The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit their first bump in the road on Sunday, and it cost them a piece of first place in the NFC South.
Continuing to fill in more than ably for the injured Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater led the New Orleans Saints to a 31-24 victory over the Buccaneers in the Superdome on Sunday. The Saints, who are 3-0 since Brees suffered a thumb injury in Week Two, improved to 4-1 while the Buccaneers fell two games off the pace in the division race, at 2-3.
It was the first loss away from home for the Buccaneers this season, following road wins over Carolina in Week Two and the Los Angeles Rams in Week Four. This one came near the beginning of an unprecedented six-week, five-game stretch away from Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers will head next to London for a "home game" against the Panthers in Week Six and won't play at Raymond James Stadium again until November 10.
Tampa Bay's defense had difficulty applying any pressure on Bridgewater who was not sacked and was hit only three times. With time to operate, he carved up a Buccaneer secondary that has allowed 862 gross passing yards over the past two weeks. Bridgewater completed 26 of passes for 314 yards, four touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 131.2. The Bucs were unable to contain the offensive duo of WR Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara; the former caught 11 of the 13 passes thrown in his direction for 182 yards and two touchdowns while the latter supplied 104 yards from scrimmage.
"We just did a poor, poor job of covering [Thomas]," said Head Coach Bruce Arians, who threw an unsuccessful challenge flag in the third quarter trying to get an offensive pass interference call on the Saints' top receiver. "He's a big, physical guy and you know he's going to push off. You just have to be more physical than him.
"We weren't [good in coverage today. We have been at times, but we're too soft. We're too soft. I don't know any other way to put it. When we're in press-man [coverage] we've got some guys getting after it and some guys that are soft."
It didn't help that starting cornerback Carlton Davis was ejected from the game with five minutes left in the first half. Davis had already racked up five tackles by that point and he felt as if he could made more of an impact in the second half.
"I just made a tackle," said Davis, who was called for unnecessary roughness for a hit on TE Carlton Davis that disrupted a pass. "There's nothing that I can say. I just made a play. However the refs saw it is how they saw it. It sucks not to be out here. This is a huge game for us, a road game, and I know that I could have impacted it."
The Saints scored touchdowns just before and after halftime to turn a 10-10 game into a two-score lead. The Bucs battled back twice but never were able to get close than seven points down. The start to the second half was reminiscent of the week before in Los Angeles, when the Rams scored on the first play of the third quarter to start a comeback that ultimately fell short.
"Anytime you get a two-score [swing] like that it's going to be huge," said Arians. "We talked about it at halftime – this is the third time they've come out of halftime on defense and failed to get them off the field. That's a trend. Maybe I'll start deferring [on the coin flip]."
In contrast, Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston was on the run for much of the day as he completed 15 of 27 passes for 204 yards and two scores. His 26-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin, which briefly gave the Bucs a 7-3 lead in the first quarter, came at the end of a scramble away from pressure. Winston was sacked six times and hit eight times. Godwin caught another touchdown pass late in the game and accounted for 125 of the Bucs' 252 net yards, but the Saints held the other half of the Bucs' league-leading wide receiver duo, Mike Evans, without a catch.
"They did a good job of playing [Evans] and we've just got to do a better job of getting other guys open," said Winston. "Chris had another big day but it just wasn't enough. They're doubling Mike, so when they double Mike it opens [Godwin] up and he's been playing really good, really consistent for us. We've just got to find a way. We did a really good job running the football; the offensive line did a great job there. We've just got to come back to work."
Arians said the Bucs looked for ways to get Evans more involved in the offense but were unsuccessful in doing so.
"It was a poor job on our part," he said. "We moved him around [but] not enough. They were rolling to him, doing things that we've seen. We should have got the ball to him there at the end but we didn't. Twice he was open and we got sacked. We've just got to do a better job of moving him around."
The Bucs' rushing attack was efficient, averaging 4.3 yards per carry, but was increasingly minimized as the offense chased a pair of 14-point deficits in the second half. The Buccaneers also won the turnover battle, one to zero, on the first interception of rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting's career, but for once that wasn't a winning edge because the Bucs simply had too much trouble trying to slow down Thomas and company.
