A second-half return to form puts the Saints back on track

The Saints opened this game with the kind of sluggishness we’ve seen from them frequently in the early going, especially on the road. Thanks in part to a long pass to Mike Evans where he beat Marshon Lattimore in coverage, the Buccaneers scored on the first drive of the game. After some back-and-forth where not much happened except the Saints kicking a field goal, Drew Brees threw another baffling interception on an attempted screen pass where he couldn’t even see his target. The Bucs turned that into a touchdown and took a 14-3 halftime lead. Coming out for the second half, the Saints almost immediately gave the ball away when Brees fumbled on a sack.

That was the end of the Bucs’ good fortune, though, as their offense stalled out and they missed the field goal. The Saints found their groove from there: Although the next offensive possession was a three-and-out, the Saints then came up with a big play of their own, as Taysom Hill blocked a punt to give the Saints a short field.

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They scored three touchdowns on their next three drives, turning a 14-3 deficit into a 25-14 lead. (They would add a late field goal to the total.) The defense shut down Tampa from here, only allowing one first down (which the Bucs quickly squandered with penalties) until the final desperation drive with 1:12 left.

The Saints’ defensive prowess has been an underrated aspect of their recent run. They haven’t surrendered more than 17 points in their last five games, including to the high-powered Falcons and Bucs offenses. The unit has taken a real step forward with the addition and integration of Eli Apple, who’s on his seventh game with the team. On Sunday, Apple deflected two passes, and his coverage was instrumental in shutting down Bucs second receiver Chris Godwin, who only caught one pass on his 10 targets.

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The pass rush has been improved as well, in part because the coverage can hold longer since Apple arrived, but also due to the continued improvement of the younger players on the unit. Sheldon Rankins is the most obvious example, having turned into an all-star interior rusher; he picked up his eighth sack of the season, putting him along the league leaders among defensive tackles, behind only DeForest Buckner and the preposterous Aaron Donald (at 16.5 going into Sunday night’s game). David Onyemata and Marcus Davenport have been taking steps forward as well, nearly picking up sacks today and being consistently disruptive.

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Cameron Jordan also pitched in two sacks, pushing his season total to 12, among the league leaders. The defensive line as a whole did a great job of keeping the heat on, drawing a number of holding penalties in addition to the sacks and stops. Even though the Saints are known for their offense, it’s the defense that’s kept them in games recently when the offense has struggled. The Saints were nearly able to pull off the win in Dallas last Thursday largely because the defense held the Cowboys to 13 points; here again, keeping a Bucs offense in check that scored 48 points against the Saints last time around was a major key to victory. One note to add: After giving up the long pass to Mike Evans on the first drive of the game, Marshon Lattimore didn’t surrender another catch to Evans. (Others were credited with coverage on Evans’ other three catches.)

The offense didn’t do anything spectacular, but once they got on a roll, they executed their usual gameplan well. Strong running from Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, a reliably open Michael Thomas (11 catches on 13 targets), and the occasional play those to a lesser-known target set up by those earlier plays (like the touchdown pass to Zach Line). Steady, consistent execution by a superior unit, with the occasional wrinkle, is a strong formula for success for the Saints, and they pulled it off well in the second half.

Once again, the Saints went for it on a crucial fourth down. This time on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Brees successfully leaped the offensive line to sneak across a touchdown. (Strangely, despite the frequency with which Brees does this at the goal line, the Bucs didn’t have anyone lined up over the middle to go over the top and try to meet him in the air.)

Simply securing the win was a major boon for the Saints, for two major reasons: First, the win secured the NFC South title for the second consecutive year. (Carolina’s lost, their fifth straight, also would have served that purpose.) Second, the Bears shutting down the Rams in Chicago Sunday night puts the Saints back in control for the 1 seed. (It also suggests that the Rams will again be fallible against the right team; with home-field advantage, the Saints should be favored against either the Bears or the Rams in the playoffs.)

A little bonus coming your way this week: Pro Bowl votes will be tabulated soon and selections announced, and the Saints, sitting at 11-2 (tied for the NFL’s best record) and the top seed in the NFC, figure to have a substantial number of selections. I’ll be looking at the roster in a couple of days and determining who deserves consideration. (Although hopefully none of them will get to actually play in the game, as the team prepares for the Super Bowl instead.)