New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) carries on a pass reception ahead of Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones (45) and defensive end Vic Beasley (44) in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) passes under pressure from Atlanta Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn (99) in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston passes during warmups before an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Scott Eklund)
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Drew Brees looks at Tampa Bay and sees an opportunity for the New Orleans Saints to reassert themselves, though not necessarily because the Buccaneers have a young, inexperienced secondary.
The Bucs may rank last in the NFL in pass defense, but the veteran quarterback of the NFC South leaders - coming off a lopsided loss to the Atlanta Falcons - says he pays a lot more attention to game film than numbers while preparing for an opponent.
''I'm saying just in general, I don't look at statistics and then judge a defense or anyone based just on the statistics,'' Brees said. ''I'm going to turn on the tape, I'm going to trust what I see, and then I'm going to go out to execute according to that.''
The Bucs (3-6) lead the NFL in run defense, yielding just 77.8 yards per game on the ground. Conversely, they're allowing an average of 299 through the air while giving up a league-high 31 points per game.
And that's before coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht decided to part ways with cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who was waived this week after being benched for a portion of last Sunday's 30-27 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
With a couple of other young, inexperienced players dealing with injuries, Tampa Bay probably will be forced to start three rookies (safety Mike Edwards, cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean) and a second-year player (safety Jordan Whitehead) in the defensive backfield against the Saints on Sunday.
Brees isn't assuming New Orleans (7-2) will have a clear-cut advantage.
''They're young, but they're talented,'' the 40-year-old quarterback said. ''Look at the investment that they've made in their secondary over the last three years with draft picks.''
Hargreaves was a first-round pick, No. 11 overall in 2016. In addition to selecting him, the Bucs used four second-round selections, two third-round picks and a pair of fourth-rounders on defensive backs over the past four years.
''Defensively, we're still a work in progress. ... All those young kids in the secondary are getting better and better,'' said Arians, whose team ended a four-game losing streak against Arizona.
Now, it's the division-leading Saints looking to rebound after being held without a touchdown in last week's 26-9 loss to last-place Atlanta.
New Orleans beat Tampa Bay 31-24 at home without an injured Brees (thumb) on Oct. 6. After facing the Bucs again, the Saints will complete a stretch of four consecutive games against NFC South foes by hosting Carolina and traveling to Atlanta.
Brees expects the Saints to play better Sunday.
''We were extremely disappointed in our performance (last week). I think we know we're a lot better than that and understand that, especially at this point in the season, this is a time when we really want to start separating ourselves from the pack,'' he said.
While the Saints held Bucs receiver Mike Evans without a catch in their last meeting, the defender who primarily covered Evans might not be able to play on Sunday. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore left last weekend's game with a pulled hamstring. The Saints moved P.J. Williams to cornerback and rookie C.J. Gardner Johnson into Williams' usual nickel back slot. The results were encouraging. Although the Saints lost, the Falcons finished with fewer than 200 net yards passing. Still, Saints coach Sean Payton is weary of Jameis Winston's ability to get the ball downfield to both Evans and Chris Godwin.
''Their passing numbers right now are outstanding when you look at (the Bucs' success rate on) third down, at what they're scoring,'' Payton said. ''So, changing up the looks, trying to affect him is important and then understanding, hey, how are the interceptions coming, how are the fumbles coming? All of those things you study.''
Hargreaves was due to earn $9 million next season, although it was guaranteed for injury only. While the impending salary was a factor in the decision to release the fourth-year pro, the move also reiterated one of Arians' points of emphasis in his first season with the Bucs.
''You control your attitude and your effort,'' the coach said. ''You don't control a lot of things, but you control those two - and they better be good.''
Starting left guard Andrus Peat, a 2018 Pro Bowl selection and 2015 first-round pick, broke his arm during New Orleans' loss to Atlanta and had surgery this week. His recovery could keep him out until the final week of the regular season. Will Clapp, a second-year pro out of LSU, was first off the bench to replace Peat during the game. Clapp struggled, but so did much of the offensive line that day, when Brees was sacked six times. In addition to Clapp, the Saints have a couple of veterans who could sub in as needed: Nick Easton and Patrick Omameh. Easton was signed as a free agent when center Max Unger retired, but the Saints then acquired Texas A&M center Erik McCoy in the second round of last spring's draft and he won the job. Easton has played in just three games this season and was a healthy scratch last weekend, but that could change.
