TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Inspired by Jonathan Vilma's return, New Orleans' porous defense found a way to keep Tampa Bay out of the end zone, then did it again to preserve the Saints' second straight win.
Drew Brees threw for 377 yards and four touchdowns, however Sunday's 35-28 victory over the Buccaneers wouldn't have been possible without a third-quarter goal-line stand and another stop to end the game.
"I don't know how much better we got. I know we won the game. That's always a positive," safety Roman Harper said. "We were always finding ways to lose a game, and now we're finding ways to win a game.
With Vilma playing for the first time while appealing a season-long suspension for his role in the Saints bounty program and Brees shrugging off an early interception that led to Tampa Bay's first touchdown, New Orleans (2-4) took another step toward turning around its season following an 0-4 start.
Vilma provided an emotional lift, if not any game-changing plays. Brees extended his NFL record for consecutive games with at least one TD pass to 49 and launched a 95-yard scoring drive that put the Saints up 14 points after the defense stopped four straight Bucs running plays from the New Orleans 1 late in the third quarter.
Brees was 27 of 37 and threw TDs passes of 17 yards to Marques Colston, 9 yards to Darren Sproles, 48 yards to Joseph Morgan and 20 yards to David Thomas to overcome the New Orleans defense yielding a season-high 513 yards.
Vilma, who has a hearing on his appeal scheduled for Oct. 30, finished with one quarterback hit but no tackles.
"I tried to not let my emotions get the best of me," Vilma said. I didn't want to put myself in a situation where I was going to hurt the team or anything like that, so I tried not to be overexcited."
Teammates said it was good to have him on the field.
"Having him back just, emotionally, really made a difference in this game," interim Saints coach Aaron Kromer said. "We were trying to get him in in certain packages, and we had a couple of linebackers go down early in the game."
Vilma was very business-like, answering questions while getting dressed in the locker room. He said he wasn't sure how many snaps he played, but that he felt fine and believed he was in good enough condition to play an entire game.
The ninth-year pro said he had always believed he'd get an opportunity to play this season.
"Most people didn't, but it was a long, drawn-out process, and for good or bad, it ended up this way and I was able to be back on the field with my teammates. That was a great feeling," Vilma said.
Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been appointed as arbitrator for Vilma's appeal, as well as the hearings for three other players facing suspensions of various lengths.
"I think it's a good first step for Paul to be the neutral arbitrator," said Vilma, who played mostly in passing situations on Sunday. "We expect that he's going to do things in a neutral capacity, which will allow us to cross-examine some of the witnesses and allow us to see the evidence, if there is any evidence."