NEW ORLEANS - For the last four seasons, the New Orleans Saints have started the regular season 0-2, and only last year were they able to climb out of that deep, early hole, to make the playoffs, winning eight consecutive games to get there.
The Saints came within one bizarre defensive breakdown in the final seconds against Minnesota in the divisional playoffs from playing in the NFC Championship game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
The Saints have stressed starting fast this season when Week 1 arrives Sunday along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The offseason message from coach Sean Payton after that near-miss of an 11-5 season has been as obvious as the billboard-sized banner he directed to be mounted prominently on the side of the Saints’ practice facility: “Prove Them Right.”
Quarterback Drew Brees, who had his best quarterback rating against the Bucs last season, doesn’t have to be reminded of the importance of a good start, especially with the Saints playing their first two games at home. They host the Cleveland Browns next week.
“Start fast,” Brees said. “It’s confidence. It just puts you ahead. Otherwise, you feel like you’re always playing catch-up, and we all want to be in that position. We’ve been in that position all too often in years past, and so we’re ready to turn over a new leaf and start things fast.”
The Saints hold the advantage of facing Tampa Bay without starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who is serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy for touching a female Uber driver in an “inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent” in March 2016.
The Bucs will start Ryan Fitzpatrick in his place.
“There’s a little bit different playing style,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of facing Fitzpatrick instead of Winston. “The one thing you see on tape at times with Fitzpatrick is he’ll do a good job of moving you one way and then be pretty aggressive with balls in the seams. I don’t know that he moves the same way Jameis does. ... I think the offense remains consistent. ... Sometimes when there’s a change, it can move or shift in a direction differently because of the quarterback. I don’t think that’s the case with Ryan.”
Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter was asked if it might benefit the Bucs ultimately by giving Fitzpatrick more game snaps early in the season.
“I’m not sure it’s beneficial for any team to be missing their starting quarterback, but you know, it is what it is,” Koetter said. “We knew about it. We prepared for it. And that’s that. We have all the confidence in Fitz, and if Ryan Griffin gets in there then we will have confidence in him as well.”
The Saints got through preseason with relatively few injuries. Starting left guard Andrus Peat missed practice Wednesday with a quad injury, but he returned for a limited session on Thursday. Bucs defensive tackle Vita Vea has yet to practice due to a calf injury, but left tackle Donovan Smith and cornerback M.J. Stewart have practiced on a limited basis.
The Saints are down to two running backs — 2017 NFL offensive rookie of the year Alvin Kamara and recently signed Mike Gillislee. Mark Ingram II is sitting out the first four games for testing positive for using a performance-enhancing substance.
During the game, the Saints will honor their late, long-time owner Tom Benson, who died in March, by placing his name in the Superdome’s ring of honor. His widow, Gayle, is now running the team.
—Field Level Media