The New Orleans Saints went through three distinct levels of play Sunday in Tampa. It went from bad to fantastic to mediocre. But in true Saints fashion, the offense put enough points on the board to stave off defeat.
The Saints went three-and-out on their next drive and Tampa Bay scored another touchdown.
Just more than nine minutes into the game and the Saints were down, on the road, by two touchdowns.
That was the end of the bad phase.
The fantastic phase started with 5:55 left in the first quarter and lasted through the first half. In those almost 21 minutes, Brees threw four touchdown passes and went 18-for-21.
The Saints constructed four drives during that span that would make any offensive coordinator jealous and should make opposing defensive coordinators cringe.
Brees connected with Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, Joe Morgan and Pierre Thomas for touchdowns to cap four consecutive drives. The more impressive feat was that each drive covered more than 72 yards and was completed in under four minutes.
Even with his interception on the team’s opening drive, Brees entered halftime with a 141.7 quarterback rating and after scoring 21 unanswered points had a 28-21 lead.
But Brees didn’t continue his first-half momentum in the second half. He went just 7-for-12 with 64 yards and didn’t throw another touchdown pass. In fact, the Saints scored just one more touchdown—on a 5-yard run by Pierre Thomas a minute and a half into the fourth quarter.
The second-half mediocrity was status quo for the Saints of late. The offense did just enough to make the field long enough that Tampa Bay couldn’t score. And the defense was the epitome of bend, don’t break—similar to Saints defenses for many, many years.
There was one moment, however, when the New Orleans defense had heart and passion, and offered a glimpse into what defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo brings to the table.
After Josh Freeman connected with Vincent Jackson on a 95-yard pass play to the New Orleans 1-yard line, the Saints got tough.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins started at the far hash at the 23-yard line and tracked down Jackson 76 yards later to keep him out of the end zone. The Saints defense then stopped Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount three times from crossing into the end zone and stopped Freeman on fourth down as he rolled out and tried to make a go of it himself.
That goal-line stand led to the Saints; final score and gave the team the lead it needed to withstand a late Tampa Bay rally.
At times, the Saints' second victory was beautiful and at times ugly, but that may just be the way this New Orleans team has to win games in 2012.
However, if the Saints' defense can channel the passion from that third-quarter goal-line stand and build a full four quarters off those four plays and the Jenkins' hustle play before, this team will quickly erase the memory of that miserable 0-4 start.