NEW ORLEANS — Once again, the Buccaneers were helpless against an effective throwing game Sunday.
Only it wasn't Saints quarterback Drew Brees passing the football that hurt most, but the yellow flags tossed by officials.
Despite two weeks of film study designed to cut down on self-inflicted infractions, the Bucs were flagged nine times for 80 yards at the Superdome.
It was partly why the league's third-most penalized team didn't manage a touchdown until late in a 27-16 loss.
The Bucs' third defeat in four games left them at 4-4 and third in the NFC South. Worse, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy sustained another season-ending torn bicep, this time the right one.
"It was just bad ball again," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "We've got to go out and play better. We've got to go out and play smarter. There is no excuse for being young.
"Foolish penalties … the 15-yard penalties just drive me nuts. It's not good enough to come to the sideline and apologize to your teammates, your coaches, whatever. That's just selfish, undisciplined football."
The most egregious penalty came early in the second half, after cornerback Ronde Barber intercepted Brees at the Saints 33 with the Bucs trailing 17-3.
On second and 10 from the 22, LeGarrette Blount picked up 1 yard on a run. Following the play, he struck Saints defensive end Will Smith in the face mask and was penalized 15 yards.
Blount was immediately taken out of the game. And after a short completion, Tampa Bay settled for Connor Barth's 48-yard field goal.
Two weeks ago, with the Bucs trailing late, cornerback Aqib Talib's personal foul after a third-down sack gave the Bears a first down and allowed them to take more time off the clock.
"That can't continue to be a hindrance to us, and it is," Barber said. "It's frustrating for all of us. Emotions lose games for you, sometimes. Points got hammered home last week. But guys have to realize it's not just coach talk."
Blount declined to comment but said he would do so today.
There were other penalties.
Receiver Arrelious Benn and tight end Kellen Winslow were called for pass interference during the same drive, Winslow's negating a third-down conversion.
Then there were the missed opportunities.
Josh Freeman overthrew open running backs Kregg Lumpkin and Erik Lorig on wheel routes that likely would have been touchdowns.
All told, the Bucs reached the Saints 30 five times and came away with three field goals, a touchdown and a failed fourth-down conversion.
"They were just a hair off, the one to Lorig, the one to Lumpkin," Freeman said. "What can you do? It's a game of inches."
Freeman finished 27-of-37 for 281 yards and cut the Saints' lead to 24-16 with a 5-yard strike to Winslow with 5:33 left. But the Bucs defense, which gave up 453 yards, again couldn't stop Brees, and John Kasay put it away with a 34-yard field goal.
McCoy's injury, which occurred early, had a big impact. Frank Okam was inactive due to a calf injury, which meant Brian Price and Roy Miller got little rest.
McCoy, the third overall pick in 2010, missed the final five games of his rookie season with a torn left bicep.
"You hate to see that happen, especially to a young player," Barber said. "We need that guy. We're a different team without him."
Morris benched linebacker Geno Hayes in favor of Adam Hayward. But the Bucs could not slow the Saints' ground game as Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles combined for 175 yards on 27 carries (6.5 per carry).
Sproles was a particularly tough matchup for rookie linebacker Mason Foster. On the Saints' first two touchdown drives, Sproles accounted for 35 rushing yards and 36 receiving, including a screen pass he turned into a 21-yard touchdown.
By far, penalties have been the Bucs' undoing in the first half of the season. During the bye week, Morris showed players video of 47 self-inflicted penalties, including offsides, false starts, personal fouls and illegal formations.
"(Youth) is not an excuse," center Jeff Faine said. "All these guys have been playing football their whole lives. We know what the rules are."
So where are the Bucs at the midway point of the season?
"Four-and-four is a pretty average record," Barber said.
"Pretty average team."