Bucs 20 Saints 17 - the game report
It sounds like a nearly impossible task. Not bringing a 2-12 team into one of the loudest environments in the NFL and upsetting a 13-1 squad fighting for home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs…though that seemingly Herculean task is what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pulled off Sunday in the Louisiana Superdome.
No, here’s another challenge that’s possibly even more difficult: Pick the hero from the Buccaneers’ 20-17 overtime win over the Super Bowl-hungry New Orleans Saints. Is it Connor Barth, the midseason pickup who nailed a 47-yard field goal to complete Tampa Bay’s improbable rally from an early 17-0 deficit?

Is it Cadillac Williams, the unconquerable running back who appeared almost dead on his feet as overtime started but still gained most of the yards in the game-winning drive during a courageous 129-yard outing?

Is it Micheal Spurlock, the former Buccaneer hero who was re-signed midway through this week and promptly tied the game with a 77-yard punt return late in the fourth quarter?

Is it Josh Freeman, the heady rookie who in some respects won a shootout with MVP candidate Drew Brees, completing 21 of 31 for 271 yards? Freeman’s calm efforts — which included a key third-down scramble in overtime, allowed Tampa Bay to ring up 439 yards of offense, 63 more than the NFL’s top-ranked attack?

Or, given that final stat, is it the entire Buccaneer defense, which somehow went two-and-a-half quarters without allowing a point after the Saints built a 17-0 lead in what the home crowd probably believed was going to be a celebratory blowout? Tampa Bay allowed each of New Orleans’ first three drives to end in scores but in the end allowed the Saints approximately 60 fewer yards and 18 fewer points than they are accustomed to scoring?

In the end, one must call it a full-team victory for the Buccaneers, who surely produced one of the biggest upsets in NFL history in terms of the relative win totals of the two teams involved. The Bucs came in 2-12 and now have their first two-game winning streak of the season after prevailing on the road last week at Seattle. The Saints were 13-1 and coming off their first loss of the season last weekend, and they needed only one more win to clinch that #1 seed in the NFC.

Obviously, the Saints will be playing in January while the Buccaneers will not, and that is obviously the bottom line. Still, the Bucs have to consider this weekend’s win a massive stepping stone towards better days as they finish off the 2009 campaign.

The Buccaneers showed impressive resiliency after most of their first-half efforts ended in failure. Despite taking every single one of their six first-half drives into Saints territory, the Bucs were trailing 17-3 at the intermission, getting on board at the end on a 34-yard field goal by Barth. In fact, Tampa Bay got the ball on offense 10 times in Sunday’s game and the only one that didn’t start in their own territory and end in Saints ground was a one-play kneel-down by Freeman at the end of regulation. That “drive” came just moments after young Saints kicker Garrett Hartley hooked a potential game-winning field goal just outside the left upright from 37 yards out.

Tampa Bay’s defense answered the call in the second half for the second straight week, posting a shutout after intermission for consecutive weeks and only the second time all year. LB Geno Hayes didn’t start but he was once again the star performer on defense, with 10 tackles, the Bucs’ only sack, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Hayes poked the ball away from WR Robert Meachem with nine minutes left in the game and the Bucs trailing by seven, given the visiting team a chance to tie it up.

That drive, however, ended in disappointment when the Bucs drove down to New Orleans’ 19 but failed on two straight plays after facing a third-and-one. In the end, that worked out too for the visitors, as the defense forced a punt and Spurlock returned it 77 yards for the tying score. Buc fans remember Spurlock as the man who returned the first kickoff for a touchdown in team history late in the 2007 season.

The Saints had two minutes to work with after that score and got into field goal territory on a 19-yard catch-and-run by Meachem. However, Hartley missed and the Bucs won the toss to get the ball to start overtime. Relying on Williams, who had a season-high 24 carries for a gritty 129 yards and one touchdown, the Bucs marched 48 yards on 11 plays on the opening possession of the extra period, nine of them runs by Williams. The Bucs took the conservative route after getting into Saints territory, relying on Barth to nail a long kick to win it. His 47-yard shot was never in doubt.

