The most significant news to come out of the dull, briskly-paced game (the contest took just two and half hours to complete) between Tampa Bay and New Orleans - with a sparse attendance of barely 30,000 people on hand to watch at LSU's Tiger Stadium - is that the Buccaneers prevailed, 10-3, and won their eighth game of the year.
With an 8-4 record and a 2-1 mark in the NFC South, it is clear that the Buccaneers' rebuilding plan engineered by head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen is working. After consecutive losing seasons in which the Bucs finished with 7-9 and 5-11 records, progress has been achieved, and the Bucs are guaranteed not to be losers in 2005 - thanks mostly to cornerback Ronde Barber, who showed off his Pro Bowl credentials for all to see with three key interceptions against the Saints, which tied his career high.
Barber was New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks' personal tormentor on Sunday, stymieing two potential Saints scoring drives with interceptions at the Tampa Bay 16-yard line in the first quarter and at the Bucs' goal line on New Orleans' final drive with less than two minutes remaining in regulation.
Barber, who recorded eight tackles and three passes defensed against the Saints, also picked off Brooks at the Tampa Bay 34 in the second quarter. That turnover keyed a touchdown drive that was capped off by a 30-yard touchdown pass from Chris Simms to split end Joey Galloway.
Barber actually had a chance at another interception in the third quarter, but free safety Dexter Jackson was able to wrestle it away from him in the end zone to thwart yet another potential New Orleans scoring opportunity.
Barber returned his three picks for 70 yards, which were more yards than any Saints running back or receiver posted on the day. Thanks to an aggressive Tampa Bay defense, the Saints were held to just one field goal, limited receiver Joe Horn to just two catches for 40 yards, containing the New Orleans ground game to just 2.4 yards per carry and sacking Brooks twice. Due to constant pressure from Tampa Bay's front four, Brooks only completed 52.4 percent of his passes, which - along with his four interceptions - contributed to his QB rating of 33.
Brooks' counterpart, Bucs quarterback Chris Simms, didn't have great numbers (12-of-21 for 123 yards) on the day, but played well enough to win and stayed within the game plan. Tampa Bay didn't turn the ball over against New Orleans and only had five penalties for 26 yards. However, one of those penalties was greatly welcomed by the Buccaneers as it eliminated Simms' only gaffe of the day.
On third-and-6 from the Tampa Bay 23 with 5:33 left in the third quarter, Simms' pass was tipped at the line from blitzing defensive back Jason Craft and caught in the air by defensive end Darren Howard, who returned the interception for a touchdown that would have given New Orleans a 10-7 lead at that juncture.
But a timely false start infraction on Tampa Bay right tackle Kenyatta Walker, who is the unthinkable hero in this game alongside Barber, negated the play and set up a third-and-12 situation after the penalty. The Bucs would get a first down on the next play when Simms hit Michael Pittman for a 13-yard gain on a screen pass.
Not only did Simms receive great protection from his offensive line (he was only sacked once and that was from a missed block by tight end Anthony Becht), but the O-line powered a ground game that generated 133 yards on 30 carries (4.4 avg.). Rookie running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams led the way with 96 yards rushing, including 32 yards in the fourth quarter that helped the Bucs melt away time off the clock and secure the win.
Pittman also contributed 40 yards rushing on four carries in the second half, including a 28-yarder off left tackle in the third quarter.
Tampa Bay stopped New Orleans' first scoring opportunity when Barber made a nice, one-handed interception at the Bucs' 16-yard line. On third-and-15 from the Bucs' 30, Barber tipped the ball to himself and raced 44 yards into New Orleans territory. But Tampa Bay's drive would end without points as Todd France's 44-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Howard with 39 seconds left in the first quarter.
France was signed this week to replace the ailing Matt Bryant against New Orleans. Bryant suffered a pulled hamstring against Chicago last week and was inactive on Sunday.
After the first quarter produced no points for either team, the Buccaneers got on the scoreboard first thanks to Barber's second interception of the game when he stepped in front of tight end Zach Hilton for the pick at the Bucs 36. Tampa Bay moved 64 yards in five plays and Simms found Galloway, who had a game-high five catches for 75 yards, on a quick slant pass for a 30-yard touchdown. New Orleans cornerback Fakhir Brown took a bad angle and was beaten on the play. With 4:44 remaining before halftime, Galloway's touchdown gave the Bucs a 7-0 lead.
New Orleans would answer Tampa Bay's score just before halftime with a 26-yard field goal by John Carney, capping off a 10-play, 57-yard scoring drive. A 41-yard screen pass from Brooks to running back Aaron Stecker got the ball down to the Bucs' 25-yard line where cornerback Brian Kelly made a touchdown-saving tackle. Two defensive holding calls on the Bucs moved the Saints closer to the end zone, but Tampa Bay's defense stiffened and forced New Orleans to settle for a field goal and a 7-3 score at halftime.
Tampa Bay added a 28-yard France field goal to push the score to 10-3 with 9:41 left in the game before Barber's heroics at the Bucs' goal line ensured Tampa Bay's eighth victory of the season.
Tampa Bay won the first of three-straight road contests, and must travel to Carolina next Sunday to face the NFC South division-leading Panthers, who have a 9-3 record thanks to their 24-6 win over Atlanta on Sunday.
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