CB Phillip Buchanon scored the Bucs' first touchdown on a first-quarter interception return
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense clearly came into the season opener looking for contact. Unfortunately, on an afternoon in which Buccaneer defenders visited a seemingly endless string of hard hits on New Orleans Saints ballcarriers, it was one small bit of unintentional contact that did them in.
WR Devery Henderson caught an 85-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter after Pro Bowl CB Ronde Barber, in apparent good coverage, tripped over Henderson's legs. That proved to be the biggest strike in a back-and-forth ballgame that ended in the Saints' 24-20 win.
Conversely, the Bucs failed to get much of a hand on RB Reggie Bush on the 42-yard screen pass that proved to be the game's winning score. Bush finished the game with 163 combined rushing and receiving yards – 112 of it on eight catches – and now is responsible for a come-from-behind, game-winning score in each of the Bucs' last two losses in the Superdome. On October 8, 2006, Bush scored his first NFL touchdown on a 65-yard punt return that gave the Saints a 24-21 win. The Bucs won on their 2007 trip to New Orleans on a last-minute play of their own, a four-yard touchdown catch by TE Jerramy Stevens in a 27-24 victory.
The two plays by Henderson and Bush interrupted what had been a strong performance by the Bucs' defense, and helped turn three quarters of a slugfest into an unexpected shootout. The lead changed hands four times before the Saints turned the Bucs away on their last two drives, both of which reached Saints territory. The Bucs got down to the Saints' 24 in the game's closing minute but lost their final chance to score when a fourth-and-six pass was intercepted by LB Scott Fujita.
Tampa Bay's defense even provided the team's first score of the game. Phillip Buchanon's 26-yard interception return tied the game at 7-7 in the first quarter on the Saints' second possession of the game. QB Drew Brees had driven the Saints 76 yards on the game's opening possession to give the home team a quick lead, and the Bucs' offense had countered with a quick three-and-out.
Defense has been at the core of the Bucs' sustained success since the mid-90s, and the best units in that stretch have been proficient at producing their own points. CB Ronde Barber scored twice for last year's second-ranked defense, but no other defensive player reached the end zone. The Bucs hope to get more of their defenders on the scoreboard this season, and Buchanon, who now has eight career touchdowns (five on defense) is a prime candidate for that job. The former big-play maker in Oakland had not scored a TD since 2004, coincidentally against the Buccaneers.
Brees did sting the Bucs' defense on that first drive, hitting WR David Patten on a 39-yard touchdown pass. Rookie CB Aqib Talib appeared to be in position to break up the pass but mistimed his jump. The Bucs came into the game with the intention of putting a lot of pressure on Brees, but even with a much higher number of blitzes than usual, Tampa Bay's defense recorded only one sack, that by 2007 sack leader Greg White. That gave Brees time to complete 23 of 32 passes for 343 yards, three touchdowns and the one interception. By game's end, the Saint had 438 yards of total offense, while the Bucs had 352.
The Bucs used almost all of their new defensive depth. LB Cato June played extensively in the nickel package, assuming Derrick Brooks' usual role in many cases. Second-year safety Sabby Piscitelli drew some snaps at both safety positions and made an impact play early when he blasted WR Marques Colston on a short third-down pass to force a punt. Second-year linebacker Adam Hayward and even undrafted rookie CB Elbert Mack saw playing time on defense, as well. Hayward got into the game in the third quarter when Brooks suffered a hamstring injury.
If the Buccaneers' defense was opportunistic on that early turnover, it was a noticeably hard-hitting crew throughout the game. Buccaneer defenders repeatedly timed their approaches to potential pass-catchers perfectly, recording three passes defensed, four tackles for losses and numerous other intimidating shots. Linebacker Barrett Ruud (10 tackles, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit) and safety Tanard Jackson (seven tackles, one pass defensed) were two of the most common culprits in the big-hit parade.
The Buccaneers' offense got off to a slower start. Though Earnest Graham and the running game produced several good gains in the first half, the team had trouble sustaining a drive until the final two minutes of the first half. A 61-yard two-minute drill keyed by Antonio Bryant's 26-yard catch produced the three points that put Tampa Bay up by a 10-7 margin at halftime. Bryant blasted his 37-yard attempt right between the uprights, showing no signs of a carryover from his uneven preseason.
Graham finished the game with 91 yards on 10 carries, plus three catches for 27 more yards. He produced the game's biggest rushing play late in the third quarter when he found the corner on a sweep and ran all the way to the Saints' 20, a gain of 46 yards. That set up Bryant's second field goal, a 33-yarder with 33 seconds left in the third quarter.
Garcia overcame his own slow start to complete 24 of 41 passes for 221 yards, one touchdown and the game-ending pick. His favorite targets were Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard, who had six catches each. Hilliard put the Bucs on top early in the fourth quarter with a two-yard touchdown catch, ending an impressive, 11-play drive on which he had caught three balls, all for first downs.
