Buccaneers vs Saints X-Factors To Watch

Photo: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Week 1—we made it.

There are plenty of storylines around the league to get the NFL year kicked off. Patrick Mahomes faces off against Deshaun Watson on Thursday night in a battle of the two highest-paid football players of all time, Cam Newton opens up the 2020 season as a New England Patriot on home turf, Joe Burrow’s much anticipated first start, not to mention all the divisional matchups, which feel like they count for more than one game in the standings.

Speaking of, one of the top matchups in Week 1 is that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers versus the New Orleans Saints. As we’ve seen in the news recently by their very creative and somewhat desperate attempts to sign pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, the Saints realize this might be their quarterback Drew Brees’ final year, and with it, might be their final year in their current winning window. As a result, they are all in on a No. 1 seed and, they hope, a Super Bowl trophy.

On the other sideline, no team in the NFL made more headlines this offseason than the Buccaneers. Luring Brady down south, getting Rob Gronkowski out of retirement, and now a who’s who of running backs with LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette fortifying an offense that was already set to be strong.

With these being two of the stronger rosters in the NFL, let alone the division and the conference, there are plenty of matchups that you’ll hear about before kick off. But there are two more underrated matchups, one on both sides of the ball, that I think could go a long way into determining the winner of this one.

The first is Buccaneers wide receiver Scotty Miller versus Saints nickel defender Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.

I recently wrote about Miller’s 2020 outlook with the Buccaneers in a crowded passing attack and explained why he should get plenty of use as the team’s WR3—starting as early as this weekend. For as much as receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin will still dominate the game with the most targets and the biggest overall impact, the “X-factor” portion of the game, if you will, could depend on how much use and success Miller has. 

Last year, the Buccaneers had Breshad Perriman as their WR3, and he led the team in yards per attempt with 17.9. Miller, with his track background speed, is a natural as a deep threat player from the slot. For as crucial as it is for Evans and Godwin to have success against the Saints cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins, Miller winning against Gardner-Johnson when the team goes to their three-wide-receiver sets could be the difference in a game that is set up to be high scoring, but close. 

As just a rookie last season, Gardner-Johnson found success in the slot, earning a 77.3 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus as a slot defender, which was fourth best in the NFL. In his 268 snaps in the slot, Gardner-Johnson forced a 29.6% incompletion rate, which PFF stated was best in the league. 

Miller is a mismatch in space due to his speed, but Gardner-Johnson showed that he is well equipped to deal with both size and speed as a slot defender. Whichever player comes out on top will go a long way toward their team’s goal this weekend.

On the other side of the ball, the big matchup many will talk about is how the Buccaneers will try to contain Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas. After sending Carlton Davis out there in man coverage against DeAndre Hopkins at the end of the last season and liking the results, I assume that’s where they’ll start.

But the matchup I’m most looking forward to is the one on the other side of the field, and that is Saints wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders against the Buccaneers second-year cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean.

After being thrust into the fire in Seattle midway through the 2019 season, Dean hit the ground running and really came on strong during the second half of the season. His rare combination of size and speed (6-foot-1, 210 pounds with a 41-inch vert and 4.30 40-yard dash) makes him an ideal candidate to shut down almost any outside receiver. But there are times where he doesn’t look as in control as he could and his athleticism helps him make up for it. When the Buccaneers are in nickel, they might be asking Dean to handle the savvy wideout 1-on-1.

When they’re in base, Murphy-Bunting will likely be tasked with the challenge of guarding the veteran receiver. Murphy-Bunting came on in a big way down the stretch as well for the young Tampa Bay secondary, mainly as a slot cornerback. He’ll still see some slot looks when they go in nickel, but after bulking up this offseason, it appears he’s up for some outside duties, too. 

Sanders has often been a true X-factor receiver no matter where he’s been. It’s his success that has often gone under the radar when it comes to accounting for team wins. Now he’s in the best offensive he’s seen in his career, and though these Buccaneers cornerbacks are talented, they are still young.

Both of these matchups could play crucial roles in which team starts the season on top in this highly competitive division.