Bucs 14 Saints 7 - the game report
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 8 December 2003

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers stopped Deuce McAllister’s awesome streak of 100-yard games. More importantly, they put a halt to their own losing ways. Scoring twice in the last 90 seconds of the first half, the Bucs took a 14-7 lead into halftime and protected it through a wild second half. Tampa Bay’s win puts both teams’ record at 6-7 and keeps the Bucs’ playoff hopes alive for at least one more week.

The Buccaneers, in need of a helpful bounce of the ball for some time now, got one near the end of the first half when WR Joe Horn – en route to a nine-catch, 118-yard effort – dropped a perfectly thrown touchdown pass. Had he caught it, the Saints likely would have taken a 14-0 lead into halftime; instead, an amazing string of events over the next two minutes gave Tampa Bay its 14-7 advantage.

On the very next play, Brooks tried to throw again but the ball slipped out of his hand as his arm came forward. S Jermaine Phillips scooped up the fumble and returned it the Saints’ 37. Two plays later, QB Brad Johnson hit TE Ken Dilger on a shallow out and Dilger stepped through one tackle to score on a 14-yard reception.

The Saints appeared to grab the momentum back on Michael Lewis kickoff return out to the 44, but the Bucs stopped New Orleans shy of midfield, forcing a punt. S David Gibson then blocked Mitch Berger’s punt and CB Ronde Barber returned the ball to New Orleans’ one-yard line. The Bucs’ offense came out in a power package with 17 seconds left in the half, but passed on first down to take the lead. Johnson rolled right off a play fake and threw to DT Warren Sapp, who was on as an extra blocker. Sapp made an acrobatic, leaping catch, bobbling then securing the ball as he hit the turf.

The Saints had to play the game without two players who have hurt Tampa Bay in the past – WR Donte` Stallworth and DT Willie Whitehead – but they still had the two biggest Buc-killers on the field: RB Deuce McAllister and, especially, QB Aaron Brooks. However, this time the Bucs were able to stop both. New Orleans stubbornly ran McAllister into an overloaded front throughout the first half, but he gained just nine yards on his first six carries, just 39 by halftime and a total of 69 on 22 carries by the end of the game. Nearly a third of those yards came on one 22-yard run in the third quarter.

Brooks, on the other hand, was red hot as the game began, finding every hole in the Bucs’ zone coverage and completing all seven of his first-quarter passes for 91 yards. The seventh was a 31-yard touchdown pass to red-hot TE Boo Williams, who was so open on the right sideline that there wasn’t a single Buc defender within 15 yards. However, the pressure applied by Tampa Bay’s recently-beleaguered defensive line eventually became too much for Brooks. The Bucs sacked him seven times and forced four fumbles, three of which Tampa Bay recovered. The last of those three turnovers came with New Orleans on the Bucs’ six-yard line midway through the final period. DE Greg Spires leaped several yards to land on Brooks’ back and force the fumble, and DT Chartric Darby recovered.

If Brooks and McAllister are the Bucs’ main nemeses, then DE Simeon Rice is Tampa Bay’s top Saint-killer. Rice, who came into the weekend tied for the NFL lead with 12 sacks, moved into third place on the Bucs’ all-time sack list in the second quarter. Rice’s eight-yard sack of QB Aaron Brooks, which pushed New Orleans out of field goal range, gave him 39.5 as a Buccaneer. That pushed him past former DT David Logan. The only Bucs with more sacks are Hall of Fame DE Lee Roy Selmon (78.5) and teammate Warren Sapp (77).

Rice wasn’t even close to done. Rice, who has sacked Brooks nine times in his career, the most of any opposing quarterback, dropped the Saint QB again near the end of the second quarter, leading to a fumble that New Orleans recovered. On the Saints’ first possession of the second half, Rice got to Brooks again on third down, killing another drive. Rice now has 15 sacks on the season, and seven in his last three games against the Saints. His total is already the third-highest in Buc history, following Warren Sapp’s team record of 16.5 in 2000 and Rice’s own 15.5 last year.

Tampa Bay then ran six minutes off the clock with an extended drive kept alive by three third-down conversions. The first two came courtesy of Keenan McCardell, who made a pair of dazzling plays for receptions of 11 and 35 yards. Though he did not have a reception at halftime, McCardell led all Bucs with six catches for 85 yards at game’s end. Johnson was sacked just once, late in the second half, and he found time to complete 20 of 34 passes for 213 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. That single pick, off a deflected pass in the fourth quarter, set up the drive that got down to Tampa Bay’s six.

The Bucs’ offense had a typical day, with fits of brilliance too often countered by costly penalties. Tampa Bay was penalized nine times for 85 yards, most of them on offense and many on big plays. Among the second-half plays erased by flags were a 28-yard catch by WR Edell Shepherd, a 14-yard end-around by Charles Lee, a 13-yard run by Thomas Jones and a 20-yard punt return by Reggie Barlow. It got so bad that the Bucs even had a flag thrown on a player who wasn’t on the field for a single snap. With the Bucs experiencing problems with their coach-to-quarterback helmet radio, backup QB Shaun King came a few yards onto the field to try to communicate with Brad Johnson. That’s a no-no; 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Still, the Bucs overcame a slow start to rack up 314 yards, split nicely between 107 on the ground and 207 through the air. Meanwhile, the Saints, who had 216 yards at halftime, finished with just 292. The Buccaneers made a series of roster moves during the week leading up to Sunday’s game, and Head Coach Jon Gruden seemed intent on using every player on the 53-man squad. On offense, RB Thomas Jones started in place of Michael Pittman and got the handoff on the Bucs’ first three plays, picking up a total of 17 yards. Jones finished with 89 yards on 20 carries, leading all players, plus two receptions for 14 yards.

The first time the Bucs went to a multiple-receiver set, Shepherd and little-used veteran Karl Williams came onto the field. WR Charles Lee, just recently elevated to the starting lineup, was the Bucs’ second leading pass-catcher, with five grabs for 52 yards. On defense, rookie CB Ronyell Whitaker took over the nickel back job and was immediately matched up with star receiver Joe Horn. Rookie DE Dewayne White got some long-awaited action in the second quarter, as well, subbing in at left end. LB Nate Webster took some series at middle linebacker and S David Gibson played extensively at strong safety after an injury to John Lynch, before Gibson himself got hurt and Lynch returned in the second half.

Long-time hero Derrick Brooks, however, was one of the game’s biggest stars. Brooks led all players with 11 tackles, had one of the team’s seven sacks and forced a fumble on a different scramble by Brooks, thwarting another drive that had reached Buccaneer territory. Brooks also made the game’s final tackle, stopping McAllister two yards short of the sticks on a fourth-and-six reception.