TAMPA -- No LeGarrette Blount, no Gerald McCoy, no problem for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during Sunday afternoon’s impressive 26-20 win over division nemesis New Orleans.
One week removed from enduring a 45-point trashing in San Francisco and being worrisomely shorthanded, Tampa Bay responded by picking an opportune time to play perhaps its most complete game of the season.
“Our guys did a nice job of staying in the fight, manipulating the lead and getting the win,” Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said. “I had a lot of confidence in these guys bouncing back.”
“We knew we were at 3-2 and we knew what they were and we knew we had the ability to take over the lead, being 2-0 in the division,” he continued. “Going out and winning our division, that’s what we said we wanted to do right from the beginning, that’s been our mentality.”
The win marks the second in a row against NFC South rival New Orleans after Tampa Bay won last year’s season finale, 23-13. It also gives the Bucs sole possession of first place in the division. Tampa Bay and New Orleans are now tied atop the standings with overall records of 4-2, but the Bucs’ perfect 2-0 divisional mark gives them a one-game edge after six weeks.
Sunday’s game was played under partly cloudy skies on an 84-degree afternoon and the official paid attendance was reported as 56,590.
Starting on defense for Tampa Bay was: LE Michael Bennett, DT Frank Okam, DT Brian Price, RE Adrian Clayborn, WLB Geno Hayes, MLB Mason Foster, SLB Dekoda Watson LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Ronde Barber, SS Sean Jones, FS Tanard Jackson.
The Bucs lined up offensively with: WR Mike Williams, LT Donald Penn, LG Jeremy Zuttah, C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood, TE Kellen Winslow, WR Arrelious Benn, RB Earnest Graham, FB Erik Lorig and QB Josh Freeman.
Seven Buccaneers were listed as inactive. They were RB LeGarrette Blount, DT Gerald McCoy, WR Sammie Stroughter, LB Zac Diles, TE Luke Stocker, OT Derek Hardman and OT James Lee.
One Buccaneers’ player – C Jeff Faine – did not return to the field in the second half. Faine suffered a biceps injury and said in the locker room afterward that it wasn’t serious.
In two odd sequences of events, two coaches were also hurt on Sunday – and much more seriously than Faine. First, New Orleans head coach Sean Payton had his legs taken out on the sideline, spent most of the first half coaching from the bench and then moved up to call plays from the box for the entire second half. It was revealed later that he broke a leg and tore a medial collateral ligament. The Bucs secondary coach Jimmy Lake suffered a torn patellar tendon while celebrating a play in the second quarter.
Tampa Bay headed into the fourth quarter with the lead Sunday, 23-13, for the first time this season other than Week 3’s home win over Atlanta and needed a number of big plays to hold onto victory.
After the Saints pulled to within three points on RB Mark Ingram’s 12-yard touchdown run with 12:59 remaining, Tampa Bay was only able to respond with a 38-yard Connor Barth field goal to increase its shaky lead to 26-20. Quarterback Josh Freeman nearly converted the Bucs’ third-and-10 before the kick, but Saints CB Jabari Greer’s defense of WR Mike Williams while breaking up a timing route to the right sideline was deemed a clean play.
During the Ingram touchdown drive earlier in the quarter, Tampa Bay CB Elbert Mack was called for pass interference against Saints WR Lance Moore that jumpstarted the seven-play, 82-yard drive.
Following Barth’s field goal, responsibility went to the Tampa Bay defense to hold onto a thin six-point cushion. Quarterback Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints offense still had 7:26 to play with, took over at their own 24 and marched 72 yards in nine plays all the way to the Bucs’ 4 before Tampa Bay’s next big play. Brees rolled right on fourth-and-2 and floated a pass right into the hands of Bucs LB Quincy Black standing in the end zone.
Brees entered Sunday afternoon’s game having thrown five interceptions and the Tampa Bay defense tacked three more onto that total. Free safety Tanard Jackson, playing and starting in his first game since Week 2 of last year, got things started when he snared Robert Meachem’s bobbled reception attempt out of the air late in the second quarter.
Jackson’s impact on Tampa Bay’s defense was felt immediately. On the Saints’ second play of its second drive, the fourth-year safety acted as the Bucs’ last line of defense against speedy running back Derren Sproles and forced him out of bounds after a 16-yard pick up.
“That’s why we put him out there,” Morris said of Jackson and the decision to play him right away. “You know Tanard is different, he’s been different since he’s been here, we’ve known that. He started from day one, he’s started every game he’s put a Buccaneer helmet on and, hopefully, he’ll continue to do that.”
“It feels great,” Jackson said of being back.” Words can’t even express how I’m feeling right now. It’s just an emotional day for me from the start. I’m just glad we got this win, that’s the greatest thing.”
