Vincent Jackson's 95-yard catch in the third quarter against the New Orleans Saints was the longest play from scrimmage in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 37-season history. Unfortunately, it was also a perfect metaphor for Tampa Bay's biggest problem Sunday: Good offensive production with not enough to show for it on the scoreboard.
The Buccaneers lost 35-28 at Raymond James Stadium to their division rivals, but not before an apparent game-tying touchdown catch by Mike Williams was erased by an illegal touching penalty. It was ruled that Williams stepped out of bounds at the back of the end zone before coming back in and becoming the first player to touch the pass.
What would have been a nine-yard scoring catch and Josh Freeman's fourth TD of the game was instead the last play of the game, as the Bucs' 513-yard offensive output was, in the end, just a few too little. Amazingly, that stands as the second-highest single-game yardage total in Buccaneer history, one week after the team put up 463 yards in a win over Kansas City.
The Bucs outgained the Saints by 55 yards on the afternoon, but the visitors were clicking on all cylinders behind QB Drew Brees in the second and third quarters. The Bucs had an early 21-7 lead but New Orleans scored the next four touchdowns, all on passes by Brees, who extended his NFL record to 49 consecutive games with at least one TD throw.
The narrow loss can't help but draw focus to a couple of missed opportunities, including the first-and-goal at the nine the Bucs gained with 17 seconds to play. That one was complicated by a rapidly draining clock, but two other notable drives to start the second half were more painful. One ended in Connor Barth's miss on a 42-yard field goal attempt and another got even closer to producing points. Jackson was caught by Malcolm Jenkins at the one-yard line at the end of his long catch-and-run, and the Bucs failed on four tries to get it in from there. The first three were power running attempts by jumbo back LeGarrette Blount.
A missed opportunity for a stop on defense after that goal line stand by the Saints compounded the problem. The Bucs forced the Saints to settle for a 51-yard field goal attempt but were then flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct on the try. With the drive renewed, Brees took it to the end zone, with Pierre Thomas scoring on a five-yard run. Those proved to be the winning points, because the Bucs did manage to add another score on Freeman's fourth-quarter touchdown pass to TE Dallas Clark, who had five catches for 51 yards in his most productive day yet as a Buccaneer.
That penalty was one of several miscues on special teams, which are usually a winning edge for the Buccaneers. The punt block team also drew running-into-the-kicker and illegal-formation penalties on two separate kicks, Arrelious Benn was tackled at the Bucs' eight on his only kickoff return and, of course, Barth surprisingly missed for just the second time in his last 28 attempts.
Offensively, however, the Bucs were able to move the ball all afternoon, with Josh Freeman throwing accurately and rookie RB Doug Martin consistently fighting for extra yards. Freeman compiled a 115.2 passer rating on the day, thanks to 24 completions in 42 attempts for 420 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Martin crossed 100 combined rushing and receiving yards for the third time this season, rushing for 85 on 16 carries and catching three passes for 37 yards. His 36-yard breakaway in the first quarter, his longest run of the season to date, put the Bucs up 14-0 early, after Freeman had converted Ronde Barber's interception into a 13-yard TD pass to Tiquan Underwood.
Then there was Jackson, whose 216 yards on seven receptions is the most in a single-game in franchise history. In addition to his 95-yarder, he also scored on a 17-yard catch in the second quarter and turned in the key 38-yard gain on the Buccaneers' final drive during a two-minute drill.
The Bucs' defense obviously had a rough stretch in the middle of the game, but many a defense has given up large yardage totals to Brees and the Saints' passing game. Tampa Bay's highly-ranked rush defense did hold the Saints' ground game to 81 yards and 3.1 yards per carry. Brees, however, completed 27 of 37 passes for 377 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Barber's interception on a pass that was tipped by Gerald McCoy on the game's first drive was the only turnover of the game.
Barber added six tackles and a pass defensed in addition to his 46th career interception. CB Eric Wright led the team with eight tackles and two passes defensed but the Bucs were unable to sack Brees during the game.
The Saints moved the ball well to start the game but it was the Bucs who came up with the game's first big play and first score. On third-and-three from the Saints' 38, Brees tried to throw an underneath pass to Colston but it was tipped at the line by McCoy and intercepted by Barber. Barber found the sideline and got back to the Saints' 13-yard line, and it only took one play from there to get it in. Tampa Bay's offense opened in a three-wide formation and ran a cross on the right side, with Underwood coming wide open in the middle of the field at the five. Freeman hit him in stride and Underwood made it to the end zone before the Saints' defense could get to him.
The Bucs' offense had to work a little harder on its next possession but once again moved the ball well. Disaster was avoided when S Roman Harper failed to pick off an overthrown pass (a ruling confirmed after a Saints challenge). On the next play, Martin tossed the ball back to Freeman on a flea flicker but the QB decided to keep it for a 13-yard scramble. Martin nearly broke free on an eight-yard run to the right on the very next play, and the Bucs were fortunate again when Jonathan Vilma nearly picked off another pass but couldn't haul it in. On the very next play, Martin darted over left tackle, juked his way past Malcolm Jenkins in the open field and ran 36 yards untouched to the end zone.
Brees got the Saints moving on the ensuing possession, first overcoming a first-play holding penalty, then finding a wide-open Henderson down the left sideline for 40 yards to the Bucs' 28. The 80-yard march culminated in a 17-yard TD catch by Marques Colston, as he caught a pass in the middle and sprinted to the right pylon to cut the Bucs' lead in half.
