The Saints atoned for their loss in Tampa Bay just 21 days ago and reestablished their ground game with the healthy return Zach Strief at right tackle. The Saints jumped up 14-0 on the Bucs early and never trailed as they retained the lead in the NFC South.
Tracy Porter's injury on second play of the game short-stopped the game. Porter's injury occurred on a tangle with WR Mike Williams, who was also slow getting up. Porter tackled Williams in the thigh with the side of his neck and was carted off the field and transported to the hospital with a neck injury. He gave a thumbs up as he was wheeled off the field, has apparently been checked out fine at the hospital and remains there under observation.
The Bucs went three-and-out on their game-opening possession and punted.
Brees' first series was set up with good field position after a good punt return by Darren Sproles up to the Saint 43. The Saints started with three straight run plays by starter Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, picking up fourteen yards and a first down. Two plays later, Brees overthrew Devery Henderson in the end zone - an uncharacteristic miss on a wide-open Henderson.
Brees did pick up the long third down conversion with a strike to Colston to the Buc 25 yard line, but a near sack, a short completion to Graham and a Sproles rush for a big loss set up a 42-yard field goal by John Kasay. His attempt doinked the right upright and fell back into the end zone, no good.
RB LeGarrette Blount, who missed the first Saints-Bucs game, was put to work on the second drive. Three straight runs by Blount gained 15, 8 and 7 yards to the Saint 38 yard line. Three plays later on 4th and 1 from the Saint 29, Jonathan Casillas, Dunbar and Shaun Rogers stopped Blount for a five yard loss loss and forced a fumble. It was a big victory for the Saints defense who was without middle linebacker and captain Jonathan Vilma.
The Saints capitalized on the big defensive win with a handoff up the middle to Darren Sproles, who cut hard to the right in space up the middle, spun 360 degrees away from two tacklers at midfield and was finally tackled after a 35-yard gain to the Buc 31. Next play was a flare to Sproles in the right flat, which the electric back turned up the right sideline for a 15-yard gain into the red zone.
After a short run by Ivory, the Saints caught the Bucs blitzing and had the perfect counter - a screen to Pierre Thomas. The Cruiser wasn't as patient as he could have been perhaps, but he broke two tackles and was down with the ball outstretched near the goal line. Brees capped the drive with a fade route to Lance Moore, who beat CB EJ Biggers to the left side of the end zone to break the scoreless tie with 2:27 left in the first quarter.
Moore made a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch and tapped his toes in at the sideline, making it look too easy. The Saints had made the Bucs pay for their missed fourth down conversion attempt, driving 66 yards in five plays for the score.
That touchdown tied Brees with Brett Favre with 36 games with a touchdown pass, the second longest streak in NFL history. He remains 11 games behind Johnny Unitas, who owns the record with 47. With 255 touchdown passes in his career, Brees tied Sonny Jurgenson for 12th most in NFL history.
After another of Thomas Morstead's league-leading touchbacks, On the Bucs' third drive, DE Cameron Jordan stood up Blount for a loss to the Saint 19. A five yard substitution penalty and a short pass gain set up 3rd and 10. Freeman found WR Preston Parker open out of a receiver bunch set for a 36-yard gain into Saints territory. At the end of the first quarter, WR Rejus Benn was flagged for offensive pass interference, moving the Bucs back across midfield.
A tough pass rush helped delay a screen pass by Freeman, and his eventual throw to Blount was dropped for a three yard loss by Greer. Benn caught a pass and turned up the middle of the field for a 16-yard gain, setting up 3rd and 7 from the Saint 41. A heavy Saints blitz forced a hurried throw from Freeman, who found TE Kellen Winslow wide open for the first down with SS Roman Harper stumbling in pursuit. But Winslow was rightly flagged for a shove on Harper in his route turn, the second offensive pass interference in four plays.
Another screen, this one to runningback Kregg Lumpkin, was tackled four yards short of the marker. This time facing fourth and short in Saints territory, the Bucs punted from the Saint 38.
After the touchback, the Saints came out establishing the run again. After short pass gain to Graham, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas ripped off runs of 12 and 33 yards to the Tampa 30 yard line. A five yard run by Ivory, and an easy nine-yard first down completion to Graham put the Saints at the Buc 16.
The Saints were punishing in the run game with FB Jed Collins leading the way and the healthy-return of TE David Thomas and RT Zach Strief on the edge.
A five yard false start penalty on Bushrod didn't matter, as Brees' screen pass to Sproles would have scored from 99 yards out. With RG JahriSproles jogged into the end zone, his third touchdown reception of the season. The Saints were up 14-0 with 8:41 left in the half.
The deflating Bucs went three and out on the next drive, with the Saints lining up a five down linemen formation that resulted in a tipped, incomplete pass on third down and four. The rookie DE Cam Jordan tipped the pass, part of an active defensive line today for the Saints.
