Last week, Tampa Bay blamed a dismal performance against the Giants on severe winds swirling through the Meadowlands. At home on Sunday, the Bucs had only a strong Brees and a seventh-round draft pick to point to for their shortcomings, falling 31-14 to New Orleans.
Quarterback Drew Brees dismantled the Bucs defense for 314 yards and three touchdowns as the Saints reclaimed first place in the NFC South division while dashing any slim hopes the Bucs had of rejuvenating their season.
Brees completed his first 11 attempts of the game and had nearly as many yards passing in the first quarter Sunday (168) as he did in all of his last meeting against the Bucs (171). He was 24-of-32 with no interceptions.
Conversely, Tampa Bay continued its ineptitude on offense, posting six net yards and failing to score a first quarter touchdown for the seventh time in eight games this season.
Brees followed two Tampa Bay three-and-out possessions with scores in each of his first two drives, connecting with rookie wide receiver Marques Colston for a 15-yard touchdown on one then and finding Devery Henderson on a seam route down the middle of the field for a 52-yard score on the team’s second possession.
All Bucs head coach Jon Gruden could do following the loss was tip his hat and scratch his head in frustration.
“I’d like to congratulate the Saints,” he said. “They came in today and played a heck of a football game. Drew Brees had a tremendous performance.
“Defensively, we gave up way too many big plays. I don’t understand it.”
What might be ever more difficult to understand is how Brees and the Saints managed to inflict the kind of damage they did with an offense absent of three starters.
Four-time Pro Bowl wide out Joe Horn was out of the game due to a groin injury and tight end Ernie Conwell was also inactive. Starting left tackle Jammal Brown was replaced by a rookie making his first start.
That said, the Bucs secondary had one priority in the passing game, stop Colston, a player who was three picks away from being the man referred to as Mr. Irrevelant. The 252nd of 255 players chosen in the 2006 NFL Draft has been anything but irrevalent. He entered Sunday’s game leading the Saints in receiving yards (577) and touchdowns (6) and exited with 11 catches for 123 yards and a score.
Five of his receptions were in the first quarter alone, helping his team jump out to a 14-point lead before the Bucs had even recorded a single first down.
Defensive end Simeon Rice, who ranks second in the NFL in sacks among active players, was working against rookie left tackle Zach Strief, who was not only making his first start, but playing his first snap in an NFL game, was credited with one tackle and failed to get a sack.
In fact, Brees needed only a slight move here and a slide there to avoid being sacked at all. Bucs quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was not so lucky, going down four times thanks to a non-existent running game that allowed Saints’ defenders to pin their ears back and attack the passer.
Gruden, who has fallen under heavy questioning lately for not sticking with the run game and under-utilizing running back Cadillac Williams, was forced to turn to an early vertical attack once again, with the offensive line struggling to open holes.
Williams’ first four rushes netted four yards. On the day, he carried 12 times for 39 yards and his longest run (15 yards) came with 13 seconds left in the third quarter, down 17.
Tampa Bay’s offense seemed late showing up Sunday, netting one positive yard on its first nine offensive plays. The unit went three-and-out on its first six possessions and now has the distinction of leading the NFL in that category.
“[Our opponents] are crowding the ball. Teams are trying to make us pass the ball,” Williams said. “All that said, there is no way we should be doing as poorly as we are running the ball.
“It’s tough. Once again, we just fell behind, and the carries I was getting, it wasn’t like I was doing a great job [with them]. I definitely need to put it on myself, also.”
New Orleans would go up 17-0 before wide receiver Joey Galloway’s 27-yard catch produced the Bucs’ initial first down with just over five minutes to play in the second half. Gradkowski went back to Galloway three plays later, hitting the streaking veteran down the left sideline for a 44-yard touchdown.
The Bucs got the ball back with 1:44 before the half and went on an 11-play, 69-yard drive, cutting the Saints lead to three when Gradkowski hit Galloway for a second touchdown with 14 seconds on the clock.
Brees though, had more yards passing at the half than the Bucs did total offense. His passer rating for the game was 136.7
“Seventeen points in the first three possessions, I think we take that just about every time,” Brees said.
“You know, at halftime we just kind of regrouped and said, ‘Let’s just establish what we had going in the first quarter and to maintain it this time, not let up at all.”
Tampa Bay’s thoughts of a comeback were indeed stymied by the Saints QB and his favorite target.
With the Bucs looking to stay within three points, Brees hit Colston for a 17-yard gain on third-and -7, taking the ball to the Bucs 22. Two plays later running back Deuce McAllister scored on a 3-yard dive, extending the New Orleans lead back to 10.
The game was put out of reach on the Saints’ next possession when Brees found Henderson streaking past cornerback Torrie Cox down the left sideline for a 45-yard touchdown. Again, the key to keeping that drive alive was Colston, who converted on third-and-9 with a 14-yard catch the play prior.
On the day, Brees threw to Colston on five third down plays, his receptions resulted on first downs on four of them. For the year, 31 of his 44 catches on third down have moved the chains.
Gradkowski and the offense struggled in the second half, as New Orleans dominated in time of possession, holding the ball for more than 10 minutes in each of the third and fourth quarters. On five possessions, Tampa Bay accounted for just three first downs.
Gradkowski finished the game 12-of-23 for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
Lost in the futility of the Bucs’ pass defense was an impressive stand against the run. McAllister and backfield mate Reggie Bush were held to 27 yards on 26 carries. Tampa Bay held a slight edge in rushing yards gained, 68-49.
For the second consecutive game, the Bucs failed to produce a turnover and yielded a decisive advantage in field position. None of New Orleans’ first three scoring drives were longer than 60 yards.
After the game, cornerback Ronde Barber said he was still struggling to find a perspective on what happened.
“He threw the ball pretty quick,” Barber said of Brees. “He’s a rhythm thrower and he’s smart. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. We said that going into this game. I don’t know. I’m shocked at the way we played.”
Tampa Bay falls to 2-6 and travels to Carolina for a Monday Night Game with the Panthers.