The Tampa Bay Buccaneers visited the Superdome on Sunday with a chance to leapfrog the New Orleans Saints to the top of the NFC South, but found themselves in third place by the end of the afternoon.
Drew Brees and the Saints avenged Tampa Bay's 26-20 win at Raymond James Stadium just three weeks ago with a 27-16 victory, racking up 453 total yards of offense and taking control of the game early. As with the earlier matchup between these two teams, both offenses moved the ball effectively throughout the game, but this time the Saints were much better at finishing their drives.
Brees completed 27 of 36 passes for 258 yards and one interception and threw first-half touchdown passes to Lance Moore and Darren Sproles. RB Pierre Thomas added a nine-yard touchdown run in the third quarter as part of a 195-yard rushing day by the Saints. Even without rookie RB Mark Ingram, the Saints moved the ball very well on defense by shuffling between Thomas, Sproles and Chris Ivory. Sproles was particularly effective on the day, racking up 99 combined rushing and receiving yards.
The Bucs and Saints combined for 818 yards, fewer than the 873 they racked up together three weeks ago but still indicative of the offensive fireworks that ruled the day. Seven different players on the two teams combined had plays of longer than 20 yards: LeGarrette Blount, Preston Parker and Dezmon Briscoe for the Buccaneers and Thomas, Sproles, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Brees himself for the Saints. Brees' 20-yard scramble on third down effectively allowed the Saints to burn the rest of the clock after Kellen Winslow's five-yard touchdown catch pulled the Bucs within eight points with five minutes to play.
The win improved the Saints' record to 6-3 and kept them a half-game ahead of the 5-3 Atlanta Falcons, who easily defeated the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. The Bucs dropped to 4-4, 1.5 games behind the Saints, but still have three intradivision games remaining against Atlanta and the fourth-place Carolina Panthers. The Bucs and Saints split their series for the fourth straight year, and for the first time since 2006 Tampa Bay lost the game that immediately followed its bye week.
Josh Freeman finished the game strong after the Bucs fell into a 24-6 third-quarter hole, directing a pair of lengthy scoring drives. He completed 27 of 37 passes for 281 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 103.5. He spread the ball out to 10 different players – every eligible receiver on the 46-man active squad except TE Luke Stocker – with Mike Williams leading the way with six catches for 46 yards. WR Preston Parker continued his emergent season with three catches for 56 yards along with a 45-yard kickoff return and 16 yards on two punt returns.
RB LeGarrette Blount return for the Buccaneers and looked strong, averaging 5.5 yards per carry as he ran for 72 yards on 13 totes. However, Tampa Bay fell behind by two scores in the first half and that once again served to marginalize the rushing attack for much of the day. The Bucs ended up with just 20 carries for 84 yards, which strays from the team's intended formula for success. Tampa Bay is 1-3 this year and 1-7 since 2009 when running the ball 20 or fewer times.
The Bucs trailed by 14 points heading into the second half but got an early spark when CB Ronde Barber intercepted Brees on the opening possession of the third quarter. Unfortunately, the offense couldn't follow with a first down and the Bucs had to settle for the second of Connor Barth's three field goals. That was the story for the Buccaneers throughout the game and the eventual difference on the scoreboard. Other than the opening possession, a three-and-out, the Bucs' offense moved into Saints territory on every one of their drives on the day, but didn't get it into the end zone until Winslow's score with five minutes left.
Barber added six tackles and a pass defensed to go with his interception. Mason Foster and Quincy Black led the team with nine tackles each. The Bucs did not sack Brees, however, and when they did pressure him he often stepped away from trouble and bought time to throw it downfield. Brees finished with 258 yards on 27 of 36 passes, and though he had 125 fewer yards than in the last Bucs-Saints meetings he also threw two fewer interceptions.
The game was stalled early by a pair of injuries on the second play of the Bucs' opening possession. CB Tracy Porter broke up a slant to Williams, but had to be taken off on a cart after his helmet appeared to make contact with Williams' thigh. The Buc receiver sustained a thigh bruise on the play but was able to return. Porter was transported to a local hospital for observation but the Saints announced that he had checked out fine neurologically.
