TAMPA ― Jason Pierre-Paul is used to chasing Jameis Winston to the ends of the earth. The former teammates went hiking together in Colorado during the offseason.
But Pierre-Paul is even more eager to be reunited with Winston on the football field and navigate his way to the Saints quarterback when the Bucs play New Orleans Sunday in a key NFC South game.
“I can’t wait,” Pierre-Paul said Wednesday. “I’m actually going to text him and tell him to get ready. I can’t wait to play Jameis. It’s going to be fun. He’s like a brother to me.”
It will be the first start for Winston against the team that made him the No. 1 overall selection in the 2015 draft out of Florida State. After spending a year as the apprentice to since-retired Drew Brees, Winston won the Saints’ starting job over Taysom Hill and has his team off to a 4-2 start.
In January, Winston came in for one play and threw a touchdown pass in the Bucs’ 30-20 win in the NFC division playoff game. The win jump-started Tampa Bay’s playoff run that resulted in a Super Bowl 55 championship.
But over the past four seasons, the Saints have dominated the series, winning five straight regular-season games and claiming four consecutive division titles.
“Yeah, obviously, we’ve had our struggle with them over the years and we kind of were able to rectify that last year in the playoffs,” Bucs tight end Cameron Brate said. “But it’s a new season. Just watching them on tape, they still have a great defense, great players all over the field.”
Tampa Bay is 6-1, its best start in franchise history. But the NFC is loaded with good teams, including the undefeated Arizona Cardinals (7-0) and a host of one-loss teams such as the Packers (6-1), Rams (6-1) and Cowboys (5-1).
Which makes winning the division even more critical. The Bucs won three games on the road as a wild-card playoff team in 2020, but stadiums weren’t at full capacity the way they are this season.
“You can definitely tell just coming into the facility and going to practice, there definitely is a heightened sense of urgency,” Brate said. “It’s not like college, where it’s like a Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. But this is a team we had struggled with over the past few years. We know how big of a game it is.”
The Saints have won this season by running and passing the football to Alvin Kamara and playing great defense for coordinator Dennis Allen, who has playmakers at every level. New Orleans is third in scoring defense, allowing only 16.8 points per game.
“This is by far the best 11 that we’ve faced this year,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “The front seven, (linebacker) Demario Davis is one of the best there is. Same thing with (Cam) Jordan. This is a big, physical defense. They have a great secondary, so yeah, the defense stands out. ”
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Winston, who led the NFL in passing yardage with 5,109 but went 7-9 after throwing 33 touchdowns and an NFL-record 30 interceptions in his only season under Arians, is off to a solid — if not spectacular — start. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.
Will the Bucs have an advantage playing against their former quarterback?
“I think it’s yes and no,” Arians said. “If he was running this offense? You’d know what to expect more. But he’s in a totally different offense and sat behind Drew (Brees) for a year. He obviously learned a lot, and he’s playing the quarterback (position) at a very high level right now.”
The Bucs defenders went against Winston every day in practice for five seasons. To a man, they respect his talent but know he can give you some chances to create turnovers.
“It’s been a couple years, but you know Jameis,” safety Jordan Whitehead said. “He makes a lot of plays. He’s got a great arm. Throws it deep, so we’ll have chances. But he’s playing good, making the right decisions, making smart reads and running the ball good.”
Winston’s primary residence is still in North Tampa, and he has no shortage of friends on the Bucs roster. But on Sunday, with a lot riding on the outcome, the awkwardness will give way to fierce competitiveness in a critical division game for both teams.
“Jameis is a guy I’m still super close with,” Brate said. “I talk to him all the time. I always watch him when I can. It definitely will be different. Last year in the playoffs, he went in for one play and threw a touchdown pass. Obviously, at the time I was (ticked) we gave up a touchdown. But secretly, I was like, ‘Good for Jameis, making a play there.’
“He’s still a guy a lot of guys on the team are still close to, and we can say nothing but good things about our time with Jameis. Always wish him the best, just not Sunday.”
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