TAMPA, Fla. -- Somewhere, Joe Vitt was watching the New Orleans Saints defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 35-28, on Sunday.
Vitt has been an assistant coach in the NFL since 1979. He’s a sharp guy and has been Sean Payton’s right-hand man since 2006.
When Vitt meets the Saints at Louis Armstrong International Airport on Sunday night and becomes their interim head coach again (he held the position in the preseason before serving a six-game suspension), he should greet the team with a simple message.
The Saints need to get back to the same formula they followed the past three seasons when they won a ton of games and made the playoffs three straight times. They need to grab onto Drew Brees’ coattails (and the quarterback has to be better than ever) because there are no miracles coming out of a defense that entered the day ranked No. 32 in the NFL and will probably stay there when the next rankings come out.
That’s the formula the Saints (2-4) used Sunday after quickly falling behind the Buccaneers (2-4).
“We played Saints ball, like we should," running back Pierre Thomas said.
With 5:55 left in the first quarter, the Buccaneers already had a 14-0 lead. That’s when Brees took over the game. The Saints got the ball four more times in the first half. They scored touchdowns on all four drives.
Brees finished the first half with 313 yards, which had him on pace to break Norm Van Brocklin’s 1951 record for passing yards in a game (554).
“We stayed very calm and together," Brees said. “We were just methodical."
Methodical is what New Orleans' offense was the past three years. It hadn’t really been that way this season, with some exceptions coming in the victory against San Diego prior to the bye week.
Against the Bucs, Brees looked like the Brees of old. Even without injured tight end Jimmy Graham, Brees completed passes to seven different players and threw touchdowns to four different teammates.
“When you think about who it is, it doesn’t surprise me," said receiver Lance Moore, who led the Saints with nine catches for 121 yards.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone. Brees has carried this team in the past, and if the Saints are going to climb out of the hole they dug with an 0-4 start, he’s going to have to keep doing even more than ever.
Forget all the talk about how the running game is important and how the defense is catching onto coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme. The truth is, if the Saints are going to have any shot at getting back to the playoffs, they need to let Brees throw the heck out of the ball, and they need to score a ton of points.
Spagnuolo’s defense isn’t going to make any dramatic improvements until the offseason -- when the Saints have a chance to add some personnel that’s better suited to his scheme. For now, they’re stuck with a few good individual players and a bunch of others who don’t fit what Spagnuolo’s defense is about.
That’s why Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman was able to throw for 420 yards and three touchdowns and why the Bucs finished with 513 yards of total offense. That’s why Vincent Jackson had 216 receiving yards.
Speaking of Jackson, he was involved in the one bright moments for New Orleans' defense. Jackson caught a ball that appeared to be tipped by cornerback Patrick Robinson, who fell down, with 4:59 remaining in the third quarter. That left Jackson without a New Orleans defender near him. He gained 95 yards on the play. It was the 96th yard that was crucial.
Free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was the deep man in Cover 2 on the other side of the field, somehow ran down Jackson, who clearly ran out of steam as he got closer to the end zone.
The Saints then followed with what they repeatedly referred to as a “goal-line stand" in the locker room.
“Malcolm Jenkins running down Vincent Jackson to put us on the goal line and then the goal-line stand were about five huge plays right there and it decided the game," said linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who made his debut after spending six weeks on the physically unable to perform list with a knee issue.
But let’s be totally honest here: Although Vilma’s return no doubt provided some emotional lift, whatever he has left physically isn’t going to make New Orleans’ defense much better. The goal-line stand wasn’t the kind of thing you saw from the Steel Curtain or the Purple People Eaters of the 1970s.
In large part, the goal-line stand came about because it looked like Tony Dungy and Mike Shula were back wearing the Bucs’ headsets. With a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, the Bucs ran LeGarrette Blount straight ahead -- on three consecutive plays.
If Blount is in the backfield and the rest of the offense is lined up tight on the goal line, everyone in the stadium knows what’s coming and any defense -- even the Saints' -- can stop it. The Saints stuffed Blount on all three plays and then forced a scrambling Freeman to run out of bounds for a 4-yard loss on fourth down.
Brees promptly followed that up with a 12-play, 95-yard touchdown drive to put the Saints ahead 35-21. Still, the Bucs came back and scored another touchdown and almost tied it on the final play of the game, but officials ruled receiver Mike Williams stepped out of the end zone before coming back in to catch a Freeman pass.
It just shows the best the Saints can hope for out of their defense is the same thing they got the past couple of years. Maybe one big play or one big stop a game.
Everything else is up to Brees.