Bucs’ defense stands tall in upset of Saints

by Gary Shelton on January 18, 2021

in general

White had a massive game against the Saints./TIM WIRT

Monday, 4 a.m.

For every generation, there seems to be a place that represents a particular level of hell.

For the Bucs of recent vintage, that place would be New Orleans.

For most of the careers of most of their long-time players, New Orleans is the place where seasons went to die. That were the lion's den. They had the great quarterback. They had the flummoxing defense.

Until now.

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The Tampa Bay Bucs won their biggest game since the Super Bowl following the 2002 season Sunday night, beating back the demons and the Saints in a 30-20 victory. And without their special teams and a gimmick play by former Bucs' quarterback Jameis Winston, it wouldn't have been close.

“It’s a different football team than that (earlier) week," Bucs' coach Bruce Arians said. " I try to tell everybody that – nobody wants to believe me. This is what we’re capable of playing. Defensively, we’ve had some rough spots at times, but we’ve had some really, really good times. This was one of the best times.”

How tough has New Orleans been on the Bucs? Think about Philadelphia. Once, that was the pit of misery for the Bucs, a place where coaches were fired, a place where potential died. Going into Philadelphia following the 2002 season, no one gave the Bucs much of chance to win.

Then Ronde Barber came, and went, and the Bucs went on to win the championship.

This was sort of that way. The Saints had clobbered the Bucs twice in the regular season, making Tom Brady look mortal, making the coaches look as if they had forgotten the running game, making the Bucs look like a franchise that still couldn't measure up.

But they did.

The Bucs were terrific on defense, forcing four turnovers. They ran the ball well, with Ronald Jones getting 64 yards rushing and Leonard Fournette 62. And Brady was efficient, throwing for two touchdowns with a 94.2 rating.

By comparison, Brees had a rating of jut 38.1, the lowest he had ever had against the Bucs. For once, the secondary was an aggressive, challenging bunch.

Mind you, this was Brees, who had won 20 of his previous 30 starts against Tampa Bay, who had 10 games of three touchdowns or more and 17 with a 100-plus rating.

Sunday night, the Bucs were excellent for the most part, especially linebacker Devin White, who had 10 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. The Bucs' takeaways led to 21 points. The Bucs' secondary was credited with eight passes defensed.

"Going into the game, we knew all week we had to protect the football," Arians said. "Protect the quarterback, protect the football and take it away. That was the outcome of the game [and] that was what decided the game. It was going to be the turnovers and we talked about it all week.”

The Bucs, who had gotten off to dreadful starts in their first meetings against the Saints. It happened again. Two punt returns by Deonte Harris (one called back after a 57-yard would-be touchdown return) set the Saints up in great field position, but both times, the Bucs forced field goals.

The Saints' secondary kept them in the game. Once again, Mike Evans was held in check -- getting just one catch for three yards (a touchdown). But interceptions by Sean Murphy-Bunting, White and Mike Edwards bailed out the offense.

Offensively, the Bucs weren't explosive against the Saints fourth-ranked defense. But Brady was sacked six times and threw five interceptions in the first two games; Sunday, he was sacked once and didn't throw a pick.

“I just saw the steady progress," Arians said. "We battled through some injuries, losing Vita [Vea], losing O.J. [Howard] and those guys – and we battled through some injuries today. [Jack] Cichy breaks his arm on the first punt, so we’re down to three linebackers. Our guys stepped up there at the end of the game [when] we were almost out of corners. I can’t say enough about our guys – this is a very resilient team. These guys work and they have a great belief in each other.”

The Bucs now travel to Green Bay to face the Packers, the NFC"s top seed.

For Brady, it will be his 14th conference title game.

“The defense was incredible all game," Brady said. "The turnovers were huge. Last time we played them, we lost the turnover [margin], minus three. Today was plus four – you’re not going to lose many games when you’re plus four. Just a great effort – they came up huge. Offensively, made some plays when we needed to. The running game was great, the line protected great up front – just a great week of prep. Really proud of our team and everything we put in to get to this point. There’s only four teams left – we’re one of them. It’s tough to get to this point, so we need a big week [and] a great week of practice. We’ve got one of the best teams in the league, obviously, in Green Bay. [They are] the top seed, Aaron [Rodgers] is playing incredible [and] they’ve got a great defense, so it’s going to be a great matchup.

“It feels great, obviously, to beat a great football team. That’s what feels best. It’s a team effort and again, it just speaks to the commitment level of everyone in the organization – the coaches, the players and everyone coming together. To beat great teams like this – this team has been one of the best teams in the league for a long time. 13-3 a few years ago, 13-3 last year, 12-4 this year. They do a lot of things the right way and I knew for us going into this week, we had to play a great game. Our defense stepped up [and] played huge, our offensive line was incredible – it was just a hard-fought game [and] a very physical game. We’ll need to get our rest the next couple of days and then be ready to go for practice on Wednesday.”

The Saints were seeking to become the 18th team to beat another three times in the same season since 1950. But as the game went on, the Saints seemed to struggle more and more with their offense.

The Bucs believed they could win despite the doubters.

"We’ve been fighting adversity all year," said Murphy-Bunting. "We’ve been battling the naysayers and those that say we can’t do things. At the end of the day, we’re all fighters – especially in that room – we like to battle. We like to give it our all. We wanted to make sure this wasn’t our last one. As far as the interception goes, it was a group effort. The D-line got to the quarterback, so I did my job. It was man-to-man, so there really wasn’t much to it. I got my hands on him, got my head around and got the ball. I’m actually kind of upset I didn’t get in the end zone, but Mike [Evans] did, so that’s all that matters.

“We played like we had total belief. At the end of the day, the entire year we believed we could win games, but I don’t think that everybody was on the same page and communicating and doing those things. But tonight was just different. Guys were out there flying around from the first quarter to the fourth quarter and there wasn’t any hesitation in between."

The Bucs will play at the Packers at 3:05 p.m. on Sunday.


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