Bucs 31 Saints 14 - The Game Report
There was an explosive offense on display Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, but it wasn't under the direction of Drew Brees. Moreover, there was a well-rounded and emotionally-charged team on the field, one that looked more than capable of winning the NFC South, but it wasn't the defending division champion New Orleans Saints.
Yes, expectations were turned upside down on this first day of competition in the division, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' dominating 31-14 the New Orleans Saints. But what else would you expect from the league's most successful but least predictable division?
The Saints won the South in 2006 with their stunning comeback season and advanced all the way to the NFC Championship Game, but to defend their title they'll have to put a halt to an unusual trend in the division. Every year since 2003, the team that finished in fourth place the season before has won it the next year. By the way, the Buccaneers were fourth a season ago. The Buccaneer team that took the field on Sunday isn't likely to suffer the same fate. This Buccaneer team clearly came to play.
As a prime example, take one Tampa Bay veteran who won't be featured too prominently in the game's final stat sheet: WR Michael Clayton. Clayton finished the game with no catches but made his biggest impact on Saints S Kevin Kaesviharn on WR Joey Galloway's 69-yard touchdown catch-and-run. Clayton came out of nowhere to flatten Kaesviharn at the precisely perfect moment, springing Galloway into the open field. Later, Clayton, serving as the upback in front of the kickoff returner, took a short kick and ran straight up the gut to the Bucs' 39 to open the second half.
"Oh good God, that was a thing of beauty now," said Head Coach Jon Gruden of Clayton's big block. "Mike doesn't show up on the stat sheet today, but he gets some stickers for his helmet. Michael obviously gets a huge assist on a big breakaway play on third-and-long."
Of course, we can't lose sight of the forest for the trees, and nobody stood taller than Galloway, a noted Saints killer. After scoring three touchdowns in two games against New Orleans last year, Galloway outdid himself on this afternoon. His four catches produced 135 yards, two touchdowns and a scary highlight reel for the Buccaneers' upcoming opponents. Galloway scored on a deep post and on a short pass that became a long touchdown, and he rarely failed to exploit man-to-man coverage
Galloway, who has 207 receiving yards through two games, is loving the intermediate-range and downfield touch of new Bucs QB Jeff Garcia, who out-dueled Brees, the 2006 MVP candidate. Garcia averaged an incredible 15.2 yards per completion – a new Buccaneer single-game record – often stepping up to escape pressure in order to let big plays develop. Garcia was nothing short of masterful in the Bucs' victory, completing 10 of 16 passes for 243 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His end-game passer rating reflected his cold efficiency: 145.8.
"I think Garcia showed today that when Galloway's open, he can hit him," said Gruden. "And those yards add up."
The offense was also helped by the gritty work of RB Cadillac Williams, a question mark all week due to a painful case of bruised ribs suffered in the season opener in Seattle last Sunday. Like Clayton, Williams finished without overwhelming statistics – 61 yards on 24 carries – but he ran hard between the tackles, scored two touchdowns and helped the Bucs drain the clock with a big lead in the second half. In all, Tampa Bay's offense racked up 330 yards, 205 by halftime. Perhaps most importantly, the offense did not turn the ball over once and did not surrender a single sack.
Then there was the Buccaneers' defense, which played with the intensity of the top-ranked unit of the 2005 division champions and didn't allow the Saints into the end zone until the final minute of the third quarter. At that point, the Bucs led 28-7.
Tampa Bay's defense collected two turnovers and forced three other fumbles that the Saints recovered, but had many more big plays along the way. There was seemingly a new defensive star on each Saints possession. Little-known Greg White killed one drive with a sack and finished with two tackles and two other quarterback hurries. LB Cato June grabbed the Bucs' first interception of the season to stop a promising Saints drive early in the third quarter; he had five tackles in the game, too, including a drive-ending stop of Deuce McAllister on a third-and-two sweep in the first quarter.
CB Phillip Buchanon short-circuited another first-quarter march with two straight pass breakups along the left sideline. And, for the second week in a row, LB Barrett Ruud was all over the field, racking up 11 tackles, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a quarterback hurry. His first-quarter forced fumble and fumble recovery led to the Bucs' first score.
"Cato June showed up and had a couple big hits today, cleaning up the piles," said Gruden, picking one of the day's stars. "I'm really pleased with the defense overall today."
