1. The Saints made plays on both sides of the ball.
Coaches and players had been talking about the New Orleans defensive front all week, led by defensive end Cameron Jordan. He had one of the six sacks on quarterback Jameis Winston, who was uncomfortable all game. Second-year defensive end Marcus Davenport had 2.0 sacks in the game as well as three quarterback hits. The Saints' front seven ended up being as advertised and the Bucs' offensive line had trouble as a result. Late in the game, right tackle Demar Dotson exited the game with a hamstring injury, to make matters worse.
But the pressure, and sacks especially, aren't necessarily all on the offensive line, either. After the game, Winston talked about what the Saints did to take his number one target, wide receiver Mike Evans, out of the game. Evans was targeted just three times and didn't catch any of them thanks to some tough outside coverage. Even when the coaches tried to move Evans around and try him in the slot, New Orleans had an answer for him – double-covering him in those instances.
"They just clouded to his side," Winston said of the Saints' efforts on Evans. "Every time he was in singles, he was getting a cloud. Every time he was to the field he was in a cloud. Every time he was in the slot it resulted in them doubling him in the slot. We have got to try and find a way to get him open, and we will."
Credit to the New Orleans game plan. It inevitably meant that Winston was holding the ball longer, trying to get through his progressions, and with an aggressive defensive front, that's time you just don't have - time the offensive line can't be expected to give. The offense couldn't get anything going and it was especially evident on third downs. The Bucs were just three-of-11 on third down but did convert their only fourth down attempt of the game on a spectacular throw to Godwin for a gain of 14 yards.
"I think the game came down to third down," Arians said. "Our inability to get off the field, and our inability to stay on the field. A little better pass protection for us offensively to get into the more manageable third downs. Defensively, we just have to make plays and I think we didn't make them."
The defense let up just over 50% of third down attempts to the Saints – with New Orleans going eight-for-15. But another killer this time around was the fact that the Bucs' defense allowed the Saints' offensive playmakers to make plays, too. It's pretty much that simple. Up until this point, even in losses, the Bucs had taken away teams' offensive focal points – both in the air and the ground. Week One, they held San Francisco tight end George Kittle to 54 yards. The following week, they held Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey to 37 yards on the ground. Against the New York Giants, they held running back Saquon Barkley to just 10 yards before he was injured late in the first half. Then in Los Angeles, the Bucs' defense held running back Todd Gurley to just 16 yards on the ground in addition to holding wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the Rams' number one receiver, to 71 yards through the air in a game that saw quarterback Jared Goff throw the ball 68 times.
Against the Saints in the Superdome, though, the Bucs let wide receiver Michael Thomas gain 182 yards on 11 catches and score two touchdowns. Head Coach Bruce Arians didn't mince words when describing the play of the secondary, especially.
"We are too soft," Arians said. "I do not know how else to put it. When we are press man, we have some guys getting after it, we have some guys that are just off."
What it really came down to was an already stressed secondary see itself become even more so when cornerback Carlton Davis was ejected from the game following a personal foul penalty. It forced rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting to the outside opposite Vernon Hargreaves, where Murphy-Bunting has primarily played in the nickel position for the Bucs this year. He was also effective there early in the game, getting that aforementioned interception in the first quarter from the slot on running back Alvin Kamara.
Kamara was another one that made a few plays here and there, sparking the Saints' offense – though he was held more in check the more you look at it. He may have had 62 yards on the ground, but it took him 16 attempts to do so. It gave him an average of 3.9 yards per carry, which is below his 4.7 average on the season.
2. Running game unsung hero in letting Chris Godwin still be Chris Godwin.
Back to that whole holding Evans without a catch thing. Because the Saints' defense was so focused on Evans, it again left Godwin with just a man to beat a lot of the time. That's a matchup I like, you like and Godwin himself likes.
"He's just a great player," Winston said of Godwin. "He works hard and has tenacity. He's relentless. It is easy to have a good relationship with him. When they're doubling Mike [Evans], they're leaving him one-on-one with somebody, so he's been making big plays for us."
It helped Godwin to his third 100-yard game of the season and second consecutive such game, giving him 511 yards on the season so far. It's the second-most through five games in team history behind only Keyshawn Johnson. He also had his third career game with multiple touchdowns. As of the end of the game, Godwin was the only receiver in the NFL to have six touchdown catches.
Godwin got the bulk of the yards in the receiving game, that aforementioned pressure on Winston only allowing a total of 204 yards through the air on the day, so the Bucs also balanced out their offense with 94 yards on the ground. It was pretty on-par with what they've been doing all season and ended up being an even split of most of the workload between Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones, who had 32 yards and 35 yards, respectively. Rookie Scotty Miller also had an exciting end-around play that he took for 18 yards out of the backfield. Barber had a rushing touchdown in which he leapt over the pile from two yards out. Usually, when you can get the ground game involved, and therefore the threat of the run, you can be pretty effective in the air using play action that can buy you time to let bigger plays develop. And in fact, the running game did set up that incredible 14-yard catch by Godwin on fourth-down-and-one. A gutsy call upon first glance, and probably upon second, but you realize that the run game had set it up starting at the beginning of the drive. It was a 17-play drive in the third quarter, to be exact, that started with three straight rushes by Barber. Those runs moved the chains, too, gaining a first down. A penalty, an 11-yard completion to Godwin and a Winston scramble led to two more handoffs to Jones, this time. Jones was then stopped on third-and-one, bringing up fourth-and-one, which the Bucs ended up running on initially. The play clock was winding down dangerously low and so a timeout was called to avoid a penalty, negating the play. That's when the Bucs decided to throw the ball, instead, catching the Saints off guard. Winston hit Godwin on an 11-yard pass that Godwin took for three more yards after he caught it – and cornerback Marshon Lattimore realized what had happened.
That drive also culminated in a two-yard rush by Barber into the end zone and as its own little microcosm, showed what this Bucs' offense is capable of: a well-balanced, productive drive that takes time off the clock and allows the defense some much-needed rest. Now, if they can continue to put together drives like that, they're in pretty good shape.
3. Turnover battle was won in a loss.
Usually (there's that word again) if a team wins the turnover battle, they win the game. Usually. But all bets are off during a division matchup in the Superdome, apparently. The Buccaneers nabbed their fifth interception of the year as rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting recorded the first of his career in the first quarter. Murphy-Bunting was glued to running back Alvin Kamara (in a legal, great-coverage type of way) and as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater attempted the short pass to Kamara, Murphy-Bunting was even with him and took the ball away instead. Just like the last three interceptions in Los Angeles, the Bucs' offense immediately capitalized with a touchdown on a 26-yard pass to Godwin two plays later.
That's seven bonus points right there. What's more, is that the Bucs didn't turn the ball over themselves. Though there was an interception negated by a delay of game penalty on the Bucs, which I've never been so thankful for, and then another negated by a defensive holding call on the Saints – in the end, neither of them counted.
What's encouraging is that the defense is still giving the offense opportunities and they're capitalizing on them. I like my chances a lot more with a turnover than without one any week of the season.