In all, the Bucs rushed for a season-high 176 yards and surpassed 400 yards of total offense for the third time this year. In the passing attack, Freeman spread it around to eight different targets, with Antonio Bryant catching five passes for 52 yards and Kellen Winslow snaring four for 76.

Plagued by very slow starts on offense in recent weeks, the Bucs’ opening drive at least showed promise on this day, as the running game clicked early and Freeman took the team into Saints territory. Unfortunately, an illegal-shift penalty but the visitors into a tough third-and-15 situation and Freeman overthrew Winslow after scrambling to buy time.

Tampa Bay’s defense, however, could claim no such quick start, as the Saints’ took their opening drive 75 yards for a touchdown in nine plays. Loaded with offensive weapons, the Saints seemed to use them all; Brees got the ball to Meachem, Pierre Thomas, Marques Colston, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush within the game’s first six plays. Every play on the drive gained at least six yards, capped by Thomas’ rather easy eight-yard touchdown run.

The Bucs moved the ball again on their next drive, reaching Saints territory, but Freeman was intercepted by S Darren Sharper, the NFL’s active leader in that category when he and Bryant appeared not to be on the same page as to the receiver’s route. Sharper returned the ball to midfield and the Saints’ offense took it the rest of the way on six plays, ending in Brees’ 30-yard touchdown pass to Meachem. Meachem sold an outside route as Brees rolled right, then broke back to the middle on a post and was wide open behind the defense.

Tampa Bay’s offense continued to show it could move the ball, getting back into Saints territory on a 29-yard catch by Stovall, but once again mistakes killed the drive before it could reach the red zone. This time, it was consecutive false start and ineligible man downfield penalties that put the Bucs into third-and-long and gave the Saints an opportunity to sack Freeman on consecutive plays.

Sam Paulescu punted down to the New Orleans’ seven after that drive faltered, but that just gave Brees more field to carve up. A 26-yard run by Thomas highlighted an 83-yard field goal drive that made it 17-0 in favor of the home team, with Garrett Hartley banging home a 28-yarder. CBs Elbert Mack and Ronde Barber combined to make the tackle on Colston on third-and-six that forced the Saints to settle for the three-pointer.

And again, the Bucs followed with a drive that crossed midfield but then fell apart. Freeman nearly rescued this one with an incredible series of escapes from Saints pass-rushers on third-and-eight but couldn’t get away from Smith in the end and went down for a three-yard sack to lead to another punt.

After another touchback, the Bucs got their first defensive stop on the next series, forcing a three-and-out when a third-down pass to Meachem came up a yard short. Freeman had 1:45 left on the clock when he took over again at the Bucs’ 32 and was able to use that time to engineer a 52-yard field goal drive in just eight plays. Throwing mostly quick-hitters over the middle, Freeman set up Connor Barth for a 34-yard field goal try that Barth nailed to get Tampa Bay on the board as the first half expired.

After halftime, the Bucs quickly forced another first down when CB Aqib Talib batted a pass away from Colston at the last moment, but Brees was able to find Colston again on third-and-seven even though he was being dragged down by Barber at the time. Tampa Bay’s defense forced another third down moments later, however, and this time LB Geno Hayes’ blitz was a success, leading to a nine-yard sack that forced a punt.

Thomas Morstead’s 33-yard kick gave Tampa Bay the ball back at their own 30, and Williams bounced his first-down carry outside twice, eventually finding the left sideline for a gain of 15. A pump-and-go between Freeman and Bryant was a success, with the receiver leaping over CB Tracy Porter for a 22-yard reception. Williams got six more up the middle and then shook off a tackle on third-and-one to get over left tackle for a first down at the Saints’ 19. Two plays later, however, Freeman tried to float a fade to Bryant in the left side of the end zone and Porter stayed in front of the play to get the interception and a touchback.

