Monday, December 1, 2008

Bucs Drown Drew and the Saints

By JC De La Torre

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinched their third winning season in the last four years and in process may have buried the pre-season favorite to win the NFC South this season, beating the New Orleans Saints in a quagmire, 23-20. Tampa Bay slogged through the victory with opportunistic defense and just a smidge of enough offense, battling the elements and a Saints team desperate to continue on the winning track. With the win, the Bucs improved to 9-3 on the season and set up a showdown with fellow 9-3 Carolina for the division lead on Monday Night Football.

Torrential rains plagued the majority of the first half, limiting the production of both offenses. On their first drive of the game, the Saints marched down to the Buccaneers 30 yd line where they faced 4th and 1. Inexplicably, Saints Coach Sean Payton tried to trick the Bucs defense, running an end around with Devery Henderson, the Bucs weren't fooled and hit Henderson for a three yard loss. On the ensuing Bucs drive, facing 3rd and 2, Bucs QB Jeff Garcia hit receiver Michael Clayton over the middle. Clayton was hit at the same time the ball got there and didn't have a chance to put it away, Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma took advantage, ripping the ball from the receiver's hands and returning it 6 yds to the Tampa Bay 35 yard line. The Bucs defense held, forcing a 3 and out by the Saints and New Orleans had to settle for a 47 yd Harley field goal.

Tampa Bay would responded on the next drive as Jeff Garcia took the Bucs 57 yds on 13 plays, setting up Matt Bryant on a 38 yd field goal to tie it at 3 six seconds into the second quarter. The next five drives of the football game would end in punts. After a sinctilating punt return by Clifton Smith set the Bucs up at the New Orleans 39 with 6:31 left in the first half. The Bucs drove it down to the New Orleans 5 yd line, thanks in part to Jeff Garcia's 20 yd scramble, but the Bucs red zone woes came back to bite them, as Garcia missed on a 3rd and 3 pass to Michael Clayton forcing the Bucs to settle for 3. Bryant converted a 23 yder to give the Bucs their first lead of the game with 2:38 left in the 1st half. 2:38 was plenty of time for Drew Brees to do what he does best, throw down field. After Courtney Roby returned the kickoff to the 28, Brees hit Shockey for 14 yds, Marcus Colston for 21, then handed off to Reggie Bush, who scampered 13 yds to the Bucs 13. Brees hit Lance Moore over the middle in the End zone for a touchdown, giving the Saints a 10-6 lead at the half.

Tampa Bay came out on all cylinders in the second half. After Clifton Smith returned the opening kickoff to the 39, Warrick Dunn fired off right guard for 9 quick yards. After a couple runs, Garcia hit Antonio Bryant for 12 yds to the Saints 19, then scrambled 11 yds to the Saints 8. From there, the Bucs ran a toss to Cadillac Williams, who in pure Caddy fashion got the corner turned and powered into the End Zone for his first touchdown since September of 2007. Bucs led 13-10. Another 3-and-out pitched by the Bucs defense, Clifton Smith returned the New Orleans punt to the Saints 43. After Warrick plunged off right guard for 4 yds, Garcia rared back and fired a dying duck to Antonio Bryant who got behind the Saints secondary. Bryant adjusted, hauled it in, and waltzed into the endzone to give the Bucs their biggest lead of the game, 20-10. On the play, it appeared the Saints secondary gravitated over to Wide Receiver Joey Galloway, who was running a streak to the opposite side. The busted coverage allowed Bryant to blow past his defender and with no safety help it was easy pickens for Garcia.

The Saints offense finally came to life driving all the way to the Tampa Bay 20. Brees tried to force the ball to Shockey in the endzone but had the pass tipped away by Ronde Barber and intercepted by Cato June, ending the threat. Tampa Bay's offense began to sputter and New Orleans began another drive down the field as the quarter expired.

Brees got the Saints to the Tampa Bay 33, then fired a pass into the end zone that was picked off by the Buccaneers - unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Ronde Barber was called on a very questionable defensive holding call. Replays showed that Tight End Jeremy Shockey initiated contact, driving himself into Barber and trying to push him off, but Barber got the call. Two plays later, Brees hit running back Pierre Thomas in the flat and Thomas put together a spectacular bobbing and weaving run, making several Buccaneers miss en route to the end zone, to cut the Bucs lead to 20-17.

The Bucs offense would sputter again, going three and out but the Saints returned the favor and had to punt it back to Tampa Bay. Once again, the Bucs offense failed to generate a first down and this time it would cost them. Normally reliable punter Josh Bidwell shanked a punt 18 yds, giving the Saints the football at the Buccaneer 48 yd line. Brees would hit Jeremy Shockey over the middle to the Tampa Bay 27 yd line, before finally settling for a 43 yd Hartley field goal to tie the game at 20.

On the ensuing drive, the Bucs finally achieved a first down but the drive stalled at the Bucs 44 yd line. Bidwell made up for his pitiful previous punt by pinning the Saints in at their own 7 yd line. The wheels then fell off the Saints. After Brees hit Billy Milner over the middle for a 1st down at the 17 yd line, Brees tried to hit Marcus Colston at the 30 but Jermaine Phillips stepped infront of the pass and interecepted, returning it 13 yds to the Saints 17 with 2:33 left in the ballgame.

The Bucs offense self-destructed again - a one yd run by Dunn, an incomplete pass by Garcia that was nearly intercepted, then Garcia was sacked on third down. It pushed the Bucs back to 19, but Matt Bryant was able to angle the 37 yd field goal in as they reached the two minute warning to give the Bucs a 23-20 advantage.

After a kick return to Saints 27 and an incompletion, Brees scrambled away from pressure by Gaines Adams and fired up a prayer that would not be answered but instead picked off by Phillip Buchanon at the Saints 33 with only 1:45 left and the Saints with only one time out left. The Bucs offense would kill the remaining time and that was the ball game.

"We had our perfect chances out there and we didn't take advantage of it," Saints QB Drew Brees told the Associated Press, "It's disappointing, very disappointing. It's probably one of the more disappointing losses I have ever been a part of."

"We all knew [Brees] was going to throw the ball 45 times and when you throw the ball that much you're going to give us opportunities to make plays," Ronde Barber told the Tampa Tribune, "We relish opportunities like that."

Tampa Bay's victory did not come without a dark cloud on the horizon, as long time defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the architect (with former head coach Tony Dungy) of the famed Tampa 2 is strongly rumored to be leaving the Bucs to take over the Defensive Coordinator duties for his son, Lane Kiffin, in Tennessee.

"It's not fair to our players," Kiffin told the Tribune when asked about Tennessee, "Tonight is not about Monte Kiffin. It's about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jon Gruden, our offense, defense and special teams and a great, great win."

Whether or not Kiffin's twelve year run ends after this season, the Buccaneers have one goal in mind, that it ends at home in February playing for the World Championship. The Bucs completed the first leg of a 3 game slate that could go a long way in giving the Bucs their best opportunity to become the first team in NFL history to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium.

Next week is probably the biggest of the 3 - as the Bucs go on the road to face the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football.

"I don't know how we can win the division last year but have to go over there for a Monday Night game," Jon Gruden told the Buccaneer Radio Network after the game, "I'm a little ticked about that and so are our players."

Tampa Bay improves to 9-3 and remains tied for first in the NFC South with Carolina. The Saints fall to 6-6 and remain in the NFC South cellar. New Orleans would likely need to win all of their remaining games and get some help to have a chance for post-season play.

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