Still operating in high gear, the Bucs' offense got right back into Saints territory on the legs of Martin, who fought hard for a nine yard gain on the left side. Just across midfield, Freeman rolled right and then threw back to the left to find TE Luke Stocker for a gain of 33 to the Saints' 17. On the next play, Jackson ran a simply skinny post inside the defender and Freeman lasered a pass into his hands without him having to break stride. Jackson extended the ball to the goal line as he was tackled and his score was upheld after an official's review.
A shootout began to develop as Brees answered right back with a scoring drive. This time he converted a key third-down early with a 13-yard strike to Lance Moore in traffic, then found Henderson and Colston for big gains to get into the Bucs' red zone. After catching the Bucs' defense on a couple pump-and-go plays, Brees did the opposite to get his second TD, faking a throw into the end zone to back up the defense and then throwing underneath to Sproles for a nine-yard TD.
The Bucs' offense stalled for the first time on the next possession, and Brees took advantage to tie the game with a quick 79-yard touchdown drive. The Saints got the ball across midfield on a key third-down-converting catch by Lance Moore, and then Brees went deep to Joseph Morgan for a 48-yard touchdown down the left sideline.
With four minutes left in the half to work with, the Bucs picked up one first down but stalled at the 40, leaving two minutes for Brees to operate. That was far too much, from the Buccaneers' point of view, as Brees surgically passed his crew down to the 20 and then pump-faked once again to get Thomas wide open down the middle for a touchdown.
After the intermission, the Buccaneers' offense got on track again but unfortunately squandered a scoring opportunity when K Connor Barth uncharacteristically missed on a 42-yard field goal try, hooking it wide left. It was just Barth's second miss in his last 28 attempts, the other being a 55-yarder that hit the upright last week. Freeman looked to Jackson twice on that drive, getting the ball into scoring range on a 28-yard fly down the right sideline.
Fortunately, the Bucs' defense got its first stop since the opening quarter on the ensuing possession, with CB Eric Wright breaking up a third-down pass intended for Colston. A running-into-the-kicker penalty gave punter Thomas Morstead a second try after he shanked his first one, and this time he bounced it out of bounds at the four. However, two plays later Jackson came up with a sideline pass after two Saints went for the pick and was able to sprint down the left side for 95 yards to the Saints' one.
S Malcolm Jenkins managed to run Jackson down before he could score, and that proved disastrous for the Bucs' offense. From the one, the Bucs tried three Blount runs but none of them worked. Choosing to go for it on fourth-and-goal, they tried a play-action rollout but there were no open men for Freeman and he was run down by LB Will Herring at the five.
Brees got the Saints out of the shadow of their end zone before the Bucs' defense held in their own territory, setting up a 51-yard field goal attempt. On the try, Tampa Bay's kick-block team was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, possibly for simulating the snap call. Four plays later, Thomas ran it in from five yards out to give the Saints a two-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs' next drive stalled but the defense got the stop it needed with 10 minutes left, forcing a punt. Two tackle-breaking catch-and-runs by Martin got the ball over midfield, and a facemask penalty on the second one tacked on 15 to the Saints' 34. Freeman then found Underwood over the middle at the 12, but an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on T Demar Dotson backed it up to the 22. The drive nearly stalled there but was saved by an illegal contact penalty on Harper. Freeman converted a fourth-and-10 with a sharp pass to Clark near the right sideline, then found Clark again in the back of the end zone for the score.
The Bucs used all of their timeouts in stopping the Saints' next drive, forcing a punt that gave it back to the offense at the Tampa Bay 21 with 1:50 left. An immediate 38-yard strike to Jackson put the ball across midfield, and another Clark catch gained another first down. Jackson's last catch was a clutch eight-yarder at the nine on fourth-and-one, and the spike that followed made it second-and-goal with 17 seconds to play. Unfortunately, three passes failed to connect, including the final one that Williams hauled in but only after briefly leaving the back of the end zone. As Raymond James Stadium celebrated, officials huddled and eventually announced the bad news, with 0:00 left on the clock.
- CB Ronde Barber broke another franchise record on Sunday when he made his 222nd start as a Buccaneer. LB Derrick Brooks had been the previous record-holder in that category, with 221 from 1995-2008.
- The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive for Sunday's game: RB Michael Smith, DB Keith Tandy, LB Jacob Cutrera, LB Najee Goode, C/G Cody Wallace, WR Chris Owusu and TE Danny Noble.
- The Saints' seven inactives were B Chris Ivory, CB Elbert Mack, LB David Hawthorne, DT Tyrunn Walker, T Bryce Harris, TE Jimmy Graham and DE Turk McBride. Hawthorne and Graham were out due to injuries.
- CB LeQuan Lewis, signed to the active roster from the practice squad on Saturday, was active. He played on special teams. In Week Three of the 2012 season, Lewis played against the Buccaneers as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
- Vincent Jackson's 17-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter gave him a score in three consecutive games. He is the first Buccaneer with a TD reception in three straight games since Mike Williams did it over the final three weeks of 2010.
- QB Josh Freeman threw for 420 yards, a week after putting up 328 yards against the Chiefs. That marks the first time in his career that he has put up consecutive 300-yard games. Freeman, who also had 299 passing yards against Washington in Week Four, is the first Buc passer with back-to-back 300-yard games since Vinny Testaverde on October 29 and November 5 of 1989. Only two other times in team history has a quarterback thrown for 300 yards and three touchdowns in consecutive games, as Freeman has now done. Doug Williams pulled off the feat in 1980 and Testaverde matched it in 1989.
- One week after booting touchbacks on all seven of his kickoffs in the Bucs' win over Kansas City, Michael Koenen was at it again against the Saints. All five of Koenen's kickoffs on Sunday also produced touchbacks.