Saints, led by a season-best defensive showing, gets best of Bucs
By Jeff Duncan of The Louisiana Picayne Times
Saints coach Jim Haslett saw a welcome sight when he evaluated the videotape of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense last week. Haslett saw passes. Lots of them. Throws downfield. Throws in the flat. Throws from every down and distance. And in that parade of passes, Haslett saw opportunity, a chance for his defense to make plays. No more dink and dunks. No more three-step drops. Finally, after a half-season of facing conservative offenses, the defense was going to get an opportunity to get after someone. The Saints made the most of that opportunity Sunday.
A defense that forced just seven turnovers in its first eight games produced six takeaways and four sacks as the Saints stunned Tampa Bay 17-14 on John Carney's 47-yard field goal with eight seconds to play. "That's as good as we've ever played," defensive coordinator Rick Venturi said as he weaved past his defenders toward the post-game locker room minutes after Carney's winner.
The Saints (4-5) needed every turnover and sack to hold off a furious fourth-quarter rally by Tampa Bay in the final minutes. "Whoo! I don't think I've ever been that tired during a game before," said left end Willie Whitehead, who led a relentless pass rush with three sacks, a forced fumble and a pass deflection. "I thought I saw some angels flying around out there. I thought I saw one after that last play."
The victory was the Saints' third consecutive win against Tampa Bay and helped salve the emotional wounds from a grim 23-20 overtime loss to Carolina the previous week. "It was definitely a huge win, a game that was much needed," said quarterback Aaron Brooks, who calmly directed the eight-play, 43-yard drive that produced Carney's winning score. "Everyone came out and played their heart out, and that is what it takes to get a victory against the world champions."
Carney's field goal was the Saints' only offensive score in the second half. Tampa Bay stormed back from a 14-0 deficit to tie the score with 2:08 left. The Saints took a 14-0 lead on cornerback Ashley Ambrose's 73-yard interception return for a touchdown on the penultimate play of the third quarter. The Bucs rallied on a pair of Brad Johnson touchdown passes in the final eight minutes. Johnson hit Michael Pittman for a 26-yard score with 7:59 to play. He found Keenan McCardell for a 30-yard strike with 2:08 to play.
Then the Saints took over at their 28-yard line. Brooks completed five consecutive passes to five receivers. The most important was a 17-yard strike to Michael Lewis that converted a third-and-one from the New Orleans 37. "Aaron executed the two-minute drill to perfection," Haslett said. "We knew we needed to get to around the 32 to give John a kick."
The winning kick was far from automatic. A strong crosswind swirled through the stadium throughout the game. The right-to-left gale carried Carney's potential clinching 39-yard attempt wide left only minutes earlier. It also was responsible for a 36-yard shank by Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica at the end of the first half. "There were a lot of factors to deal with," Carney said. "I just played it further right and hoped that the wind stayed consistent, and that it wouldn't gust or die down."
Said Haslett: "I know he missed one earlier, but if I had my life riding on a kick, I'd have John Carney out there." Haslett said it would be difficult to award a game ball to one player. Heroes were that plentiful, in what Haslett called "the ultimate team win."
Deuce McAllister led a quiet offensive performance with 110 yards on 26 carries. It was his sixth consecutive game with 100 or more yards, setting a team record. Ambrose led the opportunistic defense with two interceptions and two passes defensed. Forced into full-time action after an injury to Dale Carter, Ambrose responded with his best game of the season. His first interception came after Charles Grant deflected a Johnson pass at the line of scrimmage. On the next play, Brooks fired a 38-yard touchdown pass to Lewis to give the Saints a 7-0 lead in the second quarter.
The Saints stopped two other drives by forcing fumbles deep in their territory. Derrick Rodgers recovered a fumble by Pittman in the second quarter. Roger Knight recovered a fumble by Johnson in the third. "We knew that the running back had problems with fumbling, and that Brad Johnson throws it low sometimes," Whitehead said. "We knew we could deflect some balls and get a chance to make some plays. Today we took advantage of them."
The Bucs had committed only eight turnovers in their first seven games and were ranked third in the NFL with a plus-11 turnover margin. "It's unfortunate," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "It's inexcusable, and it's something that is going to prohibit us from being any kind of good football team."
On the heels of the disheartening loss to Carolina, Haslett pulled out all the stops against Tampa Bay, some successful, some not. The Saints recovered an onside kick to start the second half. They tried a fake field goal in the first quarter, but Mitch Berger's pass to Ernie Conwell fell incomplete. And they failed to convert a fourth-and-one at their 49-yard line on their second drive of the second half. "Our motto was, 'We're playing to win; whatever we've got to do to win,' " Haslett said. "Most teams would have struggled to come back after losing a game like we did last week. But our guys came out and fought their butts off today."