TAMPA — Saints QB Drew Brees says those on the outside might believe the team is in a "crisis." Those people, he says, are wrong.
Brees said Thursday the Saints' expectations were much higher than their 1-4 start and they miss the game-planning and presence of suspended coach Sean Payton, whom he called "one of the best offensive minds in the league." The bounty scandal, which cost Payton all of this season, has been a distraction and sparked suspensions and lawsuits, still lingers, Brees added.
But New Orleans, coming off its bye and first win, against the Chargers, enters Sunday's matchup with the Bucs ready for a turnaround.
"You start like that, and you just go, 'Man, this is not what we all anticipated or expected,' " Brees said. "Yet you know, 'Hey, life is going to throw that at you sometimes.' I think the whole way we just have always felt like is as long as we do things the right way, good things are going to happen to us. We are going to catch a break."
Brees said the rough start, including an overtime home loss to Kansas City and one-point loss at Green Bay, was tough to take.
"Just seemed like everything that could have gone wrong went wrong the first four weeks," Brees said. "But we got better. Finally, we broke the seal two weeks ago. Now it's like, 'Okay, let's get on a roll here.' "
The Saints are certainly capable. Brees — who against San Diego set an NFL record with a touchdown pass in his 48th consecutive game — leads the league's top-ranked passing offense.
"You're not going to stop Drew Brees," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "But you need to do what you can do to slow him down."
The Saints' problem has been slowing down other teams. They have allowed 456 yards and 30.8 points per game, last and 30th in the league, respectively. Interim coach Aaron Kromer said he has seen improvement week to week. And the Saints could get back LB Jonathan Vilma, who hasn't played because of offseason knee surgery but can play as he appeals his seasonlong suspension for the bounty scandal.
"He's the Drew Brees of their defense," Bucs G and former Saint Carl Nicks said.
Kromer said New Orleans has stuck together despite the "unprecedented situation" with the bounty suspensions.
"This building never gets pulled apart," Kromer said, "no matter what happens to us."
Said Nicks: "They're a resilient team. They're battle-tested. They went through (Hurricane) Katrina. They'll be fine."
KICKIN' IT: Schiano said he's not pleased with his kick return unit, which he called "quiet" since Arrelious Benn's 55-yard return against the Giants in Week 2 (19.3-yard average on seven returns, not including a 2-yarder that involved laterals late against the Redskins).
Schiano acknowledged teams don't get many chances, with most kickoffs turning into touchbacks, and, as a result, it doesn't get a ton of focus during practice. But he indicated there could be personnel changes.
"We're not doing what I think we're capable of doing," Schiano said. "If you're not liking the result and don't change anything, then don't expect anything to be different."
PASS FIRST: Since his arrival, Schiano has talked about fielding an offense in which a successful running game sets up chances to throw the ball deep.
Then Sunday happened.
The Bucs took the opposite approach in a win against the Chiefs, throws downfield opening chances in the running game.
And according to players, that was the plan for Sunday. Only 47 of the Bucs' 145 rushing yards came before halftime, when there were limited opportunities to run against six- or seven-man fronts.
Said RB LeGarrette Blount: "It's great just having that weapon at wide receiver to go down the field and open up the running game for us."
Times staff writers Stephen F. Holder and Rick Stroud contributed to this report.