New Orleans, the league's most productive offense in 2006, finished with 343 yards, but only 130 at halftime. Much of the yardage, including the Saints' only two plays longer than 20 yards, came after the Bucs had built a four-touchdown lead and were laying back on defense in order to run the clock.
McAllister, a long-time Bucs killer, gained only 49 rushing yards, largely because the Saints had to abandon the running game early. Reggie Bush added 27 rushing yards and had six catches for 43 yards but had his big-play ability contained under the umbrella of the Bucs' defense. Last year, Bush won the first Tampa Bay-New Orleans game with a fourth-quarter punt return for a touchdown in a 24-21 decision.
And Brees was never allowed to get into a rhythm, completing 26 of 44 passes while constantly moving around the pocket. He did finish with 260 passing yards against the Bucs' prevent defense, but only one touchdown pass and finished with a passer rating of 74.1.
"I'm really proud of our team today," said Gruden. "We're happy with the win. It's about time, certainly. I think our football team showed up today and showed some promise in some areas. As always, there are some areas we need to clean up to be a playoff-contending team."
New Orleans won the snap to start the game and had a chance to take control early, but the Bucs grabbed the momentum on the game's first series and never let it go.
The Bucs' defense forced a quick three-and-out to start the game but the offense gave up field position early thanks to a rough opening sequence on offense. Williams had nowhere to run on a first-down carry over right tackle, losing three yards, and a false start by rookie G Arron Sears put the Bucs in an unworkable third-and-17 at their own 14. After the resulting punt, New Orleans had the ball all the way up at their 44.
Fortunately, that positioning didn't hurt the Buccaneers thanks to the game's first turnover near midfield. McAllister, who also fumbled on his first carry of the game but recovered it himself, had the ball stripped as he fell to the ground at the Bucs' 43 by linebacker Barrett Ruud. Ruud also recovered that fumble, but the officials ruled McAllister down before the turnover. The Buccaneers challenged the play and won after a lengthy review delay due to problems with the replay equipment.
Garcia wasted little time taking advantage of the turnover, stepping up to avoid the rush and delivering a 33-yard strike to TE Alex Smith on the next play. RB Michael Pittman's nifty 11-yard catch-and-run got the ball down to the Saints' 12, and Garcia's hard-nosed, seven-yard scramble on third-and-six made it first-and-goal at the one. Two plays later, Williams stretched a carry around the left end for the game's first score.
Amazingly, Bush fumbled on New Orleans' next play from scrimmage, too, though he was able to pull it back in at the bottom of a huge pile of players. Still, the Bucs' defense came up big again thanks to two quick-reaction pass break-ups by CB Phillip Buchanon, starting at left corner in place of Brian Kelly. Buchanon denied a deep attempt to David Patten down the sideline, then came up quick to knock down a pass to Marques Colston on a quick stop, forcing another punt.
LB Cato June knifed through a line of blockers to drop McAllister for a loss of one on a third-and-two sweep on New Orleans' next drive, the play that ended the first quarter. Moments later, the Bucs had doubled their score.
It's not often that the longest play on a drive is longer than the drive itself, but that was the case on Tampa Bay's second touchdown march. After two failed runs made it third-and-11 at the Bucs' 31, Garcia stood in against a blitz and hit Galloway in the middle of the field, a few yards short of the sticks. It seemed certain Galloway would get the first down despite three defenders being in the area, but it became much more when WR Michael Clayton laid S Kevin Kaesviharn out with a crushing block. That was more than enough for the lightning-fast Galloway, who found himself so suddenly in the open field that he essentially loped the last 30 yards to the end zone. The Bucs had a 14-0 lead with two minutes gone in the second quarter.
At that point, the potent Saints offense woke from its slumber, thanks in large part to a leaping 14-yard catch by Colston on third-and-eight. Consecutive 11 and 15-yard runs by Mike Karney and McAllister, respectively, got the Saints down to Tampa Bay's 24-yard line, but the Bucs held there. Two sweeps by Bush failed (on the first, he fumbled again, but TE Eric Johnson recovered in midair) and a third-down shot at the end zone was incomplete. Former Miami Dolphin K Olindo Mare lined up for a 38-yard field goal try but hooked it wide left, perhaps hurried by the quick backfield penetration of DE Greg White.
