A stunning outcome today in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome saw the much-maligned Saints defense pitch the franchise's first shutout since 1995. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were held without points in a game when every legitimate drive was snuffed out by a suddenly opportunistic Saints defense.
The Saints chose an odd time to play their best game of the season. Not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs but realistically out of the race, the Saints forced five turnovers from Bucs QB Josh Freeman, rolled up 447 yards of offense and Brees tossed four touchdowns and zero interceptions, completing 66.7% of his passes for 307 yards. Instead, the Saints (6-8) pulled the Bucs (6-8) down, with five NFC teams now at 8-6 and four more teams with nine wins or more.
While the Saints improved to at least 27th in the league in scoring defense with the shutout, Spagnuolo's defense leads the league in average yards allowed by almost 40 per game, and still allowed 386 yards to the Bucs in a shutout.
The Saints defense made use of two backup safeties with great effect: Isa Abdul-Quddus and Rafael Bush each intercepted QB Josh Freeman, joining starting cornerback Jabari Greer who intercepted Freeman twice. Playing without starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins (lost to injured reserve with a hamstring injury this past week), the Saints regularly used Abdul-Quddus, Bush and starter Roman Harper on the field at the same time, with Harper playing close to the line and the youngsters dropping deep.
Greer's day was a career one - four total tackles, two interceptions and four credited passes defensed. Both of Greer's interceptions snuffed out Buc scoring threats - snuffing out the Bucs' second drive of the game at the Saint 16 and ending a fourth quarter drive by intercepting Freeman in the end zone on a deep pass intended for WR Tiquan Underwood. Greer, roughed up by opponents and a groin injury alike this season, had a great bounceback against the Bucs. Also getting in on the turnover action was DE Cam Jordan, who sack, stripped and recovered a fumble from Freeman in the fourth quarter, the last of five turnovers for the Saints' defense.
The Saints defense set the tone early, with DE Junior Galette always putting a hit on Freeman as he threw a pass. To stop the Bucs' first drive, Galette darted immediately into Freeman's face and MLB Curtis Lofton swatted away Freeman's third down pass. The Bucs punted four times and were picked off twice in the first half, never getting closer than the Saint 20 and picking up only four first downs.
Greer's first interception was on a pass high and away from TE Dallas Clark, and required Greer to make a difficult spinning catch behind him. Bush's interception came on a miscommunication with WR Vincent Jackson, who ran up the field while Bush dove for the errant pass Jackson would have caught had he run a slant in. An excellent catch by Bush, a waiver wire claim from Denver and wearing #25, was followed by a great return. In a bit of irony lost to no one in the half-empty Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Bush wearing #25 made a field-reversing, backwards-running scamper showing impressive agility as he returned pick 40 yards to near midfield.
In the second half, Tampa Bay's drive ended like this: interception by Abdul-Quddus, failed fourth down attempt, failed fourth down attempt, interception by Greer, sack-forced fumble-recovery by Jordan, and with the Bucs at the Saint 10, time expired. Those two failed fourth down attempts came in Saints territory and snuffed out 10-play drives, while the Bucs ran out of time after an 11-play, 76-yard drive ended on an incomplete pass fired to the back of the end zone.
Drew Brees was sharp against his NFC South and gave way to backup Chase Daniel, who entered the game with 6:26 left in the game. Daniel attempted one pass, which drew a 40-yard defensive pass interference penalty from S Mark Barron and set up Ingram's late touchdown run.
RB Mark Ingram had a great day as the Saints' primary ball handler, carrying 14 times for 90 yards and a score, including a 31-yard run ripped off in the shadow of his goal post and a tackler-bouncing 11-yard touchdown late in the game.
