'Total domination' by Saints' defense
Anthony Hargrove was still a few strides away from the New Orleans locker room when the majesty of the moment caught up with the veteran defensive tackle. "That's a 10," he said, raising his right arm in salute to a perfect start. "That's a 10."
The Saints (10-0) spotted the Bucs a touchdown Sunday before rolling up the final 38 points to set the stage for a dramatic Monday night visit by the Patriots on Nov. 30. A victory that evening, coupled with an Atlanta loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday, would sew up an NFC South title for New Orleans with five weeks remaining in the regular season. Not bad for an 8-8 club in 2008 that went 0-5 in games decided by three points or less.
"This was the type of game we want to have ... total domination," said veteran safety Darren Sharper after the Saints forced four turnovers and sacked rookie Josh Freeman three times. "We wanted to pressure Freeman and make him throw early. I guess we did."
Outside linebacker Scott Fujita turned in the game's biggest defensive play early in the second half with Tampa Bay trailing 17-7. "I came from a long way to get there," said Fujita, who lined up wide on the right side and chased down Freeman, forcing a fumble at the Tampa Bay 15. "The Bucs came out ready to play today, so that was a key turnover for us."
Three plays later, Drew Brees found tight end David Thomas from 11 yards out for one of his three touchdown passes as he posted a quarterback rating of 118.0. "That was a huge play by Fujita," Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said. "When you give our offense that kind of field position, you're asking for trouble."
Center Jeff Faine said Freeman changed up to the wrong play on the sack/fumble as Fujita came through untouched. On Tampa Bay's next series, Jonathan Vilma's interception set New Orleans up at midfield and led to Mike Bell's 3-yard scoring run and a 31-7 advantage.
Lopsided field position contributed to the rout as New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead averaged 48.8 yards and the Saints boasted an average drive start at their own 39, compared to the 22-yard line for Tampa Bay's 12 possessions.
"We knew Tampa was going to give us their best shot, so we're very happy with the result," Saints right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. "They are a division opponent we have a lot of respect for and they've been playing better football the past few weeks."
Coach Sean Payton is now 12-0 when the Saints don't commit a turnover and New Orleans would lock up the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed by winning out. Despite playing with five new starters Sunday, New Orleans made it look easy as Thomas became the 18th different Saint to score a touchdown this season. "Eighteen guys - that's pretty impressive," Fujita said. "We'd like to get some linebackers in that group."
Ira Kaufman, The Tampa Tribune 23 November 2009