TAMPA, Fla. — Slow starts that have dumped the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers into a hole in the NFC South haven’t changed the way they feel about themselves.
The division rivals enter Sunday’s meeting of inconsistent teams at Raymond James Stadium eager to build on victories they hope will set the tone for the rest of the season.
The Saints (1-4) continue to deal with fallout from the bounty probe that led to the suspensions of coach Sean Payton and others. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma is appealing the season-long ban the NFL ordered for his role in the program and actually could make his season debut against the Bucs (2-3).
Vilma has been on the physically unable to perform list while rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee and practiced for the first time on Wednesday.
Interim coach Aaron Kromer has not ruled out the prospect of plugging the ninth-year pro into a defense that’s allowed an NFL-high 456 yards and nearly 31 points per game.
“Is there a need?” Kromer asked in response to a question about using the middle linebacker’s help. “There’s always a need for Jon Vilma on the field if he’s the Jon Vilma that we remember, that we all know who flies around the field and makes every tackle that’s near him.”
Drew Brees agreed Vilma’s presence makes a difference.
“Of course, it would be great to have him back. His leadership, his productivity,” the New Orleans star said. “But in the end, you worry about the guys that you do have.”
Brees believes the Saints, coming off a bye week that gave them a chance to rest and savor their first victory, have the makeup to turn their season around following an 0-4 start.
The record-breaking quarterback threw for 370 yards and a season-high four touchdowns to pace a 31-24 win over San Diego two weeks ago.
“We’re a prideful group. We’ve got great leadership, great work ethic, great character. So you start like that and you go: ‘Man, this is not what we all anticipated or all expected.’ Yet life is going to throw that at you sometimes; football is going to throw that at you sometimes. You’ve just got to find a way to stick together, stay positive and encouraging,” Brees said.
“I think we’ve always felt like as long as we do things the right way, good things are going to happen to us, we’re going to catch a break. It just seems like everything that could have gone wrong went wrong those first four weeks,” Brees added. “But we got better. If you want to look at the positive side of it, the bright side, each week you’d turn on the film, and it was like: ‘Hey, I know it didn’t end up in a winning result, but we got better and we got closer and closer.”
Tampa Bay opened the season with a victory over Carolina, then dropped three straight to the Giants, Cowboys and Redskins. First-year coach Greg Schiano used the team’s bye week to make some adjustments, and the Bucs returned last week to rout struggling Kansas City 38-10.
Josh Freeman threw for a season-high 328 yards and three touchdowns, while the defense limited then-NFL rushing leader Jamaal Charles to 40 yards on 12 carries.
Receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams rank among the league leaders in average yards per catch, and there finally are signs of a consistent running game with rookie Doug Martin sharing the workload with LeGarrette Blount.
So are the Bucs, with their newfound downfield passing attack equipped to win a shootout with the high-scoring Saints?
“We’re going to be prepared to do whatever it takes,” Freeman said.
Schiano is counting on an improved defense to do its part. That means stopping the run and, of course, getting pressure on Brees.
“You have to play run defense, but I wouldn’t sound very intelligent if I got up here and said No. 9 isn’t their team,” Schiano said.
“You’re not going to stop Drew Brees, but you need to do what you can do to slow him down. There’s a lot of ways to do that that I’m not going to get into. Ways we think. We’ll see if it works. ... It’s funny when you watch video and you see things: ‘Oh, that was their thought. That didn’t work. That was their thought. That didn’t work.’
“There’s a lot of people where that didn’t work, because they’re scoring points as they as always do.”
This will be Kromer’s final game as Saints interim coach. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt is set to return from his suspension and will lead the team the remainder of the season.
“It’s been an unprecedented situation, but I wouldn’t say it’s awkward,” Kromer said. “We didn’t start fast, but we’re hoping to finish fast.”