The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may yet have a say in the NFC South race this season, but they were silenced on Sunday by the visiting New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium.
Instead, it was Drew Brees and the Saints who grabbed a share of first place in the division with a 31-6 win over the Buccaneers, coupled with a loss by the Atlanta Falcons to the Philadelphia Eagles. Even with the loss, the 3-2 Buccaneers find themselves just a half-game behind the 4-2 Falcons and Saints.
"We got outplayed today," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Raheem Morris. "It was not the result we wanted. We're not a finished product yet. We have to chalk this one up as a learning experience. That's all you can do on a day like this."
Brees completed 21 of 32 passes for 263 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. His 41 and 42-yard touchdown passes to Lance Moore and Robert Meachem, respectively, helped the visitors build a 17-0 first half edge, and he padded the lead in the second half with a scoring toss to FB Heath Evans.
Brees was not sacked and saw his chances of enjoying a clean afternoon increase when the Saints immediately established a running attack. In the absence of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, rookie Chris Ivory took the lead, rushing for 158 yards on 15 carries. Ladell Betts added 20 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown and the Saints got a total of 212 yards on the ground.
Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman did not have the benefit of a strong running game, yet he had another encouraging performance. Freeman completed 25 of 43 passes for 219 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions before giving way to Josh Johnson for the game's final drive. Freeman was fortunate to escape injury on a fourth-quarter late hit by CB Malcolm Jenkins, and the two penalties Jenkins drew on the play helped sustain the Bucs' lone scoring drive of the day. Freeman's one-yard scoring pass to WR Micheal Spurlock concluded an 88-yard drive that led to the Bucs' only points of the game.
An already uneasy atmosphere gave way to repeated pushing and shoving after Jenkins' penalties. After the Saints' final score, New Orleans' LB Stanley Arnoux was ejected after drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty on the ensuing kickoff. New Orleans drew a total of nine penalties for 80 yards on the day, while the Bucs were flagged five times for 30 yards.
Overall, the Saints out-gained the Bucs 475 yards to 275, much of the difference in the running game, which was good for only 40 yards for the home team. The Bucs' ground efforts were not aided by injuries to Earnest Graham in the first quarter and Kareem Huggins in the third; neither rusher returned to the game and reserves LeGarrette Blount and Kregg Lumpkin were inactive.
"Today they exposed us running the football on us and we were exposed on not being able to run the football," said Morris. "They had some nice schemes and we did not tackle well. Stopping the run has to be the number-one priority for us. Today, we did not do that."
Despite the game's 79 passes, each team committed just one turnover. Buccaneers rookie S Cody Grimm picked off Brees near the end of the first half for his second interception in as many games, and RB Cadillac Williams lost a fumble for the Buccaneers in the third quarter. That fumble snipped a drive that had reached New Orleans territory when the game was still within reach. The Buccaneers also lost two other scoring opportunities when a pair of Connor Barth field goals hit the right upright. That was a measure of how little went right for the Buccaneers on this afternoon – before those two kicks, Barth had made 12 in a row dating back to the 2009 season.
The Saints scored on each of their first two drives, following a similar pattern. Effective running between the tackles and a varied short passing game from Brees got the Saints past midfield with little trouble, and then Brees took his shot downfield. First, he completed a 94-yard drive by hitting Moore on a straight fly down the right sideline for a 41-yard score. On the Saints' next drive, Brees looked downfield from the Bucs' 42 and found Meachem for the score.
Tampa Bay's own first-half possessions followed something of a pattern, too. Freeman took several shots downfield without making a connection, but were able to convert a pair of long third downs to keep the drive moving. Each of the Bucs' first two possessions neared midfield but ended in punts. The Bucs finally neared New Orleans' red zone on their last full drive of the first half on the strength of a two Freeman strikes to Mike Williams, but Connor Barth hit the right upright on a 40-yard field goal attempt.
The Saints tacked on a Garrett Hartley field goal just before that Buccaneer drive, and also aggressively moved into Tampa Bay territory after the miss, with less than two minutes on the clock. However, that scoring threat was turned away by Quincy Black and Cody Grimm, as Black tipped a hard pass over the middle and Grimm intercepted it inside the Bucs' 10.
Click here for a detailed report of the game's first half.
Unfortunately, the Saints stayed in high gear after the break, taking their opening possession straight down the field. Tampa Bay's special teams gave the home team a boost to start the half, stopping return man Courtney Roby at the eight on the opening kickoff, but Ivory immediately gained 17 yards on a simple screen to the right. Brees then converted a third-and-eight with a crossing-route pass to Colston for 16 yards, and Ivory followed with runs of 11 and nine yards to put the Saints at the Bucs' 37. A potential touchdown catch by TE Jimmy Graham was erased by an offensive pass interference call, and LB Barrett Ruud broke up another pass into the end zone intended for Shockey. New Orleans had to settle for a field goal try and Hartley hooked it left for a miss.
The Bucs gained a quick first down as Freeman hit Huggins for a gain of seven yards on third-and-four, though the play had a downside too as Huggins sustained a knee injury on the tackle. A defensive holding call against S Roman Harper made it first down for the Bucs at their own 45, but Cadillac Williams fumbled two plays later when he was trying to fight for extra yards in the middle of a big crowd. The Saints recovered at Tampa Bay's 46 with six minutes left in the third quarter.
