A week ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned to Raymond James Stadium for the first time since September and enjoyed some home cooking in a streak-breaking win over the Arizona Cardinals. Unfortunately, New Orleans took over the kitchen in Week 11, serving up four interceptions off Jameis Winston, and the Buccaneers were unable to make it two in a row on their home field, falling 34-17 to the division-rival Saints on Sunday.
The Saints feasted early thanks to a sputtering Bucs' offense and a fluky turnover that went through the hands of TE O.J. Howard and set up Drew Brees' 16-yard touchdown pass to WR Michael Thomas. Tampa Bay didn't get its initial first down until the second quarter, by which point the home team was already down by 13 points. Meanwhile, New Orleans' first punt came with less than two minutes left in the first half and RB Alvin Kamara had 87 yards from scrimmage before halftime. Tampa Bay's defense was on the field for 21 of the game's first 30 minutes and 37 minutes overall, in part because New Orleans converted seven of 13 third downs.
The Bucs showed life with a 17-point rally but weren't able to overcome their own self-inflicted wounds.
"Too many mistakes to beat a good team," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Big, big, big plays. We didn't get off the field defensively. They were 54% on third downs, which was huge. Their time of possession, I think they had the ball the whole first quarter. We held them to six points [on their first two drives] and then the interception, which wasn't Jameis's fault. It's disappointing because we had such a great week of practice. I knew we were ready to play and it still isn't quite showing up enough on Sundays against good teams."
The Buccaneers fell to 3-7 with the loss, including a 1-4 mark at home, which includes a Week Six game in London in which Tampa Bay was technically the host. The Saints improved to 8-2 and have a three-game lead in the NFC South after the Carolina Panthers fell to the resurgent Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Tampa Bay's next game is on the road in Atlanta.
The Buccaneers responded to the Saints' 20-0 lead second-quarter lead with 10 straight points, as Winston threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Peyton Barber before halftime and Matt Gay drilled a 55-yard field goal at the start of the second half. Chris Godwin scored on a 30-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter but the Buccaneers never got closer than 10 points down and safety Marcus Williams clinched the outcome with a 55-yard pick six with five minutes to play. Tampa Bay's last possession also ended in an end zone interception after Mike Evans had gotten the ball down to the Saints' one-yard line with four minutes to play.
"We've just got to play better," said Winston. "Everything [has to be better]. I've got to start with myself, and when I start there, everything else will start falling in."
Though Evans had several big plays in the fourth quarter, the Saints again managed to limit the production of the NFL's second-leading receiver. After being held without a catch in the first Bucs-Saints meeting in Week Five, Evans recorded four catches for 69 receptions on eight targets on Sunday. In his other eight games this season, Evans has averaged 115.5 yards per outing. When Evans was stymied in the Superdome, Winston was able to find the Bucs' other ultra-productive receiver, Chris Godwin, for 125 yards and two touchdowns, but this time Godwin was held to 47 yards on three grabs, most of it on the aforementioned touchdown. Winston's top target proved to be tight end Cam Brate, who hauled in a personal-best 10 passes for 73 yards. That catch total matched a Buccaneer single-game record for tight ends, first achieved by Jackie Harris on Nov. 26, 1995, and were an indication of the Saints' defensive strategy.
"Their game plan really was to take Mike and Chris out of the game, so the ball had to go somewhere else," said Brate. "I thought we did a good job of taking those gains throughout, but some crucial errors kind of killed us. Whether it was someone on the offensive line, running back, tight end, receiver – someone different making a mistake here and there and it kind of added up and we couldn't put it all together."
Winston did crack 300 passing yards for a fifth straight game, extending his own team record, but it took 51 passes as the Bucs had to abandon the run game early. Winston provided 23 of the Bucs' 36 rushing yards himself on a fourth-quarter scramble. But he finished the game with four interceptions, two of which came off deflected passes. The second of those came just before halftime and kept the Bucs from continuing their comeback with a last-second field goal.
"Obviously, [it hurts] when we drop passes and the quarterback gets an interception when we drop the ball, and then the one before the half that was huge because we have a chance for a double-score if we come out and score [in the third quarter].
Winston was hit low on the play just before Williams's pick-six and was noticeably limping after he came off the field, but he convinced Arians to keep him in the game and subsequently led the drive that got down to the Saints' one-yard line. Reserve QB Ryan Griffin threw some warm-up throws but didn't go into the game. Arians said that he did have some concern about the severity of Winston's ankle injury.
"We actually had Griff ready," said Arians. "[Winston] came over and said, 'I can defend myself, I'm going back.' And he went back in. He probably should have come out of the game. He's probably too tough for his own good there. We'll see how bad it is tomorrow and we'll go from there."
As usual, Brees depended heavily on the combination of Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara. Kamara rushed for 75 yards on 13 carries as the Buccaneers played more two-deep coverage to try to limit Brees in the passing game, and he also caught 10 passes for 47 yards. Thomas hauled in eight passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. For the most part, the Buccaneers' defense kept New Orleans from hitting big plays downfield and the Saints finished with 328 total yards. Arians mentioned that the Buccaneers' tackling could have been better but the defense did avoid getting gashed by big plays. Given the time-of-possession disadvantage, especially early, the defense held strong, allowing just seven offensive points over the last 35 minutes of the game.
