Defense, special teams pick up slack for New Orleans Saints in division-winning effort against Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) tries to elude New Orleans Saints cornerback Eli Apple (25) and outside linebacker A.J. Klein (53) on a run during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) tries to elude New Orleans Saints cornerback Eli Apple (25) and outside linebacker A.J. Klein (53) on a run during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

Tampa, Fla. – Never forget, it’s a team game.

When one unit isn’t at its highest level of efficiency, it’s the responsibility of the other two to pick up the slack until an acceptable level of production is found. So Sunday’s 28-14 victory over Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium, which earned the NFC South Division title for the Saints, was a satisfying one, indeed.

With the offense stagnant, the defense and special teams took over and provided the spark until the offense chipped in to provide the final touches.

The result? A 25-0 shutout in the second half for New Orleans (11-2), and consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history. There’s savoring to do before preparation begins for the Monday night game against Carolina.

OFFENSE: For a half, Tampa Bay had the antidote. The Saints scored three points in the first half, and barely mustered 100 yards (104, to be exact) of offense. The end-of-game numbers weren’t exactly bottle-popping ones – 298 yards on 62 plays. But the unit took advantage of some field-flipped position and punched in touchdown drives of 30, 51 and 53 yards in the second half. It was opportunistic when it needed to be, and that was enough Sunday. Drew Brees completed 24 of 31 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown, with an interception, and Mark Ingram had 13 carries for 52 yards and a touchdown. But the Saints were able to control the ball in the second half, wear down Tampa Bay’s defense and take control (31:52 time of possession, 6 for 12 on third down). There’s cleanup to do, as always, but it’s better to do it in victory, as always.

DEFENSE: Few units have played better over the last five games, during which the Saints have allowed 17 points or less to each opponent. The team hasn’t done that since November/December of 2006. New Orleans had a takeaway (Marshon Lattimore’s end zone interception at the end) and four sacks (two by Cam Jordan, the third straight game he has had two). The defense did what it has done a few times this season: Allowed an early touchdown, adjusted, and locked down. The second-half shutout was no fluke, as New Orleans simply has been that good. Tampa Bay, the leading offense in the NFL in yards per game and passing yards, had 279 and 174 in those respective categories. And there’s still room to grow.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Forget the nice kickoff returns by Alvin Kamara, a 17-yard punt return by Tommylee Lewis, punter Thomas Morstead’s continued stellar work and Wil Lutz being as automatic as any kicker in the league right now. Those feats alone would have constituted a very good day for special teams. Taysom Hill’s blocked punt pushed the results to “great.” The block turned the momentum of the game, breathing life into a struggling offense. It was a game-changer, right when the Saints needed it most.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) dives over the line against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to score on a 1-yard touchdown run during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

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