TAMPA, Fla. — With the Saints down three defensive linemen for their divisional clash against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, New Orleans’ depleted defense might have been in line to wilt Sunday in the South Florida heat.
But, save for a historic outing from tight end Jimmy Graham, it was the Saints’ offense that sputtered after a 69-minute storm delay early in the game. And it was an undermanned defense that helped the Saints improve to 2-0 with a 16-14 victory, vanquishing an NFC South opponent in dramatic fashion for the second week in a row.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed 26 of the 46 passes he attempted for 322 yards and a touchdown, but he threw two interceptions that led to 14 points for the Bucs. And he was sacked four times.
The Saints defense recovered a fumble and got an interception, but the offense could only manage three points from those. It held Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman to 9-of-22 passing for 125 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a lost fumble.
The Bucs had just 273 yards of offense (144 from running back Doug Martin’s 29 carries), but they still almost won. They didn’t after they missed a late field goal, and the Saints’ Garrett Hartley booted a 27-yarder of his own on the game’s final play.
“We really have an immense amount of talent within the front seven (on defense),” said defensive end Cameron Jordan, who caused a fumble on a sack. “I really just enjoy what the defense is bringing to the table right now, (even) being down in numbers or whatever. We have the tenacity, and we have the intensity, and that’s what we’re riding on.”
As was the case two seasons ago when coach Sean Payton fractured his leg on the sideline at Raymond James Stadium, Sunday’s game got off to a bizarre start. Shortly after Hartley hit a 44-yard field goal on the opening drive, a lightning bolt struck behind the eastern side of the stadium, prompting referee Bill Leavy to suspend the game for more than an hour.
In the first half, the Saints forced Tampa Bay to punt four times despite losing another defensive end, Tom Johnson, in the first quarter. The one time they couldn’t stop the Bucs was on a drive following an interception Brees tossed to linebacker Dekoda Watson on a pass meant for wide receiver Lance Moore with 8:11 left in the first quarter.
Six plays later, Freeman linked up with receiver Kevin Ogletree for a 5-yard touchdown, and Tampa Bay (0-2) took a 7-3 lead after the extra point.
The Saints retook a 10-7 lead with 4:05 left in the first quarter when Graham ran right past Watson, hauled in a throw from Brees and ran into the end zone for a 56-yard score.
Graham finished with 10 catches for 179 yards, setting records for receiving yards by a Saints tight end and by an NFL tight end against the Bucs. Graham had held the franchise mark of 146, set last year.
But the Saints offense otherwise failed to replicate the defense’s efficiency. Aside from Brees’ interception, New Orleans squandered two other excellent scoring opportunities.
On a drive at the start of the second quarter, Bucs defensive end Adrian Clayborn and safety Dashon Goldson each drew personal-foul flags for hits with their helmets. Clayborn’s was on Brees, negating a 5-yard sack and fumble recovery, and Goldson’s was on a short pass over the middle to running back Darren Sproles.
That led to a 43-yard field goal attempt from Hartley, who pushed it wide right.
Then, on the last drive of the first half, Bucs safety Ahmad Black head-butted Graham as the tight end leapt for a pass, earning an unnecessary roughness penalty. Brees hit Graham for a 29-yard gain on the next play, setting up New Orleans at Tampa Bay’s 1.
After a Brees incompletion and carries from Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram were stuffed, the Saints faced fourth-and-goal from the 2. Hartley hit a chip shot field goal, but the officials whistled the Bucs for being offside.
New Orleans accepted the penalty, moved to the 1 and handed the ball to Ingram. The Bucs had just 10 players on the field, and Ingram ran to the left end.
But Bucs linebacker Lavonte David met Ingram at the line of scrimmage and dropped him, marking the second consecutive game that the third-year running back out of Alabama failed to convert a fourth-and-1.
“We came into this game saying we’d take chances,” Brees said about the decision to run on fourth-and-goal. “Sometimes you make them. Sometimes you don’t.”
On Tampa Bay’s first drive in the second half, Jordan sacked Freeman at New Orleans’ 46 and caused a fumble. Outside linebacker Junior Galette recovered at midfield and returned it 10 yards, setting up a 41-yard field goal from Hartley that put New Orleans ahead 13-7.
Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins nabbed a Freeman pass meant for receiver Vincent Jackson on the next drive. Jenkins returned the interception 31 yards to Tampa Bay’s 39.
The Saints moved 5 yards in three plays. Then a false start on left guard Ben Grubbs moved New Orleans out of field goal range, and the Saints punted.
New Orleans’ defense again forced a punt, and the Saints offense began the ensuing possession at its 11. The Saints drove to Tampa Bay’s 22, and Brees sought Graham on a pass to the 15.
But he threw it to linebacker Mason Foster, who weaved and rumbled up the right side for an 85-yard touchdown, putting Tampa Bay up 14-13 after the extra point.
On their last drive of the game, Bucs kicker Rian Lindell missed a 47-yard field goal attempt. New Orleans took over on its 37 with 1:06 left. Brees hit Graham, Sproles and Marques Colston for gains of 15, 8 and 31 yards.
After Brees spiked the ball at the 9 with 5 seconds left, Hartley nailed his field goal to win it.
Brees said he was disappointed in himself over his pair of interceptions, which he said let Tampa Bay think it could win. On the final drive, he said he was seeking favorable matchups.
“We were able to execute three plays very well,” he said. “You couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”
Added Hartley: “This team was able to stay together and overcome adversity in situations. ... And when we needed events to happen, they did.”
At the start of the game, virtually the entire stadium emptied when sheets of rain poured onto the crowd and the wind whipped up, but some front-row fans decked out in Bucs gear didn’t care. They danced and drank.
Those fans weren’t dancing at the end.
Saints fans nearly weren’t either.
Note: This story has been updated.