The Bucs punted but thanks to an unexplained defensive delay of game penalty on CB Patrick Robinson, the Bucs were given a first down. No specific action was noted, but Robinson could have been flagged for trying to incite a false start, possibly verbally.
The Saints got a free shot on Freeman on the next play, when a raucous Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd forced a false start but none of the players heard, and Freeman was slammed to the ground in the pass rush by Jordan.
Tampa Bay looks confused with the personnel alignments and burned a timeout, and after the uncommon penalty on Robinson, went three and out again, punting with 5:40 left in the half. DB Leigh Torrence, playing safety and cornerback with Porter out, had good coverage to snuff out the drive on another of the Bucs' habitual crossing patterns.
Pierre Thomas appeared to limp off the field on the next drive after a three yard run. On 3rd and 7 from his own 13, Brees hopped, eluded, moved up and finally completed to a wide-open Lance Moore 11 yards upfield for another third down conversion. A short run by Ivory and an incomplete pass to TE John Gilmore Jr set up another 3rd and 7 from the Saint 27.
A fingertip bobbling catch by Marques Colston on an underneath pass was dropped a yard short of the first down marker, so Morstead came on to punt from his own 31. Morstead's punt bounded inside the 10, but Preston Parker picked it up on the run and returned it to the Buc 25.
Freeman came out seizing momentum, and hit while he threw found Desmond Briscoe wide open down the right sideline, who fought Malcolm Jenkins and Torrence down to the Saint 29. After a run by Lumpkin, at the two-minute warning the Bucs were at the Saint 25.
A short completion to Winslow set up 3rd and 4, and Freeman came off the field. Backup Josh Johnson ran the wildcat out of the shotgun and was stuffed for a short gain by Sedrick Ellis and company, sending on the field goal team on with 1:44 left. The Saints called their first timeout, meaning that Brees would have time left for a late-half drive.
Brees went to work, hitting Graham for 23 yards, Colston for 9, Graham again over the middle for 19 down to the Tampa 29. An uncharacteristic drop from Graham in the flat set up 2nd and 10 with :37 left in the half. A screen to Sproles picked up the first down as he smartly dashed out of bounds with :31 left. A pass to Henderson in the right flat should have seen the receiver smartly get out of bounds, but he didn't, and was tackled after a six yard gain, forcing the Saints to spend their last timeout with :19 left.
Colston caught a pass inside the 10 yard line and turned inside to dive for the end zone but was stopped just short. Brees scrambled the line for a spike and stopped the clock with :01 left at the Tampa Bay four yard line. Kasay nailed a short field goal for the 17-3 lead.
Brees was 17/23 for 185 yards and two scores at the half, while his counterpart Freeman was 10/14 for 133 yards, but three Buc drives ended scoreless in Saints territory. The Saints had 288 yards to 174 for the Bucs at halftime, and the Saints had 15 first downs in the first half to Tampa's five. Pete Carmichael's third game as the playcaller down on the field had the Saints rushing for 103 yards in the first half.
The Saints received the second half kickoff and went to establishing the run again, picking up a first down with runs by Ivory and Thomas. But Brees passed to the left for Sproles underneath and was read like a book by CB Ronde Barber, who intercepted the pass and would have returned it for a score had he not been ruled down by contact by Sproles.
Taking over at the Saint 33, the Bucs had opportunity to really get back in the game, down by two touchdowns. Faced with 3rd and 4, LT Donald Penn jumped and drew Will Smith offsides, but the refs made a terrible call and flagged Smith for encroachment. Replay showed that Penn clearly jumped first.
The five yard penalty gave the Bucs a first down at the Saint 22, but the defense held. Thanks to a punch thrown by Blount into the facemask of Will Smith, a 15 yard unnecessary roughness call pushed the Bucs back to the Saint 36 and brought up 4th and 18 and a Connor Barth field goal to make it 17-6.
Brees got the ball back with 9:24 and spurred a 12-play, 6:18 touchdown-scoring drive. The Saints converted two straight second downs for firsts with runs by Ivory. Eight straight methodical gains by the three-headed combo of Ivory, Thomas and Sproles, none longer than 10 yards, moved the Saints to the Tampa 21. A defensive holding flag on Barber gave the Saints their only 3rd down conversion of the drive, giving the Saints first and goal. On the next play, Pierre Thomas broke two tackles, appearing to stumble twice before regaining his balance and breaking to the left into the end zone from nine yards out. The Saints were in control with a 24-6 lead going into the fourth quarter.
The Bucs responded with a long drive of their own, taking over after a touchdown back moving quickly into Saints territory with two LaGarrette Blount gains.
CB Patrick Robinson appeared to injure his left shoulder on a tackle on Bucs FB Erik Lorig on a day when the Saints were already thin at the position. Rookie Johnny Patrick was inactive.
