Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepare for New Orleans Saints, hope to enter offseason on a high

TAMPA — Mercifully, there doesn't appear to be anything that can roll in from the Gulf of Mexico and threaten New Orleans this season.

But imagine how quickly atmos­pheric conditions would change for the Bucs if they somehow put another dent into the Saints' record with a win Sunday at the Louisiana Superdome.

Consecutive road victories, an upset of the likely No. 1 seed in the NFC and a chance to end 2009 with a three-game win streak would be a great barometer for where the team is headed under rookie coach Raheem Morris.

Or is that just a lot of hot air blowing in from Tampa Bay?

"We have to go into their house … and face the best offense in the league, the best coach, blah, blah, blah," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "No one is giving us a chance, and that's kind of the way we like it.

"We always love playing these division games. There's something about these rivalry games that always get us going. There's no better environment, I feel, than going into the Superdome."

There's a valid reason the Bucs believe they have a better chance against the NFL's highest-flying aerial attack than on Nov. 22, when they lost 38-7 at home.

Since then, Morris has taken over the defense from coordinator Jim Bates and reinstalled the one-gap, Tampa 2 scheme. The Bucs ranked 31st among 32 teams in points allowed when Bates left. Over the past four weeks, they are seventh.

"The old defense is outdated and didn't work," Hovan said. "This defense … is physical. It's violent. It's fast. It's what this city has been raised on.

"You could just tell the swagger is coming back to this defense; the way we approach the game, the way we study, the way we take the field. We're about to find out how good we are. When we played them in the past and played this defense against them, we've been successful. Not to say that we're going to be successful, but we have a lot of confidence when we run this defense."

Tampa Bay linebacker Barrett Ruud said the Saints, in their first meeting with the Bucs, created favorable matchups two ways: spreading the field with receivers and bunch formations, in which three receivers line up near each other and go in different directions after the snap.

"They could get us into certain coverages," Ruud said. "They shouldn't be able to do that this time."

What might not have helped the Bucs' chances is the Saints losing their first game of the season Saturday, 24-17 to the Cowboys. At 13-1, they still need one more win to lock up homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

And after ripping off 13 wins to start the season, the Saints are used to getting every team's best shot.

"It's a challenge to be able to execute against a team that is going to come in and give its best performance," Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "It's not even so much that they're going to do everything right. But they may do it a little bit harder.

"It's flattering that you have teams that want to come out and be the one to knock you down."

The Saints have flaws, particularly their defense. They rank 22nd overall at 354.1 yards allowed per game. And their 21.3 points allowed per game is 19th.

At 2-12 and the season nearing its end, Bucs center Jeff Faine said there is something to be salvaged by finishing strong.

"It would definitely be a step in the right direction," Faine said. "I don't think it changes the perception of your team, but it's something that would be big. It'd be good for the confidence of a young team right now.

"The game definitely means something. It means a lot."

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepare for New Orleans Saints, hope to enter offseason on a high 12/23/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 23, 2009 10:20pm]

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