Injuries have started to pile up for the New Orleans Saints’ defense, and their offense has had trouble taking care of the ball.
Those factors, along with some recent close calls and their struggles of late against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, make Sunday’s matchup far from a sure thing for the Saints even though they’re facing one of the league’s worst teams.
New Orleans (9-0) will be missing at least one and perhaps three defensive starters - defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis(notes) is out with a knee injury, while cornerback Jabari Greer(notes) (groin) and cornerback Tracy Porter(notes) (left knee) are questionable.
Safety Darren Sharper(notes), however, may return after missing last Sunday’s 28-23 win at St. Louis with a left knee injury. Plus, the Saints signed former Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister(notes) on Wednesday after losing Porter against the Rams.
Even with those defensive starters playing, the Saints nearly ended their perfect run against an equally meek opponent as the Bucs (1-8).
The Rams cut an 11-point deficit to five with 2:44 remaining, and got the ball back 23 seconds later. That drive ended at New Orleans’ 32-yard line with a fourth-down incompletion in the end zone as time expired.
“I was proud we responded with both corners being out for a good portion of that game. Obviously our defensive tackle, Darren Sharper, our safety - we overcame some things against a team that was coming off a bye and a win,” coach Sean Payton said. “We can play better football, yet I think the team we played is getting better.”
The Saints committed three turnovers, giving them 13 in the last four games.
Drew Brees(notes) has seven interceptions and three fumbles in that span as New Orleans has survived some close calls. The Saints overcame a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win at Miami and struggled to win two home games - they led by four for much of the final quarter against Atlanta and were tied until 4:36 to play against Carolina - before holding off the Rams.
“We’re not content with where we’re at, and we’re certainly not content with the way we’ve played these last few weeks,” said Brees, tied for second in the NFL with 19 touchdown passes. “We need to close the game out when we’re given the opportunity.”
The Saints now go for the longest winning streak in franchise history as they visit Tampa, where they have lost three of their last four visits.
In New Orleans’ previous trip Nov. 30, Brees was intercepted three times, including twice in the final three minutes, as the Buccaneers pulled out a 23-20 victory.
It was the Saints’ third loss in their last four games overall against Tampa Bay, which has held Brees below 300 yards in each victory. The Bucs have won seven of 11 in the series, and only one of the Saints’ last 10 wins over Tampa Bay was decided by more than a touchdown.
New Orleans will be without running back Reggie Bush(notes), who missed two practices this week as the team tries to rest his surgically repaired left knee and did not travel with the team to Tampa Bay.
Additionally, New Orleans is facing a Tampa Bay team that’s made strides since losing its first seven games by an average of 15.3 points.
The Buccaneers (1-8) barely missed back-to-back victories after rallying from a 13-point deficit last week at Miami. They took the lead on Carnell Williams’(notes) 1-yard run with 1:14 left but lost 25-23 on a field goal with 10 seconds remaining.
In his first career start Nov. 8 against Green Bay, Freeman led Tampa Bay’s comeback in a 38-28 victory with two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. He threw another one in the fourth last week and finished 16 of 28 for 196 yards.
“When you see Josh go out and have two comebacks like he did, that’s a lift,” Morris said. “You see the defense starting to get better … You do feel this team starting to get stronger.”