Buccaneers Saints Football

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) comes off the line of scrimmage against New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Butch Dill) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

Much has changed in Tampa Bay since the New Orleans Saints were handed that season-opening 48-40 loss to the Buccaneers on Sept. 9.

Jameis Winston, who was serving a suspension at the time, has regained his starting quarterback spot from Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Week 1 starter who did his best Drew Brees impersonation that day in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Mark Duffner is now the defensive coordinator, leading a unit that improved vastly since Mike Smith was fired six weeks into the season.

The Saints followed that loss by reeling off 10 straight wins (that streak, of course, ended last Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys).

“It feels like it's been a long time ago," coach Sean Payton said. "Obviously, a lot’s taken place since then. We will be seeing a different quarterback in this game. I think there are some similarities relative to what the teams do scheme-wise — and yet, through the course of the season, there's been injuries, new players playing at different positions for both sides and a big enough gap to where you're watching a lot of other tape; not just the tape of your past game.”

While the Bucs personnel has changed since the season opener, the Saints are hoping the results change, as well.

The Saints (10-2) have lost their last two games against the Bucs, including last year's regular-season finale. Now they are looking to avoid what would be the franchise's first three-game losing streak against the Bucs (5-7).

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"The last two weeks, especially, they have been getting a bunch of takeaways," Drew Brees said of the Bucs. "They do a really good job of getting pressure with their front four, and that's always been a strong suit of that team and continues to be."

Brees will be facing a defense that has suddenly become opportunistic. The Buccaneers created just one turnover through the first 10 weeks of the season. They have six interceptions in the past two weeks, including four in Sunday's victory over the Carolina Panthers. 

"Our defense is playing faster and playing harder," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "We've been playing better defense, and in some areas our stats have skyrocketed. There are a couple areas where our stats have gone down to. The main thing I would look at there is our rush and coverage has been working together more."

Offensively, Winston has found his groove after serving that three-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. He didn't thrown an interception the past two weeks, leading the Bucs to back-to-back wins. He leads an offense that is tops in the NFL in yards passing (344.4 per game). His mobility creates a challenge different than the one Fitzpatrick gave in Week 1.

"I think both those quarterbacks are confident in getting the ball down the field," Payton said. "Jameis is buying some time with his feet. He's (become) a stronger player in the pocket, a little bit more difficult to sack and I think you begin really to spend most of your time defending the offense first and understanding the player second obviously.”

A Saints win would clinch the NFC South title and give the franchise its first back-to-back division championships.

"They present some issues," Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "For us, it's going to be about going out and not allowing them to score 48 points. We have to execute the game plan, stop the run, contesting throws on the back end, getting after Jameis in the pass rush and getting the ball back in Drew's hands and letting Drew do what he does."

Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.