yards per pass in those situations; Fitzpatrick averaged 13.9 yards.
Given the apparent strength of the Saints along their defensive line and in the secondary, a cautious approach makes sense. But the likely outcome is that the Bucs will become desperate when it’s too late. While this is merely a football game, consider the words of Sun Tzu in The Art of War: “Place your army in deadly peril, and it will survive; plunge it into desperate straits, and it will come off in safety.”
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What to watch for: Saints running back Alvin Kamara
The Saints love to throw to their running backs. Drew Brees targeted them one out of every three plays last season, by far the highest rate in the NFL. Only Christian McCaffrey of the Panthers and Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers saw more targets than Kamara, who caught 81 of 100 for 826 yards and five touchdowns. Bucs linebackers will be tested.
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Key matchup: Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith vs. Saints edge rushers
When Smith fell to the ground during practice a little more than two weeks ago, it appeared that a leg injury would cause him miss the opener and end his 48-game consecutive start streak. Smith practiced all this week, however, even though he was limited because of what turned out to be a knee sprain. By all accounts, he will be ready to go Sunday.
How effective will he be, especially against defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Alex Okafor? In the teams’ first meeting last season, Smith struggled, allowing a sack and a hit before he left the game because of a knee injury. He rebounded in the final meeting and allowed only one pressure.
Jordan was better than ever in 2017, earning his first All-Pro nod and third Pro Bowl invitation. He recorded a career-high 13 sacks and was among the league leaders in total pressures. Okafor was second on the team in pressures before he tore his Achilles tendon in Week 11.
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The Bucs are full of question marks. At quarterback. Along the offensive line. And now with cornerback Brent Grimes doubtful because of a groin injury, in the secondary. It looks as if the Saints will blow them out of the Superdome once again. A 10-point spread in a divisional game in September, though? Crazy things happen in the season’s first month. The Saints, remember, started 0-2 in 2017. If the Bucs play turnover-free football, they’ll hang around. The pick: Saints 20, Bucs 17.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.