Josh Freeman matched Drew Brees in a aerial shootout on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, but it was the four takeaways by the defense that eventually tipped the balance in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers favor. Quincy Black's end zone interception in the game's closing minutes sealed the Buccaneers' 26-20 win over the New Orleans Saints and propelled Tampa Bay back into a tie for first place in the NFC South.
The Bucs improved to 4-2 with the victory and thoroughly scrubbed away the memories of last weekend's loss in San Francisco, racking up 420 yards of offense and all four of the game's defensive turnovers. The Saints saw their four-game winning streak snapped and fell to 4-2. The Bucs and Saints remained one game ahead of the 3-3 Atlanta Falcons who defeated the Carolina Panthers earlier in the afternoon. Head Coach Raheem Morris didn't try to downplay the importance of the game to his players, thanks to its year-long implications in the NFC South standings, but he didn't think his team was in need of any sort of recovery after the 49ers game.
"It's not redemption," Morris insisted. "I had a lot of confidence in these guys bouncing back. We were written off last week but this is a tough team. We didn't show up last week but we bounced back. That's what I thought they would do."
Freeman threw touchdown passes of 65 yards to WR Arrelious Benn and 19 yards to WR Preston Parker to help the Buccaneers build a 20-3 second-quarter lead. Parker's touchdown came after a second-quarter interception by S Tanard Jackson, who was playing for the first time after spending 56 weeks on an NFL suspension. CB E.J. Biggers added another interception off Brees in the second quarter and LB Geno Hayes forced a Mark Ingram fumble on New Orleans' first possession of the game. That marked just the 13th time in Brees' career that he has been intercepted three times in a single contest.
K Connor Barth connected on four of five field goal tries, making shots of 48, 42, 42 and 38 yards and missing only on a 55-yard attempt in the second quarter. The Buccaneers found special teams to be a winning edge again, as P Michael Koenen turned in an incredible net punting average of 49.8 on four boots and also forced four touchbacks on kickoffs. Koenen dropped three punts inside the Saints 20, including one he bounced out of bounds at the two-yard line shortly before halftime, all of which helped neutralize dangerous return man Darren Sproles. Also, Parker provided a spark with 30 yards on two punt returns, including a 21-yarder that set up the Bucs' final field goal drive.
"Mike Koenen absolutely did a great job keeping the ball away from Sproles," said Morris. "He's been an MVP all season. He's gotten game balls; I don't know if I can give him any more. He's definitely been a winning edge for us this year."
The Bucs' six-point lead appeared to be in jeopardy when Brees drove the Saints into Tampa Bay's red zone with less than five minutes to play. However, a tackle of a scrambling Brees by DT Frank Okam – filling in for the injured Gerald McCoy – forced the Saints into a fourth-and-two at the Bucs' four-yard line and Black came up with his game-clinching interception on the next play when Brees rolled right and found no open men.
It was no surprise that the game turned on a quartet of takeaways. The Bucs are 25-8 since 2007 in games in which they have a positive turnover differential, including 3-0 this year. It was also important that Freeman and the offense protected the football, as the Bucs are 24-4 since 2002 when they finish the game without a turnover on offense, including 2-0 this year. That tells the story of how the Bucs held New Orleans to 20 points and won the game despite giving up 453 yards of offense.
"You're not going to beat these guys in yardage," said Morris, echoing the sentiment he had expressed all week. "It almost seems impossible. For us to go out and take advantage of our opportunities, let technique and opportunity meet, was big."
Indeed, Brees threw for 383 yards and connected with Marques Colston on a 38-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, giving the Saints a 7-3 lead that they would hold for less than a quarter, until Freeman hit Benn on a deep post on a play-action pass. Brees looked frequently to TE Jimmy Graham, who finished with seven catches for 124 yards. However, one of Graham's receptions turned painful for Head Coach Sean Payton, who was in the path of a Graham and his pursuers on the sideline at the end of the play. Payton suffered a broken leg and a torn MCL on the play and coached the rest of the first half from the Saints' bench. Payton remained in the Saints' locker room during the second half and communicated with his staff from there.
As the pass to Benn attested, Freeman did more than keep the ball safe. He threw it 41 times, completing 23 for a season-high 303 yards, finishing with a passer rating of 95.9. He got WR Mike Williams more involved in the offense, targeting him 13 times and finding him on six of them for 59 yards. TE Kellen Winslow was targeted 10 times and finished with five catches for 40 yards.
RB Earnest Graham, starting in place of the injured LeGarrette Blount, made Freeman's job easier by rushing for 109 yards on 17 carries, averaging 6.4 yards per tote. Graham's 34-yard run in the second quarter set up Barth's second touchdown, and he provided a Blount-like hammer at the end of the game with 35 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay finished with 420 total yards of offense and did not permit Freeman to be sacked once.