''Every season, you're going to have guys that go down for a period of time - you hope not too long, and you have to have guys step up and fill in,'' Brees said. ''I'm confident with the guys we have to do that.''
San Francisco 49ers running back Matt Breida ran well in his return from injury in Week 14 (9.0 YPC) but played just 12 snaps. With Raheem Mostert taking charge of the backfield, Breida and Tevin Coleman will battle for touches, rendering both risky flex options. Averaging a healthy 5.2 yards per tote this year, Breida has outplayed Coleman, giving him the slight edge in change-of-pace duties against a beatable Falcons rush defense. However, Breida has been a nonfactor in the red zone and his uncertain opportunity share makes him a relatively low-ceiling play.
Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku (knee) was a full participant in practice on Thursday after being limited on Wednesday. Njoku returned in Week 14 from Injured Reserve and posted just one catch for four yards in the win over the Bengals. The 23-year-old has plenty of upside, but fantasy owners will be worried that he'll have his snaps limited for the second straight game. The Cardinals Defense is the worst team at defending the position, though, so Njoku will have boom-or-bust appeal as a TE2 this Sunday.
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle cemented his status as a gridiron beast in Week 14 by securing the Niners victory with a highlight-reel catch-and rumble. Hell return to his premium TE1 status in Week 15 against the Atlanta Falcons. Despite missing two games with a broken ankle, Kittle has heated up in the second half, amassing 292 yards and three touchdowns since Week 10. The Niners draw a cushy matchup against a Falcons Defense ranked 26th in pass DVOA, setting up Kittle favorably for an encore performance. In a critical fantasy weekend, Kittle managers should feel confident having the All-Pro on their roster.
Philadelphia Eagles WR Nelson Agholor (knee), DE Derek Barnett (ankle) and OT Lane Johnson (ankle) did not participate in practice Thursday, Dec. 12. RB Jordan Howard (shoulder) and CB Jalen Mills (elbow) were limited. LB Kamu Grugier-Hill (concussion) practiced in full.
Tennessee Titans WR Adam Humphries (ankle) did not participate in practice Thursday, Dec. 12.
Fantasy Spin: It appears like Humphries will miss another game because of the injury, so he should be avoided in all fantasy leagues.
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Kendrick Bourne has emerged lately as a red zone threat. The third-year pro has collected five spikes in his last six games, operating as the teams primary third receiver. With Marquise Goodwin (foot, knee) on injured reserve, Bournes 50 percent snap share should remain steady in Week 15 against the Atlanta Falcons, even with sophomore disappointment Dante Pettis (knee) back in the mix. While his touchdown prowess is tough to ignore, Bourne hasnt eclipsed four catches or 45 yards during his scoring run, rendering him a volatile WR5.
Updating a previous report, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee), who was limited in practice on Thursday, is still expected to play in Week 15 against the Bills on Sunday night, barring any future setbacks. Smith-Schuster practiced in full on Wednesday, so the limited practice was initially seen as a troubling setback. He's been out since Nov. 14, though, and is more of a weak WR4 choice for fantasy owners with Devlin Hodges throwing him passes in an extremely tough matchup. Avoiding all Pittsburgh pass-catchers is probably the best strategy in the fantasy playoffs. James Washington's upside takes the biggest hit with Smith-Schuster expected back.
Tennessee Titans LB Daren Bates (shoulder), RB Derrick Henry (hamstring), WR Adam Humphries (ankle) and CB Adoree' Jackson (foot) did not participate in practice Thursday, Dec. 12. DT Jurrell Casey (knee) was limited. C Ben Jones (thumb), CB LeShaun Sims (ankle) and S Kenny Vaccaro (concussion) practiced in full.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (hamstring) and OT Donovan Smith (ankle, knee) did not practice Thursday, Dec. 12. LB Anthony Nelson (hamstring), LB Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) and QB Jameis Winston (thumb, knee) were limited. OG Alex Cappa (elbow), OT Demar Dotson (non-injury), WR Scott Miller (hamstring) and DL Beau Allen (ankle) practiced in full.
Updating a previous report, Indianapolis Colts WR T.Y. Hilton (calf) was officially limited during practice Thursday, Dec. 12.
Fantasy Spin: Hilton appears to have a chance to play in Week 15 but will be a risky option since the Colts play on Monday Night Football. Fantasy players should monitor the situation over the next few days to have a better idea of Hilton's status.
Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry (hamstring) did not participate in practice Thursday, Dec. 12.
