It was sometimes great, sometimes terrible, and then in one key moment it was both.
Thursday's preseason finale between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Houston Texans wasn't contested by the better-known players on either sideline. Still, it was a wonderful evaluation opportunity for Buccaneers coaches – particularly when it came to such players as Luke McCown, Sabby Piscitelli, Greg White and especially Paris Warren - and it was also Tampa Bay's third victory in four preseason games. Despite trailing 14-0 before the game was even six minutes old, the young Bucs rallied for a 31-24 win.
The Bucs' winning score came on Warren's second touchdown reception, a 31-yarder with three minutes to play. Unfortunately, it wasn't as joyous a moment as it could have been for the team and one of its top preseason performers. Warren suffered a leg injury as he was tackled across the goal line and had to be taken off the field on a cart. The entire Buccaneer team came off the sideline and huddled around Warren as he was attended to, and he was serenaded with chants of "Warren!" from the crowd as he left.
After the game, Head Coach Jon Gruden confirmed that Warren will miss the 2007 season.
"It's unfortunate that the reward for having a great training camp and playing great in six or seven games for a young player is I.R.," said a sober Gruden.
Warren may have had the most to gain in his attempt to survive Saturday's roster cut to 53, though his efforts would be moot if the injury is serious. Warren finished the game with seven receptions for 110 yards and now has a team-leading 15 catches for 191 yards and three touchdowns on the preseason. Gruden said that, prior to his injury, Warren had done enough to make the team.
Warren and many of his young counterparts had plenty of opportunity to play as neither team bothered with the one-series cameos sometimes given to starters in the preseason finale. Prior to the game, the Bucs announced an offensive and defensive 22 that included only two expected starters in safeties Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen. The Texans countered with starting offensive linemen Chester Pitts and Eric Winston and 20 reserves of their own.
So, if this was a comparison of roster depth, than the Bucs had to like what they saw, particularly in the first half. McCown was sacked on his first pass attempt – leading to a fumble, a touchdown return and a 14-0 Houston lead six minutes into the game – but he was nothing short of brilliant from his second drop-back on.
McCown's next four drives all ended in scores as the Bucs put up 24 straight points and rang up 239 yards of offense by halftime. McCown, who came out after one half, completed 15 of 20 passes for 203 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 125.6. He did suffer an interception on his last throw, a wobbler that appeared to slip out of his hand as he took aim at WR David Boston deep. Still, it was another masterful outing in a season full of them by the Bucs' quarterbacks. In this one, McCown impressed beyond his numbers, sensing pressure and avoiding it, hitting players on the run so that they could gain extra yardage and even thriving in the no-huddle attack.
"Luke McCown obviously did some really good things at quarterback," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Like we've said all along, he's got a lot of talent. You see his mobility, he has a quick, accurate stroke and he has got good command. I really think he's got a great upside."
Piscitelli had his most active game of the preseason, recording two tackles – both of the -"de-cleater" variety – a pick and a pass defensed. White, a former Arena League star who was added after the start of training camp, played extensively at both end and tackle and looked like a pass-rushing force with three tackles, a sack, a pass defensed and a quarterback hurry. His hit on QB Jared Zabransky's arm on fourth-and-nine from the Bucs' 33 sealed Tampa Bay's victory.
Some players put good and bad evidence on film. TE Jerramy Stevens looked like the downfield threat he was perceived to be as a free agent signee this spring, catching seven passes for 100 yards, but he also lost a critical fumble early in the second half. QB Bruce Gradkowski, who had been close to unstoppable in the Bucs' previous two games at Jacksonville and Miami, had more difficulty moving the team against Houston in the third quarter, though he did rally for the go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter and finished with quite good numbers (13 of 20 for 141 yards, one touchdown and a 102.3 passer rating). And, as a team, the Bucs' run defense was strong in the first half (32 yards allowed on nine carries) but less effective after halftime (93 yards on 15 carries).
The Bucs also fumbled away a first-and-goal situation at the one-yard line and dug that 14-0 hole, which is often insurmountable in the regular season. That certainly left Gruden with mixed feelings about the evening.
"You can't start any worse than that," he said. "You can't fumble the ball at the one-yard line, turn the football over and expect to dominate. We have to work on that.
"But we regrouped and did some good things. It should have been a lot better…but some young guys are stepping up."
In addition to the extra snaps it affords young players, the now-common decision to go almost exclusively with second and third-stringers serves the purpose of keeping highly valued starters out of harm's way. Last year, the Bucs used their starters for just one series against Houston and still lost starting left guard Dan Buenning to a knee injury.
If that wasn't fresh on the Bucs' minds, they certainly got a reminder of what could be lost with 14 minutes to go in the first half. After Piscitelli, the promising rookie safety, snared his first NFL interception, first-round DE Gaines Adams was leveled by a blindside hit by T Jordan Black after the play was over. Black got a 15-yard penalty and the Bucs got a scare when Adams failed to immediately get up. Fortunately, Adams simply had the wind knocked out of him. When he could breathe again, so could Bucs management.
Second-string QB Sage Rosenfels and the Texans' offense had little trouble slicing through the Bucs' mix-and-match defense, driving 71 yards on seven plays on the opening possession, most of it through the air. Adams showed up with a nice hustle play on a tackle of WR Jacoby Jones 30 yards downfield, but that did little to slow down the Texans' air attack. Rosenfels and Jones eventually finished the march with a perfect three-yard fade pass into the back right corner of the end zone on third-and-goal.
