As most Who Dat fans are more than aware: the Saints defense this week is having to endure the countless number of stories written about just how bad they performed during their season-opening 48-40 loss to this upcoming Sunday’s opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneeers, back in Week #1 — while allowing 529 yards and six plays of 30 or more yards in what can only be described as an embarrassing performance.
However, as the two teams prepare to do battle in this Sunday’s rematch at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL, the chances are pretty good that the Saints might look to “flip the script” so to speak, and target a Tampa Bay defensive back that Saints fans all know and love (not really): 3rd year Tampa Bay veteran and former Saints CB De’Vante Harris.
The Saints released Harris following the first Pre-Season game back in early August, but he was claimed off waivers by the Bucs and played the final three preseason games with his new club. Then when all NFL teams had to trim their Opening Day rosters from 90 to 53, Harris surprisingly made the Tampa Bay regular-season roster.
At that time, Bucs’ head coach Dirk Koetter allegedly came away impressed with what he saw from the 25-year-old and former lock down CB at Texas A&M University.
“When he came in here, he just did a good job of competing every day,” Koetter told NOLA.com. “We went through a period in training camp where we were pretty beat up at corner, so he got to jump right in and get some work, and he did a good job.”
Harris, who wasn’t selected in the 2016 NFL Draft despite his “lock down” capability for the Aggies, signed with New Orleans as an undrafted free agent in April of that year; and he ended up playing 21 total games for the Saints during the previous two seasons (2016 and 2017), primarily on special teams.
But his time in New Orleans ended with Saints fans very unhappy over his performance; given his very notable struggles last season in which many observers felt made him the team’s worst player at what was an otherwise position of strength last season: the cornerback position.
Harris appeared in 21 games (two starts) over the past two seasons with the Saints, including 11 games with one start in 2017, totaling 24 tackles (21 solo), three passes defensed and a fumble recovery.
But he had his ups and downs during that time, and last year during the 2017 Saints season it took a turn for the worse.
Among his misfortunes: getting “torched” by then-Vikings QB Sam Bradford during Minnesota’s Week #1 29-19 victory in Minneapolis; and then the game most Saints fans remember vividly: a 26-20 loss at Los Angeles to the Rams in Week #12, where he got victimized on several pass plays from Rams QB Jared Goff to then-Rams WR Sammy Watkins (now with Kansas City).
He was then cut from the active roster following the game.
Eventually, the team re-signed him (to the displeasure of many of those same Saints fans) a week later, and he remained with the team all during this past off-season, before he was cut after that first week in August.
Most observers at the time assumed that Bucs claimed him just so that they could “pick his brain” for knowledge about the schemes that New Orleans runs under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. But Koetter and the Bucs claimed otherwise,
“He didn’t come in here and he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself because he got let go there,” Koetter said. “He came in and he competed and we decided to get a spot for him. That’s what guys do in this league. It happens all the time. Guys get a fresh start somewhere else, and for one reason or another, it works out better. Maybe the Saints are just deeper, I’m not sure, but he’s done a good job since he’s been here.”
Whether you believe Koetter was actually telling the truth (or not) is irrelevant, since Harris did end up sticking around with the Bucs; although up until just last week. he only had ONE defensive snap this entire season for Tampa — with the rest of his work coming on special teams.
But that all changed when the Bucs were FORCED to use Harris in Tampa Bay’s 24-17 win last week over the Carolina Panthers; after injuries to CB Brent Grimes (knee), Carlton Davis (knee) and M.J. Stewart (foot). All three players were inactive in last week’s contest.
Harris ended up playing in all 70 of the Bucs’ snaps on defense, and had three pass breakups, along with 3 combined tackles.
It’s unclear at this point as to how much action Harris will see this Sunday against his former team; but you had better believe that IF Harris plays, he WILL be targeted by Drew Brees and the Saints offense. Brees had some big-time success against the Tampa defense back in Week #1, when he threw for a season-high 439 yards and 4 TD’s.
In fairness to Tampa, those numbers came against a struggling Buccaneers defensive unit led by former defensive coordinator (and former Falcons head coach) Mike Smith; whom the team fired after Week #6 following a loss (ironically) to those same Falcons.
Before he was fired, Smith’s unit gave up 400-plus yards worth of total offense to opponents in each of their first five games. Through the NFL’s first six weesk, Smith’s defense ranked 32nd in points per game allowed (34.6), 32nd in passing yards (355.6), and 31st in yards allowed per game (439.8).
The Bucs defense under Smith were giving up the most points in the NFL and were ranked in the Bottom 5 in sacks, as well as total defense.
But the Buccaneers promoted linebackers coach Mark Duffner to take over Smith’s position; and since that time, the Tampa defense has been playing at a very high level.
Under Duffner’s lesdership, the Bucs defense has surged in recent weeks; as Tampa has now risen to 27th overall from dead last (32nd overall).
Part of the reason for that surge is because Tampa has made major strides in several key areas, despite injuries to multiple starters at linebacker and in the secondary.
As noted by The Athletic.com Buccaneers beat writer Greg Auman: when the Bucs made the change at coordinator, they ranked 29th with just nine sacks, but since the switch to Duffner, the Bucs have the second-highest total in the league, with 20 sacks in the last six games.
They’ve had four sacks in each of the last two games, the first time the Bucs have done that in consecutive weeks since 2013.
That improved pass rush has allowed the rest of the Bucs defense to play as well as they have performed all year; as evidenced by their win over the Panthers in which they forced 4 sacks and 4 turnovers, three of them coming on interceptions from undrafted free agent safety Andrew Adams.
While the Buccaneers defense still gave up a ton of yards (444), they also made a ton of impact plays that changed the outcome of that same game; which included a huge 4th Down stop late in the fourth quarter against Panthers QB Cam Newton.
Undoubtedly, Harris played a helping hand in that performance.
But despite raising the proverbial bar on his play, Harris still has much to prove — and considering how much he struggled during his time with the Saints, it’s more than fair to say that if Duffner and the Bucs coaching staff put him back out there once again, he certainly will be targeted.