The Bucs went three-and-out on that drive but the defense stopped a Saints scoring threat on the following possession. Brees converted a third-and-13 with a 20-yard pass to WR Marques Colston to get the ball deep into Bucs territory, but a stop of Sproles on third down by CB Elbert Mack forced a field goal attempt and K John Kasay missed a 42-yard try, hitting the right upright.
The Bucs' second possession went better, as Blount ran four times for 32 yards, including yet another hurdle play over a prone defender, to get the ball into Saints territory. However, the Bucs went for it on fourth-and-one from the Saints' 29 and LB Scott Shanle stopped Blount on a run to the right.
The Saints went to Sproles on the next drive, and he delivered a 35-yard run and a 15-yard catch on consecutive plays. Brees finished the drive by throwing a beautiful fade pass to Moore near the left edge of the end zone, with Moore making a leaping, twisting catch for the game's first points.
Tampa Bay got into Saints territory again on the next drive thanks to Parker's 36-yard catch-and-run on third down, but two offensive pass interference penalties on Buc receivers stalled the drive before it could reach the red zone and the Bucs hat to punt from the 38. Brees then drove the Saints 80 yards on six plays, with Thomas breaking off a 33-yard run and Sproles finishing it with a 21-yard catch-and-run down the right sideline for a touchdown.
The Bucs' offense finally got on the board inside the two-minute warning, once again moving the ball well in the hurry-up before halftime. A 46-yard catch by Briscoe, wide open down the right sideline, did most of the damage on a 53-yard drive that led to Barth's 40-yard field goal. Unfortunately, that left Brees with 1:40 on the clock and he used it to drive the team 76 yards for a matching field goal, Kasay's 21-yarder. Dangerous tight end Jimmy Graham gained much of it on catches of 23 and 19 yards.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Sunday's game.)
The Bucs' kickoff coverage team trapped Sproles at the 20-yard line to start the second half but runs of five and six yards by Ivory and Thomas, respectively, got a first down. The Saints faced a third-and-two moments later at their own 38 and Barber read a flare-out to Sproles perfectly, jumping in front for an interception at the Saints' 33. Two Blount runs made it third-and-four at the Saints' 27 and an encroachment call on DE Will Smith moved the chains. A wheel route to Lumpkin almost worked for a touchdown but the ball was just out of his reach. A short run and a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Blount pushed the ball all the way back to the Saints' 36. An underneath pass to Williams on third-and-24 got six yards back and set up Barth for a 48-yard field goal attempt. He hit it down the center to cut the Saints' lead to 17-6.
Sproles got out to the 24 this time, and the Saints got a quick first down with a nine-yard pass to Colston and a five-yard run by Ivory. Thomas fought for extra yards on a dumpoff to the right to get to the Saints' 45 and Ivory got 10 more yards on his next carry. Three plays later, Brees tried to hit Graham down the middle but the play was well-covered and incomplete. An Ivory run and another Sproles screen created a first down at the Bucs' 21 and a third-down defensive holding call on Barber gave the Saints a fresh set of downs at the Bucs' nine. They needed just one play from there, as Thomas broke a tackle up the middle and danced in for the score, putting the Saints up 24-6.
After a touchback, Freeman threw underneath to Blount and the back pushed through a tackle by the yard markers to get 11 yards and a first down. Blount started right and then cut back left on the next play to get 27 yards to the New Orleans 42. A sideline pass to FB Erik Lorig gained six and Blount made I third-and-one with a carry to the left. Freeman faked a handoff and tried to hit Lorig down the right side but Lorig couldn't haul it in as he dived forward. The Bucs went for it on fourth-and-one but Freeman didn't get the snap off in time, costing the offense five yards. They still went for it on fourth-and-six and Williams made a tough catch on a quick slant, holding on as he was dragged down by a defender while passing the first-down line. That brought the third quarter to an end.
The fourth period began badly for the Bucs, as a pitch-reverse from Lumpkin to Benn failed to fool the Saints and lost four yards. However, a rollout pass to Winslow on the right side got just enough to move the chains. A tripping penalty on T Donald Penn erased a nice six-yard run by Blount and pushed the Bucs back 10 yards. After a six-yard checkdown to Lorig, a receiver screen to Williams worked well, with Benn's block springing his teammate for a gain of 11. On third-and-three from the 13, Freeman tried to hit Winslow going into the end zone but it was out of reach. Tampa Bay went for it on fourth down once again and got a new set of downs when CB Malcolm Jenkins was flagged for interfering with Parker. From the seven, Freeman looked to Winslow in the back middle of the end zone but missed. He kept it on a designed run on the next play but was shut down for no gain. On third-and-goal, Freeman escaped a near-sack but couldn't get the ball in to Williams at the back of the end zone and the Bucs settled for Barth's third field goal, a 25-yarder.
