Key players absent in Saints-Buccaneers matchup
The players who won't be competing in Sunday's season opener between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints will be conspicuous by their absence at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
Running back Mark Ingram, who was named to the Pro Bowl after leading the Saints in rushing with 1,124 yards last season, is suspended for the first four games, and Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston is suspended for the first three contests.
The Saints are trying to win the NFC South for the second straight year after going 11-5 last season before losing in the last second to the Minnesota Vikings in their second playoff game.
The Bucs are just trying to become competitive after a 5-11 finish last season, which was a disappointing dropoff following their 9-7 season in 2016.
Saints running back Alvin Kamara, the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, will get more work in Ingram's absence. He rushed for 728 yards while averaging 6.1 yards per carry and also caught 81 passes for 826 yards during the regular season last year.
However, the star of the team remains 39-year-old quarterback Drew Brees, who returns for his 18th NFL season. He threw less often last season, but completed 72 percent of his passes for 23 touchdowns and a career-low eight interceptions (excluding his rookie season when he attempted 27 passes).
Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time last season, when he had 104 receptions for 1,245 yards. Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes will have his hands full with Thomas.
The Saints finished second in the NFL in total offense and fourth in scoring last season, so they figure to put up some points on a Tampa Bay defense that finished the 2017 season last in total defense and last in sacks with 22.
The defensive line is where Tampa Bay might have made the biggest improvement, though. The Bucs signed Eagles free agent defensive linemen Beau Allen and Vinny Curry. They traded for Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who had eight sacks last season and has 58 sacks for his career. The Bucs also selected Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea in the first round of the draft. Although he strained his calf muscle the first day in pads, the 347-pound Vea should be ready for the regular season.
Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy led the team with six sacks last season and has 48.5 for his career.
They need to provide some pressure up the middle to bother Brees, who otherwise will tear the Bucs apart passing to Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr. and Kamara.
Ryan Fitzpatrick will get the start at quarterback for Tampa Bay after the 35-year-old veteran started three games for the Bucs last season.
He has the challenge of facing division champions in his first three games, starting with the Saints before facing the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers in the next two games.
Fitzpatrick has some weapons to throw to, from receivers Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries to tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.
The Saints will counter with cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Ken Crawley. Those matchups will be key.
The Bucs' offensive line will have to deal with Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who was named All-Pro last season after recording 13 sacks. Tampa Bay right tackle Demar Dotson will have the challenge of keeping Jordan out of the Bucs' backfield. Dotson is in his ninth season and is coming off two knee surgeries.
The Saints other defensive end, Alex Okafor, was having a strong season in 2017 with 4.5 sacks in 10 games before he tore his Achilles tendon, ending his season. He has made an encouraging comeback, but the Saints still traded up in the first round of the draft to select defensive end Marcus Davenport.
The Bucs' running game should be better behind Peyton Barber, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry this preseason, and rookie Ronald Jones II, who performed poorly in preseason but is expected to do better in the regular season when he runs behind the first-team offensive line.
The teams split their two games last year, with the Saints winning the first matchup 30-10, and the Bucs knocking off New Orleans in the final regular-season game 31-24 when Godwin and Humphries each had more than 100 receiving yards.
Updated September 5, 2018