TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A chipper Jonathan Vilma gave New Orleans' struggling defense an emotional lift, while Drew Brees did the rest for the suddenly resurgent Saints.
Vilma played for the first time while appealing a season-long suspension for his role in the Saints' bounty program Sunday, finishing with one quarterback hit but no tackles in a 35-28 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"It's awesome to have him back," receiver Lance Moore said. "To go through the things that he's gone through individually, then to just kind of break through and get a chance to get out there, be with his teammates — he spoke to us last night, got us all fired up, and we had to come out here and play well."
While it's debatable how much Vilma's play impacted the defense, the Saints stopped two threats near the end zone in the second half, including the final drive of the game to preserve New Orleans' second straight win.
Brees, meanwhile, continued the stellar play the Saints (2-4) are counting on getting from him to turn their season around following an 0-4 start.
Brees extended his NFL record for consecutive games with at least one TD pass to 49, while leading long scoring drives on four straight possessions to turn a 14-point deficit into a 28-21 halftime lead.
Despite wasting two scoring opportunities — one when they four straight running plays failed from the Saints' 1 — Tampa Bay (2-4) still nearly found a way to get the game into overtime.
Josh Freeman marched the Bucs from their own 19 to the New Orleans 9 in the closing seconds. On the game's final play, Freeman rolled to his left before throwing to Mike Williams for an apparent tying touchdown.
But the receiver had been pushed out of the back of the end zone before coming back into the field of play. So, what appeared to be a possible tying catch was nullified for illegal touching.
Bucs coach Greg Schiano said he didn't see what happened on the play
"It really doesn't matter. If it's called, it's called. You live with it. There's nothing you can do about it," Schiano said. "So whether he did, didn't, we'll see it on tape. That's life."
Vilma was very business-like, answering questions while getting dressed in the New Orleans 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 veteran linebacker 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.
"I talked to the team last night. I don't really want to get into it," Vilma added. "I think my talk, hopefully it worked since we won today."
Ronde Barber's first-quarter interception set up Freeman's 13-yard TD pass to Tiquan Underwood. Jackson had a 17-yard scoring reception and Doug Martin ran 36 yards for a touchdown for Tampa Bay.