SAINTS // BUCS OVERVIEW
Saints // Bucs gives us a rematch of the Saints’ first loss on the year — a Week 1, 40-48 shocker at home against Tampa. These teams have gone in opposite directions since then, with the Saints sitting at 10-2 atop the NFC South, and with the Bucs playing for pride right now at 5-7. The Bucs are one of the rare “losing record teams” that continues to show obvious improvement every week. They opened this game as 10 point underdogs, but this mark was quickly bet down to eight. This game opened with an Over/Under of 57.5, which has since dropped to 55.5. Each of these teams has improved on defense throughout the year, and each offense has shifted since the start of the season to a more conservative style (the Saints going run-heavy, the Bucs taking away some of the aggressive downfield throws they were so focused on for most of the year). This should still be a fairly high-scoring affair, but a back-and-forth slug-fest like that 88-point shootout in Week 1 is unlikely to be in the cards.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE
The Buccaneers’ pass defense has been steadily improving under Mark Duffner, who has called more aggressive coverage packages from time to time (no longer allowing teams to catch everything thrown their way and simply aiming to tackle after the catch) — and who has also, more importantly, placed a heavy emphasis on technique, execution, and fundamentals for this Bucs squad, which has led to far fewer breakdowns and to fewer big plays. In the Bucs’ last five games, no wide receiver has topped 90 yards against them. This drop in spiked wide receiver weeks against the Bucs has coincided with a recent slide in their run defense — which has led to teams attacking them more heavily on the ground. In four of the Bucs’ last five games, the opposing quarterback has thrown the ball 32 or fewer times.
The Saints (as noted ad nauseum in this space) are a run-heavy team, with Drew Brees failing to top even 30 pass attempts in all but one of the eight games in which Mark Ingram has played. (That one game came in the epic, 80-point shootout against the Rams. Brees threw only 36 times in that one.) Brees’ incredible accuracy and the explosive nature of this offense has still allowed him to top 300 yards in three of these eight games, but he also has four games in this stretch of 212 or fewer passing yards.
This low-volume approach has had a negative impact on the upside of Michael Thomas, who has seen target counts since Ingram’s return of 5 // 9 // 6 // 15 // 8 // 4 // 6 // 8. That 15-target game came against the Rams, which was also his only game in this stretch above 92 receiving yards. In six of the eight games since Ingram returned, Thomas has failed to post a score that would justify his still-elevated price. It seems that people are still writing off Thomas’ “down” games as the fluky ones, as his ownership continues to outpace his production. From a raw-projections standpoint, of course: Thomas’ red zone role (fourth in the NFL in red zone targets // second in targets inside the 10) gives him a clear shot every week at a solid game, with potential for a multi-score game or a broken play to make him useful at his price tag. The price-considered floor is lower than most want to acknowledge, but there are still paths to ceiling.
The rest of this passing attack has been maddeningly difficult to target, as Tre’Quan Smith unsurprisingly bookended his 13-target game with games of zero targets and one target — while guys like Keith Kirkwood (two catches, two touchdowns across the last two weeks), Austin Carr (two catches, two touchdowns across the last three weeks), and Tommylee Lewis (one catch, one touchdown across the last two weeks) continue to provide little in the yardage department while taking away scores from the more valuable fantasy plays on this team. From a real-life perspective, this is one of the most enjoyable offenses to watch; but it is difficult to comfortably bet on it in fantasy. Wrapping up this unit is the Saints’ three-way timeshare at tight end, in which Dan Arnold ran nine routes in Week 13, while Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill each ran 10 routes. The best bet on this passing attack — away from Thomas — is likely on the upside of Tre’Quan (whose zero-point floor also remains in place) or on the efficiency of Brees.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE
While the Bucs’ pass defense has improved in recent weeks, their run defense has shown major cracks. Starting in Week 8, the Bucs have recently given up rushing lines of 21-123-2 to Joe Mixon (who added 3-15-0 through the air), 17-79-2 to Christian McCaffrey (who added 5-78-0 through the air), 19-68-0 to Adrian Peterson, 27-142-2 to Saquon Barkley (who added 2-10-1 through the air), 14-106-0 to Matt Breida (who added 3-34-0 through the air), and last week’s 10-106-0 line to Christian McCaffrey (who added another 9-55-1 through the air). As a team, the Saints rank fourth in rushing attempts and ninth in rushing yards, and they should lean heavily on Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram this week.
Here are the updated snap numbers for Kamara // Ingram since the latter’s return:
Kamara — 31 // 39 // 38 // 41 // 34 // 44 // 37 // 36
Ingram — 36 // 35 // 23 // 34 // 31 // 30 // 27 // 21
Kamara has 105 carries and 37 targets in this stretch. Ingram has 97 carries and 18 targets.
Ingram has seen his snaps scaled back in recent weeks, though his touches only dipped in the tough matchup against the Cowboys’ stout run defense last week. While Ingram is sensitive to game flow, he can typically be penciled in for 12 to 14 carries and two to three targets, giving him floor concerns but some upside in this offense. He’ll likely disappoint if he fails to find the end zone. He’ll be a nice piece with a multi-score game.
