Saints 31, Bucs 24

Saints vs Bucs 1: Good, bad & ugly

Saints vs Bucs 1: Good, bad & ugly
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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:

The Good

-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 Bad

-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.

The Ugly

-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?

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What does the future hold for Justin Verlander and Kyle Tucker? Composite Getty Image.

It doesn’t quite equate to scaling Mount Everest, but from their shockingly inept 7-19 start to this season and being twelve games under .500 most recently at 12-24, the Astros reaching the break-even mark one game short of the exact midpoint of the regular season schedule is a fine accomplishment. Since 12-24 they have gone 28-16. Of course, that becomes a hollow accomplishment if it's not built upon in the direction the Astros expected to be from the jump.

Less than a week and a half ago, the Seattle Mariners held a 10 game lead over the Astros in the American League West. The gap is now four and a half games. On July 4, 1979 the Astros beat the Cincinnati Reds to build their National League West lead to ten and a half games. The Astros were on pace to win 101 games, the Reds were at .500. Unimpressed Reds’ pitcher Tom Seaver predicted the Astros would “fall like a lead balloon.” He was right. The rest of the way the Astros went 37-42 and the Reds roared from behind to snatch the division by a game and a half. The Astros would have to wait until the following year to make their first ever postseason appearance. Now here they are very reasonably positioned to make a run at an eighth consecutive postseason appearance.

The same night the Astros went to sleep ten games back of the Mariners, they sat seven and a half games out of the third AL Wild Card spot. That gap is now three games. Given how far the Astros are behind the Yankees, Orioles, and Guardians, it's unlikely that the Astros wind up with one of the two best records in the AL and secure a bye past the best-of-three Wild Card round. As such, whether it's winning the West or nabbing any of the three Wild Cards, the point is to make the tournament and take their shot. Remember, last season both the World Series winning Texas Rangers and runners-up Arizona Diamondbacks were Wild Cards. The Diamondbacks squeaked into the postseason with an 84-78 record.

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This weekend, the Astros are in New York for three games against the Mets. Like the Astros the Mets have overcome a lousy start to sit smack-dab at .500 (39-39). Since their bottom of 24-35 the Mets are 15-4. While the Astros have the good fortune of the AL West being the worst division in the Majors, this season and being just four and a half games off the lead, the Mets National League East location means it's pretty much Wild Card or nothing with them 13 games behind the high-flying Phillies.

There will be no Justin Verlander pitching for either team. It's moving toward done deal status that neither the Astros nor Mets will be on the hook for the 17 and a half million dollars each would owe him if Verlander's 2025 35 million dollar option became guaranteed by him reaching 140 innings pitched this season. At just 57 innings banked as the first half wraps up, he's 83 innings short. Verlander's sore neck seems likely to keep him in moth balls until at least the All-Star break. With perfect health from day one after the break, the absolute maximum number of starts Verlander could get is 14.

Other collateral damage with Verlander's repeated physical breakdowns in his 40s: his chance at getting to 300 career wins is fading. Only 24 pitchers in Major League history have reached 300. There will likely never be a 25th member of the club. With just three victories in 2024 Verlander is presently stalled at 260. Squeezing out 40 more seems a Herculean task. The next pitcher on the winningest active list is Max Scherzer with 215, he's followed by Clayton Kershaw with 210. It then drops off a cliff to Gerrit Cole with only 145. Zero chance at 300 for any of them. “J.V.” finished his 20s with 124 wins. Larry Dierker booked all but two of his 139 career wins before turning 30. Roy Oswalt put up 111 wins pre-30. The current win leader yet to turn 30 is German Marquez with a mere 65 victories.

Astros winning despite Kyle Tucker's absence

Before fouling the ball off his shin June 3 that (eventually) put him on the injured list, Kyle Tucker was the Astros' best everyday player this season. In fact, no one else was even close. In the 19 (and counting) games Tucker has missed, the Astros are 13-6. While “Tuck” need not familiarize himself with Wally Pipp, this is the latest example that one player, no matter how great, can only lift a baseball team so far. It probably isn't making Jim Crane think that eight years 240 million or the like is the way to go in a contract extension for Tucker. Crane's dream Astros' outfield in 2026 could have Jacob Melton in center flanked by Luis Baez on one side and Joey Loperfido on the other, with Yordan Alvarez in left of course when not DHing. Melton and Baez may be the Astros' top two minor league prospects. They'll be 25 and 22 years old opening day 2026. Add Loperfido with them and the Astros could pay their whole outfield under two and a half million dollars for the season.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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