Runs of six and seven yards by Ivory took the ball to the Bucs' 33, then his 16-yard power burst on third-and-four created a first down at the 11. Ivory fumbled on the next play, but the ball took a sharp turn to the left and got out of bounds before the Bucs could capitalize. Two plays later, Brees found FB Heath Evans for a four-yard score to push the Saints' lead to 24-0.
The Bucs' next drive started well as Freeman threw a perfect pass down the right sideline to Stroughter for a gain of 27. Facing a third-and-five at the Saints' 47 on the first play of the fourth quarter, Freeman tried to hit Winslow down the middle of the field but missed deep. The Bucs elected to go for it on fourth down and Freeman looked for Winslow again, hitting him on a sharp in for a gain of 13. After another short completion to Winslow, Freeman hit Stroughter underneath but Stroughter lost the ball for a fumble and it was recovered by the Saints' Malcolm Jenkins at the 29. Morris threw the challenge flag and the play was eventually ruled an incompletion, making it third-and-five. After an incompletion intended for Cadillac Williams, Barth tried a 47-yard field goal that, again, hit the right upright.
The Bucs' defense followed with its first three-and-out of the afternoon, helped by a strong Ronde Barber blitz that forced a first-down throwaway. Thomas Morstead's first punt of the day was downed at the Bucs' 12.
A screen pass to Cadillac Williams right over a blitzing Saint got the ensuing drive started with a 15-yard gain. Three plays later, the Bucs faced a third-and-four at the 33 and Freeman threw complete to Winslow past the sticks. Winslow had the ball poked out of his grasp and it rolled backward before T Jeremy Trueblood fell on it at the 37. It was just enough for a first down. Freeman absorbed a big hit on the next play while completing a 13-yard pass to Cadillac Williams. Three plays later, on third-and-10, Freeman scrambled around the end and was hit out of bounds by CB Malcolm Jenkins who dived dangerously at the quarterback's knee. Jenkins drew a 15-yard penalty, and then another one when he took a swing at the head of an incensed Freeman.
As a result, the Bucs had a first down at the Saints' 17. Cadillac Williams caught a pass over the middle two plays later and dashed down to the two-yard line. Two runs by Williams and a Freeman sneak failed to get the ball in the end zone, but the Bucs went for it on fourth down and Freeman hit Spurlock in the back of the end zone for the score. The Bucs went for two, trying a fade to Mike Williams, but it was knocked away by CB Patrick Robinson.
The Bucs necessarily went for an onside kick after the score but just missed recovering it. With an offside penalty tacked on, the Saints started at the Tampa Bay 45. Buccaneer defenders tried repeatedly to strip the ball from Ivory on his next two carries, but that only helped the back break off a 27-yard jaunt to the 11. A Julius Jones sweep on third-and-one led to a first down at the one-yard line and Betts scored two plays later to cap the day's scoring.
The penalty on Arnoux on the ensuing kickoff made the starting line of scrimmage the Bucs' 25, and Johnson came on to relieve Freeman for the Bucs' final drive. After a scramble by Johnson resulted in a first down, the Bucs were flagged for holding and a deep seam pass to TE Jerramy Stevens just missed. After a one-yard sack by Jimmy Wilkerson, Johnson's next pass was nearly intercepted. The Bucs had to go for it on fourth down with 24 seconds left and an underneath toss to Cadillac Williams came up short.
Game Notes: The Saints now lead the all-time series with the Buccaneers, 22-15. Sunday's win allowed New Orleans to take a 9-8 edge in the series since the two teams were paired in the NFC South in 2002. … CB Ronde Barber made his 172nd consecutive start on Sunday. According to research conducted by the Detroit Lions, that is the longest streak for a cornerback in NFL history. Former Lion Dick LeBeau, now the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive coordinator, held the previous record at 171. … Connor Barth's 40-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter, which hit the right upright and bounced away, snapped a streak of 12 consecutive successful attempts for the Bucs' kicker. … Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon and members of his coaching staff were special guests of the Buccaneers at Sunday's game. Maddon's Rays won the AL East by one game over the New York Yankees in 2010 before falling to the Texas Rangers in the playoffs. … Rookie CB Myron Lewis played in his first regular-season game, appearing in the Bucs' dime package in place of the injured Elbert Mack. P Robert Malone, signed on Tuesday, also made his NFL debut, averaging 45.7 yards on three kicks with a net of 40.0 and two punts inside the 20.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Kregg Lumpkin, CB Elbert Mack, FB Chris Pressley, C Jeff Faine, WR Maurice Stovall, DE Kyle Moore and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. Mack, Faine and Moore were out due to injury.
The Saints deactivated these eight players: CB Randall Gay, CB Tracy Porter, RB Pierre Thomas, RB Reggie Bush, LB Scott Shanle, T Charles Brown, TE Tory Humphrey and DE Junior Galette. Gay, Porter, Thomas, Bush and Shanle were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, RB Earnest Graham aggravated a hamstring injury in the first quarter and did not return. RB Kareem Huggins suffered a knee injury in the third quarter and did not return.
The Saints did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.