Saints beat Bucs in NFL opener
Derrick Brooks sat alone at the end of the bench, knowing a pulled right hamstring in the third quarter had ended his day. Having never missed a game in 14 pro seasons, it was a helpless feeling the 35-year-old had hoped not to experience. The Bucs' iron man linebacker had finally stopped working. His eyes narrowed, Brooks glared a hole through the Superdome ceiling and stared into an uncertain future.
"That's what that look is, like, 'Lord, I've never been here,' " Brooks said. "I didn't know what to do. It's frustrating. The plays they had, they're attacking your position and you're not in the game. I didn't even want to watch." Three plays the defense failed to make Sunday were the difference in the Bucs' 24-20 loss to the Saints. They enabled quarterback Drew Brees to pass for 343 yards and three touchdowns.
Rookie cornerback Aqib Talib mistimed his leap on the first one, a 39-yarder to David Patten on the game's opening drive. Ronde Barber fell on the second, an 84-yard bomb to Devery Henderson in the third quarter. And Brooks wasn't on the field to prevent the last one to running back Reggie Bush, who broke a tackle by third-string outside linebacker Matt McCoy to race 42 yards for the decisive score with 7:38 left in the game. McCoy, a free agent from the Jets who normally plays middle linebacker, was on the field only because Brooks' backup, Adam Hayward, left the game with cramps and dehydration.
For the past few years, the Bucs have been contemplating life without Brooks. Now they know it isn't something they're ready for. "Well, it's different," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "I don't think I've ever seen him come out since 1996. That's 12 years. 'What do you mean 55 is hurt? He doesn't get hurt.' "
The Bucs will evaluate Brooks' hamstring with a series of tests today, including an MRI exam. His streak of 193 games played could be in jeopardy next week against Atlanta. "I felt it grab. I thought it could be a cramp," Brooks said. "I couldn't run. I tried to run the next play. I could do more harm than good. I've seen guys — even on our team — when something like that happens, pride gets in the way. Pride can end up costing you a season rather than one game. I humbled myself and listened to the trainer. We'll see where it's at (this) morning. At the end of the day, if I can't go, I can't go."
With Brooks out, the Saints attacked the Bucs by throwing the ball to Bush in the flat. The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner was more effective as a receiver than a ballcarrier. He rushed for 51 yards on 14 carries but caught eight passes for 112 yards and a score. "On (the winning touchdown) we were looking for man coverage, and they ended up playing that," Brees said. "It's a screen play where you're trying to get the ball in Reggie's hands in open space, get some linemen and receivers downfield to block for him and let him do what he does best."
A year ago, Bush wore goat horns when he fumbled a pitch late against the Bucs in the Superdome, essentially clinching the division for Tampa Bay. Sunday's opener provided a little redemption. "It was really nice to make a big play in a crunch time situation," he said. "We ran a play that we worked on all week. We thought we could take advantage of them if we had the right coverage."
The Bucs' Cover 2 defense is designed to eliminate the big play, but that's what the Saints beat them with Sunday. Talib, a first-round pick from Kansas, had just entered when Brees went deep to Patten for a touchdown. Talib took his eyes off Patten and stopped to make a play on the ball, mistiming his leap. "What do you tell him? You tell him nothing," defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said. "You tell him to time his jump right and catch it next time."
Barber had no excuse for the long pass to Henderson that gave the Saints a 17-13 lead in the third quarter. Brees knew end Gaines Adams had jumped offside, so he considered it a free play. "We feel like we're a better secondary than what we put on film," Barber said.
Hayward, a second-year player from Portland State, felt as helpless as Brooks. "That's my thing, to be ready in case Derrick can't go; so they don't even notice it," he said. "It's not Brooks. It's just Hayward. It's just a different name, but hopefully, I'm still making plays like him."
Brooks and the Bucs hope it doesn't come to that. "Derrick's been such a good player around here," Barber said. "I can't imagine him not being in that starting lineup."
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 8 September 2008