Bucs fall to 4-4 after 27-16 loss to Saints
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 7 November 2011

There were about 20 seconds left in the Buccaneers' 27-16 loss to the Saints at the Superdome on Sunday when Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib began to make his way toward the locker room.

You could hardly blame him for leaving early. After all, he'd seen this one before. Several times. Despite spending the better part of the past two weeks trying to eliminate them, the Bucs fell victim yet again to the same series of mistakes that have beset them since the season began.

"They're obviously not the kind of problems you correct in two weeks,'' veteran Bucs corner Ronde Barber said of the slow starts and penalties starting to erode the team's chances of reaching the playoffs. "That's just kind of (who we are). We play kind of average to start the game and then we try to get back in it late. But you can't start slow against good teams.''

You can't take bad penalties, either, but the Bucs the fifth-most penalized team in the league prior to Sunday did that as well, earning nine more flags for 80 yards. As usual, it wasn't so much the lost yardage that proved most costly to the Bucs. It was the momentum the penalties helped to dissolve and the scoring chances they derailed that hurt them.

Take, for example, the 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty that running back LeGarrette Blount earned for pushing Saints tackle Will Smith in the face after a second-and-10 play early in the third quarter. Instead of third-and-9 at the Saints 21-yard line, the Bucs faced third-and-24 at a time when they trailed by 14 points, but were building momentum.

"Those are the ones that absolutely kill you,'' Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "They're foolish penalties and you just can't tolerate it, especially against the elite teams.''

Morris may not tolerate them much longer. After a game in which he benched weakside linebacker Geno Hayes, he suggested more change may be coming.

"You have to,'' said Morris, asked if he would consider benching players who continue draw penalties for grievous mistakes. "There's nothing else to do. If you keep making the same mistakes over and over again, that's your option next man up.

"Those things we cannot allow to happen. It's not good enough to come to the sideline and apologize to me and your teammates or whatever. That's just selfish, undisciplined football and we have to clean it up if we're going to win.''

Blount did not speak to reporters after the game, but it's unlikely he'll be targeted for a benching anytime soon. He was, after all, a big part of what little went right for the Bucs.

After missing the past two games with a knee sprain, Blount ran 13 times for 72 yards. He ran for 30 yards on the first three plays of the Bucs' second series to move Tampa Bay into scoring position at the Saints 38. Like most of their drives, though, that one fizzled out.

"Same problems in the red zone again,'' said Morris, whose team entered Sunday's game ranked last in the league in red zone efficiency with a 35 percent touchdown success. "You have to score touchdowns when you play the Saints, no doubt about that, because they're going to score points and you have to find a way to eliminate the big play that they make.''

The Bucs couldn't do that, either. The Saints got runs of 33 and 35 yards from running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, respectively, and a 21-yard touchdown reception from Sproles. They even got a 20-yard run out of quarterback Drew Brees, who consistently hit on swing passes to the outside while completing 27 of 36 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns.

Josh Freeman finished with similar results on the stat sheet. He completed 27 of 37 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown and had a slightly better passer rating that Brees, 103.5 to 101.4. Neither he nor the Bucs got the outcome they wanted, though.

After a 3-1 start, Tampa Bay has lost three of its past four games. Though the loss dropped Tampa Bay (4-4) to third in the NFC South division standings behind New Orleans (6-3) and Atlanta (5-3), Morris managed to put a positive spin on the situation, saying the Bucs were "right in the hunt'' for the playoffs.

"We've got believe that we are,'' Barber said after learning of Morris' claim. "But that's an average record and we played average today, so that's probably where we should be. We don't deserve to be at the top of the division right now. We aren't playing like it.''