Inspired by Jonathan Vilma's return, New Orleans' porous defense found a way to keep Tampa Bay out of the end zone, then did it again to preserve the Saints' second straight win.
Drew Brees threw for 377 yards and four touchdowns, however Sunday's 35-28 victory over the Buccaneers wouldn't have been possible without a third-quarter goal-line stand and another stop to end the game.
"I don't know how much better we got. I know we won the game. That's always a positive," safety Roman Harper said. "We were always finding ways to lose a game, and now we're finding ways to win a game.
With Vilma playing for the first time while appealing a season-long suspension for his role in the Saints bounty program and Brees shrugging off an early interception that led to Tampa Bay's first touchdown, New Orleans (2-4) took another step toward turning around its season following an 0-4 start.
Vilma provided an emotional lift, if not any game-changing plays. Brees extended his NFL record for consecutive games with at least one TD pass to 49 and launched a 95-yard scoring drive that put the Saints up 14 points after the defense stopped four straight Bucs running plays from the New Orleans 1 late in the third quarter.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins began the sequence by hustling across the field to stop Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson from scoring on a 95-yard reception. LeGarrette Blount was stopped for no gain on three straight carries from the 1, then defensive end Cameron Jordan chased Josh Freeman out of bounds for a 4-yard loss on a quarterback keeper to prevent the Bucs from tying the score.
Twelve plays later, Pierre Thomas scored on a 5-yard run to make it 35-21.
"All of the sudden, they're about to tie the game, and Malcolm — an unbelievable individual effort to run Vincent Jackson down, and then a goal-line stand," Brees said.
"Now in their mind, they're thinking: 'Hey, we went for it on fourth down because now we've got them pinned back and we're just expecting to stop them and have them punt it to us and get great field position.' But we had a different plan in mind. We get one first down, a big play, and all of the sudden we're going down and making it a two-possession game."
Despite missing a third-quarter field goal and failing to get anything out of the longest offensive play in franchise history, Tampa Bay (2-4) still nearly found a way to get the game into overtime.
Freeman, who threw for a career-best 420 yards and three touchdowns, 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, instead of heading to OT, the reception was wiped out by a penalty for illegal touching.
Bucs coach Greg Schiano said he didn't see what happened.
"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."
Brees was 27 of 37 and threw TDs 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 a season-high 513 yards.
Vilma, who has a hearing on his appeal scheduled for Oct. 30, finished with one quarterback hit but no tackles.
"I tried to not let my emotions get the best of me," Vilma said. I didn't want to put myself in a situation where I was going to hurt the team or anything like that, so I tried not to be overexcited."
Teammates said it was good to have him on the field.
"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."
Vilma was very business-like, answering questions while getting dressed in the 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 ninth-year pro 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.
Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been appointed as arbitrator for Vilma's appeal, as well as the hearings for three other players facing suspensions of various lengths.
"I think it's a good first step for Paul to be the neutral arbitrator," said Vilma, who played mostly in passing situations on Sunday. "We expect that he's going to do things in a neutral capacity, which will allow us to cross-examine some of the witnesses and allow us to see the evidence, if there is any evidence."
NOTES: Jackson had seven receptions for a Bucs-record 216 yards. ... Lance Moore had nine receptions for 121 yards for the Saints. ... 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.
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