The Bucs' defense got the stop it needed on the ensuing possession. Ivory got no yards on a first-down carry, stopped by LB Mason Foster, and Adrian Clayborn limited Sproles to two yards on a third-and-10 run. Preston Parker fumbled but recovered trying to return Thomas Morstead's 57-yard punt and the Bucs had to start again at their own 23.
Freeman scrambled left on first down and tried to dump it off to Lumpkin, but the pass was knocked down by Smith. Another pass to Lumpkin picked up eight yards, however, and the Bucs were bailed out after an incompletion by an illegal-hands-to-the-face call on CB Leigh Torrance. Freeman found Parker over the middle on the next play and the receiver eluded several tacklers to get 15 yards and cross midfield. Three plays later, on third-and-six from the Saints' 45, Williams faked in and then ran an out to the sideline and Freeman threw a strike for a gain of nine. Rookie TE Zack Pianalto got nine yards on a checkdown and CB Patrick Robinson drew a pass-interference all on the next play when Freeman tried to hit Williams down the sideline. That made it first-and-goal at the Saints' five and the Bucs scored on the next play. Freeman faked the same keeper play as on the previous possession, then pulled up and threw a five-yard TD pass to Winslow.
The Saints decided not to get too conservative in running out the clock, and Brees started out with passes of 15 yard to Graham and nine to TE John Gilmore. Ivory pounded over left tackle for a first down on the next play as the clock drained towards the four-minute mark. Three plays later, as the clock ran under three minutes, the Saints faced a third-and-four at the Bucs' 46 and Brees saw a wide-open middle of the field to exploit for a scramble of 20 yards. That brought on the two-minute warning, and the Bucs used their first timeout after a one-yard run. A holding call erased much of Sproles' touchdown run on the next snap and made it second-and-nine. Thomas broke several tackles on the next play to get nine yards and make it third-and-inches, and the Bucs used their second timeout with 1:27 left. Ivory hit the line with a head of steam on third down but Mason Foster stood him up and there was no gain, making it fourth-and-one. The Saints lined up to go for it on fourth down but were really just trying to draw the Bucs offside. Brees called a timeout before the clock ran out and Kasay came on to clinch the game with a 34-yard field goal.
The Bucs had about a minute left to work with after that kick, but down two scores they faced a Saints defense that was laying back to prevent the big play. Freeman completed three passes and scrambled once to get the ball into Saints territory but the clock ran out before the Bucs threatened the end zone.
Game Notes: The Saints now lead the all-time series with Tampa Bay, 23-17, after the two teams split their two-game season series for the fourth straight year. The series is an even 10-10 since the Bucs and Saints were put together in the new NFC South in 2002. … CB Elbert Mack played in the 50th game of his NFL career on Sunday. He first entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2008. … WR Mike Williams did not start the game for the first time in his two-year career, but not due to any playing deficiency. The Bucs opened in a three-TE set, with Luke Stocker and Demar Dotson on the field instead of Williams and FB Erik Lorig. Dotson, an offensive tackle who reported as eligible for the play, made the first start of his NFL career. … CB Ronde Barber extended his Buccaneer career record with his 42nd interception in the third quarter, his second pick of the year. The final outcome marked the first time since 2008 that the Buccaneers have lost a game in which Barber had an interception.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Sammie Stroughter, CB Myron Lewis, LB Zac Diles, G Jeremy Zuttah, T James Lee, DE Tim Crowder and DT Frank Okam. Stroughter, Zuttah and Okam were out due to injury.
The Saints declared these seven inactives: RB Mark Ingram, CB Johnny Patrick, FB Korey Hall, LB Jonathan Vilma, T Ray Willis, WR Adrian Arrington and DE Jeff Charleston. Ingram and Vilma were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DT Gerald McCoy sustained an elbow injury in the first quarter and did not return.
For the Saints, CB Tracy Porter was taken off the field by cart in the first quarter after sustaining a neck injury. He did not return.