Brees got the Saints moving quickly on the first drive of the game, picking up 13 on the first play of the game with a pass to struggling TE Jimmy Graham, haunted by dropped passes this season. Brees overcame an offensive holding penalty on Devery Henderson with a 13-yard strike to Marques Colston and a 15-yard scamper by Darren Sproles. Brees then hit David Thomas for 12 yards and a screen to Pierre Thomas picked up 20. Two plays later, Brees made it look easy by hitting TE David Thomas over the middle for the score, his first of four touchdown passes.
Brees missed out on a big opportunity to Sproles on the second drive, hitting Sproles in stride behind coverage over the middle. Sproles would have had to hop-step around a safety before racing 83 yards for a score. But alas, Sproles dropped the pass, suffering from the same illness of fate that man Saint pass catchers have this season. Sproles was furious with himself after that, but would make up for it later in the second half, making a great adjustment on a short two-yard pass into the end zone to put the Saints up 17-0 with less than five minutes left in the half.
Sproles would then help Brees push the Saints' halftime lead to 24-0, returning a Michael Koenen punt 37 yards to the Tampa 38. Brees took advantage of a short field inside 1:04, throwing three straight passes to Graham that moved the ball to the Buc 3. Following a Brees spike, he found Lance Moore just inside the goal line for the score with 12 seconds left in the half.
Brees had success on those two passes passing into the shallow edge of the end zone, but the Saints had to settle for a field goal early in the second quarter when Brees threw two passes short of the goal line from inside the Buc 5 yard line. First Cadet was stopped short, then Graham couldn't hang on, and Brees couldn't punch it in by throwing underneath in the red zone- the same tendency that sunk the Saints in Atlanta.
The Bucs came out of the locker room looking to make an impact, and after going three-and-out, they caught the Saints with a 4th and 1 fake punt attempt. Punt protector Keith Tandy took the direct snap and rushed for an 18 yard gain. But Tampa couldn't capitalize - on the next snap, Freeman tossed deep off his back foot, and Abdul-Quddus waited underneath and wrestled it away from TE Dallas Clark.
Taking over at his own 8, Brees handed to today's surprising workhorse Ingram, who bounced off tacklers and ripped off a 31-yard run to the Saint 39. Five more yards on the ground from Ingram, seven from Sproles, one and seven from Pierre Thomas, and Brees fired his first pass of the drive on 3rd and 2, connecting with Jimmy Graham for 10. Two plays later, Brees dropped a football in a tiny window down the left sideline, finding a streaking Joe Morgan behind CB EJ Biggers and a step away from S Ronde Barber for the score from 34 yards out. It was a drop in the distant bucket pass for Brees, a beautiful deep pass late in a season when his deep accuracy has really suffered. That pass put the Saints up 31-0 with 9:11 left in the third quarter.
The Saints went three-and-out on the next two drives, doing no favors for the defense eyeing a shutout, but the defense forced incomplete passes on 4th and 14 from the Saint 34 and 4th and 2 from the Saint 11 to end long Buc drives. The Saints picked up a 36-yard field goal after Greer's second interception.
Freeman left the game having completed 26 of 47 pass attempts for 279 yards and four interceptions. Bucs head coach Greg Schiano put backup QB Dan Orlovsky in the game with 4:47 left and force fed backup RB LaGarrette Blount, who ran for 25 yards on four straight carries in garbage time, good enough to lead the Bucs in rushing on the day. After rookie RB Doug Martin scorched the Saints in their first matchup, the Saints defense held Martin to 16 yards on 9 carries.
Orlovsky hit Underwood for a 19 yard gain on 3rd and 16, Chris Owusu for 24 yards and TE Luke Stocker for 6 to move the Bucs to the Saint 10 with eight seconds left. But two incomplete passes from Orlovsky ended the game.
FB Jed Collins suffered an injury on the opening kickoff, writing in pain and grabbing his left knee on the turf. He managed to walk off and re-enter the game in the first half, apparently avoiding what at first appeared to be a severe injury... LT Jermon Bushrod left the game briefly after Morgan's touchdown catch, but turned out only to be suffering from cramps and returned.