TAMPA — A chipper Jonathan Vilma gave New Orleans’s struggling defense an emotional lift, while Drew Brees did the rest for the suddenly resurgent Saints.
Vilma played Sunday for the first time while appealing a seasonlong suspension for his role in the Saints’ bounty program, 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.’’
The Saints stopped two threats near the end zone in the second half, including the final drive of the game to preserve New Orleans’s second straight win.
Down a touchdown and out of timeouts, Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman marched the Bucs from their 19 to the New Orleans 9 in the final two minutes. He threw incomplete for Vincent Jackson, who came down with the ball out of the end zone on third down. On the game’s final play, Freeman rolled to his left to find Mike Williams open in the corner of the end zone. 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.
Brees, meanwhile, continued his stellar play for the Saints (2-4).
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.
Brees threw TD 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 513 yards.
Freeman threw for a career-high 420 yards and three touchdowns for the Bucs (2-4), who scored on their first three possessions to build a 21-7 lead.
Freeman threw TD passes of 13 yards to Tiquan Underwood and 17 yards to Jackson in the first half.
Dallas Clark’s 3-yard scoring reception trimmed Tampa Bay’s deficit to 35-28 with four minutes left.
Jackson had seven receptions for 216 yards, but failed to score on a 95-yard play in which safety Malcolm Jenkins ran him down to make the tackle at the Tampa Bay 1. LeGarrette Blount was stopped for no gain on three straight runs, then Freeman lost 4 yards on a quarterback keeper on fourth down.