THE KEY MATCHUP
You're probably going to hear this a lot this week — Joey Galloway owns the New Orleans Saints.
And if you look at the numbers, that's not hyperbole.
In Galloway's last four games against the Saints, he's caught 19 passes for 501 yards and five touchdowns. It doesn't matter if the Bucs stink (as they did in 2006) or shine (as they did last year), Galloway just seems to get the Saints' goat.
Despite his age (36), Galloway still has the jets. He still has sub-4.4 speed (amazing considering his age) and great hands. Despite facing double coverage most of the time, Galloway still finds ways to exploit defenses and get open. The Saints know this all too well, as Galloway torched the Saints for 135 yards and two touchdowns in Week 2 last year. One of his victims was CB Jason David, who doesn't figure to see Galloway too much on Sunday. He's only 5-foot-11, but his speed creates separation that few corners can counter.
Galloway stays in shape better than few players in the NFL, a year-round regimen that protects his delicate hamstrings, knees and groin from injury. And Galloway has a history of that, so it makes sense that he's careful. He missed six games in 2004 with a torn hamstring, and just about all of the 2000 season in Dallas with a knee injury. When he gets hurt, he really gets hurt.
Which is why Galloway's recent groin issue is troubling. He actually hurt the groin during his offseason conditioning program (which he handles with his own trainer). I was at the first three days of Bucs camp and when I didn't see Galloway the first day I inquired about him to a fellow writer.
"Oh, he's out there," the writer said. "I saw him earlier."
If he did, it was a mirage. Galloway never darkened the door of a single practice during training camp due to the groin issue. To make matters murkier, the Bucs never related the severity of Galloway's injury. Now, the veteran usually only practices once per day during camp anyway. But Gruden wouldn't have had Galloway miss both workouts unless the wide receiver was really hurt.
Add to that the fact that Galloway didn't play in the preseason and has been limited all week and you get a recipe for real uncertainty regarding the Bucs' best weapon against the Saints.
Galloway tried to downplay what the Saints should do to him on Sunday.
"With me being unhealthy, I would suggest that they play man-to-man because they don't have much to worry about with the way I've been feeling lately and haven't played in any games," Galloway said. "It's probably safe to say that man-to-man coverage is fine for them.
"I'll be rusty. I'll probably be a little slow. If I was New Orleans looking at what I've done this preseason, I'd probably relax a little bit and think there's not much to worry about."
That might make the Saints feel good if it weren't for the fact that their own stud in the secondary weren't coming off his own injury. McKenzie (6-foot, 194 pounds) missed the final game of the season with a serious knee injury. After the season ended, he had surgery, not what you want to hear when you consider McKenzie has 26 career interceptions and has been steady – and durable – just about his entire career. He missed a full season just once, in 2004, with Green Bay. He had one of his best seasons last year, finishing with 63 tackles and a team-high 17 passes defensed. He also returned an interception for a touchdown against Tampa Bay, though it came in their second meeting when he picked off Luke McCown in New Orleans.
The Saints were cautious with McKenzie, giving him practices off and not allowing him to hit the field until the second preseason game. All signs point toward McKenzie being 100 percent this Sunday.
But full-speed football in the regular season is far different than the preseason, and McKenzie definitely didn't cover anyone of Galloway's caliber last month. That's just part of what makes this matchup so intriguing.
McKenzie doesn't have quite enough speed to keep up with Galloway, so position and cutting ability is key. McKenzie has always been a good technician. But if he can't cut on his surgically repaired knee when Galloway tries to make an inside or outside move, he'll be left in the dust. McKenzie's best tact would be to stay physical with Galloway inside the 5-yard chuck zone. Galloway isn't a big fan of contact at the line of scrimmage. McKenzie could use his upper body strength to throw Galloway off his routes.
New Orleans has also employed some elements of the Tampa 2 in their passing defense this year, no doubt partly due to how the secondary was torched last season on deep passes. The Tampa 2 helps a defense guard against that, and it could help McKenzie in covering Galloway. If he has safety help over the top, he can play softer coverage and not allow Galloway to get past him downfield.
For Galloway, his health is everything. Bucs fans saw what happens when the veteran has a busted part, as they did last year during the playoff loss to the New York Giants. Galloway played with a busted shoulder and didn't make it through the game. As damaging as that injury was, playing with a sore groin can be that much worse for him. If he does, he could use the rest of his body to compensate, perhaps causing further injury.
If both are truly healthy on Sunday, it should be a show. The Bucs will work short passes and the running game early and pick their spots with Galloway, since he and QB Jeff Garcia have played together very little this offseason. Most of Galloway's routes will be streaks and deep posts, and with Antonio Bryant on the opposite side the Bucs have two speedy deep threats that can stretch defenses. McKenzie will have to play great technical coverage and not allow Galloway to get a step on him. If Galloway is able to, McKenzie will definitely need safety help.
If McKenzie can keep Galloway in front of him and frustrate the receiver's desire to get deep, he may be able to break Galloway's hex on the Saints. If not, Galloway may be in for another big day in the Big Easy.
Matthew Postins is the editor and publisher of Bucsblitz.com and Saintsinsider.com.