Jenkins' mad dash
The longest offensive play in Bucs history might always be remembered for how it came up short of the end zone.
Josh Freeman connected for a 95-yard completion down the left sideline to Vincent Jackson during the third quarter. Jackson appeared destined to score the tying touchdown, but S Malcolm Jenkins chased him down and tackled him at the 1.
"A game-changing play," Saints interim coach Aaron Kromer said.
"An unbelievable individual effort," Saints QB Drew Brees said.
The Saints ended up making a goal-line stand then driving 95 yards for a touchdown that put them up 35-21.
Jenkins was the deep man in a Cover 2 on the other side of the field — about 20 yards away from Jackson. He said he was shocked he caught Jackson.
"You don't walk around thinking that you can run down receivers," Jenkins said. "And I think I might have just caught him on a play where he was a little gassed. The stars were kind of aligned there. But effort plays are what win you games."
Jackson, who had a franchise-record 216 receiving yards, was limited at practice late last week due to a strained calf and admitted he "wasn't 100 percent."
"I came out there and did the best I could," Jackson, 29, said. "I went out there to fight and gave it everything I got every play."
Jackson caught Freeman's pass between two defenders at the Bucs 27. Jenkins said the first thing he thought was just run and see what happens, knowing Jackson still had about 50 yards to go to score. Jenkins aimed diagonally for the pylon, caught Jackson at about the 5 and brought him down just short of the goal line.
"When you're coming from that far, you're hoping," Jenkins said. "As I got down the field, I saw him starting to slow down a little bit and I saw that I would be able to catch him. Whenever there's a big play, we always preach effort just to give us a chance. If we can get him down on the 1, those odds may be slim but still better than seven points."
The 95-yard catch was the longest nontouchdown in the NFL since Ahmad Rashad's 98-yarder in 1972 as a rookie for the St. Louis Cardinals, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Jenkins, 24, isn't known for his speed. The cornerback at Ohio State ran a comparatively slow 4.53 40-yard dash at the 2009 scouting combine before being taken 14th overall.
"(S Roman Harper) was messing with me (last) week about my 40 time, said I was kind of slow," Jenkins said, smiling.
Not on Sunday.
With the Bucs defense attempting to minimize the damage done by the offense failing to tie the score after having the ball first and goal at the Saints 1, a minivictory seemed to be on the way when the Saints were forced to line up for a 51-yard field goal six seconds into the fourth quarter.
But before the play, the Bucs were called for unsportsmanlike conduct. But for what, exactly?
Just before the snap, LB Mason Foster yelled something, and the defensive line shifted.
Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 states teams cannot use "acts or words … designed to disconcert an offensive team at the snap."
Foster said he was at a loss.
"I don't know what it was," he said. "I just know they called unsportsmanlike conduct. I don't know. I guess there's something in the rules."
Coach Greg Schiano would not go into detail, saying only he understood the rule that was being applied.
The 15-yard penalty moved the ball from the 33 to the 18 and resulted in an automatic first down. Four plays later, Pierre Thomas' 5-yard touchdown run gave the Saints a 35-21 lead.
Saints LB Jonathan Vilma, above, didn't start Sunday and didn't record a tackle.
But interim coach Aaron Kromer said just having Vilma back made a difference emotionally to his team. Vilma, a three-time Pro Bowl pick and star at the University of Miami, gave teammates an inspirational speech Saturday night and provided leadership during key moments of the come-from-behind victory.
"He got us all fired up," WR Lance Moore said.
"Just him being out there automatically makes us better," S Malcolm Jenkins said. "He definitely put a fire in our defense."
Vilma practiced on his surgically repaired left knee for the first time Wednesday and was activated from the physically unable to perform list Saturday.
His return could last only two games as his appeal of a seasonlong suspension for his role in the Saints' bounty scandal is scheduled for Oct. 30. But he said it was a "great feeling" to be back after spending significant time in court trying to get the suspension overturned.
"It was a long, drawn-out process," said Vilma, who had one quarterback hit and a pass deflection. "And for good or bad, it ended up this way."
Four plays fail to get 1 yard
For as much as the game's final play will be debated, the Bucs wasted their best opportunity to score when, down 28-21, they failed to get into the end zone despite having the ball first and goal from the 1 during the third quarter.
After LeGarrette Blount ran for minus-1, 1 and 0 yards, the Bucs lost 4 yards when QB Josh Freeman bootlegged to his right, had no open receivers and failed to get around the corner against LB Will Herring.
Two decisions stood out during the sequence, which was set up by a franchise-record 95-yard completion to Vincent Jackson (on which he was caught from behind by S Malcolm Jenkins): using Blount and fourth-down play.
Coach Greg Schiano defended using Blount. He said the team considered Blount its best goal-line option. But Blount has come up short before, including on fourth and goal at Atlanta in 2010 in which he ran through the wrong hole and was stuffed.
The offensive line pointed at itself.
"That makes or breaks the game," LT Donald Penn said. "As an offensive line, you want it on you. We didn't answer the call. When you get that close, you have to get in. And when you lose by seven, it makes it even worse."
