5 Questions Saints Must Answer While Preparing for Week #1 Clash vs. Buccaneers

Photo Credits: New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Twitter.com

The New Orleans Saints veteran players officially began reporting to Training Camp yesterday, and in a video conference call with reporters, General Manager Mickey Loomis said that the entire team basically will first began immediate testing for COVID-19; and that an actual football practice on the field is likely still a few weeks away.

But with their 2020 Season Opener against their NFC South Division rivals the Tampa Bay Buccaneers now only 6 and a half weeks from this Sunday, the team will soon begin making preparations to face QB Tom Brady and company — and with that in mind, here are 5 main questions that the Saints must answer as they head into that much-anticipated clash at the Superdome on September 13th.

Starting first with…..

#1. Will the Saints Even Make it to Season Opening Weekend Without an Interruption From Coronavirus / COVID-19?

Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images North America/TNS

Clearly there aren’t any guarantees for the Black and Gold at the current moment, when it comes to the on-going coronavirus / COVID-19 health crisis that continues to ravage the entire United States (over 150,000 deaths and counting) at this point in time.

Yesterday during a Zoom call with reporters from the Saints team training facility in Metairie, Loomis was asked whether the current Covid-19 outbreak on Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins (19 players have tested positive and the team has been forced to shut down operations through this Sunday) would have an effect on the Saints organization’s plans going forward. “I don’t think positive tests are unexpected,” said Loomis.

As of this morning as players arrive to begin those tests, a potential start date for the Saints’ first on-the-field practice hasn’t yet been decided. As a precaution, team staff is putting all League-mandated safety protocols into place inside the facility and the locker room; with a thorough deep-cleaning, PPE (masks and gloves), social distancing (spacing the player cubicles at least 6 feet apart) and have even installed barriers between the lockers themselves.

” We’re all concerned,” Loomis reiterated. ” I’ve seen a number of times coaches and GM’s have said, and rightfully so, that COVID 19 is our opponent right now. And I agree with that.” But Loomis was also optimistic that the organization would be alright because of the simple fact that they’re a veteran team that’s been together for a while.

“I think it’s an advantage that we have a staff that’s been together for a long time and a core group of players that have been a long time and we’ve been through a lot that is outside the norm of the course of business.”

Saints head coach Sean Payton a short while ago told reporters in his Zoom conference call, that the team would spend all of the first week in Camp taking tests for the virus, and then the players will begin conditioning drills and walk-through practices (helmets on and wearing jerseys and shorts only) beginning next week. The team will then start wearing full pads and having live contact drills, by August 17th.

Both Loomis and Payton refused to speculate as to how many Who Dat fans (if any of them at all) would be allowed to attend the season opener at the Superdome against the Bucs, and as we’ve noted here at Big Easy Magazine in previous articles: chances are the Black and Gold will be playing that first game (and possibly all 16 of them) inside EMPTY stadiums.

“That’s something that’s not in my control”, Payton said, referring to whether fans will be able to attend any of the games this season. “We’re going to have to play the game, whether or not you have crowd noise, whether or not you have small amounts of fans, no fans. All of those things are controlled by other people and other groups.”

#2: Which Future NFL Hall-of-Fame “Living Legend” QB Will Have the Upper Hand in the Much-Hyped Match-Up Between Drew Brees vs. Tom Brady?

Photo Credits: New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on twitter.com

There probably hasn’t been a much more hyped Season Opener in entire Saints team history as the upcoming contest in 6 and a half weeks at the Superdome against Tampa Bay QB Tom Brady and the Bucs; who signed the former 6-time Super Bowl champion this past off-season in Free Agency.

That’s when he and Saints QB Drew Brees will face off in a game that very notably will feature the top two players on the NFL’s all-time lists, for both passing yards and touchdown passes.


1. Drew Brees: 77,416 yards, 547 touchdowns

2. Tom Brady: 74,571 yards, 541 touchdowns

But Brady has six Super Bowl rings compared to Brees’ one and only ring, that he won following the Saints’ unforgettable Super Bowl run back during the 2009 Season.

