October 21, 2012

Saints Win Thrilling Shootout in Tampa, 35-28

The Tampa Bay Creamsicles, wearing their often-derided orange throwback uniforms, took it to the New Orleans Saints early, but would be undone by questionable coaching decisions and the second half tenacity of Saints FS Malcolm Jenkins.  Drew Brees would enjoy this best day of the year and throw for over 300 yards in the first half.  At one point down 14-0 in the first quarter, Brees would lead a second quarter comeback while Jenkins would direct a 14-point swing to help bury the Bucs early in the fourth quarter.

Freeman and Brees combined for 797 passing yards and seven touchdown passes as the NFC South rivals lit up Raymond James Stadium.  

With the Saints offense looking as good as ever with Drew Brees at the helm, the defense was bent and battered.  While the defense can be proud of two huge goal line stands and some major hustle by Malcolm Jenkins, Steve Spagnuolo's squad cannot be proud of giving up 28 points and 518 yards of offense while generating zero turnovers.

Brees' first pass attempt was tipped up into the air by Bucs DT Gerald McCoy and intercepted by veteran CB Ronde Barber, who returned it to the Saint 13 yard line.  The Bucs capitalized on the next play with a touchdown pass from Josh Freeman to a wide open Tiquan Underwood, who got open when LB Jonathan Casillas bit and then slipped on a short underneath zone coverage.  With 12:22 to go in the first quarter, the Saints were down 7-0.

The Saints couldn't respond, and punted after three and out on their second drive. It was a slow start for the Saints offense, but Brees would ignite soon.

SS Roman Harper appeared to have snuffed out the Bucs' second drive with low, fingertip interception on an overthrow.  But Harper's catch was ruled incomplete, that it one-hopped into his hands.  Saints interim head coach Aaron Kromer challenged, and in replay review it appeared to be an obvious cradle and catch just off the turf.  The ruling on the field was upheld.

The Bucs continued to drive, and MLB Jonathan Vilma almost made his first big play of the season, twice tipping a short pass over the middle.  But that ball fell incomplete as well, and on the next play, Bucs rookie RB Doug Martin broke an arm tackle by FS Malcolm Jenkins and zipped for a 36-yard touchdown.  That 10-play, 76-yard drive that put the Bucs up 14-0 was nearly ended by two close interceptions by aging Saints veterans Harper and Vilma.

The next Saints drive began inauspiciously - with both Ben Grubbs and Marques Colston called for holding on the first play of the drive.  The Saints dug out of that hole with two completions to Colston, declining a defensive holding call on third down that Colston converted long over the middle.  A play action rollout on the next play by Brees found WR Devery Henderson open in the deep zone for a 40-yard gain.  

Rotating Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram each play, Brees picked up a third and short with the reliable sprint right flat to Lance Moore - the same play the Saints have used in close situations to Moore since 2009 including Super Bowl XLIV.  It would be a trend in the second quarter - third down, Brees to Moore.

Brees went back to the air and found Colston crossing wide open shallow right, and picking up an excellent downfield block from Sproles, Colston tumbled into the front right end zone for the score.  That excellent catch and run by Marques Colston - easily the Saints' MVP so far this season - capped an 8 play, 80-yard scoring drive that brought the Saints to 14-7 with 1:46 left in the first quarter.

Colston is cementing his claim to be the greatest wide receiver in Saints history, extending his career receiving touchdown record past Joe Horn and Eric Martin with 53.

The Bucs responded with a six-play, 80 yard scoring drive, the last two plays were a 33-yard strike to TE Luke Stocker and a 17-yard touchdown catch and dive by WR Vincent Jackson, an easy response for a sharp, cool and confident Josh Freeman to put the Bucs up 21-7.  The Bucs scored touchdowns on their first three drives, but would then be shut out of the end zone until late in the game.

