Observation Deck: Bucs-Saints preview

Observation Deck is Bucsblitz.com's exclusive home for opinion and analysis. Today, go inside Sunday's matchup between Tampa Bay with analysis, key matchups and predictions on both sides of the ball and for the game. It's a premium service from Bucsblitz.com.

It isn't for all the marbles. But a win on Sunday by Tampa Bay and the Buccaneers can put the marbles back in the sack.

"We're looking at this like our division championship game," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said.

Why? That's simple:

Tampa Bay (7-4) owns a two-game edge over New Orleans (5-6) in the division. A win gives Tampa Bay a three-game lead with four games to play, an almost insurmountable margin for the Saints.

Sixty minutes of winning football and the Bucs can basically start planning for a home playoff game in January.

"This is a big game for us period," Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said.

So what a lousy time to have questions at your starting quarterback, right?

Starter Jeff Garcia returned to practice on Friday, but it's still unclear whether he will play Sunday. He suffered a deep back bruise against the Washington Redskins last Sunday.

In the back of most minds, Garcia's age (he's 37) and his rock-steady play all season was a disaster waiting to happen if he ever suffered an injury.

Well, welcome to the nightmare scenario. Big game. No Garcia (potentially). Start a young backup.

"It's just something you have to get used to," tight end Alex Smith said. "I think there will be added pressure on the running game and just trying to make plays for whoever is in there."

If Garcia can't start, who will? All signs point to fourth-year pro Luke McCown as the starter. He's taken most of the practice reps this week after Bruce Gradkowski's underwhelming performance in Garcia's place last week. Gradkowski went 9-of-19 for 106 yards and failed to drive the Bucs to a first down in the second half, forcing Garcia back in the game.

Bucs head coach Jon Gruden played coy with the media all week, saying he's preparing both to start. He told a radio show on Monday, however, that he likes to get the starter all the reps.

Why the cloak-and-dagger? Gruden admitted he didn't want to tip his hand.

McCown enters the game having thrown just four passes this season and having not started a regular season game since December of 2004. He'll be counted on to move the football more efficiently than Gradkowski did last week and give the Bucs some modicum of the intangibles Garcia does.

And, like Smith said, rely on the running game. And the defense.

Earnest Graham rushed for 75 yards against Washington, despite an unproductive passing game. He's rushed for a touchdown in three straight games and appears on pace for his first 1,000-yard season. The yards appear as if they'll be hard to come by again, as the Saints enter the game allowing 95.8 yards per game, tied for ninth-best in the NFL.

Plus, defensive tackle Brian Young should be back in the lineup today after a four-week absence due to a knee injury.

Tampa Bay's defense is coming off a six-turnover performance against the Redskins, one that practically saved the Bucs from an embarrassing loss after building a 19-3 halftime lead. They've forced 10 turnovers in the past two games and are now ranked sixth in the NFL in total defense. Plus, their pass defense is ranked fifth, which should be key as Saints quarterback Drew Brees is tops in the NFL in pass attempts and the Saints offense has relied more on the passing game since the season-ending knee injury to running back Deuce McAllister.

"They're looking pretty stout," Brees said. "They were a good defense when we saw them in Week 2 and they're better now."

The Saints are desperate. A win today guarantees nothing more than staying in the postseason race one more week.

The Bucs aren't desperate, but a loss makes their task of securing their second division championship in three years that much harder.

And with Garcia potentially out, the Bucs would love to find a way to make their lives a little bit easier.

"We have to make do," Bucs defensive end Kevin Carter said. "We're a team and if five (Gradkowski) has to go, so be it."

ON OFFENSE

This game is all about what happens at quarterback. McCown is a solid player, in my opinion. But he hasn't started in three years and that's going to mean there will be some rust. The practice reps will help, but he's going to make mistakes and head coach Jon Gruden will have to live with that.

The Bucs need McCown to be as efficient as possible and get the ball downfield early. If the Saints defense even gets a hint that the Bucs are uneasy about getting the ball to Joey Galloway, they'll load up inside and force the Bucs into short passing routes. The best thing that could happen for the Bucs is for McCown to hit a couple of deep balls and put the Saints defense on the, well, defensive.

