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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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*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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