"'Insurance' Graham, we can't say enough about him," said Morris. "You ask him to play fullback, he plays fullback. You ask him to play tailback, he plays tailback. He does anything you ask him to do."
The Buccaneers scored first thanks to the game's first takeaway, as Hayes forced a fumble by Ingram on New Orleans' first drive. Rookie DE Da'Quan Bowers recovered for the Bucs at the New Orleans 33 and Barth turned it into three points on a 48-yard field goal.
The Saints came right back with their first scoring drive, a 79-yard march that ended in Colston's 36-yard touchdown down the left sideline. Colston ran a stop-and-go and got wide open, easily running the last 20 yards into the end zone to put the Saints up, 7-3.
The Bucs posted the next three scores of the first half, however, thanks in part to a pair of turnovers. Tampa Bay regained the lead two minutes into the second quarter when a play-action fake sucked in the Saints' secondary and left Benn wide open downfield, cutting right to left. Freeman hit Benn in stride and the second-year receiver out-raced CB Malcolm Jenkins to the front left pylon for a 65-yard touchdown.
Adrian Clayborn's pressure on third down and Ronde Barber's diving pass break-up helped force a three-and-out on the Saints' next possession and Freeman led the Bucs on a 66-yard field goal drive. Graham picked up the biggest chunk of yards on a nifty 34-yard run, most of it gained after he faked out S Roman Harper near the line of scrimmage. Graham also had a 19-yard catch on a screen pass to help the Bucs get into field goal range, and Barth ended it with a 42-yard shot.
Three plays later Jackson intercepted Brees after a pass went in and out of the hands of Colston on the left sideline. Jackson returned his pick 16 yards to the 25, setting up Freeman's 19-yard touchdown pass to Parker on third down. As with his first scoring toss, Freeman put the ball in perfect position for his receiver to catch it without breaking stride and stay ahead of a trailing defender.
Biggers' diving interception two minutes later stopped a Saints drive that had reached Buccaneer territory in a hurry, but Brees got the ball back in his hands one more time before halftime. Though Koenen's punt forced the Saints to start at their own two, Brees delivered completions of 43 yards to Jimmy Graham and 31 yards to Colston to set up John Kasay's 33-yard field goal.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Sunday's game.)
The Saints got the ball to start the second half after another Koenen touchback, and got a quick first down on a seven-yard Brees scramble and a nine-yard pass to Colston. However, an illegal formation penalty on outstanding coverage on third-and-14 forced an incompletion and then a punt.
The Bucs got it back at their own 23 but gave up half the distance to their own goal on Ted Larsen's personal foul facemask. That was a minor speed bump, however, as Freeman found WR Dezmon Briscoe on a post down the middle and hit him for a gain of 32 to the Bucs' 45. Two plays later, Freeman found Benn on a deep out for 13 more yards into Saints territory, and Graham cut back to the left on a first-down run to get five yards to the Saints' 37. The drive ended there, however, after a pair of incompletions, and the Bucs tried a 55-yard field goal that Barth left just a bit short.
Graham made a dazzling leaping catch for a gain of 18 to get the ball into Bucs territory, and Ingram converted a third-and-one with a five-yard run to take the ball down to the 21. Brees escaped a near-sack by Michael Bennett and scrambled for a first down at the Bucs' 10, though a false start then cost the Saints five yards. After an eight-yard pass to Colston in the right flat, a well-timed blitz by Black forced a hurried incompletion. On third-and-goal from the seven, the Bucs bottled up a screen to Sproles on the right and the Saints settled for Kasay's 24-yard field goal, making it 20-13 with three and a half minutes left in the third quarter.
Freeman started the next drive with a play-action 19-yard pass to Williams down the left sideline, and it ended up as a 34-yard gain when Jenkins was hit with an unnecessary roughness penalty at the end of the play. Graham broke free again for 19 yards on the next snap, and a three-yard pass to FB Erik Lorig made it second-and-seven at the Saints' 25. After a Graham run got one more, CB Patrick Robinson nearly made a diving interception on a pass intended for Williams, but he couldn't hold on and Barth was able to finish the drive with another 42-yard field goal.
The Saints started their next drive at their own 18 and got 13 yards on a first-down pass to Graham. CB Ronde Barber prevented a potential huge gain by Sproles with a diving ankle tackle on the next snap, but it was still second-and-four at the 37 when the third quarter came to an end. The Bucs appeared to get a stop on a third-and-four incompletion minutes later, but a very late flag throw brought on a pass interference call on CB Elbert Mack. Brees converted the next third down on his own by hitting WR Lance Moore on a 40-yard fly down the left side, and Ingram ran it in from 12 yards out on the next snap.
That left the Bucs with just a three-point lead with 13 minutes to play, and they started at their own 20 after another touchback. Freeman threw a first-down pass just behind Benn and Graham got a single yard on second down to make it third-and-nine. After an incompletion killed the drive, Koenen boomed a high, 58-yard punt and LB Dekoda Watson trapped Sproles for a loss of 10 on the return, back at the Saints' 16.