"In an NFL game, anything can happen, so you've got to prepare for the worst," said CB Carlton Davis. "There's never a perfect game, there's never an ideal time to be on the field, so as long as you're on the field you have to try to make plays. That's what we want – we don't want to give up big, explosive plays. Make them earn it, make them drive it down the field, and I think that's what we did today. We've just got to get off the field on third down."
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 11 matchup against New Orleans.
Rookie LB Devin White led the Bucs' defense with a career-high 13 tackles and had several open-field tackles against Kamara. Rookie S Mike Edwards had the Bucs' only sack on a first-quarter blitz, actually taking down reserve quarterback Taysom Hill. Edwards played in the slot for much of the game, with Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting on the outside. Rookie CB Jamel Dean, who had a key interception in the Bucs' win over Arizona, was mostly relegated to special teams but Arians said that will likely change moving forward.
"We went with a different nickel package with Mike Edwards inside, played a lot more zone," said Arians. "[Dean] was more in the man-to-man group. We'll fix that. He needs to be out on the field more."
The Saints took the game's opening drive 60 yards for a field goal, the biggest chunk coming on a 30-yard catch-and-run over the middle by TE Jared Cook. Edwards' first career sack put the Saints in a third-and-17 hole at the Bucs' 37, but consecutive neutral-zone infractions Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Shaq Barrett made it easier for the Saints. Fortunately, Edwards came up big again with an open field tackle on Kamara after a short pass and the Saints settled for three points on Wil Lutz's 46-yard shot.
The Bucs failed to get a first down on their first possession and the Saints were able to double their lead on their second drive following the punt. Kamara had 49 of the drive's 68 yards on five touchdowns but his four-yard touchdown run was nullified by a holding penalty that made it second-and-goal back at the 14. Brees completed short passes over the middle to Josh Hill and Latavius Murray but in both cases rookie LB Devin White was immediately on the spot for the tackle and the Saints sent Lutz out again for a 26-yarder.
Unfortunately, the Saints were right back in the Bucs' red zone moments later. Winston hit Howard with a short pass over the middle but the tight end lost his grip on the ball and it ended up behind his back. As he tried to regain control, he was hit by a Saints defender causing the ball to pop up in the air, where it was intercepted by diving LB Demario Davis. Brees hit Thomas for a 16-yard touchdown on the next snap as time expired on the first quarter.
The Bucs' offense got its first two first downs of the game on the next drive but still had to punt from the 40 after a sack by Vonn Bell and Cameron Jordan. A 27-yard return of the ensuing punt by Kamara gave the Saints a new start just shy of midfield. The Saints covered the other half of the field in 13 plays, converting three short third downs before Cook made a leaping catch in the back right corner of the end zone to give the Saints a 20-0 lead with five minutes left in the first half.
The Buccaneers got their first scoring chance on the next possession when three catches by Cam Brate got the ball to midfield and a beautiful sideline deep ball to Scotty Miller gained 48 yards to the one. A fumbled snap two plays later put the Bucs into a third-and-six hole but Winston found Barber over the middle for a touchdown pass to cut the lead to 20-7 with just under three minutes remaining before halftime.
Tampa Bay's defense got its first stop on the next Saints drive and the Bucs tried to put together the two-minute drill that has become their specialty this year. However, the drive ended in another deflected ball interception, this one by S Vonn Bell as time expired on the half.
The Buccaneers got the ball to start the second and got three quick points on a 10-play, four-minute drive leading to Gay's 55-yard field goal. Brate caught two more passes to get the drive moving but it still outside the red zone after a false start by Demar Dotson before a third-and-one snap at the 32.
However, Brees and the Saints trumped that score with a 75-yard touchdown drive, 41 of it by a catch-and-run down the left sideline by Thomas. Brees finished with a six-yard pass to Ginn over the middle, just across the goal line to make it 27-10 with five-and-a-half minutes left in the third quarter.
The Bucs were able to answer those seven points with their own touchdown drive, a 75-yard march that ended in Godwin's 30-yard catch-and-run on a crossing route, with Evans providing the final block to spring him for the score. Winston and Evans also hooked up for a key 13-yard play on a third-and-12, and the Bucs' quarterback was seven-for-seven on the drive for 84 yards, making up for a nine-yard sack.
Tampa Bay's defense got a quick stop and the Bucs drove back to midfield but had to punt after a fourth-down catch by Evans was erased by an offensive pass-interference call. The flag was on Evans himself, who beat a press by P.J. Williams at the line, and Arians chose to throw the challenge flag. The call stood and the Bucs punted the ball back to the Saints. New Orleans didn't score on that possession but did drain half of the remaining 12 minutes off the clock with a drive into Buccaneers territory that ended in a punt down to the 11.
The Bucs got into a fourth-and-10 at their own 33 and Winston overthrew Evans downfield, the ball going directly into the hands of Williams. Williams raced untouched down the right sideline for a 55-yard pick-six, with Winston, noticeably limping from the hit he took on the previous play, trying to give pursuit.
The Bucs got down to the one on the next drive, with Evans taking a short pass 27 yards down to the shadow of the goal line with three minutes to play. However, after two unsuccessful runs up the middle by Dare Ogunbowale, Winston tried to hit Evans on a fade and the ball was intercepted by P.J. Williams for a touchback.