In a game featuring Jameis Winston, Drew Brees and two of the most explosive passing attacks in the NFL it was a reserve quarterback who made the play of the game…and it wasn't a pass.
The New Orleans Saints defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 28-14, on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, overcoming an 11-point second-half deficit as Brees threw for one touchdown and ran for another to complete the first two of four consecutive short-field scoring drives. The game turned midway through the third quarter when quarterback Taysom Hill, who is also a core special teams player for the Saints, blocked a Bryan Anger punt at the Buccaneers' 30-yard line, setting up Brees's touchdown pass to FB Zach Line. From that point on, the Saints scored 25 unanswered points and racked up 184 yards of offense to the Bucs' 48.
"We got dominated in the second half," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "They shut us down. We haven't been shut down like that in a long time."
The loss dropped the Buccaneers to 5-8, snapping a two-game winning streak and erasing any reasonable postseason playoff hopes. The Bucs and Saints finished the season with a split following Tampa Bay's 48-40 win in New Orleans in Week One, but the 11-2 Saints are headed to the postseason after clinching their second consecutive NFC South title.
Sunday's defeat marked the first in six games this season when Tampa Bay took a lead into halftime, and also the first time they've lost when taking a lead into the third quarter. Tampa Bays' defense was dominant against the Saints' sixth-ranked offense through two-and-a-half quarters, allowing just 104 yards and a single field goal in the first half.
"The game is four quarters," said LB Lavonte David, who led the team with 10 tackles. "We came out and played two quarters; they played the last quarter. Coach [Koetter] said it's a four-quarter football game and we have to be able to play all four quarters."
The Buccaneers won the turnover battle for the third week in a row and Winston nearly finished his third straight game without an interception since returning to the starting lineup; his last pass, a desperation throw into the end zone with one second left, was picked off by Marshon Lattimore. However, Winston wasn't nearly as accurate as he had been in the previous two games, completing 18 of 38 passes (47.4%) and frequently sailing passes high of their targets. He did direct a pair of scoring drives, both ending in touchdown passes to TE Cam Brate, and he was the Bucs' leading rusher with 47 yards but it wasn't enough to overcome an error-filled second-half by the offense as a whole.
"We just didn't finish," said Winston. "I've got to got to get the ball out of my hand and not take unnecessary sacks, but we didn't finish. We started fast because we came out with a chip on our shoulder; we've got to finish with a chip on our shoulder."
The Buccaneers brought the NFL's top-ranked offense and passing attack into the game but were held to season lows in both categories, with 279 and 174, respectively. Their previous low points had been 301 total yards and 219 net passing yards in a Week Nine loss at Carolina. The Bucs-Saints rematch was definitely a departure from their Week One battle, which included a combined 1,004 yards of offense and was the highest-scoring season-opener in NFL history. On a soggy day that started with the Raymond James Stadium tarps covering the field for just the fourth time in the building's history, the two teams combined for just over half of that Week One total, at 577 yards.
While both defenses fared better this time around, the difference for the Saints was in the pass rush. The Saints came into the game with 25 sacks over the last seven weeks, the most in the NFL but just one more than Tampa Bay in that span. On this Sunday, Winston was dropped four times, hit another six times and was frequently flushed out of the pocket. Mike Evans led the team with 86 yards on four catches, including a 36-yarder to start a game-opening touchdown drive, but no other Buc had more than 46 receiving yards and the Saints' aggressive approach to coverage worked for much of the afternoon.
"I've just got to get the ball out of my hand – that's the big thing," said Winston. "They did a good job covering, and sometimes coverage equals sacks."
Tampa Bay's pass rush generated just one sack and three quarterback hits after recording three straight four-sack outings leading into Week 13. The Bucs' lone sack came when DE Carl Nassib swatted the ball out of Brees' hand two plays into the third quarter. That gave the Buccaneers an excellent shot at extending their 14-3 halftime lead, but the resulting drive went nowhere and Cairo Santos misfired on a 40-yard field goal try. The Buccaneers did score a touchdown just before halftime after Adarius Taylor's first career interception. Tampa Bay's defense collected eight takeaways during a three-game homestand after going seven straight games without a single one.
"It's the name of the game," said David. "When you get turnovers you get the offense into position to score touchdowns and the game usually turns out in our favor. Our guys were doing a great job of making an emphasis on it throughout practices and into the game, and it's showing."
Special teams were a problem for the Buccaneers throughout the day. Santos also hit a 45-yard try off the right upright in the second quarter and the Saints' Thomas Morstead had a gross punting average of 51.7 yards with a net of 41.7, compared to 37.5 and 32.7 for the Buccaneers (the blocked kick included). After the Saints took the lead on Brees's fourth-and-goal leap over the middle early in the fourth quarter, a penalty on the ensuing kickoff forced the Buccaneers to start at their own nine-yard line, leading to an eventual punt from the eight after two more penalties on the offense.
The Buccaneers were flagged 10 times for 84 yards in the game, including four holding calls and one facemask penalty on the offensive line, one of which was declined.
"We just couldn't seem to get in a rhythm, offensively. Every positive play that we had, we'd do something kind of dumb the next play, whether it was receivers not being on the same page with the quarterbacks, sacks, penalties. We just couldn't seem to get a rhythm going. It was really frustrating. We moved the ball in the first half but just obviously didn't continue that in the [second half]."
The Bucs got the ball to start the game and got into Saints territory in just two plays, as Winston hit Evans down the right sideline for a 36-yard gain. Barber stumbled at the line on his first carry but righted himself and picked up 13, followed by a 14-yard Winston scramble down to the 12. Three plays later, on third-and-nine, Winston threw up a lob to Brate near the right front pylon and Brate got position on Lattimore to make the touchdown catch. Lattimore was called for pass interference on the play, as well.
