TAMPA – With their offense relying heavily on reserves and struggling as a result of it Sunday, it was the defense that stepped up and kept the Buccaneers in first place in the NFC South.
The Bucs picked off Saints quarterback Drew Brees three times and forced the Saints to settle for field goals in goal-to-go situations to squeeze out a 16-11 at Raymond James Stadium.
Cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves III and Brent Grimes and safety Keith Tandy had the picks, both of which came off tipped passes and the Bucs continued to be one of the league’s stingiest goal-to-go defenses on Sunday.
The Bucs went into the game having allowed just 16 touchdowns in 25 goal-to-go situations this year and it was their ability to continue to disallow touchdowns that allowed them to win their fifth straight.
The Bucs took control of this game early on, building a 13-0 lead midway 1-yard touchdown run by Doug Martin.
They quickly lost control of it, though, largely as a result of what may have been the three worst plays the Bucs have strung together not just this year but in any season in recent memory.
The first of those gaffes was kick returner Josh Huff’s decision to field a kick near his own goal line in the wake of the Saints first score, which came on a 42-yard field goal that cut the Bucs lead to 13-3.
As Huff approached the ball, it bounced up and caromed off his helmet and then out of bounds at the Bucs 1-yard line, where the Bucs opted to run a running play to Martin on first and 10.
The Saints sniffed that out and stuffed Martin for a 1-yard loss for a safety that stood up under review and cut the Bucs lead to 13-5. The Bucs weren’t done giving away points, though.
On the ensuing free kick, Bucs punter Bryan Anger kicked the ball out of bounds at the 50, which allowed the Saints to start their last series of the half with their best field position of the half.
The Saints quickly moved into scoring position, taking the ball down to the Bucs 1, but a false start penalty, a dropped pass and a Robert Ayers sack on third-and-goal from the 6 forced the Saints to settle for a field goal.
All in all it proved to be good ending to a first half in which the Bucs took control of this game and had a chance to put it out of reach but failed because of their own mistakes and inability to finish drives.
That inability to finish drives carried over into the second half as the Bucs had to settle again for an Aguayo field goal for their first score after halftime, which came early in the fourth quarter.
Coupled with a 22-yard field goal by Will Lutz of the Saints late in the third quarter, Aguayo’s third field goal of the day extended the Bucs lead to 16-11 with 12:46 left in the game.