Bennett blasted around the right end of the line on second down to trap Ingram for a loss of five after Moore's six-yard slant on first down, and Graham dropped a third down pass. The Saints had to punt it back, and Parker danced along the right sideline to get 12 yard back after a 55-yard punt.
The Bucs thus started again at their own 40, and Graham gave them an immediate 13 yards with a fantastic run that involved one sharp cut and a diving roll at the end. Miscommunication between Freeman and Williams led to a deep throw that thankfully landed far away from everyone, and the two hooked up on a slant on the next play to get a first down at the 36. Freeman threw a short pass to Winslow on the next play and the tight end hurdled over CB Jabari Greer to get extra yards on a 15-yard completion down to the 21. After Graham's one-yard run, Jenkins broke up a pass intended for Winslow inside the 10, making it third-and-nine. A pass to Williams was broken up, as well, and Barth finished the drive with his fourth field goal of the day, a 38-yarder. That pushed the Bucs' lead to 26-20 with 7:24 left in the game.
Pierre Thomas got the carry on first down at the Saints 24 but DT Brian Price met him in the backfield for a loss of two. Biggers then broke up a pass intended for Colston, but Brees had an eternity in the backfield on third-and-12 and he found WR Robert Meachem on a deep slant for a gain of 23. Two plays later, another slant, this one to Henderson, took the ball down to the Bucs' 37, and another pass interference call on the Bucs made it first down at the 31 as the clock ticked under five minutes. The Bucs blitzed and that worked perfectly for Brees, who hit Graham on a fast release to the left for another 19 yards to the 12. Brees tried Graham in the end zone on first down but it was high and incomplete. A screen to Sproles picked up five and made it third-and-five at the seven. Brees had to scramble out of trouble on third down and came up two yards short of a first down. The Saints went for it on fourth down and Brees' roll to the right ran into trouble right away due to good coverage. Brees eventually tried to lob it in to TE John Gilmore, but Black intercepted it for a touchback.
The four-minute drill didn't start well as Graham got only one yard up the middle and a play-action pass to Benn was incomplete. The Bucs used a timeout before third-and-nine and then moved the chains as Freeman found Briscoe over the middle. Briscoe had to slide to the ground to make the catch at the Bucs' 38, and that brought on the two-minute warning. The Saints challenged the ruling but it was upheld, and that cost the visitors one of their two remaining timeouts. When play resumed, Graham ripped off another big chunk of yards, getting 12 to the midfield stripe. He got seven more over left guard on the next play, and two more kneel-downs brought the Bucs' fourth win of the season to an end.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers' victory closed the Saints' all-time lead in the head-to-head series to 22-17. It also broke a streak of four straight games against the Saints in which the visiting team prevailed. Since the Bucs and Saints joined the NFC South together in 2002, the Bucs have won 10 of 19 meetings. … New Orleans QB Drew Brees threw for 383 yards in the losing effort, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to record four straight 350-yard passing games. … QB Josh Freeman's 65-yard touchdown pass to WR Arrelious Benn in the second quarter is the longest completion of his career. That topped a 64-yarder, also to Benn, against the Washington Redskins on Dec. 12, 2010 and was also the team's longest pass play since a 71-yard TD from Jeff Garcia to Antonio Bryant on Dec. 21, 2008. … Freeman's two touchdown throws turned Sunday's outing into the 11th multiple-TD game of his career and his first in 2011. Freeman also threw for 303 yards, giving him his second career 300-yard game. … Starting in place of RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Earnest Graham turned in 109 yards on 17 carries. That represented his highest single-game total since Sept. 28, 2008, when he had 111 yards against Green Bay. It was the sixth 100-yard game of his career. … Tampa Bay's defense intercepted Saints QB Drew Brees three times on Sunday, marking the Bucs' first three-pick game since October 31, 2010 at Arizona. … K Connor Barth scored 14 points on four-of-five field goal kicking and a pair of extra points. That pushed his Buccaneer career total to 206 points and moved him past Bill Capece (196) and Jimmie Giles (204) into seventh place on the team's all-time scoring list.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Sammie Stroughter, RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Zac Diles, G Derek Hardman, T James Lee, TE Luke Stocker and DT Gerald McCoy. Stroughter, Blount, Diles, Lee, Stocker and McCoy were out due to injury.
The Saints declared these seven inactives: CB Johnny Patrick, LB Will Herring, T Zach Strief, C/G Matt Tennant, TE David Thomas, WR Adrian Arrington and DE Jeff Charleston. Strief, Herring and Thomas were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, C Jeff Faine left the game in the third quarter with a biceps injury and did not return. LB Mason Foster aggravated an ankle injury in the third quarter and did not return.
The Saints did not report an injury from the sideline, other than the one suffered by Head Coach Sean Payton.