Freeman fired incomplete on 3rd and 1 from the Saint 33, but down by 15, the Bucs went for it. On 4th and 1 Tampa was flagged for delay of game, but Freeman still went for it on 4th and 6, completing to Mike Williams over the middle against Torrence.
The Bucs then went back and forth outside the red zone- a razzle-dazzle end around lost four yards when Will Smith altered Arrellious Benn's path and Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Leigh Torrence finished him off for a four yard loss. On 2nd and 14 though, TE Kellen Winslow beat LB Scott Shanle for the first down. On 1st and 10, LT Donald Penn would be flagged for tripping, but passes to Lorig for 6 and Williams for 11 set up 3rd and 3.
Freeman fired incomplete on third down again, looking for Winslow in the end zone with on one on coverage with Roman Harper. Head coach Raheem Morris would go for it again. On 4th and 3, Malcolm Jenkins was flagged for defensive pass interference on a Preston Parker incompletion, a difficult to see penalty that gave the Bucs first and goal at the Saint 7.
The Saints defense would make a big stand here. Freeman threw far too high into end zone with the Saints in good coverage, then a designed run for Freeman would get blown up by Roman Harper and Jabari Greer. On third down, Greer nearly intercepted a pass into the end zone by a scrambling Freeman, forcing a field goal to make it 24-9. That 17-play drive took more than seven minutes off the clock but the Saints' defense held the Bucs to a third field goal.
But this wouldn't be LSU-Alabama the night before - three field goals wouldn't be enough to win.
The Saints went three and out in response, with Ivory stood up at the line, a Brees pass to Jed Collins dropped in the flat and a short run by Sproles. Morstead's towering 57-yard punt was muffed by Preston Parker, who picked it up and was tackled by Jonathon Amaya, fumbling it again but recovering the ball at the Bucs 23.
After a short break, the Saints defense was back at it again. Freeman would continue to be haunted by DE Will Smith, a terror in the fourth quarter, batting down his first pass of the drive. The Bucs picked up a 3rd and short on another Saints penalty - an illegal use of hands call against Torrence, then hit Parker for 15 yards to near midfield against Jenkins. Three plays later on 3rd and 6, Freeman hit Mike Williams for nine yards against Patrick Robinson, who had returned to the game. On that play Jenkins smashed Freeman, who took the hit and delivered the pass on target.
Torrence would create another first down for the Bucs when he failed to turn and look for the long ball at the jump, flagged for pass interference at the Saint 5. On the next play Freeman faked the designed run and fired into the end zone for Winslow, who cut inside and went vertical past Roman Harper to get open. The extra point made it 24-16 Saints with 5:33 left in the game.
Brees needed to bleed off as much clock as possible and score at least a field goal to ice the game.
Far from conservative, a quick strike from Brees to Graham hit 15 yards, then hit his other tight end John Gilmore, Jr. for 9. Three plays later on 3rd and 4, Brees dropped back and saw the field open up to him and took off. A rare Brees run in the open field gained 20 yards and saw the veteran QB give an ugly-looking dive, hitting the turf on his throwing shoulder. Sean Payton or Pete Carmicheal need to give Brees some foot-first sliding lessons.
Two plays later, Devery Henderson was flagged for a very questionable holding call, negating a touchdown run around left end by Sproles. Henderson's block fell down, which is probably what the refs saw, but film showed it was a good face-to-face downfield. block.
Pierre Thomas broke multiple tackles, shaking off an earlier ankle injury, to gain nine yards. On 3rd and 1, Ivory was stood up and thrown back just short of the line by LB Mason Foster with 1:21 left. Kasay's 34-yard field goal made it 27-16, all but sealing the game. The often-harassed Freeman's final drive ended with a faked ball spike ran out of steam at the Saint 34.
Though Roman Harper was credited with the Saints' only sack on the day, Freeman was harassed and chased often. The youngster showed great pocket poise and mobility but showed it often as the full rotation of the Saints' defensive line pressured him all day. The absence of starting G Jeremy Zuttah didn't help on a day when the deafening home crowd created problems for the Bucs offense.
Darren Sproles had 42 yards rushing on four carries and 57 yards receiving, and would have had 25 more yards if not for Devery Henderson's holding call. Payton said after the game that he "didn't get it," referring to Henderson's holding call. Chris Ivory led the Saints' rushing attack with 67 yards on 15 carries, Thomas was next with 66 yards on 8 carries. Together with Brees' 20 yard carry, the Saints racked up 195 yards on the ground. Jimmy Graham led all receivers with six catches for 78 yards.
The 6-3 Saints stay atop of the NFC South, ahead of 5-3 Atlanta and 4-4 Tampa heading into next week's big matchup with the Falcons in Atlanta. That may be the last game the Saints play with Sean Payton in the broadcast booth. The Saints are now 4-0 at home.