However, another fact that’s just as notable is that New Orleans has won the last 3 consecutive NFC South Division Championships (2017, 2018, and then once again last year); but now that Brady will be the brand new starter for the Bucs, the expectations are that he and Tampa Bay will be the top challengers (and the biggest obstacle) for the Saints if they hope to win a 4th straight division title.

The only question for fans of both teams as the teams prepare to clash at the Superdome in 6 and a half weeks from now, is just which one of these two “40-something” year old quarterbacks can win another Super Bowl title, before they eventually retire.

For Brady, there’s really nothing left for him to prove other than showing everyone that he can still play the sport at the highest level, a level that’s given him the opportunity to become recognized as the NFL’s greatest quarterback ever. And while Brees certainly is in the conversation among the League’s best-ever QB’s himself, his motivation for still playing is trying to win just one more World Championship before he leaves the sport permanently.

The two also will face each other once again on November 8th at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, and clearly the end results of those two games will have a direct impact upon which of the two teams and their respective “living legends” and future NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, will ultimately earn the best shot at winning the NFC South Division title and get to have “bragging rights” once the 2020 Season comes to an end.

#3. Can the Saints Defensive Backs Find a Way to Slow Down the Elite Tampa Receiving Duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin?

Photo Credit: New Orleans Saints on Twitter (Original via Jonathan Bachman)

Many NFL observers believe that Brady could potentially thrive in his first season in Tampa under the high-powered offensive scheme / passing attack of Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians; which features the tandem of All-Pro WR’s Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Last season, Evans and Godwin became the first pair of teammates in the NFL’s 100-year history to each have three games of 150-plus receiving yards in the same season.

The now 7th-year veteran Evans finished the season with 1,157 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, even though his season was done after he was injured with a serious pulled hamstring and shut down for the remainder of the season following Week #14.

Perhaps even more impressively, last season was a “break out” year for Godwin; who last season in his 3rd year as a pro finished with 1,333 receiving yards and nine touchdowns and recorded six 100-yard receiving games. But he too was also shut down after pulling a hamstring himself, after Week #15.

Despite their late-season injuries, Evans and Godwin still finished as one of the most productive receiving tandems in NFL history based on yards per game; as they additionally became just the third pair of teammates in NFL history to each average at least 89 receiving yards per season. Not all that surprisingly, Godwin and Evans combined now own three of the top five receiving seasons in the Buccaneers’ entire 44-year team history.

That said, the Saints defensive backs have had some mixed results against the duo. The match-up between Evans and Saints #1 starting CB Marshon Lattimore has been well-publicized dating back to the Saints All-Pro’s rookie season in 2017; and as noted by New Orleans.Football analyst Nick Underhill, in their match-ups against each other last season in Week #5 at the Superdome and then again at Tampa in Week#11, Lattimore was stellar in coverage.

Lattimore covered Evans on 29 of 35 total routes ran, and limited the former Texas A&M University All-American to 1 catch while playing “press coverage” on him on 16 of those snaps.

Godwin on the other hand had a total of 10 catches for 172 yards and 3 TD’s, in those two contests combined, and was outstanding for the most part in beating the coverage mostly by then-Saints #2 CB Eli Apple, who eventually was released and ended up signing with the Carolina Panthers this past off-season. In the game at the Superdome in 6 and a half weeks from now, it will be current Saints #2 CB Janoris Jenkins‘ turn at covering Godwin.

The Bucs will also have rookie 5th-round draft pick and former University of Minnesota star Tyler Johnson and young veterans Justin Watson and Scotty Miller for the rest of the Saints secondary to concern themselves with, but clearly if Lattimore and Jenkins can be solid in their coverage assignments, they can prevent Brady from having a big debut in his first game in a Buccaneers uniform.

#4. With Questions Surrounding His Durability After Nagging Injuries Last Season, Can Saints RB Alvin Kamara Have a Solid Outing Against the One Team He’s Excelled Against in the Past?

