NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan remembers all too well the last time New Orleans entered a season with a lot of hype.
The Saints seemed like a good bet to make the playoffs for a fifth time in six seasons back in 2014. Instead, they stumbled to a 7-9 record in what became the first of three straight frustrating, sub-.500 campaigns before they won the NFC South last season.
“Everyone’s going to talk about potential. Everyone’s going to talk about, ‘on paper,’ how good we look,” said Jordan, an All-Pro in 2017 with a career-high 13 sacks. “We’ve been here before. We’ve seen this a couple years ago, when we looked great on paper. Paper doesn’t play Sunday.”
The schedule seemingly sets the Saints up to win a season opener for the first time since 2013 this Sunday, when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New Orleans has nearly all key players back from a squad that came within a “Minnesota Miracle” of advancing to the NFC title game. Now the Saints are eager to move on from the 61-yard Vikings touchdown they gave up on their last play of last season.
The Bucs, by contrast, are coming off a five-win campaign that extended their decade-long playoff drought and must play without starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who is serving a three-game suspension .
Oddsmakers have made the Saints one of the most heavily favored NFL teams – by more than a touchdown – in Week 1.
“We recognize what kind of a football team New Orleans has,” Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said. “We’re going to go out there and do everything we can to give it to them on Sunday.”
And why not? The last time these teams met, in their 2017 regular season finale, the Bucs won in an upset.
Here are some key subplots that will play out when the Bucs and Saints renew their divisional rivalry:
PREMIER MATCHUP: Bucs receiver Mike Evans is one of three players in NFL history – along with A.J. Green and Hall of Famer Randy Moss – to have 1,000 yards-plus receiving in each of the first four seasons of a career. Evans figures to be covered by Saints cornerback Marshawn Lattimore, last season’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“I look forward to the matchup,” said Evans, who was suspended one game last season for a blindside hit on Lattimore.
Bucs quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, starting for Winston, doesn’t sound inclined to look away from Evans just because of who is covering him.
“When you have a guy like Mike Evans, he’s going to get his balls,” Fitzpatrick said. “There is nobody that I am really going to shy away from, no disrespect to anybody, just because the talent level Mike has.”
SUSPENDED STARTERS: Each team is coping with the suspension of a prominent offensive player.
The Saints are without Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram, their leading rusher last season with 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was suspended four games for use of a banned substance. That raises the possibility that Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara will play more snaps, but Kamara was careful not give away anything on that front.
“The way our team is trending, we’re an unselfish group,” Kamara said. “If my touches are low, then it is what it is, if that’s what we have to do to win.”
Winston begins a three-game suspension stemming from an eight-month NFL investigation that concluded he touched a female Uber driver inappropriately in 2016.
“At this point, it’s like any other injury that a guy’s out for three weeks,” Koetter said.
ROSTER TURNOVER: One of Tampa Bay’s top priorities was revamping a pass rush that produced a league-low 22 sacks a year ago. In addition to acquiring former New York Giants star Jason Pierre-Paul in a trade , two other new starters on the defensive line – Vinny Curry and Beau Allen – signed as free agents after helping the Eagles win the Super Bowl. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith said Pierre-Paul had a good training camp and has been everything the Bucs expected in terms of his drive to learn the scheme and make it tough for coaches to sub him out.
“The guy doesn’t want to come off the field,” Smith said. “He’s a guy that’s played, when’s he’s been healthy, 90-plus percent of the snaps on defense. That is unheard of a lot of times in the NFL.”
The Saints spent the bulk of their efforts in free agency trying to improve a defense that ranked 17th, bringing in linebacker Demario Davis, safety Kurt Coleman and cornerback Patrick Robinson. Meanwhile, receiver Cameron Meredith is expected to make his debut for an offense that ranked second a season ago, while tight end Ben Watson returns after a couple of seasons with Baltimore.
GOOD RATINGS: Saints quarterback Drew Brees had a 121.1 passer rating against the Bucs last season, his best rating against any team in 2017. But Brees quickly dispenses with the notion that he has Tampa Bay’s number.
“We know how competitive this team is regardless of what their record said last year,” Brees said. “They’ve got a lot of really good players on defense. They went out and made some pretty significant moves through free agency and in the draft.
“It’s going to be a tough, tough test.”