The Bucs' opening possession didn't go as well; in fact, it went in the wrong direction. On his first drop-back, on third-and-seven, McCown was chased from the pocket, sacked from behind by DE N.D. Kalu and forced to fumble. Several players from both teams tried to fall on the ball, but it eventually squirted out of the scrum right to CB Jamar Fletcher, who scooped it up and ran 36 yards untouched to the end zone.
Thus, Houston had a 14-0 lead with just over five minutes elapsed in the game. McCown, however, wasn't fazed by the setback. He jump-started Tampa Bay's second drive with an astute audible that produced a 10-yard completion to Stevens, then darted a laser of a seam pass to Stevens for 23 more on the next play. That set up a nine-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Warren, completing a nine-play, 76-yard drive that narrowed the gap to 14-8 with just under five minutes to play in the first quarter.
After second-year DE Julian Jenkins helped force a three-and-out with a pair of hard-pursuit tackles on RB Samkon Gado, McCown immediately put the Bucs' offense on the move again. Working the seams again, this time to Graham (for 26 yards) and WR Michael Clayton (for 20) , McCown drove the Bucs 85 yards on eight plays for the game-tying score. FB B.J. Askew, an offseason free agent signee, made a case for more involvement in the offense on his 12-yard touchdown catch, nimbly spinning away from a tackle and maintaining his balance with a hand on the ground.
"I like this guy," said Gruden enthusiastically after Askew's score. "We took him out immediately after that play. We had seen enough."
Piscitelli's interception – he divined a rollout pass to TE Jeb Putzier and lurked behind him until third-string QB Jared Zabransky delivered the ill-advised pass – set up Matt Bryant's 41-yard field goal attempt. The Bucs actually gained a first-and-goal at the one after a pass-interference penalty on S Von Hutchins, but a fumbled handoff and a sack forced the Bucs to settle for three, as Bryant easily popped the ball through the uprights. The Bucs had their first lead with 12 minutes to go in the first half.
At that point, momentum was fully on the Bucs' side. After another quick three-and-out and a punt down to the 10, McCown delivered a perfect slant to Warren that hit the receiver in stride and allowed him to gallop into the open field for a gain of 51 yards. RB Lionel Gates added runs of eight, four and 11 yards to put the ball at Houston's 10, and then finished the drive with a nifty double-clutch grab of a hard five-yard touchdown pass over the middle.
Jenkins sack of Zabransky killed Houston's next drive and gave the Bucs another possession before halftime, but the ball appeared to slip out of McCown's hand on his deep ball to Boston and Fletcher's interception set up Kris Brown's 41-yard field goal. That made it 24-17 in the home team's favor as the first half come to an end.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half but the Texans still had the game tied within four minutes. Stevens' fumble on the Bucs' first play of the second half set up Houston's game-tying, 53-yard touchdown drive. The Bucs put up a credible goal-line stand, stopping two runs from the one-yard line, but RB Wali Lundy got in over left tackle on third-and-goal to tie the game at 24-24.
There were few serious scoring threats for the rest of the first half, though Houston did have one golden opportunity wrecked by TE Joel Dreessen's fumble at the Bucs' nine-yard line, which was forced and recovered by S Kalvin Pearson. Two Buc drives later, Gradkowski moved the ball 69 yards on 10 plays to produce the winning score. He had to convert a fourth-and-one at the Houston 35 – finding Warren, of course – and also survived an apparent interception a few plays earlier when the Bucs challenged a play on the sideline and won. Warren's touchdown catch, on a play he got fully behind the Houston defense, came one play after the fourth-down play.
The Bucs' victory completed a 3-1 preseason, their best mark since 2004. They will open their regular-season slate in Seattle on Sunday, September 9.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers and Texans have met for their respective preseason finale in six straight years, dating back to Houston's 2002 inaugural season. The Buccaneers lead the series 5-1, having won all but last year's affair. … S Sabby Piscitelli's second-quarter interception was the first interception thrown by Texans quarterbacks this preseason. … One week after getting stung by the Statue of Liberty most recently made famous by Boise State in last year's Fiesta Bowl, the Bucs came up against one of the architects of that play. Houston's rookie QB Jared Zabransky, was the quarterback who faked the pass and handed off behind his back to RB Ian Johnson for the game-winning two-point conversion over Oklahoma in that instant classic last January. In this game, Zabransky completed 12 of 22 passes for 117 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. … P Josh Bidwell appeared to be in midseason form. Thanks to the Bucs' offensive efficiency in the first half, he wasn't called on to punt until midway through the third quarter, but he eventually kicked three times and compiled an excellent net average of 43.7. … In addition to his pass-catching exploits, WR Paris Warren also handled most of the punt return duties for the Bucs, running back three punts for 23 yards and adding two fair catches. CB Carlos Hendricks got an opportunity to return kickoffs and averaged 25.3 yards on three runbacks.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during the preseason. However, even before the wholesale lineup changes, the Bucs would have been without rookie Arron Sears, the starter at left guard, starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood starting tight end Alex Smith. All three have minor injuries that are not expected to keep them out of the regular-season opener, Smith and Sears to ankles and Trueblood to a lower leg.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DE Gaines Adams had to be helped up after taking a blindside hit in the second quarter, but he just had the wind knocked out of him and was cleared to return if needed. WR Paris Warren sustained a leg injury on his second touchdown catch in the fourth quarter and will miss the 2007 season.
The Texans did not report an injury during the game.