Unfortunately, the Saints followed Graham's breakaway with the game's biggest passing play. The Bucs' jumped offside on a first-down play from the New Orleans 15 and Brees alertly chose to throw deep on the "free play." Barber had good coverage on Henderson but he tripped over the receiver as he turned to find the ball, making it easy for Henderson to haul it in and run 84 yards for the go-ahead score. That put the Saints up, 17-13, with one quarter to play.
The Saints clearly intended to give the Bucs a heavy dose of electric tailback Reggie Bush, going to the third-year player repeatedly in both the running and passing games. With Deuce McAllister apparently still slowed by his injured knee, Pierre Thomas shared the rushing load for the Saints and ran 10 times for 52 yards. Overall, the Bucs, who had the league's best rush defense during the preseason, proved somewhat stingy on the ground, allowing 101 yards on 27 carries, for an average of 3.7 yards per tote.
Both sides showed a bit of rust, with a total of 14 penalties on the day. The Saints committed the first six infractions but the Bucs eventually caught up, drawing seven flags. However, there was only one turnover on each side, and the Bucs didn't lose the ball until they were in a desperate fourth-down situation.
The Saints took the opening possession into Buccaneer territory, helped by a 16-yard pass to Bush on the game's second play. Barber's blitz nearly got to Brees, but the Saints QB saw him at the last second, pulled back and threw to Bush on the other side. Bush burst up the middle for 10 yards on the next snap to get to the Bucs' 44. The drive ended in a 39-yard touchdown pass to Patten, on which Talib appeared to time his leap badly in an attempt to knock it down. The Saints had the season's first lead just 3:33 into the opener.
Charles Grant dropped a scrambling Garcia on third-and-seven to kill the Bucs' first drive, though P Josh Bidwell helped out by booming a 60-yard punt over Bush's head. Bush appeared to misjudge the kick, running forward as it sailed past, eventually to be downed by Stovall at the Saints' nine-yard line. However, a swing pass to Bush on first down gave the Saints 11 yards and some breathing room.
That just gave Buchanon more room to run down the left sideline on his interception. Brees' first incompletion of the game was the result of a hit by a blitzing Ruud, which sent the pass floating well short of its intended target, WR Lance Moore. Buchanon noticed the wobbler first, picked it clean and ran untouched until he was inside the five. Buchanon did have to fight through a pair of Saints lineman at the one to punch it in, tying the game at 7-7 midway through the opening period.
A penalty on the kickoff return forced New Orleans to start the ensuing drive at their own six, and Brees tried to go deep on first down. Henderson had one-on-one coverage from Buchanon, but the pass was well overthrown. On third-and-six, Jackson closed quickly on WR Marques Colston to deny a catch that would have produced a first down. After the punt, the Bucs took over at their own 46.
Dunn's first reception in his second stint as a Buccaneer moved the ball across midfield, as he picked up 11 yards to the Saints' 38. However, the drive stalled at the 37 after Garcia threw behind an open Galloway on a promising crossing route. Bidwell's punt was fair caught at he 14, though a pair of false starts pushed them back to the four before they could run a play.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, Thomas broke off an 18-yard run two plays later to get the Saints to the 27. However, the drive then stalled, thanks in part to fine coverage by Talib on a third-down pass attempt to Moore.
The Bucs' first penalty of the game – after six by the Saints – pushed the offense back to its own 25 to start the next drive, but Graham immediately sliced up the middle for a gain of 14. However, a holding penalty and a sack by Grant kept the drive from developing further. The Saints ensuing drive was a three-and-out, however, ended by Piscitelli's big hit on Colston.
The Bucs took over again at their own 30 and moved near midfield on an outlet pass to TE Alex Smith. The Bucs actually crossed midfield but lost traction after T Jeremy Trueblood was flagged for pushing a Saints defender after whistle. The Bucs eventually punted from the Saints' 46, with Quincy Black and Talib combining to down it at the one.
Again, the Saints were able to escape that hole, beginning with Brees' 16-yard strike to Colston on first down. That's when the Bucs' defense turned up the heat. First, Barber flattened Bush on an attempted swing pass, forcing an incompletion that was briefly ruled a fumble that June returned for a touchdown. Ruud laid out TE Jeremy Shockey for a loss of one on the next play and Jackson it off with a breakup of a deep pass down the middle intended for Patten.
Tampa Bay's offense got the ball one last time before halftime and moved into Saints territory on a 26-yard catch-and-run by Bryant to the opposite 41. Two more completions and a seven-yard run by Dunn got the ball down to the 19, setting up Bryant's 37-yard field goal with three seconds left.
The second half started out poorly for the Buccaneers. Two penalties on the opening drive forced a quick punt, which Bidwell unfortunately sent out of bounds at the Buccaneers' 48. The drive survived an early third-and-eight, barely, when Brees threw with Barber hanging on him and Shockey held on to an eight-yard catch despite a big hit from Phillips.
The Bucs' defense held, however, helped out by a Saints blunder on third-and-10 from the 37. Center Jonathan Goodwin, who replaced new Buc Jeff Faine in the Saints' lineup, snapped the ball early and it shot past Brees for a loss of 17 yards.
