Bucs 14 Saints 17
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers thought they could turn over a new leaf against the New Orleans Saints. Instead, they simply turned it over, giving the ball away six times in a 17-14 loss to the visiting Saints. The Bucs also failed to reverse two other disturbing trends. So far Tampa Bay has been unable to put together a strong showing in consecutive games or establish their usual home field dominance. The Bucs have alternated wins and losses through their first eight games and are 1-3 at Raymond James Stadium.

Tampa Bay has lost three in a row to New Orleans since the two teams were paired in the NFC South last year. Reminiscent of their season-opening loss to the Saints last season, the Bucs stumbled through three quarters, then tied the game near the end of regulation, only to lose in the end. QB Brad Johnson directed drives of 97 and 71 yards in the game’s final eight minutes to tie the game at 14-14, but Buc nemesis Aaron Brooks used the last two minutes to guide the Saints into Tampa Bay territory. John Carney, who had previously missed a 39-yard try, hit a 47-yard field goal at the end to win it.

The Bucs, who posted 362 yards and 21 first downs to the Saints' 257 and 10, dropped to 4-4 and missed out on a chance to gain a game on the Carolina Panthers, who lost at Houston. The Bucs travel to Carolina next weekend. The Saints improved to 4-5. It was a disappointing afternoon for the Buccaneers in almost every respect, including the ever-worsening injury front. Already playing with two starters on injured reserve – FB Mike Alstott and CB Brian Kelly – and five players inactive due to injury – T Roman Oben, WR Joe Jurevicius, S John Lynch, S John Howell and CB Hank Poteat – the Bucs lost S Jermaine Phillips to a broken arm and LB Ryan Nece to an ankle sprain.

By the fourth quarter, the Bucs were using David Gibson at strong safety. Gibson was signed on Thursday. Still, the defense came up with two important three-and-outs in the game’s final six minutes to keep the Bucs in the game. The biggest problem for the Bucs, however, was its tendency to be too generous of hosts. Tampa Bay committed a season-high six turnovers, including a third-quarter interception that was returned by CB Ashley Ambrose 73 yards for a touchdown, the game’s killing blow. Each one of the Bucs’ turnovers came in New Orleans’ end, as the Bucs netted no points off their first five drives inside the Saints’ 35. “I’m very disappointed in the outcome of the game and I congratulate New Orleans,” said Head Coach Jon Gruden. “We mishandled some balls, had some turnovers, missed a short field goal. When you’re playing in the NFL, those kinds of things will kill you.”

The Bucs’ six turnovers nearly matched the eight they had through the season’s first seven games. It was also their most giveaways in a single game since November 14, 1999, when they coughed it up six times against Kansas City. That was also the last time Tampa Bay lost four fumbles in a single afternoon. The Bucs won that game, however, 17-10. The Bucs were trailing 14-0 when Mitch Berger dropped a punt down at Tampa Bay’s three. In Tampa Bay’s 28-year history, they had previously driven 97 yards for a touchdown on just one occasion. That won was also directed by Johnson during a big comeback that ultimately failed in a 31-28 loss at Tennessee. Johnson bucked the odds by once again driving his team 97 yards for a touchdown, hitting on six consecutive passes sandwiched around one run, including a 26-yard touchdown toss to RB Michael Pittman.

Just when the Bucs offense was feeling confident, however, the Bucs’ fifth turnover appeared to seal the deal for New Orleans. Tampa Bay forced a three-and-out but CB Tim Wansley fumbled on the ensuing punt. However, the Bucs’ defense held again and John Carney missed on a 39-yard field goal attempt. Johnson went to work again, driving the Bucs 71 yards on seven plays, including a 26-yard screen pass to little-used RB Thomas Jones. Four plays later, on fourth-and-10, Johnson knew he had a free play thanks to an offside flag and used it to throw one of his most impressive passes of the season, a 30-yard touchdown pass to WR Keenan McCardell between two defenders.

McCardell’s outstanding season continued, as he tied his career high with his sixth touchdown of the season (including one on a fumble return against Indianapolis.) Since joining the Buccaneers in 2002, McCardell has nine touchdowns in 11 regular season games in Raymond James Stadium. Just as notably, WR Keyshawn Johnson was significantly involved in the offense, catching a season-high 10 passes for 124 yards. It was his 11th 100-yard game as a Buccaneer and the 18th of his NFL career.

The Saints controlled the action for three quarters, establishing the run early with RB Deuce McAllister, who had 63 rushing yards in the first quarter. McAllister finished with 110 yards on 26 carries, crossing the century mark for the sixth consecutive week. QB Aaron Brooks also had a typical day against the Buccaneers, completing just 13 of 29 passes for 142 yards but making just enough big plays to win the game. Two of those big plays cam on the game-winning drive, a 17-yard slant to WR Michael Lewis on third-and-one and a 13-yard sideline pass to TE Boo Williams two plays later, as the Bucs brought a big blitz.

Brad Johnson also finished with typical numbers, disregarding his two interceptions, one of which came on a tipped ball. Johnson completed 27 of 46 passes for 333 yards, two touchdowns and those two picks. However, he was sacked a season-high four times and hurried on several occasions. The first interception also led immediately to a Saints touchdown. After DE Charles Grant tipped a pass that Ambrose caught at the Bucs’ 38, Brooks went up top to WR Michael Lewis on first down for a 38-yard touchdown in the second quarter, the only score of the first half. Lewis was expected to be a return threat, but he picked up nicely for the inactive Donte’ Stallworth. That touchdown was the first of his career on a reception.

Johnson was working behind a scrambled offensive line. Roman Oben, the usual starter at left tackle was held out due to a fractured hand after struggling to compensate for that injury last week against Dallas. In response, Gruden moved Kenyatta Walker back to the left side, where he started all 16 games as a rookie in 2001. Cornell Green, who had been inactive for the first seven games, started at right tackle. Jason Whittle, struggling through shoulder and ankle injuries, couldn’t start, forcing the Bucs to move Cosey Coleman to right guard and play Kerry Jenkins at left guard. After the game, Gruden admitted that the line struggled but placed blame for the loss elsewhere.

The Bucs had two solid opportunities to answer before halftime, but ended both drives with unfortunate mistakes. Consecutive passes of 16 yards to K. Johnson and 11 yards to Pittman got the Bucs down to the 20, but Pittman fumbled at the end of his gain and LB Derrick Rodgers recovered for the Saints. A Simeon Rice sack helped the Bucs get the ball right back, but the next drive ended on a 36-yard field goal try that Martin Gramatica surprisingly missed to the left. Tampa Bay was thus held scoreless in the first half for the first time since Week Two, when they rallied to tie Carolina, 9-9, in regulation but lost in overtime, 12-9.

Special teams were a mixed bag for the Buccaneers on this day. Punter Tom Tupa was outstanding, booming long punts when the Bucs needed them, angling others away from Lewis and dropping several shorter ones inside or near the 20. Tampa Bay also thwarted a fake field goal attempt in the first quarter. However, Gramatica’s missed kick was a downer going into halftime, and the Saints came out of that intermission with a successful onside kick. And Wansley’s fumble ended the Bucs’ comeback hopes. Pittman finished the day with 97 combined yards split almost evenly between 48 rushing yards and 49 receiving yards. For the defense, DE Simeon Rice recorded four tackles, a sack and two passes defensed and LB Derrick Brooks got the Bucs’ only takeaway with a third-quarter interception.