The worst thing? Well, did you see last week's game? Yeah, that.

Of course, Garcia could play, but it won't business as usual. Don't expect him to be as mobile or as accurate downfield, as I'm sure his back muscles will still be pretty tender. But having Garcia in the game will give the offense the steadiness I'm sure they're worried they'll lose if McCown starts.

There are two ways the Bucs can help McCown and Garcia. First, get a productive run game going with Earnest Graham. He may not rush for 100 yards, but he can get you 3.5 yards per carry against a tough Saints defense and keep some heat off the quarterback.

The second is better-than-average pass protection from the offensive line. They need to give whoever is behind center time to go through his progressions and give him a comfort level in the pocket. If they do that, the quarterback has a better chance at success. It wouldn't be a stretch to say the offensive line could, potentially, be the most valuable players in this game.

OTHER POINTS TO PONDER

GET IT TO GALLOWAY: Joey Galloway's important to the Buccaneers offense is obvious. But it's magnified when the Bucs face the Saints. He's caught nine touchdown passes in his past six meetings with the Saints. That includes the touchdown pass he caught from Bruce Gradkowski during last year's meeting in New Orleans.

GRAHAM'S GOING TO NEED HELP: The Saints run defense is one of the better units in the NFL. They gave up only 87 yards to the Bucs in their last meeting. And big rushing plays are hard to come by, too. The Saints have given up just eight runs of 10 yards or more this season. So the Bucs must hope that Graham can rush for a healthy average and keep moving the chains, because he probably won't break a long one.

UNDERSTANDING THE NUMBERS: All of the offensive stats the Bucs have compiled this season have to go out the window without Jeff Garcia. That includes the category of yards per play. The Bucs average 5.4 yards per play, the 12th best average in the NFL. Without Garcia, the Bucs have to hope they can gain about 4.75 yards per play against the Saints.

MATCHUPS

BUCS WR JOEY GALLOWAY VS. SAINTS CB JASON DAVID: Galloway burned David in the first meeting. David missed part of the season due to injury but has played better since he returned. Still, he had trouble keeping up with Galloway even before he got hurt. He'll need help.

BUCS RG DAVIN JOSEPH VS. SAINTS DTs ANTWAN LAKE AND BRIAN YOUNG: Young is back from missing four weeks due to injury and is considered one of the more disruptive tackles in football. Young is second in sacks behind DE Will Smith. Joseph's task will be to limit the two tackles' penetration of the backfield and give his quarterback a pocket in which to step up into.

BUCS RB EARNEST GRAHAM VS. SAINTS MLB MARK SIMONEAU: The Bucs need rushing yards from Graham on Sunday. It's that simple. Simoneau is a solid run stopper, but not spectacular. Graham can win the matchup.

OFFENSIVE PREDICTIONS

I make five offensive predictions each week. Check back on Monday to see if I'm right.

1. Tampa Bay will rush for no more than 110 yards. The Bucs need a bit more, but the Saints run defense is pretty stout. They'll be happy to get that.

2. If Luke McCown starts, he'll make at least two mistakes. You have to expect that from a quarterback that hasn't started in three years. He'll throw a pick and lose a fumble.

3. But Joey Galloway will catch at least one deep ball. Starting McCown makes this task a little easier, given his arm strength. But I don't think the Saints secondary can hold him down the entire game.

4. The Bucs will struggle on third down. The Bucs were 1-of-11 last week. Missing Garcia won't help, if he can't play. If they can convert their average, around 39 percent, the Bucs would be thrilled. But I think they'll sag below 30 percent.

5. The Bucs offensive line will allow fewer than two sacks. This is the week the Buccaneers need a great performance from their offensive line. I think they were embarrassed by last week's game and they'll respond.

ON DEFENSE

If you're Drew Brees, you're a bit worried about this Bucs defense. They're not producing a wealth of sacks. But those 10 turnovers in two games weigh heavy if you're the quarterback.

The Saints will throw. That much I'm sure of. Brees has thrown at least 40 times in half their games this season. Part of that is playing from behind. But since the injury to RB Deuce McAllister, the Saints are more air-oriented because they don't have the bullish McAllister to help move the chains and control the clock. Reggie Bush is talented, but can't shoulder that type of inside running load.

