Through five weeks last season, it’s possible no team was
playing better than the New Orleans Saints or faring worse than the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
What a difference a year makes.
While the visiting Saints haven’t played up to the caliber of a
defending Super Bowl champion, the Bucs have performed far better
than a team many pegged for a second straight last-place finish
heading into this NFC South matchup Sunday.
New Orleans (3-2) is coming off last Sunday’s 30-20 loss to an
Arizona team which was giving rookie quarterback Max Hall his first
start. It was the Saints’ second loss in three games, and the
victory in that span came on a late field goal against winless
It’s a stark contrast to 2009, when they won each of their first
six games by double digits and opened 13-0 en route to their first
“There’s an expectation level that we get accustomed to when we
perform at a high level,” coach Sean Payton said. “When you don’t
meet those expectations, certainly there’s disappointment.”
Tampa Bay (3-1) has more than exceeded expectations, already
matching its win total from last season when it finished in the NFC
South basement with the league’s third-worst record.
The Bucs, who didn’t win until their eighth game last year, are
riding high after a 24-21 come-from-behind victory in Cincinnati
last Sunday. Josh Freeman threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to tie the
game with 1:26 left, then completed a 21-yard pass following a
Bengals turnover to set up Connor Barth’s winning 31-yard field
goal with one second to play.
Freeman sat out two plays in the first half after a hit left him
dazed but came back to go 20 of 33 for 280 yards, earning NFC
offensive player of the week honors.
“Our goal remains the same – we’re trying to get to 10 wins and
solidify a playoff spot,” Freeman said. “Our main goal right now is
to continue to find ways to win. It’s a matter of who can go out
and execute the best and be a winner at the end.”
New Orleans’ offensive execution has been troubling. The Saints
rank 31st in the NFL with 75.6 rushing yards per game, partly
because of injuries to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. That’s forced
Drew Brees to throw an average of nearly 40 times a game, and he
has five interceptions over the last three games – he had just two
at this point last year.
“It’s little breakdowns. We don’t need a system overhaul here,”
right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. “There are groups across this
league that I think in their heart of hearts know that they can’t
produce a lot of points. This locker room doesn’t feel that
The Saints had 22 touchdowns through five games in 2009 but have
only 10 this season. They’ve yet to score more than 25 points,
something that happened only once during their 13-0 start last
“We can’t dwell on what we did in the past,” receiver Devery
Henderson said. “We have to worry about this year and what we can
control. Things haven’t been going the way we expected, but we’ve
just got to keep going and get things corrected.”
To shore up the running game, New Orleans signed former Seattle
leading rusher Julius Jones on Tuesday and released John Carney,
who missed a 29-yard field goal against Arizona. Bush is likely to
miss a fourth straight game due to a broken bone in his right leg,
and Thomas will sit out a third in a row with a sprained left
Their absences might make it tougher on the Saints to take
advantage of a Bucs defense ranked last in the NFC against the run,
allowing 143.2 yards per game.
The Tampa Bay defense has been opportunistic, however, forcing
12 turnovers – including nine interceptions. That’s a big reason
the Bucs are within reach of their first 4-1 start since 2005.
“They’re a young football team, they’re resilient,” coach Raheem
Morris said. “They keep getting better and better.”
That definitely could be said of rookie receiver Mike Williams.
His seven catches and 99 yards last Sunday were season highs, and
he caught the game-tying TD by outjumping the defender.
“I’ve got all the confidence in that guy to make the play
one-on-one,” Freeman said.
These teams last met Dec. 27 in New Orleans, with the Bucs
overcoming a 17-point deficit and pulling off a 20-17 upset on
Barth’s 47-yard field goal in overtime. The Saints entered that
game 13-1, a record which included a 38-7 win at Tampa Bay in Week