Bucs 14 Saints 31 - the game report
Heavy winds thwarted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last weekend at the Meadowlands. On Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the problem was more of a steady Brees. As in Drew Brees, the imported quarterback for the new-look New Orleans Saints, who threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-14 win, completing the season sweep of the Buccaneers.

Following a pattern seen too often this year, the Bucs dug a big hole early and then rallied impressively. This time, however, Brees answered the Bucs’ second-quarter rally with deadly swiftness, After the Bucs cut the lead to 17-14 on two Joey Galloway touchdowns in the last five minutes of the first half, Brees led two methodical third-quarter touchdowns, then simply wore down the clock in the fourth quarter.

“I’d like to congratulate the Saints,” said Jon Gruden. “They played a heck of a game. Drew Brees – tremendous performance. I tip my hat to their football team. They had an impressive victory. We battled back in the football game, and it was a tremendous effort to get back into the game, but it got away from us in the third quarter, just as it did at the start of the game.”

The second quarter of the season started well for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it now appears as if some more adjustments will be needed at halftime. The 17-point loss to New Orleans, whom they had nearly upset in the Superdome a month ago, took the sheen off the Bucs’ recent two-game winning streak and sent them to a disappointing 2-6 mark at the midway point.

After an 0-4 start to the season, the Bucs won two games against strong opponents in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, but they have struggled considerably in losses against the Giants and Saints. On Sunday, New Orleans rolled up 363 yards of total offense while the Bucs could manage just 226. Each of the Saints’ first three drives resulted in points, and Brees was able to complete his first 11 passes against the Bucs’ usually stingy pass defense.

After an extremely slow start, the Bucs’ offense managed to rally during the final five minutes of the first half, scoring two touchdowns on Bruce Gradkowski hookups with Galloway. However, the Saints reestablished control in the third quarter with two touchdowns of their own, including the second of two long scoring passes to WR Devery Henderson. Henderson scored on a 45-yard fly in the third quarter and found a wide-open seam in the middle of the field for a 52-yarder in the opening stanza.

The Bucs were equally ineffective on offense in the early going, as each of their first six drives ended in three-and-outs. Tampa Bay’s initial first down was earned with just five minutes left in the first half. Gradkowski, who compiled a 107.6 passer rating against the Saints a month ago in his first NFL start, had trouble finding the open man against New Orleans early, and the Bucs’ running game struggled yet again, picking up just 68 total yards.

“Right now we’re not the juggernaut offensively that we want to be or think we’re going to be,” said Gruden. “Defensively, we gave up way too many big plays. I don’t understand it, I really don’t. We’ve got to make the corrections. To fall behind a first-place team 17-0 at home is not what we’re all about.”

The Bucs’ one surge before halftime was largely the product of Gradkowski’s long-sought connection with Galloway. The two had experienced a series of near-misses in the previous two games, first when Gradkowski was off-target against the Eagles and then when Galloway couldn’t pull in several sharper passes in New York. This time, Galloway got open deep for a long fly on the left sideline and Gradkowski hit him in stride for a 44-yard touchdown in the second quarter. On the next drive, the Bucs ran a perfect two-minute drill, marching 69 yards on 11 plays, the last one an impressive little flip to Galloway between two safeties in the end zone.

The Saints slowed down Tampa Bay’s comeback by taking their first possession of the second half 52 yards for a touchdown. The big play was a 17-yard pass to WR Marques Colston on third-and-seven at the Bucs’ 39. TE Billy Miller’s leaping, falling catch at the three on the next snap set up McAllister’s three-yard touchdown run off left tackle. The Saints reestablished a 10-point lead with five minutes to play in the third quarter.

Colston, the rookie sensation who had been held in check by the Buccaneers in New Orleans, caught 11 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. The Saints played without long-time receiving star Joe Horn but got two scores and 111 yards from Devery Henderson in addition to Colston’s big play. The Saints also played rookie Zach Strief at left tackle in the absence of starter Jammal Brown, but the Bucs couldn’t capitalize, failing to sack Brees and often allowing him quite a bit of alone time in the pocket. The Saints also did a marvelous job of picking up Buccaneer blitzes, which contributed to New Orleans’ ability to convert nine of 17 third-down tries.