However, the Saints' next drive immediately got the ball back into Buccaneers territory. Bush got free for a 26-yard run, though he gave 15 back with a facemask penalty, and Shockey caught a 26-yarder moments later down to the Bucs' 33. The drive reached the Bucs' 12 before two straight big rushes produced a throwaway and a sack by White. The Saints had to settle for a 34-yard field goal, which former Buccaneer Martin Gramatica nailed to tie the game at 10-10 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Bucs answered right back. Rookie Dexter Jackson returned the kickoff 34 yards to the Tampa Bay 33, and Graham took a sweep around the right corner and barreled 46 yards to the Saints' 20. The drive went no further, but did lead to Bryant's second field goal and a three-point lead.
The lead lasted only a matter of minutes. Henderson's 85-yard catch came on the next play from scrimmage, with just a few seconds left in the third quarter.
On the ensuing drive, Garcia took his first crack at hitting Galloway deep , but it was broken up by CB Randall Gay. Garcia did hit Galloway with a 13-yard pass on the next play, and found Hilliard for 11 more to move into Saints territory. Another Hilliard grab took the ball down to the 37 and an 18-yard swing pass to Graham earned a first down at the five. Three plays later, Garcia threw a quick out to the right to Hilliard for a two-yard touchdown that put the Bucs back up, 20-17.
On the following drive, Bush took a short pass over the middle and broke to the sideline for a 29-yard gain to the Bucs' 47. Saints T Jammal Brown appeared to tackle DE Gaines Adams directly in front of Brees, but no flag was thrown. Bush completed the 80-yard drive with a 42-yard touchdown on a short screen pass out to the right, putting the Saints back on top, 24-20, with 7:38 left to play.
The Bucs' ensuing drive fizzled at midfield, leading to a punt that Moore fair caught at the Saints' 17. Tampa Bay's defense forced the three-and-out the Bucs needed, though Brees cannily ran the clock down before every snap, leaving the visitors with two-and-a-half minutes for their last possession.
Jackson gave the Bucs a good starting point by returning a short punt 14 yards to midfield. Bryant took a short pass and darted across the field for a gain of 12. An incompletion on the next play brought on the two-minute warning. Smith bounced off a tackler to pick up 10 yards on the next play, down to the Saints' 28, getting out of bounds with 1:48 to play, but DE Bobby McCray sacked Garcia from behind on the next play.
Three plays later, the Bucs faced a fourth-and-six from the 24, and the Saints used a timeout before the snap. After the pause, Garcia tried to go over the middle to Hilliard but LB Scott Fujita cut through the lane for a game-clinching interception.
The Buccaneers fell to 0-1 on the season and will return home next Sunday to face the 1-0 Atlanta Falcons. The Saints got off to a 1-0 start and will head to Washington to face the 0-1 Redskins next weekend.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers lost their regular-season opener for the third season in a row. The team's last win in an opener was in 2005, when they beat Minnesota, 24-13, in the Metrodome. … C Jeff Faine's first start as a Buccaneer came at his former home stadium. Faine played two seasons for the Saints before joining the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent this past spring. … Sunday's game marked the first time that the Buccaneers have opened their season against a division opponent since 2002, the first year for the newly-formed NFC South. The Bucs lost that game to the Saints, 26-20 in overtime, but rallied to win the division and, eventually, Super Bowl XXXVII. … The Buccaneers utilized the new "defer" option at the opening coin flip. Tampa Bay won the toss but elected to defer their decision to the second half. Thus, the Saints chose to receive to start the game. ... WR Ike Hilliard's six-yard catch in the second quarter, his first of the game, was the 500th of his career. Fittingly, the catch resulted in a first down. Hilliard finished the game with six catches for 45 yards and a touchdown. … WR Devery Henderson's 85-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was the second-longest completion against the Buccaneers in team history. The longest remains a 91-yarder between Detroit's Scott Mitchell and Brett Perriman on 12/23/95. … RB Earnest Graham's 46-yard run in the third quarter was the longest by a Buccaneer since the 2005 season. RB Michael Pittman had a 64-yarder against the Saints on January 1, 2006, the 2005 season finale. … With his fifth catch of the game, WR Joey Galloway passed Gerald Carter to move into ninth place on the Bucs' all-time receptions list. Galloway caught six passes in the game, giving him 241 as a Buccaneer, surpassing Carter's 239.
Inactives: The Buccaneers named the following eight players inactive before Sunday's game: QB Josh Johnson, RB Michael Bennett, LB Geno Hayes, G Davin Joseph, T James Lee, WR Michael Clayton, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Luke McCown. Joseph was out due to injury.
The Saints named the following eight players inactive: WR Robert Meachem, RB Aaron Stecker, CB Usama Young, CB Mike McKenzie, LB Mark Simoneau, LB Troy Evans, T Jermon Bushrod and DT Hollis Thomas. Stecker, McKenzie, Simoneau, Evans and Thomas were out due to injuries.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, WR Maurice Stovall sustained a shoulder injury in the second quarter and did not return. LB Derrick Brooks suffered a hamstring injury in the third quarter and did not return.
For the Saints, DE Antwan Lake suffered a groin injury in the first quarter and did not return.