The New Orleans Saints finished with a (3-1) record in the Pre-Season and look very well-prepared and ready as a team for the upcoming new 2018 NFL Regular Season; that officially begins for them against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 6 days from now at the Superdome.
However, the Saints still have a few things that need improvement; and one recent concern has been the overall collective performance of the linebacker corps.
The linebacker corps has continued their trend from last season to struggle early on in games, particularly with defending against the running game. But this Sunday they'll be faced with an even more difficult challenge: in pass coverage while facing the top 1-2 receiving tight end combination in the entire NFL with Tampa TE's OJ Howard and Cameron Brate.
For those Saints fans who aren't up to speed on Fantasy Football: the TE duo has earned the nickname "Double Trouble"; because either player is capable of producing big numbers on Game Days at the position — which is good news for Fantasy players but means potential real-life problems for the Saints linebackers this Sunday at the Dome.
Following the Saints' impressive 36-7 win a week and a half ago over the Los Angeles Chargers in the team's 3rd Pre-Season game, Payton said this about the linebackers in his post-game press conference with reporters:
“I was disappointed, particularly early in the game, with our linebacker play. I didn’t think that was very good. We’ll watch the film and make the corrections.”
Accordingly, the Saints chose to play the starters (Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and AJ Klein) in this past Thursday Night's 28-0 shutout win over the Los Angeles Rams in the team's 4th and final Pre-Season game; to give them more playing time together, in a contest that they otherwise would have been held out of.
And while they did appear to play much better as a group, especially with outstanding performances from back-ups Craig Robertson and Nate Stupar; the concern this coming Sunday will be how to stop the lethal combination of Howard and Brate.
Together, the two young TE's are emerging as a crucial part of the Buccaneers passing attack this year
Howard, who played in back-to-back national championship games at the University of Alabama under head coach Nick Saban, unexpectedly fell to the Bucs last year in the 2017 NFL Draft; with the #19 overall pick.
Tampa Bay was poised to take Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, but Buccaneers GM Jason Licht and head coach Dick Koetter ultimately decided that Howard was too good to pass up.
And thus far, it appears to have been a wise decision.
Howard is a complete tight end and involved more in the Bucs running game as a blocker, than he is in the passing game. Yet nevertheless, he still managed to catch 26 passes for 432 yards and six touchdowns for Tampa Bay last season as a rookie.
Grant it, those are considered relatively modest numbers for such a "hyped" player coming from a college like Alabama, but still there were some very encouraging aspects to his statistics, such as a 16.6-yard per catch average and six touchdown grabs, which tied for the team lead.
Regardless, there is so much that he can improve upon as he heads into his 2nd season, which is typically when NFL players make the biggest leap from their first to second year.
It's for that very reason, why Licht and Koetter are hoping that Howard could become a dominant player in 2018.
Howard showed how versatile and explosive he can be in the Bucs' offense during the Pre-Season. At 6-foot-6, 242 pounds, Howard is a big, fast target who is a mismatch for most linebackers and safeties.
Meanwhile, Brate — the former undrafted free agent out of Harvard University — finished the 2017 campaign with 48 receptions for 591 yards and six scores.
Brate has now caught 14 touchdown passes over the past two years and has amassed more than 1,300 receiving yards in that span; while solidifying himself as a starting-caliber tight end.
Brate, now in his 4th NFL season, originally entered the league in 2014 with the Buccaneers and spent that season on the practice squad. He was on the Buccaneers practice squad to start the 2015 season before being released on Sept. 15.
The Saints then signed him to the practice squad on Sept. 16, but an injury to then-Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (now playing with Jacksonville) prompted the Buccaneers to sign Brate from the Saints practice squad to the active roster on Sept. 22.
Brate finished the 2015 campaign appearing in 14 games with four starts for the Buccaneers, totaling 23 catches for 288 yards and three touchdowns on 30 targets. And as the saying goes: the rest is history.
In 6 games vs, the Saints, Brate has helped the Bucs win 2 games against New Orleans, including last December's 2017 Regular Season Finale in Tampa. In those contests, Brate has been targeted 19 times and caught 11 passes for 121 yards and a TD.
Which means that the Saints linebackers (and safeties) better have an eye on him once again this coming Sunday.
Payton has told reporters in the past that Brate always seems to jump out weekly when he watches every touchdown scored in the league on a tape reel, adding there is a confidence level between whomever is playing QB for the Buccaneers and Brate, which usually is with starting QB Jameis Winston,
But while Winston will miss this Sunday's game against the Saints while he serves a 3-game suspension for violating the League's personal conduct policy, Brate will still be catching passes from back-up QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who also has developed chemistry with the 26-year old.
"He's become a pretty big staple in what they do", Payton said at that time. "If you look at the targets on third downs, it's Evans and all of sudden it's the tight end."
Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is certainly well aware of Brate's ability, as he noted back during a 2016 interview with the then-Times-Picayune reporter (and now NFLcom writer) Herbie Teope:
“When they split him out - when you take a tight end and you split him out on the backside of a three-by-one formation knowing that you are going to get single-high safety and run isolation routes for that guy, you know they feel they have something special there,” Allen said.
“He is a big target on third down. He is a big target, especially down there in the red zone. I think he has played really well for them.”
Together last season as a duo, Brate and Howard combined for 12 touchdown grabs, and the Bucs are keen on making tight end targeting a key staple of their passing attack on offense this season and moving forward into the future.
But for now, they'll just be trying to lead the Bucs to an "upset" win over the Saints this Sunday.