NEW ORLEANS — For 10 weeks, New Orleans’ defense took the brunt of attacks on the team.
The unit yielded at least 400 yards in each of those contests and played a large role in the rough start to the season.
On Sunday, at home for the penultimate time this season, the Saints showed just how far Steve Spagnuolo’s defense has come.
New Orleans easily handled NFC South rival Tampa Bay 41-0, the Saints’ first shutout in nearly 17 years.
“If anybody in this room ever envisioned a shutout after the first couple of games this year, you couldn’t have predicted that,” Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said. “That’s staying the course with the right players and the right coaches and the right attitude and the right teaching progression and the proper accountability to one another.”
The Saints (6-8) did it on both offense and defense, playing a loose, fast-paced game stamped by New Orleans’ plus-five turnover differential for the day.
The defense intercepted Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman four times while holding him to just 26 0f 47 for 279 yards. He ended the day with a 37.5 quarterback rating while watching Dan Orlovsky finish the game.
Just as impressive, the Saints kept Tampa running back Doug Martin to just 16 yards on nine carries. Martin was averaging 4.7 yards per carry entering the game. Tampa ran for just 67 yards, nearly half its season average coming into Sunday.
New Orleans’ defense allowed the Bucs (6-8) to convert just 4 of 13 third downs
It wasn’t just defense. New Orleans’ offense did its job, too.
The Saints racked up 447 total yards, surpassing the century mark on the ground for the sixth time in the past seven games, and came through with their first turnover-free game since Nov. 18 at Oakland.
“Obviously there was a renewed focus, maybe a new set of goals for these last three weeks the way we want to close out the season,” quarterback Drew Brees said.
Running back Mark Ingram led the Saints’ ground attack, rushing for a touchdown and nearly hit the century mark, grinding out a season-high 90 yards.
Meanwhile, Brees bounced back from three straight turnover-laden games, hitting for 307 yards and four touchdowns and a 124.6 rating, his fourth-best of the season.
“We just knew it was a matter of time before he kind of got out of what he was going through and had a like he had today,” said receiver Lance Moore, who finished with four catches for 42 yards and a touchdown.
The Saints answered anyone who questioned whether they would coast the rest of the way in 2012.
In fact, New Orleans answered that question immediately. Brees led the offense on a seven-play, 74-yard drive, handing New Orleans a 7-0 lead on a nine-yard touchdown pass to David Thomas. Brees was 5-for-5 on the drive.
The Saints extended their lead to 10-0 early in the second quarter on a 25-yard Garrett Hartley field goal.
New Orleans safety Rafael Bush helped the Saints continue their first-half domination with an interception of Freeman. Eight plays later, Brees hit Darren Sproles for a two-yard touchdown pass and a 17-0 lead.
And thanks to a 37-yard punt return by Sproles just before halftime, the Saints had a chance to push their lead even further away from Tampa Bay. They did, scoring a touchdown with just 9 seconds to go in the half on a Brees to Lance Moore 7-yard strike. New Orleans went to halftime up 24-0.
After Tampa Bay was successful on a fake punt to open the third quarter, safety Isa Abdul-Quddus became the third Saints defensive back to come up with an interception of a Freeman pass. Brees then hit the fourth different receiver for a touchdown when he connected with Joe Morgan for a 34-yard scoring strike and a 31-0 lead.
“There were things that happened out there today that resulted in us not being on the same page and you have to be together to score points and win,” Freeman said. “Today things just didn’t click as they should have.”
A Hartley 36-yard field goal and an 11-yard touchdown run by Ingram finished the Bucs off.