In 2002, the NFL put the Tampa Bay Buccaneers together with the New Orleans Saints in the new NFC South. The head-to-head series, now contested twice a year, was fairly even, but it was the Buccaneers who won a Super Bowl in '02 and then the division title again in 2005. The Saints were the only one of the four NFC South teams not to win a division during that span.
In 2006, Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans and things changed.
Raheem Morris, an assistant coach on that early-2000s Buccaneer team and now the club's head coach, was not in the mix for Brees' first season in the division as that was the one year he spent as the defensive coordinator at Kansas State. New Orleans won their first NFC South title that year, finishing 10-6 as Brees threw for 4,400 yards and 26 touchdowns. The Saints beat the Bucs twice that year.
In 2007, Morris returned to Tampa to be the team's defensive backs coach, and no challenge he would face in his two years in that role would be more difficult or more entertaining than Drew Brees and his band of pass-catchers. The Bucs managed to win three of those four contests, including a 2008 November matchup in Tampa that filled Morris with confidence.
In that game, a 23-20 Tampa Bay win that ended on Matt Bryant's 37-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter, Brees threw for 297 yards on nearly 50 passes and tossed touchdowns to Lance Moore and Pierre Thomas. But he was also picked off three times, twice by Buccaneer defensive backs in the fourth quarter.
"Flip [Jermaine Phillips] got one and Phillip Buchanon got one, and we ended the game here and it was a rainy day," recalled Morris. "It was a big-time win for us. We felt like we had them. We felt like the Saints would never beat us again.
"I was wrong."
Indeed, Brees is both productive and resilient, and as he proved again on Monday night in beating Atlanta and eliminating one of the Buccaneers' avenues to the playoffs. Brees threw for 300 yards and the game-winning touchdown pass with three-and-a-half minutes to play, rallying his team to a 17-14 win.
"He's dynamic," said Morris. "He's smart, he's sharp. He gets himself out of bad plays a lot of times. He knows what you're doing. He knows what he wants to do and he goes out and executes it. He's accurate. You're more and more impressed every time you go out there and evaluate and watch him. You try to get into his head as a defensive coordinator."
The issue of Brees' awareness and defense-recognition was repeated again and again by Buccaneer players on Wednesday. Many a quarterback can be fooled by disguised defenses before the snap, but Brees often turns the game around and takes control of the back-and-forth gamesmanship.
"Brees is a very, very, very intelligent man," said Buccaneers linebacker Adam Hayward. "It's frustrating when you walk up there and he knows what you're going to do before you even do it."
Brees did throw two interceptions in that win over the Falcons, one of which was returned for the touchdown that gave Atlanta its four-point fourth-quarter lead. Tampa Bay has the NFL's sixth-ranked pass defense, which is based on yards allowed, but opponents often have to concede that Brees is going to get his share of yards. He is averaging nearly 300 passing yards per game, after all. The key in the minds of Buccaneer defenders is to take advantage of turnover opportunities; the Saints have turned the ball over 28 times this year, including 21 Brees picks.
"The game boils down to turnovers, for the most part, when you're playing these guys," said Morris. "He does a great job of protecting it. I know he has the 21 interceptions but a lot of that is belief in his receivers and belief in what they do in their system. Sometimes it doesn't go right. But you look at the other side of that coin and he also has 30-some-odd touchdowns."
For the Bucs, intercepting Brees is about more than just taking away a Saints scoring opportunity. It's also about handing the ball back to Josh Freeman, who is developing into the sort of utterly reliable leader for the Bucs that Brees has been for New Orleans.
"We pride ourselves on flying around and getting to the ball, and that's going to be big, getting everybody to that ball and creating turnovers and getting the ball back to Josh," said Hayward. "You guys have seen Josh – that man can do a lot of things for a young quarterback."
As a matter of fact, Freeman has a better passer rating this season than Brees, 93.6 to 92.2. Brees has a 31-23 edge in touchdown passes and his other counting numbers are higher overall. However, Freeman has thrown just six interceptions, 15 fewer than Brees. Essentially, the two players have arrived at almost the same passer rating in two very different ways. Freeman has made the big play when it has been needed, and he has very rarely made mistakes.