Of the fourth-down play, Freeman said the bootleg was an attempt to suck the defense in with the play-action, then hit TE Luke Stocker streaking across the back of the end zone. If only the defense had fallen for it.
"The (defensive) end crashed down hard but still maintained good containment," Freeman said. "I'd like to think I'd be fast enough to get outside of (Herring) but apparently not. And then they did a good job covering on the back end."
Stocker had two defenders plastered on him and was never open. Freeman kept rolling out until he ran out of field, and the Bucs came away with nothing.
"This is a league that comes down to execution," Freeman said. "You can have the best scheme in the world. But if you are unable to execute, then it's all for naught."
The Saints compounded the matter on the ensuing series by scoring a touchdown to take a 35-21 lead.
"That was a huge sequence of events," Saints QB Drew Brees said, "a huge momentum-shifter."
Brees' jersey stays clean
The Bucs had major issues trying to cover the Saints' receivers. They didn't fare any better when it came to creating pressure on QB Drew Brees. The Saints have allowed only 12 sacks this season, which is tied for 13th in the league. But the Bucs didn't even register a single quarterback hit.
With little to no pressure, Brees stood comfortably, waiting for routes to develop and windows in the zone defense to appear. At other times, a pass rush was nearly impossible given Brees' quick-trigger release and three-step drops.
He went 27-of-37 for 377 yards, including 20-of-25 for 313 yards during the first half.
"You just have to get your hands up," DT Gerald McCoy said. "We did it early. I got my hand on one, and we got an interception. But we have to do a better job of recognizing when his hand is coming off the ball so we can get our hands up. He got the ball out (quickly). But that's what you expect from him."
S Ronde Barber, watching from the back of the defense, saw the results of the lack of a rush.
"If you don't pressure (Brees) and he has time to throw, his guys know where to run to the zone, sit down, convert third downs and keep the chains moving," Barber said. "He does it better than anybody in the game."
Sometimes, the Bucs rushed only three linemen and loaded up on cover men
"It's a mix," coach Greg Schiano said. "When you have a guy like Drew Brees, you have to mix it up."
'It's on the defense'
A positive trend continued Sunday: The Bucs scored during the first quarter, extending a streak started on opening day. And they did more than get on the board: They took a 14-0 lead that had the Saints on their heels. Then it all blew up. "It's crushing," DT Roy Miller said. "We pride ourselves on a lot of things; like keeping offenses to 17 points a game. And that didn't happen. It's on the defense. We can point fingers, but as defenders, that's our job. I felt like the coaches gave us a great scheme. We just didn't execute." Things started well when S Ronde Barber — who set a franchise record with his 222nd start — intercepted Drew Brees on the fifth play from scrimmage and returned it 30 yards to the Saints 13. The Bucs scored on the next play when Josh Freeman fired over the middle to Tiquan Underwood. A 10-play, 76-yard drive capped by a 36-yard touchdown run by Doug Martin followed, pushing the lead to 14-0. The Bucs led 21-7 after Vincent Jackson's 17-yard touchdown catch 1:42 into the second quarter. None of that mattered once the Saints reeled off 28 points before halftime with scoring drives of 80, 80, 79 and 72 yards.
Brees' big day
Bucs coach Greg Schiano acknowledged last week that you can't stop Saints QB Drew Brees. You can only try to slow him down.
"One thing you can't do is give them (the same) look because he'll pick you apart," he said. "He may pick you apart anyway."
Brees did just that. He threw for 313 of his 377 yards during the first half (completing 20 of 25 passes), leading long scoring drives on four straight possessions to turn a 21-7 deficit into a 28-21 lead.
The yards were the most allowed by the Bucs in a half and 10th most since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 but shy of Brees' own record of 346 (2007 against the Jaguars).
"Drew Brees loves these types of games," Bucs S Ronde Barber said. "You get in a shootout, he knows he's going to drop back 60 times or 50 times. It's a little hard to deal with."
Brees threw an early interception, a tipped pass caught by Barber. But the Bucs could not pressure Brees and made some mistakes in the secondary. As a result, he methodically spread the ball around and threw touchdowns to four different receivers. And that's without injured star TE Jimmy Graham.
Brees, who extended his NFL record of consecutive games with a touchdown pass to 49, has thrown three or more TDs five times this season.
"I feel like we've definitely had our moments where we're clicking," Brees said. "And we're finding our rhythm. We're spreading the ball around in a way that we do, just operating at a high level, getting everyone involved. That's a good feeling."
• The Bucs' Connor Barth, whose team-record streak of 25 consecutive field goals made ended last week, missed a 42-yarder during the third quarter. It was the first time he missed a kick that close since a 41-yarder on Oct. 31, 2010 against Arizona.
• Tiquan Underwood continued to solidify his role as the No. 3 receiver. He caught two passes for 35 yards, a 13-yard touchdown during the first quarter and a 22-yarder during the final scoring drive.
Clark breaks through
• TE Dallas Clark scored his first touchdown as a Buc, a 3-yard pass from Josh Freeman with 4:10 to play that made it 35-28. Clark, signed during the offseason, finished with five catches for 51 yards.