Brees officially made this game a shootout by responding with a nine play, 80-yard drive that was saved by a 3rd and 10 strike for 13 yards to Lance Moore in tight coverage over the middle.  Two plays later, Brees faked a screen to Sproles and found Henderson wide open down the right sideline for a 30-yard gain.  A 17-yard strike to Colston set up a pass underneath to Sproles, who took Brees' pass across the goal line for the score from nine yards out.  The Saints' passing game was now in sync and a step ahead of the Bucs defense.

The Saints defense finally got a stop on the next drive, forcing one pass incomplete with a strong hit by DE Cam Jordan as Freeman threw, and then a batted pass by Jordan two plays later on third down to end the drive. The Bucs punted, and the Saints tied the game up with a brilliant play.  After Brees converted 3rd and 8 with another laser strike to Moore over the middle, he fired a bomb for Joe Morgan, who was free deep in the secondary.   

In the second dazzling highlight play in Morgan's nascent career, he came back to make the catch, avoided a helmet tackle by S Mark Barron, pivoted on his right foot with his left knee inches off the turf, then ducked underneath CB Eric Wright, who somersaulted over Morgan.  Still live, Morgan turned up the field and dove across the goal line as CB E.J. Biggers tackled him.  The 48-yard touchdown was a highlight of highlights and tied the game at 21 with 4:47 left in the half.  

The Saints defense forced another punt on the next drive, and Sproles made a fair catch at the Saint 25 with 1:53 left in the half.  

Unstoppable Drew Brees converted a 3rd and 5 with yet another laser over the middle to Lance Moore, who made a phenomenal catch in traffic and survived the hit to keep the drive alive.  Three plays later?  Another bullet to Moore over the middle for the first.  After a spike on first down to stop the clock, Brees hit Lance Moore on the back shoulder stop down the left sideline to the Buc 20.  

It is hard to understate how perfect Drew Brees was in the second quarter.  On the next play Brees hit TE David Thomas in stride for the touchdown from 20 yards out and with :15 left on the clock, the Saints had a 28-21 lead and didn't even use their last timeout on that drive.  Brees had led touchdown scoring drives of 80, 80, 79 and 72 yards in the span of 20 minutes of game clock.

Subbing in for injured star Jimmy Graham, backup David Thomas capped his first touchdown catch since 2010 with a basketball finger-roll layup over the goal posts, an homage to Graham's slam dunk touchdown celebration.  In the second quarter, Brees had two incomplete and three touchdown passes.

The Saints, beleaguered and down 14-0 early in the first quarter, had come back to take a 28-21 halftime lead on the strength of 313 yards passing and four touchdowns from Brees, spread out among six different receivers.  His touchdown passes to Morgan and Thomas came out of run-heavy formations off play action, set up by some early rushing success by the Saints.  Even with Brees' lofty history, it was the first time he had  300 passing yards and four passing touchdowns in the first half.   

On the Bucs' first drive of the second half, the team exchanged body blows in the run game, with rookie RB Doug Martin picking up big gains mixed with losses forced by penetrating Saints defenders.  The Bucs converted a long 3rd and 11 with a leaping catch by Vincent Jackson down the sidelines for a gain of 28, but couldn't convert 3rd and 16.  Connor Barth's 42-yard field goal hooked wide left.  The Saints defense, which gave up touchdowns on three straight drives to start the game, would stop the Bucs without points on the next five drives.

The Saints faced a 3rd and 6 on the next drive after a short run by Pierre Thomas and a broken-up deep pass for Morgan, who was blasted to the turf by Barron.  But Brees' third down pass for Colston over the middle was incomplete, breaking up a streak of six straight third down conversions for the offense.

Bucs QB Josh Freeman, taking over at his own four yard line with 7:09 left in the third quarter, threw a ball up for grabs to Vincent Jackson down the left sideline.  It was tipped up by Robinson, missed by Roman Harper and caught on the deflection in the open field by Jackson at speed. Jackson ran 95 yards down to the Saint 1, where he was caught and slammed down by Malcolm Jenkins.  Jackson's catch and run was the longest non-scoring reception in the NFL since 1972.

