The Big Uneasy

December 1 - The New Orleans Saints (8-4) sweep the Buccaneers (9-3) as turnovers and troubles on third down cause Tampa Bay to lose its grip on the top spot in the NFC.

NEW ORLEANS - Since the beginning of the season when Tampa Bay first lost to New Orleans, Bucs coach Jon Gruden has preached a continuous mantra to his players and to the media: "You get what you deserve."

Gruden is right, and the Bucs deserved to lose 23-20 to a Saints team that desperately needed a victory Sunday night's game against Tampa Bay on ESPN, and they simply wanted the win more.

Tampa Bay didn't take care of the football, giving it away to New Orleans three times. Two fumbles and an interception were the direct cause of the Bucs' loss at New Orleans, which is now back in the NFC South race at 8-4 -- one game behind 9-3 Tampa Bay.

"We're going home and we're 9-3 but we're disappointed," Gruden said. "I say all the time that you get what you deserve. When you don't run the ball well, you give up long third down conversions and you give up big plays in the kicking game you're going to have a hard time winning in the NFL. By God, we're a resilient bunch and we're upset. We're mad as hell, but we're going to come back to work and get ready to play our best ball next Sunday."

The finger Gruden pointed at the running game is a big one. During their four- game winning streak, the Bucs had rushing totals of 71, 133, 67 and 93 yards respectively. Against the Saints, the Pewter Pirates ground assault put up a meager 34 yards. A more telling statistic is the number of rushing attempts. In the quartet of victories Tampa Bay had 27, 30, 29 and 25 rushes. In the loss the Buccaneers tried to run the ball only 16 times.

"We're trying everything," Gruden said. "We're trying two tight ends. We're trying every combination of backs possible. The bottom line is that right now it's unacceptable. We're a very one dimensional football team right now. Our quarterback is playing great football and he played an unbelievable game tonight. Without being competitive running the football, being behind in down-and-distance situations, is going to make it difficult on any offensive team. We're just going to have to keep working at it, but I'm not happy with it."

In the two losses against New Orleans, the one thing the Saints have done better than the Bucs opponents in the other nine contests was to convert on third down against the best defense in the NFL. In the nine games against the rest of the league the Bucs are an overwhelming 39-for-139 on third downs for an astonishing 30.3 percent conversion rate.

In the two games against the Saints, Tampa Bay is 19-for-37 for an incredible 51.4 percent third down conversion rate. The biggest third down came on a 10-yard completion late in the game from backup quarterback Jake Delhomme to wide receiver Joe Horn in front of cornerback Brian Kelly on a third-and-8 from the Saints' 18-yard line.

This allowed New Orleans to run out the clock and raise their record to 8-4 while the 9-3 Bucs' lead in the NFC South dipped to just a half game over 8-3-1 Atlanta.

On the Bucs' first series quarterback Brad Johnson was able to move the Pewter Pirates through the air. His first four plays were passes and three were on target. On the fifth consecutive pass attempt, Johnson was sacked by defensive end Charles Grant. That hit caused a fumble that was recovered by the linebacker Charlie Clemons and it gave New Orleans great field position at the Tampa Bay 29.

The Saints were unable to make the Bucs pay for the turnover and that was because of the play of defensive end Simeon Rice. With New Orleans facing a second-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 15-yard line Rice sacked quarterback Aaron Brooks for a 1-yard loss. On the next play, a third-and-11 from the Bucs' 16-yard line, Rice sacked Brooks for a 14-yard loss.

The results of the quarterback captures were twofold. The first was that it pushed Saints kicker John Carney out from a 32- yard chip shot to a 48-yarder that he hooked to the left and missed. Second, Rice became the first defensive player in NFL history to have multiple sacks in five consecutive games.

The Bucs scored the first, and only, points of the opening period courtesy of Rice. On a third-and 8 from the New Orleans 10-yard line, Rice sacked Brooks for the third time in the quarter and knocked the ball from his grasp. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp was just a yard too late in scooping up the pigskin before it rolled out of the end zone for a safety. That put the Bucs up 2-0 and pushed Rice's sack total to a league-leading 14.5.

The Saints took the lead at 10:02 of the second period with a 6-yard scamper off the right side by running back Deuce McAllister. Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks met McAllister near the 3-yard line but couldn't make the tackle as the Saints back bulled his way into the end zone to give New Orleans their first lead. The scoring run culminated a 10-play drive as the Saints traversed 80 yards.

New Orleans inexplicably went for a two-point conversion, but McAllister was stuffed on a run up the middle short of the goal line to keep the Saints' lead at 6-2.

Tampa Bay jumped back in front with 6:51 left in the second period. Johnson, catching the Saints in a blitz, found running back Mike Alstott wide open on a simple checkdown just over the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field. Alstott scampered 44 yards and received a great block from receiver Keyshawn Johnson on cornerback Fred Thomas en route to the end zone. The Bucs only took six plays and 3:11 to travel the 90 yards to go up 9-6.

The Buccaneers had one other scoring opportunity before halftime, but Gramatica had a 42-yard attempt hit the right upright. The ball bounced off to the left and squandered a prime scoring opportunity.

The Saints took the second half kickoff and scored immediately to re-take the lead at 12:56 of the third quarter. Brooks hit wideout Jake Reed from three yards out to culminate a six-play drive that on took 2:04 to go 54 yards and put the Saints back on top at 13-9.

New Orleans extended the lead to 20-9 with a 14-yard pass from Brooks to Horn at the 9:00 mark of the third quarter. Both second half touchdown drives for the Saints were set up by excellent returns by Michael Lewis, who brought the second half kickoff back 41 yards and a punt back 56 yards to set up Horn's touchdown.

Gramatica answered with a 51-yard field goal to cut the lead to 20-12 at 5:04 of the third quarter. Carney countered with a 48 yarder of his own with 9:47 left in the contest to extend the lead back to 23-12.

The Bucs closed the gap to 23-20 with only 2:49 remaining. Tampa Bay took 6:58 to march 84 yards in 17 plays with Johnson hitting wide receiver Keenan McCardell, who had 11 catches for 107 yards, for a 1-yard touchdown. Johnson and Johnson hooked up on the 2-point conversion, but it was too little and too late.

The Bucs defense couldn't stop the Saints from getting the biggest first down of the game with two minutes left, and never saw the football again as New Orleans ran out the clock to preserve the victory.


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