"As a defense, we just have to play better as a whole," said Murphy-Bunting. "It wasn't just the pass rush. It wasn't just that we couldn't cover long enough. We just have to be balanced. We have to play more aggressive as a whole defense rather than relying on them to get to the quarterback. That's all it really came down to, playing more as a team, more as a unit, and everyone doing their jobs."
Tampa Bay's defense stopped the Saints on each of their first four third-down tries, all in the first quarter, but subsequently had difficulty getting off the field. New Orleans ended up with eight conversions in 15 third-down tries, including four in a row in the game-clinching drive, and that contributed to a seven-minute edge in time of possession. Head Coach Sean Payton dug deep into the Saints' offensive toolbox to help Bridgewater, including a rare pass attempt from Swiss Army knife backup quarterback Taysom Hill and a halfback pass from Kamara to TE Josh Hill.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's offense was held to three-of-11 on third-down tries, which was a direct byproduct of the pressure that Winston was constantly under.
"We're obviously disappointed with the outcome," said Arians. "I think the game came down to third down – our inability to get off the field and our inability to stay on the field. We needed better pass protection for us offensively to get into more manageable third downs. Defensively, we've just got to make plays and we didn't make them."
After starting each of the previous two games with touchdown drives on the first two possessions, the Buccaneers' offense got off to a slower start in the Superdome, punting on its first two drives while gaining just one first down. The crowd noise appeared to be a factor in the Bucs' shaky start, though it also provided the Bucs a little luck when a delay-of-game penalty negated a Winston interception. Tampa Bay's defense also forced a punt on the Saints' first drive but the home team struck first on its second drive, a 53-yard march ending in Wil Lutz's 29-yard field goal. Thomas caught a 34-yard pass downfield to get the drive moving and Kamara converted a fourth-and-one at the 21 by bouncing his carry out wide to the left.
The Bucs punted again but missed out on a potential scoring opportunity when T.J. Logan forced a fumble by return man Deonte Harris. The initial ruling was that Harris was down before losing the ball, but a Buccaneers challenge proved otherwise. Unfortunately, the officials also ruled that there was no clear recovery, so there was no turnover. However, another takeaway three plays later stuck as Murphy-Bunting snagged a third-down pass intended for Kamara and returned it to the Saints' 20. Winston took a sack on first down but scrambled to fire a 26-yard scoring pass to Godwin on the next play.
The lead didn't last long. The Saints countered with a swift 75 drive that included three catches for 50 yards by Thomas, the last a 14-yard touchdown he took to the left front pylon. Tampa Bay tied it up on the ensuing drive on Matt Gay's 42-yard field goal, which was set up by 49 yards from scrimmage by Jones, on three runs and two receptions.
The Bucs' already stressed secondary took a blow minutes later when cornerback Davis ejected after his hit on Cook. Davis had to leave but Cook stayed, and the hit on him jump-started a Saints drive that covered 75 yards in eight plays and ended in his own nine-yard touchdown catch.
The Saints got the ball to start the second half and immediately doubled their lead, with Bridgewater hitting a wide-open Ted Ginn down the middle of the field for a 33-yard touchdown. The Buccaneers used their second replay challenge on the drive in an attempt to have Thomas flagged for offensive pass-interference on a 42-yard catch on the first play of the half but the call stood. That left the Bucs without any challenges for the remainder of the game.
The Buccaneers responded to make it a one-score game again, driving 75 yards on 17 plays. The march chewed nearly nine minutes off the clock but resulted in seven points when Barber took a handoff out of the shotgun and hopped into the end zone for a two-yard score on third-and-goal. The drive was kept by Winston's 14-yard pass to Godwin on fourth-and-one from the Saints' 39, a play necessitated by a last-second timeout from the sideline just before Jones' three-yard run.
An exchange of punts pushed the Saints back to their own nine-yard line with two minutes left in the third quarter. That just gave Bridgewater and the Saints' offense more yardage to chew and clock to the drain, as they answered the Bucs' nine-minute march with a long drive of their own. The Saints converted four third downs on the drive, scouring 6:27 off the clock and finishing it with Thomas' second touchdown on a 12-yard pass down the middle. The Saints got their 14-point lead back with 10:37 left in regulation. Godwin scored again on a 58-second, 78-yard drive but that left only 13 seconds on the clock and the subsequent onside kick attempt was unsuccessful.