But that huge gain would turn in the Saints' favor quickly.  Jenkins' full-field sprint would be rewarded.

In a huge goal line stand, the Saints stuffed three straight runs by LaGarrette Blount.  Jenkins was there again, stopping Blount at the one yard line on third down and forcing a decision.  Greg Schiano eschewed the field goal and Freeman took the fourth down snap on bootleg right, where he was without a target and run down at the sideline by DE Cam Jordan for a loss.  Jordan actually forced a fumble by Freeman which bounced harmlessly out of bounds back at the five yard line.   

The Saints sideline exploded to greet the defenders coming off the field in one of the biggest reasons for joy for the team all season.  That pivotal goal line stand would be rewarded by a Saints touchdown drive, a 14-point swing triggered by Jenkins.

Brees and the offense took over at their own five would fight out of the hole.  On third and six from their own nine, Brees fired deep and found the uncoverable Lance Moore at the Saint 44, who worked free of rookie S Mark Barron.  

The Saints later faced a third and 9 and Brees fired incomplete, forcing a field goal attempt.  But the Bucs were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for engaging in ""disconcerting signals" on the defensive line to provoke a false start.  The 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down had Schiano incensed on the sideline.  The Bucs appeared to orchestrate a shift on their entire defensive front, and such a move is a foul in the NFL.  The official standing just behind the defensive front threw the flag at the snap.  It was also a pivotal play in the game that the officials ruled against the Bucs.

Brees and the offense came back on the field, converted another third down with an easy-looking throw to Colston down to the Buc 5.  Pierre Thomas pushed the pile into the end zone to finish what Malcolm Jenkins started - a 95-yard touchdown drive set up by Jenkins' hustle.  

The 35-21 lead for the Saints with 13:23 left in the game was demoralizing for the Bucs, as their head coach Greg Schiano lambasted the officials on the sidelines throughout the commercial break after the touchdown.  

The teams exchanged punts, but the Bucs picked up another unusual penalty on a Saints' punt.  The defense lined up directly over the long snapper, a five yard illegal formation foul in the NFL that Schiano looked at incredulously.  It was declined by the Saints, but it was another in a long trend of college-level tricks that turn badly for the former Rutgers head coach. 

Rookie Doug Martin, a star for the Bucs today on offense, eluded tackles by MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Corey White on a 14-yard pickup to the Buc 33.  Two plays later, Martin picked up 18 and 15 more on a facemask penalty called against Malcolm Jenkins.  Freeman hit Underwood for a first down to the Saint 12 yard line.  Martin picked up 7 to the five, but T Demar Dotson ripped DE Junior Galette's helmet off while pass blocking, moving the Bucs back to the Saint 22.

Galette was there again to stop Martin for a short loss on the next play, and CB Patrick Robinson broke up a pass over the middle to force 3rd and 20, which became 3rd and 25 with a delay of game penalty that heaped boo's from the crowd down upon the home team with 7:00 left in the game.

Freeman's heave into the end zone on 3rd and long was incomplete, but the Saints were flagged for illegal contact and an automatic first down.  The refs did not announce a valid jersey number, saying 44 when that number belonged to inactive CB Elbert Mack, so it is uncertain who was caught around the 11 yard line with contact that gave the Bucs' drive new life.  The penalty more than likely was on Roman Harper, who was then flagged for the same thing two plays later, giving the Bucs a first down at the Saint 17.

The drive that wouldn't die continued when facing 4th and 10, Freeman hit TE Dallas Clark down to the Saint 2 yard line.

Three plays later, on third and goal from the Saint 3, Freeman would finally end the drive a strike to Clark at the back of the end zone.  That capped a crazy drive that took 6:18 off the clock with 14 plays and seven penalties to bring the Bucs within 35-28.  That scoring pass - his third - put Freeman at the 350 passing yard mark - he would finish with 420.

