Saints turn Freeman miscues into 38-7 romp
All of a sudden it was like September again. That's how it appeared on the field; that's how it sounded in the locker room; that's how it looked on the scoreboard. Especially on the scoreboard.

Like the sky that eventually opened up above it on Sunday afternoon, the Raymond James Stadium scoreboard was gray, ominous and tell-tale: New Orleans 38, Tampa Bay 7. "We took a step back today," Bucs safety Tanard Jackson said. "We went in the opposite direction."

The key word there: we. Bucs Coach Raheem Morris said as much. "We need a better pass rush," he said, "just like we need better coverage, better play calls, better coaching and better leadership. Everything."

Start with the quarterback. After taking two big steps forward in his first two starts and another at the beginning of the game on Sunday, rookie Josh Freeman led the Bucs' retreat. Though he guided them on a 95-yard opening-possession touchdown drive, he lost his effectiveness shortly after finding Michael Clayton for an 18-yard scoring strike.

"He was just off as a thrower," Morris said of Freeman, who threw three interceptions, lost a fumble and produced a 33.1 passer rating. "He was never able to get into a rhythm. He just didn't have it."

He wasn't alone. The Bucs' defense didn't have it, either. Not when it counted most, they didn't. Though they held the Saints in check through most of the first half, they couldn't hold them at the end of the half. That's when the Saints, in a two-minute drive reminiscent of the one that cost the Bucs a victory at Miami a week earlier, began turning a manageable game into an unmanageable one.

The initial strike came in the form of a five-play, 63-yard drive during which the Saints took advantage of several superior matchups to make gains of 16, 21 and 20 yards before scoring on a 6-yard Drew Brees-to-Robert Meacham pass.

"They did a great job of putting three receivers on the same side and beating us out of our best match, getting Ronde (Barber) on a wideout and keeping Barrett (Ruud) on (Marques) Colston," Morris said. "Then in the red zone we get matched up the way we want to and (Brees) makes a dynamic throw against Tanard Jackson (to Meacham) in the back of the zone that he actually threw under his arm."

That score gave the Saints a 17-7 halftime lead, and when Freeman fumbled the ball away at his own 25 to kill the Bucs' first drive of the third quarter, the Saints pulled even further away. Turning that takeaway into yet another touchdown, the Saints built a 24-7 lead just 4:24 into the third quarter before going ahead 31-7 on a Mike Bell touchdown run that came in the wake of Freeman's third pick of the day.

"We lost the two-minute drill and the turnover battle," Ronde Barber said. "I mean, we've got to be able to buckle down there. We've got to keep people out of the end zone and not turn the ball over on offense. That was the turning point. They're obviously a good football team and in that second half, when we faced a little adversity, they just had their way with us."

It's been that way a lot this year. Before Freeman took over for Josh Johnson, the Bucs had made a habit of staying with teams through the early going but losing their grip early in the second half. Sunday was a return to that early-season form, and while it came against a conference leader that improved its record to 10-0, it also came against a team that was clearly undermanned.

While the Bucs had their full contingent of regulars, the Saints were missing starting running back Reggie Bush and three starters on defense, including cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. "They were undermanned but they came in and beat us like men today," Morris said. "They did what a 9-0 football team is supposed to do, but we have to be able to compete with them at some point."

The Bucs did compete with the Saints in one area. Providing a rare glimpse of what was supposed to be their offensive strength, they ran the ball 23 times for 119 yards, a 5.2 average. Even without Bush, though, the Saints countered, running 36 times for 183 yards (a 5.1 average) and two touchdowns. Brees, meanwhile, threw for 187 yards and three scores.

"The bottom line is, we have to get him off the field and we have to keep him off the field," Morris said of Brees. "We didn't do that. I mean, we played a manageable first half today. We got some things done that we wanted to get done, but at the end there we let the rope go and we gave him the ball back and they were able to get us. It was just a real disappointing performance."

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 23 November 2009