Saints quarterback Drew Brees, center, celebrates with running back Darren Sproles and wide receiver Courtney Roby after Sproles scored on a 9-yard touchdown run during the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 7:37 PM
METAIRIE (AP) — Drew Brees said the Saints’ offense is close to where it needs to be.
Even without injured Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, New Orleans had five touchdowns in a six-possession span at Tampa Bay in a 35-28 win.
“Definitely you feel that no matter what play is called, we’re going to make it work and we have the opportunity to really make something happen,” Brees said Wednesday. “That’s the feeling we want, when everybody’s in sync and everyone’s in rhythm.”
The Saints had that feeling for virtually all of 2011, when they set the NFL record for yards and first downs while Brees broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old mark for passing yards in a season. They — and Brees — started slowly this year in the absence of head coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the season for his role in the NFL bounty’s investigation of New Orleans.
Through three games, Brees was 75 of 137 (54.7 percent) for 904 yards and seven touchdowns with five interceptions. The Saints lost all three.
In the last three games, he is 91 of 136 (66.9 percent) for 1,192 yards, 11 TDs and two interceptions. The Saints are 2-1 in those games; losing at Green Bay 28-27 before beating San Diego and Tampa Bay.
Against San Diego, they scored two touchdowns and a field goal on their last three series before Brees took a knee on the final play to run out the clock. A week before then, they scored two touchdowns and kicked two field goals on four consecutive possessions in Green Bay.
Next up: a date in Denver with Peyton Manning and the Broncos on Sunday night.
“What they’re doing now is just playing great as an offense,” Denver linebacker Keith Brooking said. “All 11 guys are holding up on their responsibilities. … (Brees) is playing better than he’s played since I’ve been following him and watching him. He’s one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the league.”
Brees’ recent run has been even more impressive because of injuries to key receivers. Graham led the Saints with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, but his absence due to a sprained ankle did not slow Brees down against Tampa Bay.
He connected with wide receiver Lance Moore nine times for 121 yards and threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to touchdown pass to Graham’s backup, David Thomas.
Moore missed the San Diego game with a strained right hamstring. HIs backup, Greg Camarillo, converted three pivotal first downs as he caught his first four passes of the season.
“There are times when we have guys down and a little dinged up, and we have to manage,” Brees said. “By Lance Moore being down against San Diego, that gave opportunities for others. Jimmy Graham was down this week, and that gave opportunities for others.
“What you love is when you have access to the full arsenal.”
Brees has gotten hot without much help from a running game. New Orleans ranks last in the NFL in rushing, averaging 76.2 yards, and that weakness almost cost the Saints against Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers stopped Darren Sproles on a third-and-3 run when the Saints needed one more first down to run out the clock just before the 2-minute warning. New Orleans punted, and Tampa Bay came within 9 yards of a tying touchdown in the final seconds.
“Obviously the running game is still a huge issue for us and something we’re still working on,” offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “But the offense has felt at times how we should be feeling and we have gotten going the way we’d like to.”
Notes: Interim coach Joe Vitt said Graham ran routes in practice on Wednesday and looked good but that his ankle still needed to be evaluated by trainers. … Sproles was excused from practice because of an illness in his family. … Linebacker David Hawthorne, who has missed three consecutive games with a right hamstring injury, returned to practice but was limited. Wide receiver Joe Morgan, who was taken to a Tampa-area hospital with a chest injury on Sunday, also was limited in practice.