Before Sunday's game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium, Bucs Head Coach Raheem Morris said Saints QB Drew Brees was a good bet to pass for 300 yards, no matter the final outcome. At halftime, Brees is a little less than halfway there; hopefully, Morris's team is also halfway to a the more important stat: a victory.
The Buccaneers took a 20-10 lead into halftime, thanks in part to three takeaways by the Tampa Bay defense that helped the home team hold the ball for 18:33 of the first 30 minutes. The Bucs' offense made good use of that time, as QB Josh Freeman completed 16 of 24 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns. His 65-yard scoring strike to WR Arrelious Benn early in the second quarter gave the Bucs a 20-10 lead, and he followed an interception by S Tanard Jackson with a 19-yard TD pass to WR Preston Parker. K Connor Barth provided the other six points with field goals of 48 and 42 yards.
CB E.J. Biggers also picked off a pass to stop a Saints drive in Buccaneer territory late in the half, and LB Geno Hayes ended New Orleans' first drive by forcing rookie RB Mark Ingram to fumble.
RB Earnest Graham, starting in place of injured RB LeGarrette Blount, pitched in with 68 combined rushing and receiving yards, including a 34-yard breakaway run that set up Barth's second field goal. WR Mike Williams and TE Kellen Winslow each caught four first-half passes.
The Bucs won the toss, elected to receive and got the ball on their own 20 after a touchback. Graham tried the middle on first down but CB Jabari Greer came out of the slot to tackle him after no gain. TE Kellen Winslow made two nice plays on the next snap, reaching up to snag a high throw and then stepping over a diving defender to get 12 yards on the left sideline. A short catch by Winslow and another Graham run that was bottled up left the Bucs in a third-and-six at their own 36, and a short toss over the middle to Winslow just missed to force punt.
Michael Koenen's 45-yard punt went out of bounds at the Saints' 19, but rookie RB Mark Ingram shot up the middle for seven yards on New Orleans' first play. CB Ronde Barber stopped Ingram from getting any more on a second-down run but Brees threw a quick strike to TE Jimmy Graham for six yards on third-and-three. The pile of players rolling out of bounds at the end of Graham's catch ran into the legs of Saints Head Coach Sean Payton, which led to a lengthy delay as Payton suffered a leg injury. Payton spent the rest of the half on the Saints bench and will reportedly coach the second half from the coaches' booth upstairs.
After the delay, during which Payton was helped back to the Saints bench, Ingram tried right guard but was stopped for no gain. Ingram was stopped short again on his next carry and before he could hit the ground, Hayes hit him from behind and forced a fumble that Bowers recovered at the Saints' 33.
An incompletion and a short Graham run made it third-and-seven, and the Saints blitzed, forcing a quick throw that was incomplete when CB Michael Jenkins hit Parker just as the ball arrived. K Connor Barth still turned the takeaway into points by nailing a 48-yard field goal.
Sproles took the ensuing kickoff out to the Saints 21, and two plays later he ran around left end for a gain of 16. Ingram took a short pass in the right flat and broke a tackle to get six yards to midfield on the next play, and Biggers turned in a marvelous pass-defensed on an attempted out to WR Devery Henderson. On third-and-four, Brees found Graham on the left side for a nine-yard gain and Colston got wide open on the next play for a 38-yard touchdown.
Parker fielded the kickoff that followed right along the left sideline and was only able to dance up to the Bucs' 15. However, Williams caught a nine-yard pass on second down and Freeman snuck up the middle on third-and-inches to move the chains. A pass-interference call on S Roman Harper gave the Bucs a first down at the their own 40, but Freeman's scramble on the next play was good for just two yards. However, RB Kregg Lumpkin came in for his first snap and shot through a seam on a draw play to get nine yards and a first down across midfield. An end-around pitch to Benn didn't work at all but Benn made a superb effort to hold the yard loss down to five. After a holding call put the Bucs in a second-and-25 hole, and it got worse when the Saints sniffed out a receiver screen and dropped Williams for a loss of third-and-27. A pass over the middle to Parker at least got 13 yards back, and the Bucs punted from their own 47.
