Dramatic punt return TD wins tough game 24-21 over winless Gradkowski-led Bucs
Reggie Bush's first touchdown as a pro could not have come at a more dramatic time for the 4-1 Saints.
Nearly five complete games into his rookie season, second overall pick Reggie Bush had yet to see the end zone. In the middle of the third quarter, Bush got his closest when he found a seam near the end zone, dashed four yards to daylight but was ankle tackled four yards short. Two plays later, Brees found Ernie Conwell for the Saints' second score and a 17-7 lead.
But the Saints would still need their highly-paid rookie. The Bucs, led by rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski, who shocked the Saints, the league and even his own team with surprisingly effective poise and production, would storm back to take a 21-17 lead in the fourth quarter. With the Saints chanting Reg-gie and down by four points with under five minutes remaining, number 5 would find six when he fielded a Josh Bidwell punt at the Saints 35. Bush dashed right immediately after fielding the punt, and slipped a tackle of diving linebacker Antoine Cash at the 37 and received a devastating block from Mark Campbell at the Buc 47. Racing down the right sideline, Aaron Stecker leveled a sideline pursuer at the Buc 41 and from there, Bush had only to outrun Bidwell to the right corner. Dejected, Bush walked back upfield, still holding on the to ball as the refs talked about the penalty flag back upfield.
When the refs announced that the penalty was a personal foul on Tampa Bay, the Saints sideline, 68,183 fans and one elated rookie went crazy and the home team went up 24-21. The first punt return touchdown for the Saints since 2002 would prove to be the winning points for the Saints, who stopped the Bucs on fourth down two minutes later. At that point, nothing seemed to go the Bucs way, as usually reliable veteran receiver Joey Galloway had and dropped a strike over the middle, then Galloway would be called for offensive pass interference when he picked Jason Craft, nullifying a 38-yard pass to Ike Hilliard.
The game did not begin, however, with as much success for the Saints. Brees opened with two incompletions, then WR Marques Colston and LT Jammal Brown would be called for back-to-back false starts. The Bucs got the ball and started marching downfield with rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski, an unheralded late draft pick from Toledo. The rook connected on his first three passes for 63 yards and a touchdown that capped off the Bucs' easy-looking six play opening drive. Jon Gruden, who had two weeks to prepare for his faceoff against his former subordinate Sean Payton, had a good battle plan against the Saints' defense, which continues to struggle against the run. Gradkowski executed with all the efficiency of a veteran, instinctively reacting to various situations and rarely exposed as a rookie making his first start in place of injured QB Chris Simms. In terms of quarterback rating, the rookie Gradkowski outperformed Pro Bowl veteran Drew Brees on the day, 107.6 to 86.8. Both quarterbacks played nearly flawlessly, although Gradkowski did absorb a sack and lost fumble when Charles Grant beat rookie T Jeremy Trueblood. On another occasion, Gradkowski allowed himself escorted out of bounds instead of throwing the ball away, sacking himself (although credit went to Scott Fujita).
Brees utilized both his super runningbacks, Deuce McAllister on the ground and Bush in the air. McAllister showed some downfield power today, especially on a first quarter blast off the right side. Delivering a thundering left stiff arm that tossed Ronde Barder into one of his teammates in pursuit, McAllister ran down to the three yard line. But the Saints couldn't punch it in on two pass attempts and a rush, and the Saints had to settle for John Carney's only field goal of the day to make the score 7-3. One quarter later, inside the two minute warning, McAllister broke through the Saints secondary and put the Saints up 10-7 with a 24 yard run up the middle. With 117 yards in the first half, Deuce would finished with 123 however, given only six second half carries, a phenomenon that Sean Payton will surely be questioned about this week.
Reggie Bush collected 11 passes for 63 yards, nine carries for 23 yards and three punt returns for 75 yards, picking up four first downs including one where Bush stretched out and gained the necessary yardage only after a reply review. Bush caught every pass thrown his way. His fourth quarter punt return was his last of 23 touches on the day. The rookie runningback was targeted more than any other Saint receiver: Horn was targeted 8 times not including one catch when Horn was flagged for offensive holding, Colston was targeted six times, Conwell four times, and McAllister three times. Unlike most previous games, Brees didn't spread the ball around to every available receiver as much as possible. Without WR Devery Henderson (shoulder), the Saints used reserves Lance Moore, Terrance Copper and Jamal Jones but did not attempt a throw their way.
The defense, which struggled to contain runningbacks Carnell Williams and Michael Pittman, was led by young safety Josh Bullocks, who wrapped up 10 tackles from his free safety position. Rookie Roman Harper collected seven solo tackles before leaving the game with an apparent knee injury on the play before Bush's punt return. Strongside linebacker, who was fined $7500 this week for a cheap hit on Steve Smith last Sunday, continued to be the Saints' top linebacker in terms of production, in on eight tackles and credited for one sack. The Saints' other two linebackers, Mark Simoneau and Scott Shanle were also active on the day, each collecting a share of eight tackles.
Taking advantage of the rookie starting across from him, DE Charles Grant collected five tackles, three quarterback hurries, a sack and a forced fumble on the day, a big performance from one of the defense's top vocal leaders. Grant's forced fumble on Gradkowski was recovered by DT Rodney Leisle at the Bucs 25 yard line. The Saints offense needed four plays to get the ball in the end zone when Brees hit Conwell for the tight end's first touchdown of the season. The critical turn of events put the Saints up 17-7, but Tampa Bay returned the favor on their next drive when Mike Alstott scored on a one yard dive. That score, set up by Galloway's 52-yard catch of a Gradkowski bomb, made it 17-14 at the end of the fourth quarter.
The Bucs and Saints would exchange punts before the Gradkowski pulled his team ahead with a short bullet to TE Alex Smith that put Tampa up 21-17 with 10:08 left in the game. That drive was keyed on Carnell Williams' 34 yard run to the Saint six yard line. Roman Harper drew an unnecessary roughness penalty, his second of the season, when he smashed Williams out of bounds on that run.
The Saints are 4-1 overall and 2-1 in the NFC South, retaining their first place position in the NFC South. The Saints are 4-1 for the first time since 2002, when they opened 6-1 and eventually made it to 9-3 before dropping their final four games for a 9-7 finish out of the postseason. That 2002 4-1 start also featured wins over the Bucs and Packers. The Saints would lose to the Browns and Falcons twice in that season.
The winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers are also winless in three games in the NFC South, dealing a severe blow to their postseason potential. Second place Atlanta was off this week and remains 3-1 overall and 2-1 in the NFC South. 3-2 Carolina is also 2-1 in the NFC South.
Injury notes: S Roman Harper walked off the field under his own power, slightly limping on his knee. S Omar Stoutmire took his place in the starting lineup.