"He's just a locked-in guy," said Morris of his second-year passer. "He's focused. He knows that we try to keep possession of the football. He knows that for our team it's about scoring and getting the ball back for him, so he can maintain possession and go out there and accumulate points so we'll have the ability to win. That's how we play our game. He's done a great job.
"I'm really pleased with his ability to handle the game, be poised and be clutched and to have the comebacks he's had. Every time we go out there with Free it just feels like we have a chance to win."
The Saints obviously feel the same way about their quarterback. Opponents like Morris who prefer the biggest challenges of the season, enjoy having Brees around as well. That 2008 win over the Saints may not have been the turning point it felt like at the time for the Buccaneers, but perhaps that's for the best. The mountain is still around to be climbed again.
"Sometimes you're looking at the tape and you're just amazed, you're wowed…until you get angry and you hate him," said Morris of his preparations to face Brees. "Those emotions go through you when you're putting in your defense and you're trying to get to him. But it's a healthy respect among competitors, and that's why you play this game. He's the reason why there's defensive coordinators and offensive coordinators – to play, to coach and to be around guys like that."
LeGarrette Blount will head into the Buccaneers' season finale needing just 59 yards to be the first Tampa Bay back to break 1,000 since Cadillac Williams in 2005. If he were to somehow duplicate his amazing 164-yard outing against Seattle – and yes, that's asking a lot – Blount would accomplish something even more impressive.
The former Oregon star has 941 rushing yards this season to lead all NFL rookies. That total is already the second highest by any undrafted rookie since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, trailing only Dominic Rhodes' 1,104 yards for Indianapolis in 2001. Blount originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans this past spring.
Here are the top five rushing seasons among undrafted rookies since 1970:
Blount was not considered one of the Bucs' main backfield options when the regular season began, and thus had just 30 yards through the first five games of the season, three of which he didn't even play in. Since taking over as the primary ballcarrier in Week Six, however, he has averaged 91.1 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry. The 1,000-yard mark wasn't necessarily on his mind in October, and it's not even his top motivation now, with one game remaining and that goal in sight.
"I guess it means a lot," said Blount. "Running the football is just what I do. If I get 1,000 yards, I'm happy. If we win, I'll be even more happy. It's awesome that I have the opportunity to do it, though. I'm just happy that I was blessed with the opportunity to get snaps as a rookie.
"It's still a big surprise. It's definitely been a roller coaster ride. I'm having fun with it a lot and it's also a lot of hard work. It's not the worst job."
Blount differs from the other four players on the list above in one significant way: Rhodes, Lane, Young and Gaines all had their rookie breakout seasons for the team that originally signed them out of college. Blount, on the other hand, started out with the Tennessee Titans but was claimed off waivers by the Buccaneers on September 6.
However, neither of those would-be snubs is what motivates Blount to perform well, at least not in the usual way. He isn't out to prove the draft-day decision-makers or the Titans wrong, but he does want to show everybody that he still has a passion for football.
"I just run hard because I love the game," he said. "I run hard to let everybody know I still love the game no matter if I was drafted or not. It's not that I'm running angry or running with a chip on my shoulder. I'm just happy that I got the opportunity and I'm going to try to make the best of it."
Worthington Gets the Call
One more NFL newcomer will get an opportunity to add to the Buccaneers' "Year of the Rookie."
On Wednesday, the Buccaneers promoted rookie defensive tackle Doug Worthington to the active roster from the practice squad. The team had a spot to fill on the 53-man crew after officially placing rookie wide receiver Arrelious Benn on injured reserve. Benn sustained a season-ending knee injury in the Bucs' 38-15 win over Seattle on Sunday.
If Worthington gets a chance to play on Sunday in New Orleans, he would be the 20th different rookie to see action in a game for the Buccaneers this season. He could also figure into a revamped defensive line rotation that has relied on other young players down the stretch after the losses of Gerald McCoy and Brian Price and the release of Ryan Sims. Frank Okam and Al Woods, both of whom started the season with different teams, have been playing extensively since McCoy's injury.
Worthington originally entered the NFL as a seventh-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers this past spring. He briefly appeared on the Steelers' practice squad but was released during the first week. At Ohio State, he started for three seasons for the Buckeyes, playing in 13 games as a senior and contributing 42 tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks. He was part of an OSU defense that held opposing teams to 90 rushing yards per game in 2009, the seventh-lowest total in the nation.