Since Ingram returned, Kamara has posted a price-considered dud in five of eight games — and FOMO ownership has kept his price high. In last week’s game against the Cowboys, Kamara saw a massive 11 targets, but in six of his previous seven games, he had five or fewer targets. Four or five targets is a comfortable projection for Kamara, to go with his comfortable range of 12 to 14 carries. Given his outsized talent, this is enough work for him to post a top score — but the price-considered floor remains a concern.
BUCS PASS OFFENSE
With the Saints ranking first in the NFL in drive success rate on offense and sticking heavily to the run, they have been able to shorten games in a big way this year — ranking third in time of possession and allowing the second fewest opponent plays per game. Even with teams taking to the air against the Saints at the third highest rate in football, this team has faced fewer pass attempts than 19 others.
The Bucs counteract this somewhat by running the second most plays per game in the league (a byproduct of their leaky defense and their pass-heavy offense). It could prove difficult for Jameis Winston to pop off for 40+ pass attempts, but somewhere in the range of 33 to 38 pass attempts is a comfortable starting point in projecting him and his wide receivers — against a Saints defense that has allowed a 7% increase on the league-average catch rate, and that ranks 29th in yards allowed per pass attempt.
It is worth noting that Jameis threw zero passes last week that traveled more than 20 yards downfield — which has been a theme for this team since they returned Jameis to the starting job, taking away some of the downfield throws that made this attack so exciting earlier in the year. If DeSean Jackson misses again (as he currently appears set to do), it will once again be Evans // Godwin // Humphries.
Mike Evans should be trailed by Marshon Lattimore — who has been strong this year, but not impossible, allowing 9.8 yards per pass attempt into his coverage. This is a matchup Evans can win if the targets are there — though this caveat has become a concern lately, with recent target counts of 6 // 7 // 8 // 6. As noted last week: Evans is averaging over 17 yards per reception, and he has topped 100 yards in six of the eight games this year in which he has cracked just six catches. With uncertain targets and an up-and-down connection with Jameis, he’s a high-variance play, but the upside is there.
The 5-101-1 line that Chris Godwin posted last week looks a bit better than it was, as he saw only six targets, and almost 40 of his yards came on a long YAC play — which is obviously less repeatable than a long downfield reception. Godwin’s route tree was actually not changed much last week in the absence of DJax, as he was used primarily as an intermediate weapon, further highlighting the subtle shifts this offense has made. On a more positive note: Godwin played 80% of the Bucs’ snaps last week and ran only one fewer pass route than Evans. If this team climbs back up to the 35 to 38 pass attempt range (after throwing only 30 times last week), Godwin should be able to notch seven to nine targets, giving him a clear shot at something like a 6-70-0 line, with yardage and scoring upside from there.
Adam Humphries continues to soak up underneath looks as a favorite outlet for Jameis, and he now has eight or more targets in four of his last seven games in this offense. With a touchdown in three straight games, Humphries’ price has climbed a bit high for his floor on all sites — but his role in this offense is legitimate enough that he is not going to bust (three to five catches for 40 to 60 yards still won’t kill you at his price), and his touchdown-driven ceiling still gives him enough upside to matter.
This passing attack wraps up with touchdown-or-bust tight end Cameron Brate. Brate scored two weeks ago and failed to connect on an end zone target last week, so you’re not drawing dead here — but his best yardage game on the year is 36, making it important for him to score.
BUCS RUN OFFENSE
One of the biggest mismatches on the slate comes between a Saints run defense that has shut down all but the best units in the NFL, and that ranks first in the league in yards allowed per carry, going up against a Buccaneers unit that ranks 30th in yards per carry and 26th in running back rushing yards per game. The Saints face the third highest pass play rate in the NFL, and the Bucs throw the ball at the eighth highest rate. Peyton Barber has only 13 catches on the season, and he has not yet topped 24 receiving yards. He’ll need multiple broken plays or a multi-touchdown game to matter on this slate.
The Saints’ offense is surprisingly difficult to bet on at this point, with Ingram and Kamara killing off each other’s upside (but both priced higher than their workloads warrant), and with Michael Thomas relying heavily on touchdowns for his production. All three of these guys have strong, raw upside — but all three are ultimately overpriced for A) their respective floors, and B) their chances of reaching their ceiling. To frame that another way: it’s never a surprise when one of these guys has a big game; but given the way this offense is being called, a big, price-considered game is not the likeliest scenario — and with these guys still carrying solid ownership, I’d much rather bet on a higher floor/ceiling play in these price ranges myself.
I don’t have interest in the Bucs’ backfield, and I’ll likely look for my upside away from Mike Evans this week (he can match or pass the guys priced around him, but his floor if he misses is much lower than what most of those other options carry), but I will still have interest in Godwin, whose price has not yet risen to where it should be. He has a solid floor for the price, and if he sees eight or nine targets this week he could be a really nice upside piece. Humphries is in play behind Godwin as a solid floor piece with decent upside — though his price is starting to rise a bit high for his likeliest range. Jameis — as has been the case all year for “Tampa QB” — is in play for his upside as well.