The Saints will test the secondary early in the game and how the Bucs handle that will be key. They've become great at disguising coverage this year, but Brees is savvier than Byron Leftwich and Jason Campbell. He'll ferret some of that out. The key, to me, will be how well the secondary keeps the Saints receivers in front of them. This group of Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Terrance Copper is quick and talented. They're much more confident than they were in Week 2. Brees won't be afraid to try and force it if he likes the matchup.

If the Bucs are unable to get a rush going, it will be a long day unless players like Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly and Phillip Buchanon can defend a few passes or even pick off a pass or two.

OTHER POINTS TO PONDER

TURNOVERS: The Bucs have forced 10 in their last two games and they are now tied for second in turnover margin with a plus-11. It's hard to expect turnovers in a critical game like this, because both teams are looking to protect the football. But with the uneasiness at the quarterback situation, the Bucs defense must respond with several turnovers against the Saints.

WATCH REGGIE: Reggie Bush burned the Bucs last year for a game-winning punt return in New Orleans. Now he's the primary tailback and the team's leading pass catcher. But does that mean he'll be an effective back? Saints coach Sean Payton kind of called Bush out a couple of weeks ago and there's a reason. He's rushed for no more than 34 yards in each of his last three games. Yes, he's a talented pass receiver. But the Saints need a back that can take a handoff 15-20 times a game and his carries have decreased markedly since he suffered a shin injury. The Bucs can put this Saints offense on the defensive if they stop Bush as a back. Bush the receiver will get his touches.

MR. WHITE Greg White has had two straight monster games for the Bucs, notching two forced fumbles in each game. But the Bucs should not disrupt their rotation. They should leave Gaines Adams as the starter and White as the backup. Adams is a straight speed rusher who is learning some inside moves. But White is a little thicker and has better balance at the moment. He gives the offense a different physical makeup and the Bucs a nice change of pace in the pass rush. Leave it the way it is. It's working.

MATCHUPS

SAINTS RB REGGIE BUSH VS. BUCS WLB CATO JUNE: I see June ending up covering Bush a lot out of the backfield and the slot due to his speed. June's goal has to be not giving up the one big play that could break the Bucs' back.

SAINTS LT JAMMAL BROWN VS. BUCS RDE GAINES ADAMS: Remember in Week 2 when Adams blew by Brown and nearly got to Saints QB Drew Brees? This game is a great measuring stick for Adams to gauge his progress since their first meeting.

SAINTS WR MARQUES COLSTON VS. BUCS CB PHILLIP BUCHANON: Colston is finally back to being the weapon he was last year. Buchanon is probably the Bucs' best one-on-one defender right now. Brees will test this matchup deep.

DEFENSIVE PREDICTIONS

1. Drew Brees will throw at least two touchdowns. This is really more a matter of time because I see Brees throwing the ball at least 45 times on Sunday.

2. Reggie Bush will rush for less than 50 yards. The Bucs did a great job stuffing the run last week until they wore down. The Bucs should move the ball better this week and the game is indoors. I don't see Bush doing much. This run unit is a bit better than its No. 17 ranking.

3. The Bucs will get to Brees for at least three sacks. I see it happening early in the game as the Bucs use a blitz package to try and throw Brees out of rhythm.

4. Tampa Bay will force at least three turnovers. They're in a rhythm right now when it comes to takeaways. I don't see it ending this week.

5. The Bucs will score at least one defensive touchdown. Considering how the offense will likely sputter, they'll need to.

THE PREDICTION

The Saints are desperate and capable of having a big game offensively behind Drew Brees. The Bucs are not desperate and may be without Jeff Garcia. I think that's a formula for disaster this weekend. I like Luke McCown, but I don't think he can provide enough good vibrations to keep this win streak going. The Saints will load up for the run and make McCown beat them, and he won't. That will put too much stress on the Bucs defense and eventually it will break. Sorry, since I can't be sure that Garcia will play, I'm taking the Saints in an upset. Saints 17, Bucs 10.

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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.


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