The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ road to 10 wins and an NFC South division title just got a little steeper Sunday afternoon after falling flat in New Orleans and losing 27-16.
Coupled with the Atlanta Falcons’ 31-7 win over Indianapolis, Tampa Bay (4-4) now finds itself looking up at both teams heading into Week 10’s home date with the Houston Texans.
Leading up to Sunday’s divisional rematch, talk focused all week on New Orleans’ desire to bounce back from an embarrassing loss at St. Louis and Tampa Bay being healed and revitalized following its bye.
Half of those expectations proved accurate as the Drew Brees-led Saints were persistent aggressors and never trailed while the Bucs’ late charge could not mask an ineffective three quarters of spotty play and missed opportunities.
While Brees didn’t hit the 300-yard mark through the air, his precision was razor sharp. The 11th-year pro connected on 27 of 36 attempts for 258 yards and two touchdowns.
New Orleans’ need for a huge statistical day out of Brees was tempered by a devastating ground attack that churned out seven yards per carry and 195 total. Second-year back Chris Ivory led the ground attack with 67 yards on 15 touches.
RB Darren Sproles, penned in for 62 yards of offense during the Bucs’ 26-20 Week 6 win over New Orleans, again touched the ball nine times but with greater effectiveness. The Saints’ diminutive spark plug recorded three of the team’s top eight longest plays, included a 21-yard reception for a touchdown in the second quarter that pumped New Orleans’ early lead up to 14-0.
Sproles fueled the Saints’ initial score one series prior by picking up a combined 50 yards on the drive’s first two plays. That head start eventually set up Brees’ 3-yard, fade-route touchdown pass to WR Lance Moore over the head of CB E.J. Biggers.
Tampa Bay’s offense, while sufficiently capable in moving the ball, couldn’t match the Saints’ ability to make plays when they were needed the most. QB Josh Freeman went 27 of 37 passing for 281 yards and RB LeGarrette Blount picked up 72 yards on 13 carries, but the Bucs only converted two of their 12 third downs and repeatedly failed to capitalize on opportunities. Once again playing a role in some wasted chances were more ill-timed penalties. Tampa Bay miscues drew nine flags for 80 yards.
As the Bucs struggles to move the chains on the money down, Brees and New Orleans were their typical, efficient selves, going five-for-10 in such situations. The Saints entered Sunday tops in the NFL in conversion percentage.
Exemplifying the Bucs’ struggles to convert big plays were the repeated breakdowns suffered during the drive that followed Sproles’ second-quarter touchdown.
Return man Preston Parker provided an immediate jolt with his 45-yard runback to the Bucs’ 41. The Tampa Bay offense responded by going three-and-out, but caught a break when Saints CB Patrick Robinson was flagged for a defensive delay-of-game foul that gave the Bucs a fresh set of downs. Now at the Saints’ 48, Tampa Bay managed to gain only six more yards and P Michael Koenen trotted back out.
Adding salt to the wound at this point was seeing recently returned defensive tackle Gerald McCoy being taken into the locker room following the New Orleans touchdown drive with an arm injury. Reports following the game were not positive and hinted at the possibility of it being a season-ending setback.
Even as the Bucs settled for three Connor Barth field goals before scoring their first touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay still managed to put itself within striking distance Sunday afternoon.
Down 24-6 entering the final 15 minutes, Freeman led the Bucs to 10 unanswered fourth-quarter points as he tried to stir up thoughts of a ninth-career comeback victory. The touchdown with 5:33 left came on a five-yard hookup with TE Kellen Winslow (four catches for 29 yards) after Freeman feigned a quarterback draw.
Although the touchdown created a one-possession game for Tampa Bay, at 24-16, the drive came just after the Bucs left additional points on the field once again. Thanks to a Malcolm Jenkins pass interference penalty while trying to defend Parker on third-and-13, Tampa Bay received a first-and-goal situation at the Saints 7-yard line. Rather than finding the end zone, the Bucs squandered the chance and Barth was called upon for the third time and booted a 25 yarder. The Bucs’ fourth-year kicker went three-for-three Sunday afternoon, hitting on two other occasions from 40 and 48.
With the Bucs needing a defensive stop to get the ball back following Winslow’s touchdown, the guy Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris said they needed to key in on all week leading up to Sunday delivered the knockout blow. Brees took a shotgun snap on third-and-4 from the Bucs’ 46, saw the middle of the field completely devoid of Tampa Bay defenders and took off for a 20-yard pickup to the 26-yard line. New Orleans called three running plays that ate up all of the Bucs’ timeouts and K John Kasey effectively iced the game with a 34-yard field goal.
The game’s only turnover was provided by Bucs CB Ronde Barber early in the second half. Keeping an eye on Sproles coming out of the backfield, Barber jumped Brees’ screen pass for his second interception of the season and the 42nd of his 15-year career.
Down 17-3 at the time, the pick gave Tampa Bay possession at the Saints’ 33 but the Bucs again did little with the opportunity. On third-and-4, New Orleans again assisted the Bucs’ drive with a penalty. DE Will Smith was called for encroachment and Tampa Bay moved to the 22 with new life.
On first down, RB Kregg Lumpkin wheeled out of the backfield and essentially tripped over his own feet trying to pull in a high Freeman pass that could have gone for a big play. Touchdown aspirations took a serious blow on the next down when Blount was hit with a 15-yard unnecessary roughness flag for shoving his hand in the facemask of Smith. Instead of being at the Saints’ 21, Tampa Bay found itself at the 36 and facing third-and-24. The Bucs did not convert and Barth hit his 48-yard field goal.
Doing what Tampa Bay couldn’t all day, New Orleans took advantage of its opponent’s inability to score touchdowns by extending its lead to 24-6 on the next drive with one of its own. RB Pierre Thomas (eight carries for 66 yards) capped the 12-play, 76-yard march with a 9-yard run that featured him breaking right out of the grasp of LB Quincy Black at the 6-yard line.
Now one-and-a-half games out of first place and one behind Atlanta for second, Tampa Bay will host Houston (6-3) next week to try and end its current two-game skid. The Saints (6-3) and the Falcons (5-3) square off for sole possession of first at 1:00 in Atlanta.
Sunday’s game was played in front of 73,043 fans inside the controlled environment of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Starting on defense for Tampa Bay was: LE Michael Bennett, DT Gerald McCoy, DT Brian Price, RE Adrian Clayborn, WLB Adam Hayward, MLB Mason Foster, SLB Quincy Black, 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 Ted Larsen, C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood, TE Kellen Winslow, WR Arrelious Benn, RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Luke Stocker and QB Josh Freeman.
Seven Buccaneers were listed as inactive. They were LB Zac Diles, G Jeremy Zuttah, WR Sammie Stroughter, CB Myron Lewis, DT Frank Okam, DE Tim Crowder and OT James Lee.