Defense Leads Streaking Bucs to Fifth Straight
Scott Smith, , published 12 December 2016

In the defensive huddle before the New Orleans Saints' last play on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the 11 Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the field knew it was time for somebody to make a game-deciding play. "We talked about it in the huddle: 'Somebody step up,'" recounted safety Keith Tandy. "We didn't know who it was going to be, but somebody stepped up."

That somebody was Tandy himself, who intercepted a Drew Brees pass on fourth-and-one near midfield to put the finishing touches on a 16-11 victory for the Buccaneers. It was Tampa Bay's fifth straight victory, marking their longest such streak since the Super Bowl season of 2002. With the win, the Buccaneers remained in a tie with the Atlanta Falcons for first place in the NFC South and stayed a half-game ahead of Washington for the second NFC Wild Card spot.

Tampa Bay's defense has allowed an average of just under 13 points per game during the team's winning streak, and on Sunday they held the Saints to 294 yards and their lowest point total of the season. For just the second time since Brees and Head Coach Sean Payton arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints finished a game without scoring a touchdown. "Right now we're just a confident bunch, and a confident bunch is a scary bunch," said Tandy of the Buccaneers' defense. "Hopefully we can keep it rolling."

Tandy also sealed the Buccaneers' 28-21 win in San Diego a week earlier with an interception late in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay's defense has ended each of the last four games with a turnover on the opposition's last possession. On Sunday, that was part of a plus-three finish in the critical turnover ratio department, as rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and veteran cornerback Brent Grimes also picked Brees off.

Tampa Bay has a plus-nine turnover ratio during its five-game winning streak and has been on the plus end of that stat in all five of those contests. "First of all, thank God for that defense," said quarterback Jameis Winston. "That defense played amazing, man, creating turnovers."

Winston and the Buccaneers' offense moved the ball reasonably well on Sunday but had trouble converting scoring opportunities into touchdowns. Winston completed 16 of 26 passes for 184 yards but was held without a touchdown. Most importantly, he did not turn the ball over, nor did the Bucs' offense as a whole for just the third time all season. "One thing we did good on offense, we did not turn the football over," said Winston. "We kept the ball and our defense won the turnover ratio. When you win the turnover ratio, it gives you a great chance to win games."

Running back Doug Martin led the team with 66 yards on 23 carries and he scored the game's only touchdown on a second-effort one-yard run in the second quarter. The Bucs were determined to run the ball and did so 35 times for 104 yards, helping create a 33:15-26:45 time-of-possession advantage.

The Buccaneers controlled the action early, running out to a 13-0 lead in the second quarter, but had only a five-point lead at halftime. The defense made that stand up, as each team added a lone field goal after the intermission. During the Bucs' five-game winning streak, the team has allowed a total of 17 second-half points. Turnovers, such as Tandy's game-clincher, have been a big part of that. And those takeaways have largely been the product of improved communication. "It's the communication, and the communication has allowed people to make plays," said Tandy. "That's what brings confidence and when you're confident, it's scary."

As an example, fellow safety Bradley McDougald tipped Tandy off on the play Brees might run on that final fourth down. "It's a formation we've seen on film, and Bradley was talking to me," said Tandy. "He was saying, 'I'm coming to you, so sit on it.' We've been trying to get our scout team to run that route all week and they couldn't run it right. We always know in crunch time a team will go to one of their favorite plays and that's one of their favorite plays."

The Buccaneers also got good work from their special teams, with the notable exception of a second-half kickoff that bounced off Josh Huff's helmet and out of bounds at the one-yard line. Rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo hit all three of his field goal tries and blasted four touchbacks on six kickoffs. Punter Bryan Anger was absolutely instrumental in shutting the Saints down in the fourth quarter, kicking two straight punts that were downed at New Orleans' one-yard line. Rookie safety Ryan Smith made a dazzling play on the first of those two to keep the ball from going into the end zone.

The Buccaneers controlled the action for a quarter-and-a-half but still went into halftime up just 13-8. After rushing out to a 13-0 lead, Buccaneers gave up a field goal and then were hit by a safety after the aforementioned miscue on special teams. The Saints used the ensuing possession to tack on another field goal just before halftime.

