Bucs top Saints, regain share of division lead
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 17 October 2011|
As he ran off the field early Sunday evening pumping his helmet into the air in triumph, Buccaneers linebacker Adam Heyward broke into a boisterous mock chorus of the New Orleans Saints "Who dat" chant.
"Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" Hayward shouted.
Who indeed? Outside of that triage unit better known as the Tampa Bay locker room, few gave the Bucs much of a chance of beating the Saints, especially on this day.
They were without lead running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, after all, and coming off a 45-point loss the week before at San Francisco that matched the worst in franchise history.
There they were at the end of the day, though, whooping, hollering and chanting as they ran from the field after a 26-20 victory that gave them a strong sense of redemption, a 4-2 record and a share of the NFC South lead.
"This feels great," said safety Tanard Jackson, who may have been the Bucs' most improbable cast member. It was only on Tuesday that Jackson returned from a 56-week league-imposed suspension for a third violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy. But he looked like he never missed a day when he grabbed the first of three Bucs interceptions.
"He's special," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "I really don't know of anyone else who could come back after missing 56 weeks and play like he never left. He had an opportunity today and he jumped all over it."
He wasn't the only Buccaneer who seized an opportunity. Rookie Da'Quan Bowers did the same, stepping in for McCoy (left ankle sprain) on passing downs and recovering a fumble five plays into the game to set up the Bucs' first score.
Frank Okam seized an opportunity, as well. As part of a platoon with Bowers, he stepped in for McCoy mostly on rushing downs and helped lead a defensive unit that limited Saints rushers to 70 yards on 20 carries.
Nobody, though, seized their opportunity to prove their worth more than Earnest Graham, the veteran running back who replaced Blount (knee sprain) and ran 17 times for 109 yards.
"That kid Graham is pretty good," the 36-year-old Barber joked of the 31-year-old Graham, who ran for 99 yards all last season and 66 yards in 2009 while playing primarily fullback. "He can do it all."
He does it all with a humility that was still on display long after this latest victory, which gave the Bucs a 2-0 division record that includes a win against the Atlanta Falcons.
"All I want to be able to do in this game is step up and be ready when it's my time," he said. "You do that by just handling your work and going about your business the right way and never sulking."
Many of Graham's teammates appeared to have picked up on the latter leading up to this game. It wasn't just Graham's lead that they were following, though. Raheem Morris told players after the loss at San Francisco last week they could either sulk over that loss or "stand up like" men and fix the problems that led to it. Clearly they chose the latter option.
A defense that was run over for 213 rushing yards by the 49ers bounced back and forced four takeaways, including an interception by Quincy Black in the end zone on a fourth-and-2 play from the Tampa Bay 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter that all but sealed the game.
And while it didn't register a sack and allowed New Orleans to convert five of 12 third-down tries, the defense forced the league's fifth-best scoring team to settle for 11 points less than its average.
The Bucs offense, meanwhile, got a bounce-back performance from Josh Freeman, who threw six interceptions — the same number he had all of last season — in his first five games.
But against the Saints, to whom the Bucs lost at home each of the past two years, Freeman had perhaps him most complete game of the season. Though he completed just 21 of 43 passes, he threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns, including a 65-yarder to Arrelious Benn. For only the second time this season, Freeman did not throw an interception.
"We know if we play up to our potential we're going to have a chance to win and today we proved that," Freeman said. "We put some points on the board early today and in the end the defense really stepped up."
One of those defenders, rookie Adrian Clayborn, was still standing near his locker more than an hour after the game was over, soaking in the moment and talking about the achievement. Clayborn buttoned up his shirt and, in a short concise sentence that mirrored the impact of his pass rush, summed up the day's meaning for the Bucs. "It means we can play with the best," he said
Who could argue with dat?