What missing players?
The Saints were missing running back Reggie Bush, a key part of their short passing game, because of swelling in his left knee. So tight end David Thomas stepped in, finishing with four catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. His highlight was a 37-yard catch-and-run with 4:19 left in the first quarter. Thomas got behind linebacker Barrett Ruud, took a short pass from Drew Brees and turned upfield, finally getting tackled at the Bucs 31.
"He played well," Bucs safety Tanard Jackson said. "I think Brees was looking for him. But when you think about it, they were down a receiver this week. He wasn't as fast, and he didn't have as much wiggle as Reggie. But he was the guy who filled in for Reggie."
The play took the Saints into Bucs territory for the first time and helped lead to their first touchdown. Thomas, who entered Sunday with 12 catches for 123 yards and no touchdowns, later caught an 11-yard touchdown pass for a 24-7 third-quarter lead.
Graham gets a chance
Veteran running back Earnest Graham has not complained about his lack of involvement in the Bucs offense. He hadn't carried the ball once in the previous five games before Sunday. And his recent move to fullback — because of B.J. Askew's neck and back injuries — meant he would be even less likely to get the ball.
Offensive coordinator Greg Olson has said he hoped to involve Graham more, and finally, he did. Graham was a key to the Bucs taking a 7-0 lead when he ripped off a 17-yard run on their first possession. But his hard-charging 12-yard run off left tackle later in the drive was bigger.
Never easy to bring down, Graham was a handful for safety Darren Sharper, who grabbed Graham's facemask during the tackle. The 15-yard penalty gave the Bucs a first down at the New Orleans 21. They scored two plays later. "We spread them out, and I was the only back in there some of the time," Graham said. "I got a chance to carry the ball, and it was just a good series for us."
Raheem Morris said Graham was heating up and the Bucs wanted to take advantage, but not having depth at fullback limited their options. "We have to keep Earnest at fullback," Morris said. "When you get a hot back like that, you would like to be able to stick with them and go. But you're not able to do that now."
Freeman finds his man
For as poorly as Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman played (three interceptions, 33.1 rating, one fumble), he might have recorded the game's highlight. And he had a little help from an unlikely source — receiver Michael Clayton, whose touchdown catch capped a 95-yard drive.
On third and 7, Freeman dropped back after taking a snap in the shotgun and immediately was under duress. He eluded one oncoming rusher by stepping up then rolled left. Meanwhile, Clayton was running what's referred to as a circus route, one that breaks toward the sideline. But the veteran diagnosed the coverage and modified the route.
"I saw the corner kind of sitting there in my alley, so I just took (the route) high," Clayton said. "Once I took it high, I saw Josh (scrambling), and I pushed it to the end zone and to the right spot. He broke free. I gave him a wave and made sure my feet were gathered, and he delivered the ball."
Did he ever. Freeman, throwing across his body and into the back corner of the end zone, got a strike to Clayton for an 18-yard score, Clayton's first of the season and third since 2005. It was Clayton's only catch of the game, but it was special.
"I've been waiting for the opportunity to score a touchdown all year," he said. "(Freeman) threw a great ball. I knew we were going to have it if he saw me. He does a great job of finding his receivers once he leaves the pocket."
Stephen F Holder, The St.Petersburg Times 23 November 2009