TAMPA (AP) — Thanks to some unexpected help from a little-known rookie running back, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints played like Super Bowl contenders again.
Brees threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns in Sunday’s 31-6 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, however Chris Ivory’s 158 yards rushing set the tone for a dominating performance that lifted the Saints into a tie for first place in the NFC South.
“He’s a young back that’s got a lot of talent, still learning his way around this league,” Brees said of the undrafted free agent out of Division II Tiffin, where Ivory transferred from Washington State. “Obviously, he had a huge day.”
New Orleans rebounded from a mistake-filled road loss that dumped them into third place in the division behind Atlanta and Tampa Bay. The Falcons lost at Philadelphia, and the surprising Bucs were trounced at home for the second time in three games.
Tampa Bay (3-2) has beaten Cleveland, Carolina and Cincinnati to match its victory total for all of last season. But in losses to Pittsburgh and New Orleans, teams coach Raheem Morris describes as “heavyweights,” the Bucs have been outscored 69-19.
“You go out there and compete and you find out where you are,” Morris said. “It humbles you. It gets you in the right state of mind, gets your guys back into the laboratory … and gets them to focus a little more.”
The Saints (4-2) amassed a season-high 475 yards total offense and weren’t forced to punt until early in the fourth quarter.
Ivory averaged 10.5 yards per carry on 15 attempts, including a long of 33 yards, stepping up in the absence of the injured Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas. New Orleans finished with a season-best 212 yards on the ground.
The strong performance came less than a week after a prosecutor in the state of Washington said Ivory has been charged with second-degree assault stemming from an alleged July 2009 altercation in which the player is accused of hitting another man in the head with a bottle.
Ivory denies he committed the alleged crime, which could carry jail time of three to nine months if convicted.
Saints coach Sean Payton called Ivory, who played in five games at Tiffin before being injured last season, a work in progress.
“He does some good things, and there’s some things he’s got to work on to get better,” Payton said. “But I thought he ran hard.”
Ivory said he’s just trying to take advantage of an opportunity to contribute to the team.
“I’ve been working hard at practice every day of the week, trying to get better. … You put the work into it, something is going to come out of it,” Ivory said. “I know every game probably is not going to be the best, but I’m going to try and take a step every game.”
New Orleans committed four turnovers, including three interceptions, in a 30-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals last week.
Brees was much sharper this time, completing eight of his first nine attempts, including TD throws of 41 yards to Lance Moore and 42 yards to Robert Meachem. He threw a 4-yard TD pass to Heath Evans late in the third quarter and finished 21 of 32 passing with one interception and no sacks.
The Saints began the day next to last in the NFL in rushing, averaging 75.6 yards per game. Ivory had not been much of a factor, gaining 119 yards through the first five weeks of the season. He gave the Bucs a taste of what was to come when he burst through the middle for an 18-yard gain on his team’s first play.
“We’ve got to figure out some kind of way to stop the run,” Bucs defensive end Tim Crowder said. “Everything starts with stopping the run.”
Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman completed 25 of 43 passes for 219 yards and one TD, a 2-yard throw to Micheal Spurlock on fourth-and-goal with just over five minutes to go.
A 2-point conversion attempt failed, New Orleans recovered an onside kick and scored on Ladell Betts’ 1-yard touchdown that left Saints fans in the announced crowd of 51,759 chanting “Who Dat!”
“You know New Orleans is going to come in and put up some points,” Freeman said. “But as an offense, you realize you have to match them.”
Tampa Bay entered having won five of seven dating to a come-from-behind overtime against the Super Bowl champions late last season. The stretch of success has highlighted the growth of Freeman and a young defense that’s gotten better since Morris began serving as defensive coordinator.
Two promising Buccaneers drives ended with Connor Barth missing field goal attempts of 40 and 47 yards. Two unnecessary roughness penalties on Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins for a late hit on Freeman out of bounds fueled an 88-yard drive that enabled Tampa Bay to avoid being shut out.
Notes: The Bucs were limited to 42 yards rushing on 18 carries. Cadillac Williams was held to 18 yards on 10 attempts. … Marques Colston had five receptions for 53 yards and Brees completed passes to 11 different targets.