The New Orleans Saints bettered their record to 4-1 on Sunday afternoon with a 31-24 defeat of divisional foe Tampa Bay in front of a lively Superdome crowd. The final score was much closer than the actual competitive phase of the game. The Saints played their most complete game of the season, and seized control of this contest early. On a day that the franchise honored one of their past defensive stars in the late Will Smith, the Saints defense did their former leader proud. New Orleans held the Buccaneers to just 3 for 11 on third downs, and under 200 total yards until the game's final drive, once the outcome was all but decided. The Saints offense continued to control the ball and the pace of the game, converting key plays at crucial moments. The offense even resembled the explosive proficiency fans have become accustomed to despite the continued injury absence of their Hall of Fame quarterback. Here are some of the most impressive performances from the Saints dominating divisional victory over Tampa Bay.
Bridgewater had his finest game as a pro, completing 26 of 34 passes for 314 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was confident and decisive in his reads from the opening huddle, and was even often aggressive down the field. Bridgewater has played better with each passing week since replacing the injured Drew Brees, and is starting to make opponents pay for overlooking the New Orleans passing attack. The Buccaneers geared their defense to stop Saints running back Alvin Kamara, daring Bridgewater to beat them with the passing game. And the 26-yr. old Bridgewater did just that, hopefully putting to rest criticisms that the quarterback is little more than a "game manager".
Thomas was superb against the Tampa Bay secondary all afternoon, catching 11 passes for 182 yards and 2 scores. He had 102 yards by halftime, hauling in all six of his first half targets and 11 of 13 overall. The Buccaneers were defenseless against the All-Pro fourth year receiver, who bested any coverage designed to slow him down. Thomas is not only rapidly moving up the franchise's all-time receiving list in several categories, but is among the historic NFL greats for production over his young career.
Armstead struggled a bit last week (for his high standards) against the Dallas Cowboys, particularly in pass protection against Robert Quinn. Tampa Bay edge rusher Shaquil Barrett had 9 sacks coming into this game, and Armstead rendered him invisible. Barrett had two tackles and zero quarterback pressures, mostly facing off against the star New Orleans tackle. Armstead also expertly sealed the edge on a few key gains against the run, and was certainly back to his Pro Bowl level of football.
Marshon Lattimore/Eli Apple
Much of the pregame talk was about the showdown between Saints cornerbacks Lattimore and Apple versus star Bucs wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Lattimore shut out the pro bowler Evans, holding him without a catch for the first time in 65 games. Lattimore's suffocating play on Evans limited the Buccaneers passing attack, allowing the rest of the secondary and linebackers to play more aggressively against Tampa's receivers. Dangerous Buccaneer tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate were held to a combined 2 receptions for just 21 yards, and quarterback Jameis Winston was stifled to just 10 of 21 for 133 yards before their final drive. Eli Apple's play was as equally impressive to Lattimore's, leaving the Bucs receivers frustrated and ineffective. Godwin ended with 7 receptions for 125 yards and two touchdowns, but the majority of that was against the Saints P.J. Williams when lining up in the slot. The play of both Lattimore and Apple, and the secondary as a whole, allows the Saints to be more aggressive in their pass rush packages.
Saints defensive line
The New Orleans defensive line gave a big assist to their secondary by again playing dominant football. The Saints battered Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, sacking him six times and keeping him on the run all afternoon, while holding Bucs running backs to just 63 yards on 18 carries. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown continued his outstanding play, stuffing the Bucs running backs on a few short yardage attempts and notching a sack while applying good inside pressure. Tackle David Onyemata continues to a handful for opponents, and Sheldon Rankins looks terrific in just his second game back from an Achilles injury suffered in late January. Rankins had a sack, 3 tackles, and pushed his way into the Tampa backfield often. Not to be outdone, the New Orleans edge players had a strong game as well, shutting down the outside run and pushing Tampa's tackles backwards all game. Rookie Carl Granderson had a sack in an impressive debut, while Mario Edwards Jr. played well in his return to the lineup. Cameron Jordan tortured Tampa Bay blockers, as he usually does, taking down Winston once and flushing him from the pocket several times. Fellow end Marcus Davenport had an outstanding game with two sacks, several quarterback pressures, and teamed with Jordan to pinch the Buccaneer pass pocket around Winston.
The Saints have more than established that they are still a strong championship contender, even while Brees is on the mend. Their defense is suffocating opponents, while the offense continues to evolve and improve with each game behind Bridgewater. Frightening thoughts for the rest of the league who thought that this squad could be vulnerable during Brees' absence.
Who had the most impressive performance in the Saints decisive win over Tampa Bay?
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Marshon Lattimore/Eli Apple
The Saints defensive line