TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris doesn't mind when people point out how young his football team is. He just also hopes that assessment will soon start to include mention of how tough and resilient he feels like they are becoming.
Coming off a 45-point setback at San Francisco, the Bucs jumped headfirst back into the NFC South race Sunday by grinding out a 26-20 win over New Orleans.
Tampa's season outlook was shaky at best a week ago thanks to inconsistent quarterback play, a defense stuck in the middle pack among its peers and key injuries to running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
Now heading into this week's trip to London for a matchup with Chicago, the Bucs are hoping the resolve they showed on both sides of the ball against the Saints will go a long way in changing the early perceptions about them.
"I got a bunch of tough guys on this football team and no matter what happens, anybody may be considered a star," Morris said. "It's always going to be the next man theory...These guys know how to move on to the next game."
Tampa entered the New Orleans game ranked just 23rd in total defense and 20th in offense, but played well above those numbers Sunday.
The improvement was particularly noticeable on defense where the Bucs forced four turnovers — including three interceptions of Saints quarterback Drew Brees — while allowing New Orleans a touchdown on just one of its four red zone opportunities.
Tampa is now plus-2 in turnover margin for the season and was the biggest takeaway from the win, Morris said, for a unit that played without McCoy, who was out with an ankle injury.
"We're streaky I guess, we're like John Starks, we come out hot some days and some days we're not," Morris said. "But we are on fire and back in, we got the hop-step we've been missing the last couple of weeks, and that's what we've got to be."
Avoiding turnovers was also key for Tampa's offense and they were turnover-free thanks to one of quarterback Josh Freeman's best efforts of the season.
He completed just 23 of 41 passes, but had two touchdown passes and 303 passing yards. His final quarterback rating for the day was a less than stellar 95.9, but well above the season average of 74.1 he entered the game with.
His leadership was needed without the services Sunday of Blount, who sat out with a knee injury. He will likely miss his second straight game this week.
Earnest Graham did play well in Blount's place, rushing for 109 yards. But at 31 years old and in his eighth season the Bucs probably can't count on that production on a weekly basis if Blount doesn't return to action quickly.
Still, Graham said he's ready to step in as long as he's needed to, but isn't focusing on having to fill that role long term.
"I never felt entitled to being the starting running back or to anything," Graham said. "When you feel that way and just handle your work and handle your career, you want to be able to step up and be ready when it's time."
Freeman said the pieces are certainly there for the Bucs to be playoff team, though there is still a lot of room for growth as they continue a challenging six-game stretch against teams with a combined record of 24-11.
"We're a young team, we're a good team, but at the same time, it comes down to preparation and execution and if we can keep that at a high level," Freeman said. "It's Week 6, nothing's decided at this point, and every win is extremely valuable."
Cornerback E.J. Biggers said it's why nobody in the Bucs' locker room thinks that all of their early season issues are completely behind them.
"We left some plays out there on the field," he said. "It's going to be like that every game. Something going to happen that you could correct and get better at. We are going to do that and get better and keep growing as a team." __
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