Also nabbing a second-quarter Brees pass was CB E.J. Biggers just one New Orleans drive after Jackson’s play. Despite the problem with the picks, Brees ended up setting a new NFL record on Sunday by recording his fourth-consecutive, 350-plus yard passing day. He went 29 of 45 for 383 yards, but finished with a passer rating of only 70.9.
On top of the three interceptions, Tampa Bay added a fumble recovery on New Orleans’ first offensive series of the game. Linebacker Geno Hayes shot in behind RB Pierre Thomas and jarred loose a ball that was quickly jumped on by DE Da’Quan Bowers.
The 4-0 turnover differential immensely factored into Tampa Bay’s win. The Bucs turned around and scored 10 total points off New Orleans’ miscues. The Bucs didn’t score after Black’s fourth-quarter interception, but they didn’t have to. Two big offensive plays eventually iced the game and allowed Freeman to set up the victory formation.
The first came on third-and-9 when WR Dezmon Briscoe went low to secure a 17-yard reception, keeping the Bucs from having to punt away possession before the two-minute warning. New Orleans challenged the reception and lost, surrendering its second of three timeouts.
The second and final impact play came from the man filling in for RB LeGarrette Blount. Earnest Graham’s 12-yard run off the left guard was the first play after the two-minute warning and caused New Orleans to burn its final timeout. The rush also put Graham over 100 yards for the day, the sixth time he’s surpassed the century mark in his career. The eight-year veteran finished with 17 carries for 109 yards and a 6.4-yard average
“Insurance Graham,” Morris said of the nickname he’s given his dependable and versatile back. “I mean we can’t say enough about him. If we ask him to play fullback, he plays fullback. If we ask him to play tailback, he plays tailback. Put him at tight end, he plays tight end. Put him on special teams, he plays special teams. He just does anything you ask him to do. He was almost a linebacker the week before. He just does it, he loves football.”
New Orleans outgained Tampa Bay in total yardage 453-420 on Sunday, but the Bucs’ defense – absent McCoy on their interior line – effectively turned the Saints’ offense into a one-dimensional attack by shutting down the running game. Ingram finished as New Orleans’ leading rushing with only 22 yards on nine touches. Through three quarters, Brees was the team’s top rusher with two runs for 18 yards. The Saints ended with 70 yards on 20 attempts.
Defensive lineman Frank Okam [four tackles] and Bowers [fumble recovery] primarily filled in for McCoy. Leading the Bucs in overall tackling was CB Ronde Barber and Hayes, both with seven.
The only time Tampa Bay trailed Sunday was in the first quarter immediately after the Bucs went up 3-0 on Barth’s 48-yard field goal set up by Jackson’s interception. New Orleans got the ball back and found the end zone when WR Marques Colston badly beat Barber on a stop-and-go move down the sideline for a wide-open 38-yard touchdown.
The first quarter ended with New Orleans up 7-3, but the Bucs would jump back on top after its first possession of the second quarter. Tampa Bay covered 80 yards in three plays and Freeman capped the drive with a 65-yard touchdown pass to WR Arrelious Benn. The second-year wideout found an opening in a blown Saints coverage package, Freeman hit him toward the middle of the field and then Benn took care of the rest. The completion was the longest of Freeman’s three-year career and put Tampa Bay back on top 10-7.
The Bucs would never trail again and need no fourth-quarter heroics from Freeman.
“Our defense played great and gave us a chance to win,” Freeman said, crediting the other side of the ball. “When your defense does that, you’ve got to be happy. With three interceptions, especially at the end, that’s huge.”
Sunday was the second interception-free game of Freeman’s season as he piled up 303 yards on 23 of 41 passing, two touchdowns and a 95.9 passer rating.
After Barth hit a 42-yard field goal midway through the second quarter, Tampa Bay increased its lead to its largest margin when WR Preston Parker caught his second touchdown reception of the year. The Bucs went up 20-3 when they ran a double post with Parker on top and the second-year receiver beat and outran Saints CB Tracy Porter.
Bucs WR Mike Williams finished as the team’s leading receiver Sunday, pulling in six passes for 59 yards. Benn led in yardage with 83 on three catches.
New Orleans was able to climb back to within 20-10 with 6 seconds left in the first half with a 33-yard John Kasey field goal.
The only scoring in the third quarter was traded field goals late. Kasey hit his 24-yarder first to shrink Tampa Bay’s lead to 20-13 and Barth nailed another from 42 yards to put the Bucs back up by 10.
Barth hit four of his five field goal attempts Sunday. His miss came earlier in the third from 55 yards out and set up Kasey’s eventual 24-yarder by starting Brees and the Saints off at their own 45.
Sunday’s win allows the Bucs to prepare for next week’s London game against Chicago in good spirits. The team’s trans-Atlantic flight departs Monday. Following the trip to the United Kingdom, Tampa Bay will get its bye week and then will have to tangle with the Saints for the second time in four weeks – that time in New Orleans.