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By Stephen F. Holder
Published November 5, 2006
Reggie Bush vs. punt return team
There's probably no need to remind anyone, but just in case: In the teams' first meeting, Reggie Bush, who has vowed to play despite his ankle injury, returned a punt 65 yards with 4:17 left for his first pro touchdown. Bush is averaging 10.7 yards per return and has two efforts of 20 yards or more. The Bucs likely have made some adjustments to their kick coverage since Bush's return. We'll learn today how well they worked.
Deuce McAllister vs. Bucs safeties
Unfortunately for the Bucs, McAllister reached the defensive secondary a disconcerting number of times in the last meeting. And with a back as big as McAllister, that's going to happen. But someone has to make sure he doesn't go any farther. So it's up to the safeties to be sure-handed tacklers when McAllister eludes the front seven.
Fred Thomas vs. Joey Galloway
The receiver was grinning last week just at the thought of seeing single coverage today, which the Saints typically employ against the Bucs. That means he will get lots of one-on-one opportunities against Thomas. And should Galloway win, there could be some chances to go deep. Remember, the Bucs completed three passes beyond 20 yards in the first meeting - their most this season.
THE BASICS: One thing the Saints aren't lacking is offensive weapons. New Orleans has them all over - in the backfield, under center, out wide. Sometimes, as is the case with running back Reggie Bush, you don't know where they'll be.
New Orleans has shown itself to be an equal opportunity team. Its run-pass balance has been one of the keys to its 5-2 start, so opponents have strived to make it one-dimensional. The Ravens were successful last week, limiting the Saints to 35 rushing yards and forcing 46 pass attempts. Drew Brees threw for 368 yards, but Baltimore managed three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. Don't be misled: Brees ranks among the top 10 in six passing categories.
The Panthers beat the Saints on Oct. 1 using a similar formula (holding the Saints to 2.7 yards per carry and forcing 38 pass attempts). But doing this against New Orleans is easier said than done considering its pair of running backs (Deuce McAllister and Bush). The Bucs will have to tackle much better than in the first meeting to follow the Panthers and Ravens in beating a team with the league's seventh-ranked offense (361.3 yards per game).
On defense, the Saints have 19 sacks to the Bucs' 12, led by Will Smith and Brian Young with 31/2. Linebacker Scott Fujita, who had 10 tackles against the Bucs in Week 5, leads the defense with 57.
They don't force many interceptions (four for the season), but the Saints don't allow many big passing games. Only three opponents have surpassed 200 yards.
BUC BEATER: The Bucs were one of McAllister's biggest victims before his season-ending knee injury in 2005. Now that he has returned, that trend continues. McAllister rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown, with a long of 57 yards, in this season's first matchup. It was McAllister's fourth 100-yard performance against Tampa Bay (nearly his fifth if you consider the 99 yards in 2001). In McAllister's past four games against the Bucs, he has averaged 106 yards. The key for the Bucs is improved tackling against the 232-pound back. McAllister is a nice combination of speed and size, making him hard to corral.
SERIES: The Saints lead all time 18-11. That's the franchise's best record against any opponent other than the Texans, whom they have played only once. In the past three seasons, the Bucs have had the advantage, going 4-2. Since 1992, 12 of the 15 games have been decided by a touchdown or less.
KEEP IN MIND: Brees has been prone to interceptions recently. He threw two against the Eagles on Oct. 15 and three against the Ravens last week. The Bucs have been looking to increase their takeaways and will look to press Brees into bad throws.
Saints: Out - Tight end Ernie Conwell (knee); Questionable - Offensive tackle Jammal Brown (ankle), Bush (ankle), Receiver Joe Horn (groin); Probable - Offensive tackle Zach Strief (finger), cornerback Fred Thomas (hamstring), receiver Michael Lewis (hamstring), offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb (toe).