After a three-and-out by the Bucs following McAllister’s TD, the Saints marched 74 yards on seven plays, with Brees converting a pair of third downs to get the ball just over midfield. Just after hitting Colston over the middle for 14 yards on third-and-nine, Brees threw one up down the sideline to Henderson, who caught it behind the Bucs’ defense for a 45-yard touchdown.

The Bucs’ offense answered with a drive into Saints territory, but it fizzled at the 35 thanks to a sack by Brian Young. The Bucs went for it on fourth-and-three and had the perfect play called against one of the Saints’ many blitzes, but Gradkowski’s attempted lob to a wide-open Clayton was over his head.

The Saints followed by grinding out the clock with the running game, holding the ball for nine minutes before punting it down to the Bucs’ five. During that drive, the Bucs essentially went to a second-string defense, replacing almost all of their starters, including LB Derrick Brooks, CB Ronde Barber and DTs Ellis Wyms and Chris Hovan. Tampa Bay’s final drive ended on a sack, as DE Charles Grant dropped Gradkowski and recovered the resulting fumble at the Bucs’ five. The Saints kneeled on the ball four times, effectively ending the game.

Michael Pittman, whose kickoff return out to the 35 at the end of the Bucs’ last home game was instrumental in setting up Matt Bryant’s 62-yard game-winning kick, got the Bucs off to a nice start on Sunday in similar fashion. Faking an end-around handoff, Pittman instead kept the ball and found a seam out to the Bucs’ 38, where he was finally corraled by the kicker, Steve Weatherford. However, Tampa Bay had to punt three plays later and Michael Lewis’ own 26-yard punt return killed the Bucs’ field position edge.

Starting at their own 43, the Saints promptly marched 57 yards on eight plays for the opening score, with Brees completing all five of his pass attempts. The last was a 15-yard strike to Colston, who made a leaping grab and had to hold on as he was flipped awkwardly in the air by S Will Allen. Colston landed right on the goal line and took several minutes to get off the turf…but he held onto the ball and the Saints had a 7-0 lead just seven minutes into the game.

The Bucs’ next drive was even worse, as it went backward seven yards on three plays before a punt from the 15. The offense did avoid a turnover when T Jeremy Trueblood recovered Gradkowski’s fumble after the quarterback was sacked by Will Smith, but a short, wobbling punt allowed the Saints to start their second drive at the Bucs’ 48. This time, it took them only two plays to score. DE Simeon Rice stopped rookie Reggie Bush four a loss of four on a first-down sweep, but Brees faked another handoff on second down and found Henderson disturbingly wide open, streaking down the middle of the field. Brees hit Henderson in stride and safeties Allen and Jermaine Phillips couldn’t catch up in time to prevent the 52-yard touchdown.

A kick out of bounds gave the Bucs possession all the way out at the 40 and, seemingly, a ray of hope, but two Gradkowski passes were nearly intercepted and the Bucs had to punt again. It was a better kick, down to the Saints 12, but unfortunately that just gave the humming Saints offense more ground to chew up. Brees, who completed all 11 of his first-quarter pass attempts, moved the Saints down to Tampa Bay’s 28 but finally misfired on a third-down out to Henderson and the Saints had to settle for John Carney’s successful 46-yard field goal 48 seconds into the second quarter.

Tampa Bay’s defense clamped down considerably after that, forcing three straight three-and-outs and nearly coming down with two interceptions. The run defense, in fact, was outstanding throughout the game, allowing just 49 yards on 35 carries. Still, Tampa Bay’s offense sputtered until its seventh possession, when Gradkowski and Galloway finally made the connection that had been eluding them for weeks. Galloway’s 27-yard catch put the ball at midfield and three plays later Gradkowski hit him in stride down the left sideline for a 44-yard touchdown. There was no deception to the route; Galloway simply lined up wide left and ran a straight fly right past his man.

Another quick stand by the defense gave the Bucs another shot at the two-minute warning, and Gradkowski and Galloway made the most of it. First, Gradkowski showed impressive grit to keep the drive moving, scrambling eight yards on a third-and-seven near midfield, and getting the final yard by eschewing a slide and instead crashing headlong into CB Fred Thomas. Gradkowski started to scramble on the next third down, too, but instead improvised a backhand flip to Michael Pittman, who gained 12 yards to the Saints’ 26. Three plays later, on third-and-one from the 17, Gradkowski hit Galloway again, cutting the Saints’ lead to three points at halftime.