After an exchange of punts to start the game, Tampa Bay scored first on Aguayo's 41-yard field goal seven minutes into the first quarter. The 48-yard scoring drive was keyed by a catch in traffic by Brate at the Saints' 36 as well as a pair of penalties against the New Orleans defense. Winston tried to hit Evans over the middle on third-and-10 from the 23 but it was just a bit too high to haul in.

Tampa Bay's defense responded with a second straight three-and-out, keyed by Lavonte David knifing through the line on first down to stop Ingram for a loss of three. The Bucs took the ensuing possession 75 yards for the game's first touchdown, with Martin stepping out of a foot tackle at the four and diving over the line. Martin started the drive with a strong eight-yard run up the middle and Winston converted consecutive third-and-three situations with passes of 18 yards to Brate and 19 to Evans. Two pass-interference calls on the Saints gave the Bucs a pair of first-and-goal opportunities at the one, the second of which Martin converted.

A facemask penalty on David helped get the ball close to midfield on the Saints' next possession but the Bucs' defense came up with the game's first takeaway moments later. Brees tried to hit TE Coby Fleener deep down the middle but Alexander leaped to tip the pass and the deflection was hauled in by Hargreaves at the Bucs' 29.

That takeaway resulted in another three points, as Winston took the offense 50 yards on 10 plays to set up Aguayo's 39-yard field goal. Two 11-yard passes to Evans, one on third-and-three, kept the drive moving, but Winston's scrambling throw in Evans's direction on third-and-one from the Saints' 21 was batted away. Sims helped get the ball into scoring range with a 12-yard sweep around right end.

The Bucs' defense forced a quick third-and-eight on the next Saints possession but Brees found Snead open down the left numbers and a facemask penalty on Keith Tandy tacked on 15 yards to the Bucs' 29. A holding penalty drawn by a great rush around the end by DE Robert Ayers helped the home team get the stop from there and the Saints settled for Wil Lutz's 42-yard field goal.

A bad turn of events for the home team followed on special teams. Lutz's kickoff bounced towards the right front pylon and Huff, attempting to field it, had it bounce off his helmet and go out of bounds just a few inches in front of the goal line. The Bucs tried to run on first down but Martin was stopped just short of getting it out of the end zone, resulting in a safety for New Orleans. Punter Bryan Anger executed the free kick after the safety but his ball went out of bounds and the resulting penalty made it first down for New Orleans right on the midfield stripe.

Brees moved the Saints down into the red zone from there, converting a third-and-three from the Bucs' 32 with a nine-yard pass to Coleman. The Bucs subsequently held on a third-and-one run from the 14-yard line but the Saints elected to go for it on fourth down just after the two-minute warning. Brees dived over the top to move the chains. After gaining a first-and-goal at the one, the Saints committed a false start and then Ayers sacked Brees back at the Saints' 15 to force the visitors to settle for Lutz's second field goal and a 13-8 halftime deficit.

Neither team mounted much of a drive on their first possessions of the second half but the Saints got into Buccaneer territory on their second possession when Brees found Brandin Cooks down the right sideline for a gain of 38. The Saints gained a first down at the Bucs' 12 two plays later but the defense held again and the Saints brought on Lutz for is third field goal to make it a two-point game.

The Buccaneers answered with a lengthy field goal drive of their own, ending in Aguayo's 26-yarder with 13 minutes left in regulation. The drive took 13 plays and was extended early when Winston made a scrambling 12-yard completion to Brate on third-and-10. Sims was the biggest contributor on the march, catching three straight passes for 35 yards to get the ball into the red zone. CB Sterling Moore dived to break up a potential third-down touchdown pass to Shepard in the end zone.

The Saints got to midfield on the ensuing possession but Tampa Bay's defense came up with another turnover on third-and-one. Tandy jumped a short pass intended for Fleener in the left flat and, while he didn't pick it off he did get a hand on it, causing a deflection that Grimes intercepted at the Bucs' 41. Grimes got five yards to the 465 on his return.

The Bucs got a quick first down on two strong Martin runs but Winston was sacked two plays later and the Bucs had to punt from the Saints' 45. Ryan Smith made an amazing play on the end of Anger's 44-yard punt to flip the ball back to Alan Cross, who downed it at the one-yard line. Three plays later, as Brees rolled right and tried to throw an underneath pass, DE Noah Spence deflected the ball away, forcing a punt. Hargreaves returned it 12 yards to the midfield stripe.