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Saints meet Tampa Bay

Teammates laud Bruce Gradkowski’s confidence and presence in the huddle. Opposing coaches marvel about the rookie quarterback’s decision making and poise during a challenging NFL baptism.

A month into his effort to help the Tampa Bay Buccaneers save their season, the sixth-round draft pick is 2-2 as a starter, but also experiencing the usual growing pains for a young player at his position.

Since an impressive debut, albeit in a losing cause, against New Orleans on Oct. 8, Gradkowski’s pass completion percentage has declined each game and the Bucs (2-5) have failed to score an offensive touchdown the past two weeks.

On Sunday, the 23-year-old faces the Saints (5-2) for the second time and is eager to see how much he benefits from the experience of having faced the New Orleans defense before.

“I feel like my first start was pretty good, but we didn’t get the win,” said Gradkowski, who threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-21 loss to the Saints, who won it on Reggie Bush’s punt return for a TD in the closing minutes.

“That’s how I judge my play,” the replacement for the injured Chris Simms said, “and I think as a quarterback that’s the way you are defined — did you get the win or not.”

Saints coach Sean Payton, one-time quarterback tutor for the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys, is impressed with Gradkowski’s progress.

New Orleans will make adjustments based on what they’ve learned about the rookie. However, Payton stressed the Saints, like most teams, don’t change the basic structure of their defense from week to week.

“We’ll try to change up some looks each week. We’ll try to look at some self-scout tendencies and what they’ve done, but we’re not putting in a whole other package,” the first-year coach said.

One of the things the Bucs will be monitoring is how Gradkowski reacts.

“I try not to get too deep and philosophical, other than nothing ever stays the same,” coach Jon Gruden said. “Familiarity is sometimes a helpful tool, and sometimes it can hurt you a little bit because sometimes you look too deep into things. You’ve just got to go out there snap by snap. And, obviously, we’ve got to get the ball in the end zone.”

That has been a problem.

The Bucs beat the Eagles two weeks ago, mostly on the strength of Ronde Barber returning two interceptions for touchdowns and Matt Bryant kicking a 62-yard field goal on the last play of the game.

They went without an offensive TD for the second straight week, losing to the Giants 17-3 last Sunday.

Tampa Bay is last in the NFL in scoring with 88 points, including just seven in the first quarter.

“I don’t want to say I’m satisfied with my progress, but I am coming along,” Gradkowski said. “The margin of error is very slim. The margin of victory is very slim. It’s a play here and a play there. That’s what’s tough, but it’s also a good thing. You get those one or two plays, and you’re right in that ballgame.”

Payton notes Gradkowski has given the Bucs a chance to win each of his starts. The main reason is the rookie has done a good job of protecting the football, throwing one interception in his first 155 pass attempts.

“He was surprising in our game from a standpoint of how comfortable he felt with all the packages that I know Jon has in. I know there wasn’t a whole lot cut back or tapered back,” Payton said.

“He’s got a swagger about him. You can see it on the field, he’s very confident. So, I think through repetitions and playing time you can only get better.”

One of the keys for the Saints, trying to rebound from a 35-22 loss to Baltimore, will be stopping the run.

Carnell “Cadillac” Williams had his best game of the season against New Orleans, gaining 111 yards on 20 carries in the first meeting. Last season’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year is coming off his least productive performance — 20 yards on eight carries against the Giants.

“I think they’re a better team than when we played them the first time,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “But then again, I think we’re a better team, too.”

The Saints had five turnovers in the loss to the Ravens and are eager to make amends. A victory would enable them to reach the midpoint of Payton’s first season with twice as many wins as they had all of last year.

“There’s nothing like winning in our league, and probably nothing as hard as losing,” Payton said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’re beginning to do the right things. And yet there is a ton of things we have to improve on. I think our players understand that.”