RB Mark Ingram pushed through a crease for a two yard gain on 3rd and inches with 2:51 left on the clock to help burn time as Schiano burned all three of his timeouts before the two minute warning.  The Saints couldn't convert 3rd and 3 with 2:39 left, setting up 4th and 2.  The Saints converted 9 of 15 third downs on the day, but not the last, which could have ended the game without any further excitement.

Brees came out to try and force the Bucs offsides, but the Bucs defensive line didn't fall for the trick.  Morstead punted after the timeout and the Saints blasted Roscoe Parrish down at the Buc 21, so Freeman took over there with 1:51 left and no timeouts.

Freeman wasted no time, finding Vincent Jackson open for a gain of 38 into Saints territory over the middle, where White had left him wide open.  A strike to Dallas Clark to the Saint 26 and out of bounds suddenly had the Saints defense under intense pressure to secure the win.

Two incompletions later, Freeman hit Clark for a nine yard gain and hurried into formation for a 4th and 1 attempt.  As timed ticked off needlessly, Freeman set up the play and the crowd grew anxious.  When the ball was finally snapped, Freeman hit Vincent Jackson against Malcolm Jenkins at the Saint 9, in bounds.  That catch gave free agent acquisition Jackson 216 yards receiving on the day, a new team record.  Freeman then clocked the ball with :17 left.

On the next play, flushed out of the pocket, Freeman threw a pass into the stands with :11 left.  Rocking and firing from the pocket, Freeman then hit Jackson at the back of the end zone between White and Jenkins, but Jackson didn't get either foot down in bounds.  The Bucs faced 4th and goal from the 9 with five seconds left, and the Saints called their second timeout for the final play.

In shotgun with an extra back pass blocking, Freeman was flushed out of the pocket, rolled left and fired into the end zone where Mike Williams made the catch over Isa Abdul-Quddus and Patrick Robinson, who immediately pointed to the back line of the end zone.  Williams had stepped out of the back of the end zone on his route, so catching the pass was a foul.  He was rightly flagged for illegal touching, ending the game.

It was very similar to how the Saints lost to the Giants in 2001, when Saints WR Willie Jackson stepped out of bounds before making a potentially game-tying touchdown reception at the back of the end zone.

RB Doug Martin finished with 85 yards and a score on 16 carries, plus 37 yards on three receptions as the primary back for the Bucs, while the Saints spread their carries out over three backs, Pierre Thomas (13/32, 1 TD), Darren Sproles (5/27, 4/32, 1 TD) and Mark Ingram (7/21).

Brees continued his league-record streak of games with a touchdown pass with his four scores in the first half, but was cooled off in the second half.  Brees had only 64 yards passing in the second half and four completions in the fourth quarter as the Bucs controlled the clock for 10 of the final 13 minutes of the game.  The Bucs controlled the clock for 33:45 on the day, but for 20:13 in the second half.

The Saints won the game 35-28 after a second goal line approach for the Bucs resulted in zero points.  Spagnuolo's defense held Tampa Bay to 4 of 12 third down conversions, but allowed two fourth down conversions.  The defense did stop two other fourth down attempts, one that turned out to be the biggest play of the season so far, and one that ended the game.

But the defense continues on a pace to be the worst in NFL history, giving up 2793 yards through six games.

Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer wraps up his tenure as interim interim head coach with a 2-4 record, turning the team over to interim head coach Joe Vitt, who returns from his bounty suspension tomorrow.  Kromer's 0-4 start probably sunk the Saints' 2012 season, but his two game win streak has given the team hope.

Brees' incendiary second quarter and the defense's two huge goal line plays in the second half won the shootout for New Orleans, who travel to Denver this week for NBC's Sunday night football.

LB Jonathan Casillas appeared to suffer a concussion at the end of the first quarter with a helmet-to-helmet collision with WR Arrellious Benn.   He was replaced by LB Will Herring.

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