The defense that has sparked the Saints to the top of the NFC South faced a test of its mettle Sunday.
For weeks, New Orleans had been feasting on incomplete offenses, attacks either racked by injury, ranked near the bottom of the NFL or overly dependent on the running game. Tampa Bay entered Sunday's game with one of the league's most productive passing attacks and the air of a team desperate to save its season.
The New Orleans defense pounded those hopes into the turf of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Dominant all day, the Saints battered and bruised the Buccaneers in a 30-10 win that gave New Orleans a six-game winning streak for the first time since 2011 and handed coach Sean Payton his 100th regular-season win.
Halfway into a season few experts saw coming, the Saints (6-2) are rolling behind the kind of defense the franchise has been trying to build for the past three years.
"I can't be more proud of our defense, the way that they are playing, the way they are attacking offenses," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "You guys can call it what you want, but we're trying to assert our identity in the known football world."
Overall, Tampa Bay (2-6) has been disappointing, unable to live up to its preseason hype as one of the NFL's up-and-coming teams, and quarterback Jameis Winston has been battling a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder for three weeks.
But the Buccaneers have surrounded Winston with a star-studded group of receivers and tight ends led by Pro Bowler Mike Evans, and even with Winston playing injured, Tampa Bay entered Sunday's game with the No. 2 passing offense.
New Orleans neutralized Winston's weapons with the same formula that has driven the Saints' six-game winning streak, relying on a young secondary to harass Winston's weapons and give an aggressive pass rush, led by defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Alex Okafor, time to get home.
The formula worked. The Saints jumped to a 9-0 lead with a field goal on the game's opening drive and a Buccaneers punt Justin Hardee blocked and returned for a touchdown on Tampa Bay's first series. After that, Winston failed to get anything going.
"We did our job," Jordan said. "Not only in containing Jameis, but in getting after him."
New Orleans stymied the Buccaneers' running game, sacked Winston twice and held Tampa Bay to just 88 yards in the first half, allowing the offense to overcome an Alvin Kamara fumble and extend the lead to 16-3 with a seven-play, 93-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter.
Kamara made up for the fumble by capping that series with an eye-popping 33-yard catch-and-run for the touchdown.
A hit from Okafor on Tampa Bay's final drive of the first half forced Winston out of the game because of the injured shoulder, and the Saints, smelling blood, went in for the kill.
New Orleans overwhelmed the Buccaneers in the first five minutes of the third quarter, piling up a three-and-out, another Kamara touchdown, a fumble forced by Vonn Bell and recovered by Chris Banjo and a 36-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Ted Ginn Jr. to put the game out of reach at 30-3.
The Saints defense never let up. Veteran Tampa Bay backup Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced Winston when the Buccaneers' starter was first injured against Arizona and nearly brought Tampa Bay back in the desert with 290 passing yards, but New Orleans sacked Fitzpatrick twice and held the Bucs to 200 yards overall, 176 yards below their season average.
"It is a team effort, and I swear to you, everyone is feeding off of each other's energy, each other's playmaking throughout the game," defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha said. "It makes things easier; it makes pass-rushing easier when everybody's balling."
For once, the defense's momentum is feeding the offense.
New Orleans has often started slow offensively during the winning streak, only to catch the momentum of the defense and crush teams with the kind of burst that finished off the Buccaneers and left Tampa Bay resorting to childish antics — Winston's trash talk with Saints rookie Marshon Lattimore led to a cheap shot by Evans.
"We feel the energy; we feel the momentum," Brees said. "Obviously, those third downs with our fans on defense, the noise meter is going, fans are getting crazy and we're getting off the field, the offense is getting the ball, going down and getting points."
The city of New Orleans has noticed.
The Superdome was deafening at times on Sunday, a sign that the red-hot Saints are starting to take hold of a fan base that entered the season frustrated by three consecutive 7-9 seasons.
"It has been fantastic; the crowd has been outstanding," Payton said. "We feed off of it. We had a second quarter (of the season) here where we knew ... we were going to have three of four at home. Fortunately, we were able to take advantage of that."
Now the Saints head into the second half of the season with the kind of momentum they haven't had in years.