One week after a disastrous trip to the west coast, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held serve at home in the NFC South against the New Orleans Saints 26-20.
The game started with several key Buccaneer players unavailable, including RB LeGarrette Blount, DT Gerald McCoy (both starters), WR Sammie Stroughter, TE Luke Stocker, LB Zac Diles, and Tackles James Lee and Derek Hardman. Blount and McCoy both started last weekend, Stroughter was the opening day kick returner, and Stocker has been coming on recently in relief of Kellen Winslow. Lee and Hardman filled key roles on the offensive line during the injury-plagued 10-win run last season. It's a large, important group and the bye week can't get here soon enough.
Nevertheless, the Buccaneers proved once again they have capable depth on the roster. RB Earnest Graham and DT Brian Price stepped in for Blount and McCoy respectively, and TE Zack Pianalto stepped in to spell Winslow. Another new face to the starting lineup was the return of S Tanard Jackson to help with the season-ending loss of starting Safety Cody Grimm two weeks ago. Clearly, depth will come into play this season as well.
Early in the game it was apparent that there was one facet of the game the Buccaneers were going to close down, and that was the New Orleans special teams play. With a dangerous return man like Darren Sproles waiting, punter Micheal Koenen boomed towering punts to the sidelines, removing the Saints' return game from consideration. Koenen punted just four times, but posted a nearly-fifty yard average (49.8 yards; Sproles was only able to return one, and he lost 10 yards on the play, tackled by LB Dakota Watson).
The supposedly slow-starting Buccaneers scored first on a Conner Barth 48-yard field goal in the first quarter to take a 3-0 lead.
The Saints grabbed the following possession and scored on a 38-yard Drew Brees to Maques Colston pass down the left sideline, taking their first lead of the game at 7-3. The first quarter would finish with that score.
Less than two minutes into the second quarter, Tampa Bay grabbed the lead back on a 65-yard bomb from Josh Freeman to Arrelious Benn across the middle of the field to raise the score to 10-7. The defense then held the Saints to a 3-and-out, and the Buccaneer offense took the ball back to the New Orleans side of the field for a field goal and a 13-7 lead.
On the following Saints possession, S Tanard Jackson intercepted a Drew Brees pass, and the young Buccaneers turned it into points with another Josh Freeman pass. This time, Preston Parker sprinted right-to-left across the middle of the defense for 19 yards and a touchdown, extending the Tampa Bay lead to 20-7.
New Orleans, showing the resilience one has come to expect from the Saints, drove the field to close the half but were forced to settle for a field goal and Tampa Bay took a 20-10 lead into the locker room.
In the third quarter, both teams were only able to generate field goals, and the fourth quarter started 23-13.
New Orleans opened the fourth quarter with the ball and, assisted by a pass interference call, used rookie Mark Ingram from 12 yards out to narrow the Tampa Bay lead to 20-23. After an exchange of 3-and-out series, the Buccaneers drove to the New Orleans 20 yard line before stalling, and another Connor Barth field goal opened the lead to 26-20.
The New Orleans Saints then took the next possession at their own 24 yard line and tore through the Buccaneer defense to the Tampa Bay two yard line where, on 4th and 2, Drew Brees was intercepted by Quincy Black in the endzone to preserve the Buccaneer lead.
Two first downs later, the Buccaneers lined up in the victory formation and finished the game with a 26-20 victory and ascended to 1st place in the potent NFC South.
It was a significant change of fortunes as the visiting team had won Tampa Bay vs. New Orleans games for the past two years.
Super-Sub RB Earnest Graham gained 109 yards on 17 attempts, a blistering 6.4 yards per carry average. DT Brain Price recorded a tackle for loss, and S Tanard Jackson posted five solo tackles and an interception. Even first year, undrafted TE Zack Pianalto donned his super-sub helmet and recorded a catch for nine yards.
It was important for Tampa Bay to put the prior week behind them, and they certainly did against the team many considered to be the best in the NFC South. Later this season they may face the West Coast hurdle again, but for now Buccaneer fans can enjoy the return to the top of the NFC South and look forward to this weekend's game against the Chicago Bears in London.