Fantasy Spin: Henry is optimistic about his availability for Week 15, but fantasy players will need to keep an eye on the situation. He is a must-start option in all fantasy leagues if he is active for the game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Scott Miller (hamstring) got in a full practice on Thursday after being limited on Wednesday. He looks to be on track to return for Week 15 in a mouthwatering matchup against the Lions. There is increased opportunity to produce as well with Mike Evans shut down for the rest of the year. Miller has only 10 catches on the year for 151 yards and no touchdowns, so he'd still be a lottery ticket for desperate fantasy owners in redraft leagues. Behind Chris Godwin, it will be Miller, Breshad Perriman and Justin Watson fighting for targets from quarterback Jameis Winston.
Detroit Lions OG Joe Dahl (back, knee), LB Jarrad Davis (ankle, knee), DT Damon Harrison (calf, knee, shoulder, rest), DT A'Shawn Robinson (shoulder), RB Bo Scarbrough (ribs), QB Matthew Stafford (hip, back) and OT Ricky Wagner (knee) did not participate in practice Thursday, Dec. 12. DE Austin Bryant (hip), LB Christian Jones (shoulder) and P Sam Martin (abdomen) were limited. CBs Jamal Agnew (ankle) and CB Rashaan Melvin (ribs) practiced in full.
Miami Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (shoulder) fully participated in practice Thursday, Dec. 12.
Fantasy Spin: Fitzpatrick was held without a touchdown pass last week but did post five touchdowns in the previous two games. He should have a favorable matchup this week but may only be a starting option in two-quarterback leagues.
Miami Dolphins WR Allen Hurns (ankle, knee) fully participated in practice Thursday, Dec. 12.
Fantasy Spin: Hurns appears to be on track to play in the Week 15 game and could serve as the top receiver if DeVante Parker is ruled out. He has a chance to be at least a flex option in deeper leagues if he plays.
Washington Redskins CB Quinton Dunbar (hamstring), LB Ryan Kerrigan (calf), OT Donald Penn (knee, back), WR Trey Quinn (concussion), RB Adrian Peterson (toe) and CB Josh Norman (illness) did not practice Thursday, Dec. 12. LB Ryan Anderson (shoulder), CB Fabian Moreau (hamstring), WR Paul Richardson (hamstring) and OG Brandon Scherff (elbow, shoulder) were limited. OT Morgan Moses (toe), QB Dwayne Haskins (ankle) and LB Cole Holcomb (thumb) practiced in full.
Detroit Lions running back Bo Scarbrough (ribs) was downgraded to out of practice on Thursday after getting in a limited session on Wednesday. It puts Scarbrough in danger of missing Week 15 against the Buccaneers, especially if he misses another practice on Friday. Even if Scarbrough plays, he'll be more of a low-upside RB3/flex in a tough matchup with a surprisingly good Buccaneers run defense this year. Rookie Ty Johnson and J.D. McKissic would split the workload in the backfield if Scarbrough is inactive this Sunday. Detroit's offense under third-string quarterback David Blough is limping to the finish line.
Detroit Lions RB Bo Scarbrough (ribs) did not take part in practice Thursday, Dec. 12.
Fantasy Spin: Scarbrough has been a steady if not unspectacular fantasy option since taking over the lead job in Week 11. If he cannot go in Week 15 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Lions would likely split work between Ty Johnson and J.D. McKissic. If he misses more than one week, Kerryon Johnson (knee) could return from IR and take back the starting job in Week 16.
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Adam Humphries (ankle) remained out of practice for the second straight day on Thursday. Humphries looks destined to miss his second straight game unless he can get in at least a limited practice on Friday. In this run-first offense, Humphries hasn't been fantasy relevant all year. Rookie A.J. Brown is your best bet as an upside WR2 in Week 15 against the Texans suspect secondary, while Corey Davis should remain the No. 2 option. Even if Humphries plays, you should leave him to the waiver wire in redraft leagues.
Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (knee) returned to a limited practice on Thursday after being held out on Wednesday. The Falcons were likely just managing his repetitions on Wednesday. Expect Freeman to be taken off the injury report on Friday and to play in Week 15 against the 49ers. He had one of his best games of the season last Sunday against the Panthers and scored his first rushing touchdown of the year. That's all well and good, but you should fully expect a letdown in Week 15 against one of the best all-around defenses in the league on the road. Freeman is a low-end RB2 for the second round of the fantasy playoffs.