NEW ORLEANS — When the going gets tough, the New Orleans Saints break out the bats.
The Saints know what it means when Sean Payton designates a game as a “bat game,” which he did in Saturday night’s team meeting. It means hard-nosed, physical play, which was certainly needed after last week’s stunning 31-21 loss to the St. Louis Rams.
With their marching orders in hand, the Saints went out Sunday and laid the wood to the Tampa Bay Bucs. But they did more than atone for that bad loss to the Rams as their 27-16 win also made up for a 26-20 setback to the Bucs on Oct. 16 in Tampa, Fla.
The Saints looked like a different team from a week earlier as they played aggressively from the start to delight 73,043 fans in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — the largest crowd to see a Saints’ game in the building.
“I thought we really responded well,” Payton said. “I thought, coming in, that we were really ready to play this game.
“We talked about it being a physical game and we made it a ‘bat game,’ which is something we’ve never done with a division opponent. There’s a process involved when you do something like that, and I thought that aspect of being the physical team really helped us today.”
It was evident when the Saints controlled the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense.
After rushing for just 56 yards at St. Louis, the Saints (6-3) cranked out 195 yards and averaged 7.0 yards per carry Sunday. Their defense held the Bucs (4-4) to 84 yards on 20 carries after the Rams pounded them for 183 yards.
On top of that, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was not sacked by the Bucs after he was dropped six times by the Rams. He did throw one interception, but was 27-of-36 for 258 yards with two touchdowns in leading his team to 453 total yards.
“Call it what you want, but we wanted to right the wrongs from last week,” Brees said. “When you look at our productivity, when we’re running the ball effectively, it’s through the roof. Both (run and pass) are complementary to one another. I felt like we did a great job of finding our balance today.”
But the defense did its job as well.
In fact, they set the tone on the Bucs’ first two drives, forcing a three-and-out on the first series and then stopping Tampa Bay’s 247-pound battering ram LeGarrette Blount on fourth-and-1 at the Saints’ 29.
On that play, strong safety Roman Harper went low to take out Blount’s legs, while weakside linebacker Jonathan Casillas hit him around the shoulders for a 5-yard loss after Blount fumbled.
“If they had stayed on the field there, they might have gotten a little confidence,” said Harper, who was credited with a sack and nine total tackles, “and for us to turn them around was big.”
“That was huge because Tampa likes to establish themselves as a physical, running team,” said Casillas, who led the Saints with 10 tackles. “From the film last week, they probably thought they could exploit us. But it was huge to get off the field and get the offense back out there. That gave us a lot of momentum.”
The Saints offense took things from there, driving 66 yards to a 3-yard TD pass from Brees to wide receiver Lance Moore and then going 80 yards to a 21-yard scoring toss from Brees to running back Darren Sproles.
On those two drives, the Saints rushed for 38 and 50 yards with Sproles and Pierre Thomas ripping off runs of 35 and 33 yards, respectively.
Thomas finished with 66 yards on eight carries and a 9-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, while Sproles, who caught five passes for 57 yards, had 42 rushing yards on eight carries.
On his touchdown run, Thomas appeared to be stopped at the Bucs’ 5, but he broke through a would-be tackle by linebacker Quincy Black to reach the end zone.
Overall, the three-man backfield-by-committee approach for the Saints worked well as Chris Ivory led the way with 67 yards on 15 attempts behind a dominant performance by their offensive line.
“I think the balance in the offense helped a lot and helped keep us out of bad situations,” said right tackle Zach Strief, who returned after missing five games with a sprained right knee. “Overall, we played pretty well.
“When you don’t have that (run-pass) balance, it makes everything harder,” he added. “It was certainly a big thing for us to kind of get that balance back and get back to running the ball. Fortunately, we were successful with it.”
The Saints led 17-3 at halftime on John Kasay’s 21-yard field goal on the final play of the half and added a 34-yarder late in the contest.
Meanwhile, the Bucs had to settle for Connor Barth field goals of 40, 48 and 25 yards until Josh Freeman’s 5-yard TD pass to tight end Kellen Winslow with 5:33 to play cut the Saints’ lead to 24-16.
The Saints defense allowed 365 total yards, but they pretty much made it a one-dimensional game after Blount got off to a good start.
He finished with 72 yards on 13 carries, which included a 27-yard run when he bounced an inside run to the outside in the third quarter, while Freeman, who was off target on at least two potential scoring passes, was 27 of 37 for 281 yards with one TD and no interceptions.
“I thought we played well defensively — and we played fast,” Harper said.
And the shiny bats they got Saturday night was a nice motivational touch.
“We didn’t necessarily need a ‘bat game,’ but Coach (Payton) had it like icing on the cake,” defensive end Will Smith said, noting that they had a good week of practice and meetings. “We knew we didn’t play up to our expectations last week.”