There will be a lot going on inside the lines when the Saints play the Buccaneers Sunday at the Superdome.
The big picture for the Saints (4-2) is keeping pace with the defending Super Bowl-champion Buccaneers (6-1), who are threatening to run away with the NFC South. A Tampa Bay win would considerably separate the Buccaneers from the Saints, opening up a 2 ¹/₂-game lead in the division and leaving New Orleans chasing a wild-card playoff berth.
But the story within the story is Saints quarterback Jameis Winston playing against the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2015, then essentially fired him four seasons later.
Winston is in his second season with the Saints and his first as their starter.
You know who quarterbacks the Buccaneers — Tom Brady and his seven Super Bowl rings.
If you don’t think this is one of the most important games of Winston’s life, you’d be mistaken, regardless of how much he tried to downplay it this week.
“This week is big,’’ he told reporters. “But, I mean, every week is big for me.’’
Not as big as this one, though.
While Brady was wowing and charming everyone in Tampa and winning another Super Bowl last season, Winston was backing up Drew Brees in New Orleans, waiting for another chance to play.
“Being out a year, you get a chance to see how much you miss being away from this game,” Winston said.
Winston, to his credit, made it clear he knows he needs to control his emotions Sunday, because if he lets them get out of hand, his game will become erratic.
“I’ve always been an emotional football player,” Winston said. “I think that’s something that I’m trying to work on — being present instead of being stuck in my feelings. Sometimes too much emotion can lead us places that we don’t want to go. Obviously, I want to beat ’em, I want to beat ’em bad.’’
Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters he believes Winston will be able to control his emotions, though it will be something to watch for as the game unfolds.
“I think he’s smart enough and mature enough to focus on the things you need to do to win,” Payton said.
Winston, who played with the Buccaneers from 2015-19, led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards in 2019, but he also became the first player in league history with at least 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in a season, a dubious record.
Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians, he of the “risk it for the biscuit’’ mantra, likes to have his quarterbacks sling it deep, so perhaps he was at least part of the reason for some of those picks in 2019.
Payton is asking Winston to do a lot less in the passing game in terms of deep throws, seemingly intent on keeping him reined in to avoid the damaging turnovers. The Saints rank last in the NFL with just 25.8 pass attempts per game, and Winston is averaging just 185.7 passing yards per game. The key stat, though, is his TD-INT rate — 13 TDs and just three INTs.
“He’s probably throwing it 15 times less a game,” Arians said this week. “They’re playing with a lead, and we didn’t have that many leads that [season], so we had to throw it. So, yeah, he’s playing very, very well.”
The Buccaneers, who have won two of their past three on the road, enter the game having won four in a row. Brady is having a monster season, completing 67 percent of his passes for 2,275 yards, 21 TDs and just three picks. The Saints, coming off a win at Seattle on Monday, have won three of their past four games.
The Buccaneers have scored 24 or more points in six of their first seven games. The Saints, on a short week, are ranked 29th in total offense.
The Saints will be without Pro Bowl kicker Wil Lutz for the rest of the season with core muscle issues. So, their kicker will be undrafted rookie Brian Johnson, whom they just signed off the Bears’ practice squad two weeks ago. Johnson made both of his field-goal attempts in wet conditions in Seattle, including the go-ahead 33-yarder in the final two minutes.
Johnson is the fourth kicker the Saints have used since Lutz had surgery during the preseason.
Saints linebacker Demario Davis is coming off a huge game against Seattle with 10 tackles (four for a loss) and two sacks.
The Saints, in need of running back depth after releasing veteran Latavius Murray in September and losing backup Tony Jones Jr. to injury, brought back Mark Ingram, who rushed for 6,007 yards in his first eight seasons in New Orleans after the Saints drafted him in the first round in 2011.