Saints 31, Bucs 24
Saints vs Bucs 1: Good, bad & ugly
In a game that was a lot closer than Saints fans would've liked, the Saints improved to 4-1 with a 31-24 win over the division rival Tampa Bay Bucs. Here's take a look at my observations:
-Theodore Edmond Bridgewater had his breakout/reemerging performance since coming back from a gruesome leg injury that could've ended his career just over three years ago. 26/34 for 314 yards and four touchdowns was his first game with 300 yards passing while completing 70% or more of his passes since October 25, 2015. That was his Pro Bowl year with the Vikings.
-One guy that truly helped Bridgewater have the type of performance he did was All Pro receiver Michael Thomas. He tallied 11 catches on 13 targets for 182 yards and two touchdowns. Thomas hadn't scored a touchdown since the Seahawks win (that was his first of the season) and this was his first 100+ yard receiving game since the first game of the season. With this game, Thomas got back to his All-Pro self.
-The defense played lights out. The two guys that stuck out in my eyes were their last two first round draft picks: Marson Lattimore (#11 pick in 2017 draft) and Marcus Davenport (#14 pick in 2018 draft). Lattimore held Bucs' All Pro reciever Mike Evans to zero catches on three targets as he shadowed him all game long. Davenport had two of the six sacks on Jameis Winston. There were other defenders that had good performances, but these two guys will be building blocks for this defense's future.
-The Saints won the rushing yardage differential by a +18 margin. However, a 3.6 yards per carry average isn't going to cut it. Under normal circumstances, a 3.6 average means three yards and a cloud of dust is producing first downs. Playing with a backup quarterback, you need better and more consistent production from the run game.
-Bridgewater's lone mistake was an interception late in the first quarter. It set the Bucs up on the Saints' 26 yard line and only took them two plays to cash in on the mistake for a go-ahead touchdown to put them up 7-3. This could've been a turning point in Tampa's favor.
-21 of Bridegwater's 28 completions went to three guys: Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Jared Cook. At their respective positions, they're the best the Saints have to offer. But if three guys are going to be the focus of your offense, all it takes is some decent talent and a good coach to force a team into situations where their pass game is rendered ineffective.
-Bucs' corner Carlton Davis was ejected in the second quarter for targeting after a helmet to helmet hit on Cook. It was clearly targeting and Davis would have to be a complete idiot to appeal any fine or suspension that comes about. Slow motion presents the hit in a different light, but it should have been obvious to Davis that he was wrong. Had he lowered his shoulder more and hit Cook in the chest when he turned around, he would've still separated Cook from the ball and stayed in the game. This is one instance in which I'll say the defender could've done something different and should have.
-Passing 36 times and running 31 times isn't a winning formula, especially when Drew Brees is out. The 112 yards rushing with that 3.6 yards per carry average exasperated that play call disparity. While some analytics nowadays would suggest passing more leads to better efficiency, the eye test says the more ball control a team has, the more success they'll have. Despite this, the Saints still had a seven minute time off possession average.
-Wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith injured an ankle and left the game late in the fourth quarter. No word yet on if it's the same ankle injury that caused Smith to miss the previous two weeks or not. This will hurt an already thin depth chart at receiver for the Saints and could be an ongoing issue all season.
This win moved the Saints to 4-1, but also 3-0 while Bridewater has started during Brees' injury. It also puts them firmly in the conversation for one of the best teams in the league. When you put yourself in that conversation and your future Hall of Fame quarterback is still out, that says a lot about the other guys on that team. There's a matchup in a couple weeks with the Bears that will truly test this team. They can't look past anybody because this is the NFL. Next week is a visit to Jacksonville where a battle of the backups will take place. Will Minshew-Mania reign supreme, or does Bridgewater continue his audition for the permanent job as Brees' heir-apparent?