TAMPA, Fla. — A chipper Jonathan Vilma gave New Orleans’ struggling defense an emotional lift, while Drew Brees did the rest for the suddenly resurgent Saints.
Vilma played for the first time while appealing a season-long suspension for his role in the Saints’ bounty program Sunday, finishing with one quarterback hit but no tackles in a 35-28 victory over Tampa Bay.
“It’s awesome to have him back,” receiver Lance Moore said. “To go through the things that he’s gone through individually, then to just kind of break through and get a chance to get out there, be with his teammates — he spoke to us last night, got us all fired up, and we had to come out here and play well.”
While it’s debatable how much Vilma’s play impacted the defense, the Saints stopped two threats near the end zone in the second half, including the final drive of the game to preserve New Orleans’ second straight win.
Brees, meanwhile, continued the stellar play the Saints (2-4) are counting on getting from him to turn their season around following an 0-4 start.
Brees extended his NFL record for consecutive games with at least one TD pass to 49, while leading long scoring drives on four straight possessions to turn a 14-point deficit into a 28-21 halftime lead.
The Saints (2-4) took advantage of Tampa Bay’s inability to get into the end zone when Brees put together a 12-play, 95-yard march that Pierre Thomas finished with a 5-yard TD run that made it 35-21 with just over 13 minutes remaining in the game.
Brees threw TD 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 513 yards.
“We want to get on a streak here. You’ve got to win more than one before you’re on a streak,” Brees said. “So now we’ve got two, and we want to keep that going.”
Josh Freeman threw for a career-high 420 yards and three TDs for the Bucs (2-4), who scored on their first three possessions. Down a touchdown and out of timeouts, he marched the Bucs from his own 19 to the New Orleans 9 in the final two minutes. He threw incomplete for Vincent Jackson, who came down with the ball out of the end zone on third down. On the game’s final play, Freeman rolled to his left to find Mike Williams open in the corner of the end zone.
But the receiver had been pushed out of the back of the end zone before coming back into the field of play. So, what appeared to be a possible tying catch was nullified for illegal touching.