Perhaps sensing that the Buccaneers' defense wasn't going to be surrendering points easily on this afternoon, Head Coach Sean Payton made an admirably gutsy decision late in the first half. After two holding penalties had put the Saints into a third-and-20 hole, Brees hit WR Lance Moore for a gain of 19, setting up a fourth-and-one at the Saints' own 35. Payton chose to go for it and Bush made it around left end on a two-yard run to prolong the drive. However, the drive ended moments later after a hard tackle by S Jermaine Phillips on a fruitless swing pass to Karney and an incompletion brought on by Ruud's perfectly-timed blitz.
Mark Jones got 16 yards on a brilliant punt return and, on the very next play, Garcia faked a draw play to Pittman and threw deep down the middle seam to WR Ike Hilliard, who was one-on-one with LB Scott Fujita. The pass was perfect, hitting Hilliard in stride for a 41-yard gain. The drive took just one more play, another precision strike by Garcia to Galloway, who beat S Josh Bullocks on a jab-step right and a post to the middle of the field.
The Saints had one more minute to try to dent the scoreboard, but DE Greg White's first career sack – he simply ran around Pro Bowl T Jammal Brown to drop Brees for a loss of nine. The Bucs thus took a three-touchdown lead into halftime for the first time in almost three years. Tampa Bay last led 21-0 at the intermission on Nov. 21, 2004, en route to a 35-3 cold-cocking of the visiting San Francisco 49ers.
After halftime, the Bucs appeared to be interested in establishing the running game in the second half, as Williams carried three straight times for 16 yards to open the first possession of the third quarter. However, Williams was stuffed on a third-and-one run by DE Charles Grant and the Bucs chose to punt from the Saints' 40, with Moore making a fair catch at the 11.
Fortunately, the Bucs' defense had lost none of its first-half fire, and in the day's constant rotation of defensive stars it was June's turn. Two plays after inducing a shove from Bush that earned the Saints a 15-yard penalty, June made a leaping interception of a long pass intended for Patten, giving the Bucs possession at their own 47 with seven minutes to play in the third quarter.
Two plays into that drive, Garcia looked deep to Galloway again, to the Saints horror. Actually, S Roman Harper had very good coverage on Galloway's deep cross, but Garcia laid it out in front of him with a low, laser-like throw and the veteran receiver made a remarkable diving catch. Williams did the rest, covering the last nine yards on three runs, including a one-yard scoring rumble over left tackle. That gave the Bucs a 28-0 lead with 4:26 to play in the third quarter.
The Saints finally got on the board on their next drive, thanks to the 58 yards Patten got out of a short pass on the Saints' next drive. That took the ball down to the Bucs' 11, and FB Mike Karney powered it in five plays later on a one-yard run over right guard. Even that sequence was a win of sorts for the Buccaneer defense; by forcing the Saints to use five plays to get it in from the 11, the defense drained almost three more minutes off the clock.
The Saints got the ball back with 13:32 left in the fourth quarter and quickly fell into a fourth-and-five at their own 27. Obviously feeling the time crunch, the Saints chose to go for it and moved the chains on Brees' seven-yard scramble up the middle. Moments later, they faced another fourth down, this time needing 10 yards, and couldn't convert as Brees' deep out pass to Patten was out of the receivers' reach.
Williams got the Bucs right into the Saints' red zone with tough runs of 12 and five yards. Williams looked a little shaken up after the second carry and he ceded the backfield to Michael Pittman on the next snap, though he clearly wasn't pleased. After Pittman's three-yard run, Earnest Graham came in for the next snap and pushed just far enough over left guard to get the first down at the 12. Williams returned a few plays later, however, and was hit immediately for a loss of four. Three plays later, the Bucs settled for Matt Bryant's 27-yard field goal and a 31-7 lead with 7:35 to play.
Content to let the Saints throw underneath, knowing they were out of timeouts, the Bucs surrendered a 78-yard touchdown drive that consumed five minutes off the clock. WR Marques Colston finished the drive with a four-yard scoring catch to make the score 31-14, but the Saints failed to recover the ensuing onside kick. The Bucs took over at the New Orleans 39 and one Williams run took the clock down to the two-minute warning. Williams ran three times for a first down, allowing the Bucs to end the game with a kneel-down.