The Saints faced a third-and-one at their own 44 moments later and were able to seal off the edge for RB Lynell Hamilton, who broke free for a 19-yard gain before he was caught from behind by DE Tim Crowder. The next third down, however, was a 10-yarder and the Bucs’ blitz worked again when a screen pass to Bush was swallowed up by the Bucs’ defense for a loss of 10.

Though they got the defensive stop they needed, the Bucs found themselves in trouble when Morstead’s punt was downed at the Bucs’ two. Even worse, Williams’ first-down run lost a yard. However, an outlet pass to Graham gained 10 and Freeman waited for an over-the-middle route to WR Brian Clark to develop and then hit him in stride for a gain of 15 and a first down at the 26. Two plays later, the Bucs faced a third-and-seven as the fourth quarter began.

The first play of the final period was a good one, a 35-yard catch-and-run by Winslow down to the Saints’ 36. After a false start, Freeman scrambled left to buy time and fired a dart down the numbers to Stovall, who hauled in the pass for a gain of 18 and a first down at the Saints’ 23. On the next play, Williams slid over left tackle and used a Stovall block to get the edge and run 23 yards for the Bucs’ first score.

The Saints offense stayed with the running-and-short-passing attack and got two first downs to put the ball at the New Orleans 47. Brees then hit Colston over the middle for a gain of 16, but Hayes poked the ball out of Colston’s grasp and Barber recovered for Tampa Bay at the Bucs’ 39.

Graham got the carry on first down and blasted up the middle for eight yards, followed by a five-yard run by Williams. Two plays later, Winslow made an impressive reaching grab of a 17-yard pass by Freeman down to the Saints’ 28. Three plays later, on third-and-one, Williams tried right guard but was stopped inches short. Just before the fourth-down snap, the Bucs got a timeout call in, which was fortunate since Williams run to the left was stymied. After the break, the Bucs ran a play-action rollout pass intended for Graham but the pass was batted away by Grant, turning the ball over on downs with 4:57 to play.

A Brees completion Henderson earned a first down at the Saints’ 31. Three plays later, on third-and-seven, Brees hit Meachem on a sideline route but Talib made the tackle inches short of the sticks and Morstead came on to punt. Trying to get the Bucs to jump offsides, the Saints got LB Adam Hayward to flinch, but Hayward got back and New Orleans instead was flagged for a false start. Even worse for the home team, Spurlock fielded the ball at the Bucs’ 23, shot diagonally through the coverage from left to right and broke into the open for a 77-yard touchdown return to tie the game.

The Saints had 2:20 left when they started again at their own 26. The Bucs brought a big blitz on first down and nearly got to Brees, but the Saints QB got it off to Henderson, who made a juggling three-yard catch at the two-minute warning. A holding penalty backed the Saints up 10 yards but a dumpoff to Bush against a backing-up defense was good for 10. On third-and-two from the Saints’ 34, Brees zipped a short pass through traffic to Colston for six yards and a first down at the 40. Two plays later, Bush caught a short pass and danced through traffic to get out of bounds at the Bucs’ 45 with 29 seconds to play.

A seam pass to TE David Thomas was broken up at the last second by LB Barrett Ruud. Two plays later, however, Meachem caught a short pass over the middle, slipped out of a tackle by S Sabby Piscitelli and darted down to the 19. The Saints called a timeout with nine seconds left and brought on Garrett Hartley to try a 37-yard field goal. The Bucs stayed alive when Hartley hooked his kick outside the left upright.

The Bucs won the toss in overtime and started at their own 23 after Spurlock’s 19-yard return. On first down, Williams shot over left guard for seven yards on first down then broke off a 12-yarder on the next carry. Two more Williams runs made it third-and-five at the 47, and Freeman moved the chains himself by scrambling up the middle for eight yards to the Saints’ 45.

Freeman faked a quick pass on the resulting first down and then handed off to Williams, who pinballed for seven yards up the middle. Williams got the handoff on the next play, too, and was able to extend the ball just past the line for a first down. Three more Williams carries failed to produce a first down but did set Barth up for his game-winning shot.