Bucs flounder against steady Brees
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 6 November 2006

Last week, it was a whipping wind in the Meadowlands that did them in. On Sunday, it was a steady Brees.

Drew Brees passed for 314 yards and three touchdowns to lead New Orleans to a 31-14 rout of the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium. Unlike the Bucs’ secondary, that about covers it. Tampa Bay fell behind 17-0, rallied to cut the deficit to a field goal by halftime then got bombarded with enough deep balls to leave craters in the end zone.

Despite playing without Pro Bowl receiver Joe Horn, the Saints were still in good hands with rookie Marques Colston. The seventh-round pick from Hofstra caught 11 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. Devery Henderson finished with 111 yards receiving on just three catches, including touchdowns of 52 and 45 yards. To the Bucs secondary, they looked like Swann and Stallworth.

The loss dropped the Bucs to 2-6 at the midway point of the season, heading into a dizzying stretch of three games in 11 days beginning with at Carolina on Monday Night Football. After the game, in a hushed Bucs locker room, the answers for the latest collapse were as absent as good pass coverage.

“I don’t have a lot to say about this one. It was ugly,” cornerback Ronde Barber said. “Everybody needs to point to themselves and say, 'It’s their fault.’ I’m struggling to find perspective on what happened. I don’t have a word for it. Obviously, it’s not what we want. We’ve all got to be accountable for it. I’m at a loss. I really don’t have the words. I’m shocked that we played the way we played.”

With that, Barber politely excused himself. “Guys, I don’t have anything for you, and I’m going to go,” he said.

Barber had reason to be frustrated. And not just with the defense. Rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who passed for 225 yards and two touchdowns in a splashy NFL debut at New Orleans last month, struggled from the outset Sunday. Tampa Bay went three-and-out on its first six possessions with six punts and a total of six yards.

Gradkowski finally rallied the Bucs before halftime with touchdown passes of 44 and 17 yards to Joey Galloway. But the defense couldn’t keep them in the game. “Defensively, we gave up way too many big plays,” Jon Gruden said. “I don’t understand it. I really don’t.’’

The Bucs succeeded in stopping the Saints running attack of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. New Orleans was limited to just 1.4 yards per carry (35 rushes, 49 yards). Credit Saints coach Sean Payton for adjusting the game plan and attacking the Bucs through the air. “They gave us some tough fronts to run the ball against, and that can be frustrating at times. You lose patience sometimes,” Payton said. “But as a play-caller, you’ve got to be flexible enough to get to some other things if they’re taking one specific thing away. And I thought guys stepped up.”

The biggest one might have been tackle Zach Strief, who had never worn a Saints uniform until Sunday. He neutralized Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, holding him to no sacks and just two tackles. Brees got the ball out of his hand quickly and was rarely pressured, let alone sacked.

Meanwhile, the Bucs had more breakdowns in coverage in the secondary. On Henderson’s 52-yard touchdown, strong safety Jermaine Phillips got lost and free safety Will Allen was covering a vertical route on the other side of the field.

“We were in Cover Two. I got a guy going vertical and then a guy going across the field,” Allen said. “Everybody has to be in tune and on the same page and on that play. We weren’t. So in desperation, I was just running over there. We just played to their tempo. They were quick-counting us, the hurry-up offense, when we were blitzing them.

They were mass protecting, so the rush really wasn’t getting there. They were catching us in second and short, third and short, and we’ve got to play man-to-man coverage when our forte is Cover Two. It was tough. They executed well.”

Cornerback Torrie Cox, who made his first career start, was burned deep by Henderson for a 45-yard touchdown that iced the game with 33 seconds left in the third quarter. “They just made the play,” Cox said. “Singled up or not, the play was made for him, and I just didn’t make the play. You just come back and go to work. You win some. You lose some.”

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was among the last to leave the locker room Sunday. He playfully hid behind a door before facing several reporters. Kiffin has seen his club improve its tackling and run defense the past two weeks, but now the secondary is leaky.

“We just gave up the big play,” Kiffin said. “What can I say? We usually don’t do that. That’s kind of been our trademark. The last time we played these guys, the longest passes was Colston had one for 18 yards and (Joe) Horn had one for 17 (yards). But we didn’t have the good coverage, and we didn’t have the rush. It was a combination of both. It’s a shame because you saw us flying around and hitting. We talked about gang tackling and knocking the pile back and those types of things. Then when they go back and throw it, you’ve got to keep the ball in front of you.”