It was a day of record performances and career-highs for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense.
And the Bucs still lost.
Quarterback Josh Freeman threw for a career-high 420 yards with three touchdown passes and zero interceptions. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson had a franchise-high 216 receiving yards, including a 95-yard catch that was the longest play in Buccaneers history.
But it wasn't enough to overcome Drew Brees, who threw for 377 yards and four touchdowns, and the prolific Saints offense, and the Bucs lost their third straight game wearing their throwback uniforms.
Brees and the Saints got the ball to start the game. Brees got the offense to midfield, but had a third down pass attempt tipped at the line of scrimmage by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and intercepted by free safety Ronde Barber, who returned his 46th career INT down to the Saints' 13-yard line.
From there, the Bucs' offense wasted no time. On their first play from scrimmage, Josh Freeman dropped back and found wide receiver Tiquan Underwood wide open in the middle of the field for a 13-yard score. Underwood's first career touchdown gave Tampa Bay a quick 7-0 lead.
After forcing a three-and-out for New Orleans, Tampa Bay went to work again. The offense mixed the pass and the run well on a 10-play scoring drive that ended with a career-long 36-yard scamper by rookie tailback Doug Martin, who broke tackles and juked defenders on his way to the end zone.
Down 14-0 early, Brees started to find his groove. He got the Saints into Tampa Bay territory for the first time in the game when he connected with deep-threat Devery Henderson down field for a 40-yard gain. Once they got into the red zone, the Saints struck quickly. Wide receiver Marques Colston was open on an underneath route and Brees found him for a 17-yard touchdown, which cut the Bucs' lead to seven points.
The Bucs didn't let the Saints' touchdown rattle them. Tampa Bay answered back quickly with a scoring drive of its own. At midfield, Freeman went play-action and hit a wide open Luke Stocker for a 33-yard pickup to get into the red zone. On the very next play, Jackson got into the action with a 17-yard touchdown catch. Jackson beat his man on the play and did a great job of stretching out for the score before his knee hit the ground.
But like he always does, Brees stepped up to the challenge kept the Saints in the game with a long scoring drive. He was able to get big gains from Colston and Henderson and got his second touchdown pass of the game when he connected with running back Darren Sproles from nine yards out.
The Bucs couldn't go 4-for-4 on scoring drives on their next possession and had to punt the ball to the Saints, who were starting to catch fire on offense. Once he got the ball, Brees continued to light up the Bucs' porous pass defense and tied the game at 21 when he hit wide receiver Joe Morgan for a beautiful 48-yard touchdown. Morgan did a tremendous job staying on his feet and getting into the end zone by breaking off multiple tackle attempts by Tampa Bay defenders.
The Saints would get the ball back again at their own 26 with 1:53 left in the first half. Brees dissected Tampa Bay's defense with short passes to Sproles and wide receiver Lance Moore, who seemed to make big catch after big catch on the drive. Then, Brees threw his fourth touchdown of the first half to tight end David Thomas, who was wide open on the seam route.
With that score, Tampa Bay walked into the locker room down 28-21 despite being up by 14 points early in the first quarter.
Freeman and the Bucs got the ball to start the third quarter, and looked good on their opening drive of the second half. Jackson had a couple of nice catches, including a 28-yarder to get the Bucs into Saints' territory. However, negative runs derailed the drive and the Bucs failed to score when kicker Connor Barth missed just his second field goal – this one from 42 yards out – on the season.
The Bucs' defense forced a three-and-out on Brees and the Saints, but got the ball at their own 4-yard line to start the drive. No problem. On second down, Freeman threw a beautiful pass over two defenders to Jackson, who raced down the sidelines for 95 yards before being tackled from behind by safety Malcolm Jenkins at the 1-yard line.
But the Bucs couldn't tie the game and came away empty-handed despite having first-and-goal from the 1. Running back LeGarrette Blount got the ball three straight times and was stuffed on every carry. On fourth down, Freeman tried a play-action pass but was sacked as he tried to scramble for the touchdown.
Tampa Bay did another nice job of slowing down the Saints on their possession and appeared to forced them into a 51-yard field goal attempt. But before the snap, the Bucs were called for unsportsmanlike conduct for intentionally making a move to force the Saints into a false start. That penalty moved the ball up 15 yards and gave New Orleans a fresh set of downs. A few plays, running back Pierre Thomas bulldozed his way into the end zone from five yards out to give the Saints 28 unanswered points and a two-score lead.
The Bucs used Doug Martin's receiving skills to their advantage two drives later to get into scoring position. Martin caught a screen pass on a third down play to pick up 18 yards and got an additional 15 yards when Martin had his facemask grabbed on the play. Then, Freeman hit Underwood over the middle for a 22-yard gain. The Saints then had two illegal contact penalties that continued the drive for the Bucs.
On fourth-and-10 on the same drive, the Bucs went for it and converted when Freeman hit tight end Dallas Clark down at the 2-yard line. Three plays later, Clark got his first touchdown of the season in the back of the end zone to make it a one-touchdown game with 4:10 left in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs were able to stop the Saints and got the ball back with just under two minutes left to go in the game. On first down, Freeman found Jackson in the middle of the field for a gain of 38 yards. On fourth-and-1, Jackson came up big again with a first down grab at the 9-yard line.
It looked like the Bucs tied the game when receiver Mike Williams caught a touchdown in the back of the end zone as time expired, but he was called for illegal touching and just like that the game was over. Williams was pushed out of bounds by a Saints defender and established himself back in the field of play before making the catch. But since Freeman was out of the pocket, Williams could not be the first player to touch the football. Because of that, Bucs lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Saints, 35-28.
Next for the 2-4 Bucs is a trip to Minnesota for a Thursday night primetime matchup against the 5-2 Vikings.
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