The New Orleans Saints slugged it out with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a major battle between NFC contenders and came away with a 36-27 win.
It was a victory that came at a cost. QB Jameis Winston suffered a gruesome leg injury early in the second quarter on a horse collar by Buccaneers LB Devin White. Winston appeared to be on his way to a big game. It was a big blow to a struggling offense already without Taysom Hill and WR Michael Thomas.
The game was tied at 7 when Winston went down. Strong defense and timely offensive plays pushed the Saints to a 16-7 halftime advantage. Backup QB Trevor Siemian did a wonderful job under difficult circumstances. He led New Orleans on a well orchestrated 76-yard touchdown drive to open the second half that widened the lead to 23-7.
The Buccaneers were finally able to get some traction against a hyped up Saints defense in the second half. They scored touchdowns on two consecutive drives in the third quarter to close the gap to 23-21 entering the fourth quarter. The Saints offense stalled throughout most of the third and fourth quarters, but did manage a field goal to extend their lead to 26-21.
Tampa Bay responded immediately after that, connecting on a long touchdown pass to take their first lead since the first quarter. New Orleans came up big on a 2-point conversion that would have put them behind by three. Still, the Saints were down 27-26 with under six minutes to play, with a stagnant offense led by a third-string quarterback.
In perhaps their most impressive drive of the year, the Saints moved 65 yards in 11 plays deep into Buccaneers territory. The drive stalled near the goal line, but K Brian Johnson hit a 23-yard field goal for the Saints to regain the lead at 29-27 with a little over a minute to play.
New Orleans again stood strong defensively. Defensive back P.J. Williams intercepted Tom Brady and returned it 40 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. The defense then put an exclamation point on the victory by sacking Brady twice on the final drive to end the game.
In an all-out war between two of the NFL's best teams, the Saints won because of an intense team effort. Because of that, this week’s game balls are very simple to decide.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS DEFENSE
Facing one of the league's most productive offenses and top-ranked passing attack, New Orleans once again showed that they are one of the NFL's most complete defenses. The Saints allowed 421 yards in the game, but came up big in some of the contest's biggest moments.
New Orleans held Tampa Bay's explosive offense to just seven points and 176 yards in the first half while adequately pressuring Brady. They mixed up blitzes and coverages in the second half, but allowed some big throws on busted coverages.
Despite giving up yards and points in the second half, the Saints came up huge when it mattered most. They sacked Brady three times, intercepted him twice, and forced one fumble. Those turnovers led to 16 points and were the difference in the game.
Other than a few exceptions, New Orleans shut down the Buccaneers running game and made them one-dimensional. The return of DT David Onyemata was huge. He played a big role, along with defensive ends Marcus Davenport, Cam Jordan, and Tanoh Kpassagnon in creating disruption up front.
The Saints defense ratcheted up their intensity from an already red-line level after Winston's injury. It was a physical, but focused, effort led by ferocious performances from linebackers Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander.
Not surprisingly, the Saints secondary had a gripping battle all afternoon against the deep Tampa Bay receiving corps. WR Chris Godwin had a big game, catching 8 passes for 140 yards and a score mostly against CB Bradley Roby or Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
Brady's other primary weapon, WR Mike Evans, was once again a non-factor against New Orleans coverage.
Evans caught a 41-yard touchdown pass over CB Marshon Lattimore, but Lattimore again made Evans irrelevant otherwise. He had only one catch for 7 yards on his other four targets.
In Brady's three regular season outings against the Saints since joining Tampa Bay, he has been under siege. In those three meetings, New Orleans has recorded 23 QB hits, sacked Brady 8 times, intercepted him 7 times, caused one fumble, and scored two defensive touchdowns.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS OFFENSE
The raw numbers at a glance weren't overly impressive. New Orleans had 361 total yards, just 163 in the second half. They possessed the ball for 72 plays and had 26 first downs, but were only 5 of 14 on third down conversions.
The Saints hit an offensive wall in the second half. At one point they had just 29 yards on 13 plays, even though penalties aided one drive to a field goal. New Orleans didn't have many explosive plays, but got some key contributions from unlikely sources.
WR Tre'Quan Smith got the Saints on the board with a well-run route to pull in a first quarter touchdown pass from Winston. Tight end Adam Trautman only had two catches for four yards, but was a devastating blocker along the edge for the running game.
Fellow TE Garrett Griffin, who had one reception in four career seasons, came out of nowhere to have three catches for 30 yards. Much-maligned backup WR Kevin White had a 38-yard reception on the first play of the third quarter to set up a touchdown drive.
Obviously, the biggest kudos have to go to QB Trevor Siemian. Winston appeared to be on his way to a terrific game when he went down with a season-ending injury. Siemian, a third-string quarterback most of his career, came in and looked poised and well-prepared.
For the game, Siemian completed 16 of 29 throws for 159 yards and a touchdown. Unlike Brady, who turned the ball over three times, Siemian took care of the ball. He led his team on two second half scoring marches of over 70 yards in the face of a fierce pass rush. Siemian was 7 of 11 for 80 yards, converting two fourth down plays.
Remember that these are the best two run defenses in the NFL. While the Buccaneers were held to less than 100 yards on the ground, the Saints fought for 152 rushing yards on 36 carries. Alvin Kamara had a game-high 61 rushing yards, while RB Mark Ingram provided a key complement and emotional boost with 52 all-purpose yards.
Wideouts Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harris aren't as proficient as Tampa Bay's Pro Bowl tandem of Godwin and Evans. However, Callaway and Harris combined for six difference making receptions for 65 yards, with Harris adding 22 yards on an end-around.
The Saints offensive line quietly had a strong outing. They allowed only one sack and controlled the trenches well enough to have a balanced attack against a physical Buccaneers front seven.
The entire offensive unit maintained composure and stepped up their game, even after Winston went down.
COACHING - SEAN PAYTON AND DENNIS ALLEN
Down to a third-string quarterback and without two key weapons against Tampa Bay's Super Bowl champion defense, head coach Sean Payton stuck with his game plan. He kept his team focused and patient, whole mixing up his play-calling to keep the Buccaneers on their heels defensively.
Allen is one of the best coordinators in the league. His defense bolstered the team to its first four victories despite several injuries that left the unit shorthanded. Facing a legend in Tom Brady and a deep corps of weapons, he put together a masterful scheme and made his usual outstanding adjustments during the game.
The Saints are now 5-2 with a key divisional win under their belt. It was an impressive team effort by both the players on the field and their leadership along the sideline.