CB Mario Edwards picked off a David Carr pass to end Houston's first scoring threat
Even on a night in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers allowed only 223 yards, denied nine of 12 third down tries, kept their end zone untouched and won 17-9, Simeon Rice felt like there was something missing for the Bucs' defense: the three-and-out.
And, indeed, the Bucs forced the Houston Texans to punt after three plays on just two occasions, and they've had relatively few three-and-outs during a 3-1 preseason. But there is more than one way to skin a cat.
Tampa Bay's defense has been ranked among the league's top 10 for a remarkable seven years running. During that time, it has produced more than its share of three-and-outs, but it has also succeeded largely by taking the ball away often, and at opportune moments.
To wit, Thursday night in Houston. The Buccaneers had the ball first but produced their own three-and-out. The Texans then drove from their own 22 to the Bucs' 45 on five plays, and had a first down near the edge of scoring territory. That's when linebacker Ian Gold blitzed off the left edge and cornerback Mario Edwards reaped the benefits.
Gold hit Houston quarterback David Carr just as he was getting rid of the ball on a deep pass attempt down the right seam to wide receiver Corey Bradford. The hit caused the throw to be well underthrown, and Edward reacted first, coming back to intercept the pass at Tampa Bay's 16. Scoring threat averted.
It was Edwards's first interception as a Buccaneer, but he was quick to deflect credit for the play to his teammate, who is also in his first season in Tampa.
"That was a nice play by Ian Gold, hitting Carr and making him throw a bad pass," said Edwards. "I capitalized on it, but it was really Ian that made the play happen. I just took advantage of it."
Edwards, who spent three seasons starting at cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys, looks as if he is ready to take advantage of a new opportunity in Tampa. He played on the league's top-ranked defense last year, but the Bucs' system is a new and exciting challenge. As the third cornerback behind Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber, Edwards will likely be on the field for about 60% of the defensive snaps, and he'll be in position to make a lot more big plays.
"I think I'm coming along pretty well with this defense," he said. "You can always get better. This is a whole new scheme for me, but my thing is just learning the defense and giving the coaches what they want."
After a 2003 season in which a rash of injuries uncovered a depth problem in the Bucs' secondary, Tampa Bay was determined to stay out of that situation in 2004. Edwards gives the Bucs an experienced nickel back and a top replacement if Barber or Kelly is not available. On Thursday, Edwards actually started the game as Kelly was given the night off.
He responded quite well, recording two solo tackles, the key interception and a pair of passes defensed in less than a half of action. After ending the Texans' first drive with a pick, he also clipped their second march just after it had reached Tampa territory by breaking up a quick slant pass to WR Andre Johnson on third-and-two. On the play before, he had run Johnson out of bounds two yards short of the first-down marker after a short completion.
Overall this preseason, Edwards has six tackles and four passes defensed. He has proved to be exactly what the Bucs were looking for in a third cornerback, and that means that the strong play of such young players as Torrie Cox and Ronyell Whitaker is an indication of the very depth the team wanted in the secondary.
But his pick early in Thursday's game might have been the best part of Edwards' preseason. With plays like that, he will fit easily into the Bucs' long-running defensive tradition.
"We stress turnovers here, and we know that great defenses stay on the sideline," said Edwards. "Here tonight, we had three turnovers in the first half, two interceptions and a fumble recovery, so I think we're on track to do some good things this season."