The nuts and bolts

SAINTS at BUCS

Noon Sunday, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

TV: Fox

Radio: WWL-AM, 870; WWL-FM, 105.3; WDGL-FM, 98.1; KMDL-FM, 97.3

Favorite: Bucs by 4.5

Over/under: 50.5

Top storyline

Perhaps the silver lining to Mark Ingram suffering a season-ending shoulder injury is that it could force Sean Payton to figure out how to use C.J. Spiller.

Signed during the offseason to a lucrative contract, Spiller has struggled to get on the field this season and make any type of meaningful contribution, outside of the game-winning touchdown against the Cowboys.

Instead, he has spent the season mostly on the sideline, watching Ingram blossom into an all-purpose back.

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. Spiller was supposed to come to New Orleans and be a matchup nightmare, in much the same way Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush once were for this offense.

He was supposed to be the guy that forced safeties to cheat down and freeze defenses with his presence.

There have been times when those things have happened, but not consistently for it to make a difference. And if Ingram had not become injured, there’s a good chance Spiller would never have received the opportunity for something more.

It’s entirely possible the Saints could turn to Tim Hightower and give him the majority of the carries. It’s also possible that Spiller hasn’t done enough in practice to earn his shot, or his preseason knee injury has slowed him down more than anyone has let on.

But we’ll finally find out the answers to all those questions over the next four weeks. If Spiller is washed up, we’ll know. If he isn’t on the field, that will say a lot. Nothing will be hidden anymore.

Or maybe it will all work out. Maybe Payton will figure out how to use Spiller and build some momentum heading into next year.

The good news is that this situation will come to a resolution — one way or another.

Four downs

1. Line work

The Saints have battled several key injuries on the offensive line throughout the week, including to tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief and guard Jahri Evans. It looks like a few of those players should be ready in time for the game, but the key will be whether they are up to full strength — and ready to stand in and protect Drew Brees.

2. Tight on the end

The Saints will need to do a better job covering tight ends this week. After allowing Greg Olsen to beat New Orleans’ zone coverage several times last week, the defense comes up against another tight end, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who is good enough to take advantage of any mistakes. The key might be to man up on him in nickel.

3. Ellerbe back

The Saints should get a key player back this week with Dannell Ellerbe expected to make his return. The Saints were a much better defense when Ellerbe was on the field earlier this year. He should make a major impact in the running game and in coverage when the defense is operating out of its base packages.

4. Browner back?

Brandon Browner came under fire from all directions after last week’s game following some lapses in his coverage and for drawing a handful of penalties. He’s battled some of those issues all season, but not quite to this extent. Can he bounce back to a certain degree and put together a solid game? New Orleans needs it.

Know your opponent

Bucs DT Gerald McCoy

McCoy is still one of the NFL’s better interior pass rushers. He’s sitting on seven sacks and 26 pressures after finishing last season with 8.5 sacks. He’s going to give the interior of the Saints offensive line everything it can handle. And that might not be a great thing since Andrus Peat is still figuring things out at guard and New Orleans is battling injuries elsewhere on the line.

Bucs QB Jameis Winston

The first pick in the draft, Winston isn’t the same quarterback who passed for 207 yards against the Saints in Week 2, missing several open receivers. He has elevated his game, completing better than 65 percent of his passes in two of his past three games. He also passed for seven touchdowns and two interceptions in his past three games. This is a player making strides in his development, and he could pick apart this secondary.

Bucs RB Doug Martin

The Saints have struggled with ball population, especially on running plays. That could be a major problem this week. Martin has proved to be one of the more elusive running backs in the league, and he has done a great job inducing missed tackles. Wrapping him up and putting him on the ground is going to be paramount to success this week for the Saints. If they don’t do it, Martin will take advantage of every inch given.

Injury report

Saints

OUT: DT John Jenkins (concussion), G Jahri Evans (ankle)

PROBABLE: WR Brandin Cooks (concussion), T Zach Strief (shoulder), T Terron Armstead (knee), CB Delvin Breaux (hamstring), CB Brian Dixon (abdomen), LB Dannell Ellerbe (hip), WR Willie Snead (calf), WR Marques Colston (not injury-related), DE Bobby Richardson (hamstring)

Look for Tyeler Davison to start in place of Jenkins, as he did last week. Davison, a rookie, put forth a strong performance against Carolina; can he keep the momentum going?

With Evans out, Tim Lelito started in his place last week. That should remain the same, though Senio Kelemete could figure into the mix as well.

Bucs

OUT: DE Jacquies Smith (hamstring)

DOUBTFUL: DE George Johnson (calf)

QUESTIONABLE: LB Lavonte David (ankle) PROBABLE: CB Jude Adjei-Barimah (eblow), LB Bruce Carter (concussion), T Gosder Cherilus (knee), DE William Gholston (concussion), WR Vincent Jackson (knee), G Logan Mankins (not injury-related), DT Gerald McCoy (hand), C Evan Smith (not injury-related)

Predictions

Nick Underhill: Bucs 23, Saints 20

Losing Mark Ingram is a massive blow. He has meant so much to the offense, both in the running and passing games, and taking him out of the equation is going to hurt. If the Saints can’t find a way to run the football — or throw screen passes out of the backfield — it’s hard to imagine they’ll get out of Tampa with a victory.

Joel A. Erickson: Bucs 28, Saints 23

There’s a chance the Saints offense has caught a break against Tampa Bay this week. Jacquies Smith, who had three sacks in the first meeting, won’t play, and Gerald McCoy has a bum wing. Even so, New Orleans has its own injuries to deal with, and the defense hasn’t put together a complete game in a long, long time. Until the Saints build some momentum, it’s hard to pick them.

Scott Rabalais: Bucs 31, Saints 21

Wasn’t too long ago that the Saints could count on the Bucs for being worth two wins a year. This year, they’re trying to avoid the sweep. The Saints gave a spirited effort against Carolina last week, and I see the defense continuing to force turnovers. But the Saints’ problems, like losing Mark Ingram, are growing, not shrinking. What’s shrinking are the Saints’ hopes of avoiding a losing season.