The Saints got it back at their 20 and the Bucs defended a rollout pass on first down well, resulting in an incompletion in Jimmy Graham's vicinity. After a quick slant to Colston picked up seven yards and brought the first quarter to an end, the Saints missed on a quick pass over the middle to Sproles and had to punt. Parker's fair catch on a 53-yard punt by Thomas Morstead gave the ball back to the Bucs at their own 20.
A nifty two-cut run by Graham on first down got the Bucs seven yards, and another quick pass down the line to Williams worked better as he avoided a tackle and got eight more. On the next play, the Saints' safety bit on the play-action and Benn got wide open downfield by running a post that took him from the left to the right. Freeman hit Benn in stride and though the receiver stumbled for a second at the moment of the catch he was able to keep his feet and beat the last Saints defender to the left pylon.
Koenen's next kickoff reached the opposing stands and was thus, obviously, a touchback. DE Michael Bennett kept RB Pierre Thomas from getting any yards on a first-down run, and S Sean Jones fought through a wall of blockers to hold Thomas to five yards on a second-down screen. CB Ronde Barber made a quick break on a third-down pass to Graham and managed to knock it away at the last instant. Unfortunately, a 61-yard punt and a penalty on the Bucs pushed the ball all the way back to Tampa Bay's 10-yard line.
A release pass out to FB Erik Lorig got the drive started with a six-yard gain, and Graham faked out Harper near the line of scrimmage to break free for a 34-yard run on the next snap. TE Zack Pianalto's first career catch two plays later moved the chains with a nine-yard gain down to the Saints' 37, but a holding call on G Jeremy Zuttah erased a 14-yard pass to Williams on the next snap. A perfectly-executed screen pass to Graham got 19 yards and made it third-and-inches at the 28, and the Saints helped out with an offsides penalty. On first down from the 23, Graham lost a yard, and bunch screen to Parker failed badly when CB Patrick Robinson read it and shot through to kill it for a loss of four. A four-yard pass to Winslow moved the ball back to the 24 and the Bucs settled for Barth's 42-yard field goal.
Another Koenen touchback followed, and Brees' first-down pass was nearly intercepted by LB Mason Foster after being tipped. Ingram's second-down run got just two yards and on third down Colston bobbled a pass that ended up in the hands of Jackson. Jackson kept both feet in bounds and got 16 yards on the return down to the Saints' 25.
Freeman's first pass to Williams was broken up by LB Scott Shanle, but a second-down throw to Winslow got into the red zone with a gain of six. On third-and-four, Parker shot over the middle and Freeman hit him on the dead run with a laser, allowing Parker to catch it in stride and beat his defender into the end zone for a 19-yard score.
With a little over three minutes left in the half, the Saints went to a no-huddle and Brees found Colston for a 19-yard gain to the Saints' 45. A quick curl by Sproles was good for eight more into Bucs territory, and another out by the back got six more as he ran out of bounds with 2:22 left in the half. On the next snap, however, Biggers fought off contact with Colston and made a diving interception at the Bucs' 25.
A three-yard pass to Graham brought on the two-minute warning, and the Saints called their first timeout after Graham's three-yard run. Freeman converted that very big third-and-four with a 14-yard strike over the middle to Williams, putting the ball at Tampa Bay's 45. After an incompletion stopped the clock with 1:12 left in the half, and another attempt to Winslow landed at the tight end's feet. Freeman looked to Winslow yet again on third down but it to was incomplete and the Bucs punted away with one minute left in the half. Koenen amazingly dropped a punt down at the two-yard line and had it bounce sideways out of bounds.
Brees got the Saints some breathing room with a short pass to Graham, then found the tight end down the right seam for a back-breaking 43-yarder down to the Bucs' 46. Biggers nearly brought in another interception on the next play, and a holding call on a very good screen pass to Sproles helped the home team, moving the ball back to the 47. Brees came through once again, zipping a 31-yard strike to Colston to set up John Kasay's 33-yard field goal.