TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A chipper Jonathan Vilma gave New Orleans’ struggling defense an emotional lift, while Drew Brees did the rest for the suddenly resurgent Saints.
Vilma played for the first time while appealing a season-long suspension for his role in the Saints’ bounty program Sunday, finishing with one quarterback hit but no tackles in a 35-28 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“It’s awesome to have him back,” receiver Lance Moore said. “To go through the things that he’s gone through individually, then to just kind of break through and get a chance to get out there, be with his teammates — he spoke to us last night, got us all fired up, and we had to come out here and play well.”
While it’s debatable how much Vilma’s play impacted the defense, the Saints stopped two threats near the end zone in the second half, including the final drive of the game to preserve New Orleans’ second straight win.
Brees, meanwhile, continued the stellar play the Saints (2-4) are counting on getting from him to turn their season around following an 0-4 start.
Brees extended his NFL record for consecutive games with at least one TD pass to 49, while leading long scoring drives on four straight possessions to turn a 14-point deficit into a 28-21 halftime lead.
Despite wasting two scoring opportunities — one when they four straight running plays failed from the Saints’ 1 — Tampa Bay (2-4) still nearly found a way to get the game into overtime.
Josh Freeman marched the Bucs from their own 19 to the New Orleans 9 in the closing seconds. On the game’s final play, Freeman rolled to his left before throwing to Mike Williams for an apparent tying touchdown.
But the receiver had been pushed out of the back of the end zone before coming back into the field of play. So, what appeared to be a possible tying catch was nullified for illegal touching.
Bucs coach Greg Schiano said he didn’t see what happened on the play
“It really doesn’t matter. If it’s called, it’s called. You live with it. There’s nothing you can do about it,” Schiano said. “So whether he did, didn’t, we’ll see it on tape. That’s life.”
Vilma was very business-like, answering questions while getting dressed in the New Orleans locker room. He said he wasn’t sure how many snaps he played, but that he felt fine and believed he was in good enough condition to play an entire game.
The veteran linebacker said he had always believed he’d get an opportunity to play this season.
“Most people didn’t, but it was a long, drawn-out process, and for good or bad, it ended up this way and I was able to be back on the field with my teammates. That was a great feeling,” Vilma said.
“I talked to the team last night. I don’t really want to get into it,” Vilma added. “I think my talk, hopefully it worked since we won today.”
Ronde Barber’s first-quarter interception set up Freeman’s 13-yard TD pass to Tiquan Underwood. Jackson had a 17-yard scoring reception and Doug Martin ran 36 yards for a touchdown for Tampa Bay.
The Saints (2-4) barely had the ball in the third quarter, but took advantage of Tampa Bay’s inability to get into the end zone when Brees put together a 12-play, 95-yard march that Pierre Thomas finished with a 5-yard TD run that made it 35-21 with just over 13 minutes remaining in the game.
Brees threw TD passes of 17 yards to Marques Colston, 9 yards to Darren Sproles, 48 yards to Joseph Morgan and 20 yards to David Thomas to overcome the New Orleans defense yielding 513 yards. He has thrown for three or more touchdowns in five of six games this season.
“We want to get on a streak here. You’ve got to win more than one before you’re on a streak,” Brees said. “So now we’ve got two, and we want to keep that going.”
Freeman threw for a career-high 420 yards and three touchdowns for the Bucs (2-4), who scored on their first three possessions of the game to build a 21-7 lead. Dallas Clark’s 3-yard scoring reception trimmed Tampa Bay’s deficit to 35-28 with four minutes left, and Freeman completed two passes to Vincent Jackson to help the Bucs get into position to possibly force overtime.
Jackson had seven receptions for 216 yards, but failed to score on a 95-yard play in which safety Malcolm Jenkins ran him down to make the tackle at the Tampa Bay 1. LeGarrette Blount was stopped for no gain on three straight runs, then Freeman lost 4 yards on a quarterback keeper on fourth down.
Brees launched the Saints’ final scoring drive from there. He also led TD drives of 80, 80, 79 and 72 on consecutive possessions in the opening half.
Vilma pressured Freeman on an incompletion that was nearly intercepted by Roman Harper, and got his hands on another pass that he tipped first with his right hand and then his left before it fell incomplete.
“Having him back just, emotionally, really made a difference in this game,” interim Saints coach Aaron Kromer said. “We were trying to get him in in certain packages, and we had a couple of linebackers go down early in the game.”
Brees said Vilma’s presence made a difference.
“You could just feel how grateful he was (for) just the opportunity to get out there again, but also, just the intensity. He’s just one of those guys, very vocal. He obviously knows guys very well, they know him, so his ability to say certain things at the right time and just provide a lift, whether it be just his productivity on the field or making a play, or something he would say, that presence was definitely felt this week,” Brees said.
NOTES: Lance Moore had nine receptions for 121 yards for the Saints, which finished with 458 yards total offense. … Tampa Bay’s 513 yards total offense was a season-high. … It was Kromer’s last game as interim coach. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt returns from his suspension this week and will lead the Saints in Sean Payton’s absence the rest of the season.