Jason Pierre Paul started the game by stopping Kamara and Ingram for one-yard gains on the first two plays of the Saints' opening drive. Brees converted the third down with a pass to Thomas at the sticks, then got the ball across midfield with another 20-yarder to his favorite receiver. However, a holding call erased a big gain by Ingram and Pierre-Paul batted down Brees's third-down pass in the backfield, forcing a punt that rolled into the end zone for a touchback.
The Bucs got the ball back across midfield on their second drive, getting one first down on a third-down pass-interference call on Eli Apple and another when Humphries hold on to a 15-yarder on third-and-eight despite a hit from Marcus Williams hard enough to send the receiver's helmet flying. However the drive stalled there and the Bucs punted down to the Saints' 11.
The Bucs got a quick stop on the ensuing drive thanks in large part to Nassib slicing through the line on a second-down pitch to Kamara and trapping the back seven yards deep at the four-yard line. Unfortunately for the Bucs and their battle for field position, P Thomas Morstead boomed a 60-yard punt and a penalty on the return put the ball back to the Bucs' 25. The Bucs still managed to turn that drive into a scoring opportunity after Winston scrambled for 17 yards down to the Saints' 22. However, Winston failed to hit Godwin on a pass into the end zone and, on third down, absorbed a sack by Cameron Jordan back at the 28. That led to a 46-yard field goal attempt that failed when Santos hit the right upright.
The Saints responded with their first scoring drive of the game, which Brees opened by hitting Thomas on a slant for yards. The Saints faced a third-and-four at the Bucs' 30 but moved the sticks as Brees found Thomas again for 11 more on a crossing route. Pierre-Paul stopped Ingram for a loss of one and Brees pass to Thomas in the end zone fell incomplete. The Saints settled for Wil Lutz's 30-yard field goal to make it a four-point game with seven minutes left in the first half.
The Buccaneers got one first down on their next drive, as Winston had plenty of time to throw on third-and-eight and eventually found Godwin for a gain of 10. Godwin then fumbled but Brate was there to jump on it. The drive then stalled, however, as the Buccaneers were called for four penalties in rapid succession. New Orleans got it back at their 34 with four minutes left in the half…but only briefly. Brees tried to throw a screen pass to Ingram on second-and-6 and Taylor read it and picked it off at the 46-yard line, returning it to the 39. The game's first turnover came one play after the Bucs challenged a play on which they believed Kamara fumbled but lost the challenge.
The Bucs got a free 15 yards when Demario Davis was guilty of unnecessary roughness on Barber after a short pass. Two short passes to Jacquizz Rodgers and Humphries made it first-and-goal at the 10 and Winston got it down to the one on a remarkable play in which he scrambled to his left and then stopped and made a jump throw back to his right to Humphries. Two plays later, Brate snuck into the back of the end zone on a play-action pass and Winston hit him for their second TD connection of the day.
Tampa Bay's defense forced a second turnover two plays into the second half, as Nassib swatted the ball out of Brees's hands and the Pierre-Paul recovered for the Bucs at the Saints' 27. However, the resulting drive went nowhere and Santos missed for a second time, pushing a 40-yard try wide right. The Bucs' defense got the ball back quickly in the more conventional way, as DE Vinny Curry cut through the line to grab Ingram in the backfield and deny a third-and-one rushing attempt. Morstead boomed another punt down to the Bucs' 13-yard line.
The Buccaneers got a pair of first downs on a defensive holding call and a seven-yard scramble on third-and-four by Winston. After a holding penalty, Winston found Evans for 17 yards but his next two passes were incomplete. Things went from bad to worse when reserve QB Taysom Hill shot up the middle on the Bucs' punt attempt and blocked Bryan Anger's kick, giving the Saints the ball at the Bucs' 30.
New Orleans turned that big special teams play into eight points. After Ingram ran up the middle for 11 yards, Brees hit Kamara for a first down at the Bucs' eight-yard line. Kamara then ran it down to the one and Brees faked a handoff, rolled left and tossed an easy touchdown pass to FB Zach Line on second-and-goal. The Saints went for two to make it a three-point game and succeeded as Kamara ran it wide left and snuck in past the pylon.
View photos from the Bucs' Week 14 matchup against the New Orleans Saints.
After a kickoff and a touchback the Bucs had to give it right back to the Saints following a three-and-out, and since two of the three plays were sacks by Jordan and A.J. Klein, the Saints got to start again at their own 49. From there, they needed one play to get in field goal range, as Brees hit WR Tommylee Lewis at the Bucs' 31. The Bucs got New Orleans into a third-and-two and brought a blitz but Brees found Kamara cutting across the middle and got it to him for a gain of four and a first down at the 19 as the third quarter came to an end. A 12-yard run up the middle by Ingram made it first-and-goal at the Bucs' four-yard line, but the Bucs held inside the five and got the Saints into a fourth-and-one. The Saints went for it and took the lead when Brees kept it himself, leaping over the top and extending the ball across the line.
The Bucs were flagged for an illegal double-team block on the ensuing kickoff and had to start at their own nine. That drive stalled immediately, too, and the Saints got it back at their 47 with 11 minutes left. New Orleans started with flea-flicker that worked to perfection until Tre'Quan Smith dropped the pass. Brees converted an ensuing third-and-five with an 11-yard out to Thomas, and four plays later Ingram broke several tackles on a 17-yard touchdown run to put the visitors up by 11 points with 7:26 remaining.
The Bus got one first down on the ensuing drive but had to punt again after Winston was sacked on a third-down drop-back. The Saints tacked on a 36-yard field goal and the Bucs got the ball back with 1:12 to play. Short passes over the middle got the team down to the Saints' 26 but three passes into the end zone failed to connect, the last of which was hauled in by Lattimore just inside the sideline.