TAMPA — The game was circling the drain in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Saints when Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman scrambled to his right and stepped out of bounds near midfield after a 3-yard gain.
That's when cornerback Malcolm Jenkins took a shot at Freeman's knees after he was clearly out of bounds. Flags flew, tempers flared and Freeman was in Jenkins' face like an orthodontist.
"Completely unnecessary and cheap to take a shot at my knees, and I got up and let him know," Freeman said.
Then Jenkins let a right haymaker go in the direction of Freeman's head. Jenkins received two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties — one for the late hit and one for throwing the punch — for 30 yards and likely a hefty fine from the league.
But after the Saints' 31-6 pummeling of them, now we'll find out if the Bucs can take a punch.
For the second time in three games, the Bucs were soundly beaten by one of the NFL's heavyweights, Sunday's loss reminiscent of the 38-13 whipping by Pittsburgh on Sept. 26.
But it wasn't as if Reggie Bush or even Pierre Thomas mopped up the turf with the Bucs.
No, sir. With both running backs injured, the Saints turned to Chris Ivory, an undrafted rookie from Tiffin (Ohio), a Division II school that went 0-11 last season.
Ivory accounted for 158 of the Saints' season-high 212 yards rushing, and Drew Brees passed for 263 yards and three touchdowns as the defending Super Bowl champs racked up a season-high 475 yards while recording a season high in points and converting 9 of 12 third downs.
Ivory's performance came less than a week after a prosecutor in Washington state said he has been charged with second-degree assault stemming from a July 2009 altercation in which he's accused of hitting another man in the head with a bottle. Ivory, who was dismissed from the Washington State team after the incident and transferred to Tiffin, denies the allegation.
The Bucs (3-2) fell a half-game behind the Saints and Falcons in the NFC South.
"We have two losses versus the heavyweights, and there's no doubt it tells you where you are," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "You can't hide from that fact."
Brees got things rolling by staking the Saints to a 14-0 lead on touchdown passes of 41 yards to Lance Moore and 42 yards to Robert Meachem. On the first touchdown, cornerback Aqib Talib did not get the defensive call informing him it was man-to-man coverage and was beaten.
On the second, the Bucs were in Cover 2. But Brees looked off safety Cody Grimm, who was late getting to Meachem near the right corner of the end zone with Talib trailing the play.
"We've been a team this year that's given up free shots for touchdowns, and we've just got to stop," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "Give a lot of credit to Brees. We didn't give him a lot of pressure. We gave him time to sit back and find who he wanted. It is losing football for us right now."
Now for the really bad news.
The Bucs, who entered the game 30th in the NFL against the run at 143.2 yards per game, got worse. The tackling was poor, and the line at times was nonexistent. Not only did they fail to stop the run, Brees was not sacked and had time to complete passes to 11 different receivers.
"It absolutely starts up front," Barber said. "They have to get better. We have to get better in our gap control on the second level as well. But to be a dominant run defense, you've got to have dominant players up front.
"Hopefully, they'll turn into those players. They rushed for (212) yards. That speaks to us not getting it done."
Also not getting it done again was the running game: Cadillac Williams rushed 10 times for 18 yards; backup Kareem Huggins suffered a right knee injury in the third quarter that appeared serious; and fullback Earnest Graham aggravated a strained hamstring strain early.
Even reliable kicker Connor Barth, who made his first six field goals this season, clanged the right upright on attempts from 40 and 47 yards.
This time, Freeman wasn't able to bail out the offense. He was blitzed early and often and was out of synch with receivers Mike Williams and Sammie Stroughter and tight end Kellen Winslow.
"Basically, their strategy … was to all-out blitz us," Freeman said. "We were just a little off. It's just a matter of going back and hitting one of those throws. If you hit one of those throws early … it's a completely different ball game."
Instead, the Bucs are left to wonder just how good they are. Good enough to beat teams with losing records such as the Browns, Panthers and Bengals but capable of losing to the past two Super Bowl champs by 25 points.
"You saw a lot of fight out of the guys," Freeman said. "And we've got to figure out a way to come out on top next time."