Photo Credit: New Orleans Saints on YouTube.com (Original Photo by Butch Dill)

In his first two NFL seasons in 2017 and 2018, very few other young players throughout the League had any bigger impact with their teams than Kamara did with the Black and Gold. After Saints front-office brass drafted him in the 3rd Round of the 2017 NFL Draft following a trade with the San Francisco 49ers, Kamara quickly emerged to became an NFL superstar almost overnight; as he averaged 6.1 yards per rush and 10.2 yards per catch as a rookie.

However, the narrative surrounding the former University of Tennessee star was a much different one last year during the 2019 Season; as injuries to both his knee and ankle seemed to limit his overall effectiveness and somewhat diminished his heavy influence upon the productivity of the Saints running game.

Kamara struggled last season in the opinion of many NFL observers and analysts, as he finished the year with 171 rushes for 797 yards and five touchdowns; while additionally catching 81 passes out of the backfield for 533 yards and another TD, in receiving.

While he actually only wound up missing two games and still had 14 total starts, the injuries clearly robbed him of his typical ‘explosiveness’ — and his decline in yards per catch from 8.5 down to only 6.6 yards per reception — was an indication of just how much that he was affected and hampered by them.

Nevertheless, Kamara remains undaunted by last year’s disappointing results, and this current off-season he has been putting himself through a series of some unique training methods, several of which have been well-publicized and have since become wildly popular on Social Media.

One thing that could work to both the Saints and Kamara’s advantage in 6 and a half weeks from now however, is that the young superstar has excelled against the Buccaneers particularly in the games that he’s played against them in the past, which dates all the way back to his rookie season in 2017.

Kamara in 6 career games against Tampa Bay, has recorded 68 carries for 329 yards and 4 rushing TD’s against them in the running game; and has 41 catches (on 49 targets) for 316 yards and 2 receiving TD’s against them in the passing game.

Without any doubt, if Kamara can continue that past trend of previous success against the Bucs defensive unit, it will bode well for his future for the entire 16-game season and perhaps destroy the current narrative of Kamara’s alleged possible lack of durability, by those covering the NFL within the National Media.

#5. Will the Saints Linebackers be Able to Prevent Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski from Gashing Them Once Again?

Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Twitter.com

As most Who Dat fans are aware, Brady and his former New England Patriots teammate and former All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski have been reunited this past off-season, after the 31-year old recently came out of retirement to also play for the Bucs.

But loyal Saints supporters might also recall that back during Week #2 of the 2017 Season, the duo combined to hook up for six receptions, which included a 53-yard catch-and-run to highlight his 116-yard performance before he eventually left the game in the 2nd half with a groin injury.

That ultimately led to a 36-20 New England victory and although the Saints haven’t faced him since, it was clearly obvious that the Saints linebacking corps in particular struggled on that day to adequately cover Gronkowski, who notably in that game was able to take then-rookie Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone to school.

Essentially, Anzalone got torched in pass coverage and was burned by Gronkowski on his long touchdown reception from Brady (he actually fell down twice) while seemingly getting caught a step behind the Patriots’ big plays time and time again continually, in that rather forgettable contest for the Black and Gold on that day.

Fortunately for the Saints, Anzalone has improved dramatically since that point in time, and with All-Pro Demario Davis having joined the team the following year in 2018, the Saints LB’s should be much better prepared (hopefully) for Gronkowski this time around when they meet once again on September 13th at the Superdome.

Gronkowski had been slowed in his last few seasons by a series of nagging injuries that ultimately led him to deciding to retire, after the Patriots won Super Bowl LIII (53) over the Rams following the 2018 Season. Word is that he’s now back in playing shape and ready to essentially pick back up where he left off two years ago; although it remains to be seen just how effective he can be after a year-and-a-half layoff from the rigors and physical contact of the NFL.

That — and whether or not the Saints linebacker corps can prevent him from gashing them once again — are just one of the questions that the Black and Gold must figure out the answers to, when the Saints and the Buccaneers clash in Week #1 of the 2020 NFL Season in 6 and a half more weeks from now….

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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