Saints hold off Bucs rally for 35-28 win
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 22 October 2012

When Mike Williams caught Josh Freeman's pass in the back of the end zone on a fourth-and-9 play as time expired late Sunday afternoon, he thought for sure he had caught the game-tying touchdown pass. And why not?

Sure, there was a yellow penalty flag on the ground right in front of Williams, but he thought Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson earned that flag for pushing him out of bounds.

“I figured the flag was for pass interference or something,'' Williams said. “But then (the official) said it was for illegal touching because I'd gone out of bounds and the game was over. At that point I was like, ‘What can you do?'''

Williams could have argued, but what was the point, he reasoned. Once Freeman scrambled out of the pocket, Robinson's chuck became a legal play and the 35-28 lead it preserved became a devastating Buccaneers loss, one borne of missed opportunities much like that one.

For example, there was Freeman's 9-yard throw one play earlier to the back of the end zone for Vincent Jackson, who failed by an inch or two to keep his feet in bounds as he made a leaping, over-the-head catch while falling backward.

There also was Jackson's franchise-record 95-yard catch and run midway through the third quarter that looked all the world like it would be a touchdown, until Saints cornerback Malcolm Jenkins caught Jackson and took him down at the 1-yard line.

And, finally, there were three LeGarrette Blount runs from inside the 2-yard line that went nowhere immediately after Jackson's catch, and a fourth-and-1 pass play in which Freeman was chased out of bounds after his pass option into the end zone closed down on him.

“If you make one of those plays, who knows,'' said Bucs coach Greg Schiano, who said he didn't have a good enough view of the final play of the game to wage an argument over it. It was on the other side of the field from me, so I really can't see it,'' he said. “There's 22 guys between me and that play. So, here we are, sitting at 2-4 and singing the same old song and dance.''

The Bucs did recite a familiar refrain in this one. Their pass defense, which appeared to find its bearings during a victory against the Chiefs last week, returned to its all-too-forgiving early-season form. Though it started out strong, with safety Ronde Barber intercepting Drew Brees on the fifth play of the game to set up the Bucs' first touchdown, that unit eventually became extras in what turned into a Saints highlight reel.

Led by Brees, who limited the effectiveness of Tampa Bay's pass rush by releasing the ball quickly off one-step drops, the Saints scored 28 straight points to erase a 21-7 Bucs lead. “He definitely got the ball out quick against us,'' defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “But that's what you expect from him. We just made too many mistakes against him and you can't do that against Drew Brees.''

Many of those mistakes were in coverage, where the Bucs often devoted as many as eight defenders but failed to keep Brees from completing 27 of 37 passes for 377 yards and four touchdowns. Freeman countered with a career-best outing in which he completed 24 of 42 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns, but those defensive mistakes and a series of costly special teams errors aided the Saints' rally.

Kick returner Arrelious Benn's second-quarter decision to bring a ball out from 8 yards deep in the end zone was one such error. When Benn gained only 16 yards to Tampa Bay's 8-yard line, the Bucs offense was left in a hole it could not escape.

Kicker Connor Barth's missed 42-yard field goal was another. The second miss in as many weeks for Barth, who had made 25 straight field goals, prolonged a run of six straight scoreless drives for the Bucs. And, finally, there was the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty the Bucs earned for verbally trying to make the Saints jump early during a 51-yard, fourth-quarter field goal try by Garrett Hartley.

Bucs defensive tackle Roy Miller was in on that play and said the Bucs were simply yelling “shift'' to get into a different formation for a block attempt, but officials weren't buying it. The Saints weren't about to waste the opportunity. Given new life at the Tampa Bay 18-yard line, New Orleans scored what proved to be the winning touchdown when Pierre Thomas ran in from 5 yards to extend its lead to 35-21.

“It was a combination of (errors) and missed opportunities that (cost us),'' Schiano said. “Again, it comes down to missed opportunities both offensively, defensively and even in the kicking game.''

Those missed opportunities are starting to take a toll. As he finished dressing after the game, Miller stood at his locker stall and sighed heavily as he aimlessly kicked at the pair of shoes he had not yet put on. “If you look back at all the games we've lost this year you'll see they were all close games,'' Miller said. “This is just another one where we beat ourselves in key situations and that's just frustrating. It's just sickening.''