Rookie WR Michael Clayton had another strong game on Sunday but for the first time in six weeks wasn't the team's leading receiver
For some time now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense has been like a daddy long legs in the hands of a torturous little boy, trying to keep moving even as one leg after another is pulled off.
It hasn't always been easy. The Bucs struggled to move the ball consistently in the first month and got off to an 0-4 start despite relatively strong defensive play. The receiving corps kept taking hits, with Joey Galloway (groin) and Charles Lee (hamstring, knee) joining Joe Jurevicius (back) on the sideline and Keenan McCardell choosing not to report. The backfield missed out on the chance to pair Charlie Garner and Michael Pittman on the field at the same time when Garner went out for the year just as Pittman was returning from a suspension. Then fullback Mike Alstott went down for two games with a knee injury. Rickey Dudley, the only real vertical threat at tight end, didn't make it through three games. Quarterback Chris Simms got hurt just a quarter into his first NFL start.
There was a silver lining, however. Brian Griese proved to be a real find at quarterback and is now one of the league's leading passers. Michael Pittman proved he could handle taking the lion's share of the carries. And rookie wide receiver Michael Clayton emerged as a true go-to threat, even when defenses could key on him.
And now that players like Galloway, Jurevicius and Alstott are working their way back into the mix, Tampa Bay suddenly has a multitude of options. In their 35-3 dismantling of the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the Bucs proved they could be very hard to defend when all the pieces are in place.
"It's huge, we have explosive weapons back," said Alstott, who provided a power-running change of pace to Pittman's darting cuts. "You have the deep threat down field with Joey Galloway and Joe Jurevicius, and Michael Clayton is doing great so they have to cover him, and Michael Pittman is running great so we are starting to see everything come back together. All the guys are getting healthy again. If the offensive line can do what they did today, it gives Brian and us time to do what we can do on the field."
Alstott had a touchdown run called back by an illegal motion penalty, but Pittman put the ball in the end zone twice, giving him six rushing touchdowns in the last four games, five more than he had in his first two seasons as a Buccaneer. After the game, Pittman deferred most of the credit to his blockers including fullbacks Alstott and Jameel Cook. Head Coach Jon Gruden saw the Bucs' season-high 159-yard rushing output as a group effort, even with an obvious feature back now in place.
"It's great to have him back," said Gruden of Alstott. "He is another guy who has had his share of injuries, but delivered not only some good runs, but some good blocks. I think Pittman went over 100 yards. That's a tribute to the fullback."
But where the Bucs are building a real healthy diversity is in the passing game. Jurevicius and Galloway have been back for several games, but they've been worked slowly back into the game plan, with Clayton remaining the primary target. The breakout rookie had led the Bucs in receptions and receiving yards in each of the previous five games before Sunday's win.
Against the 49ers, however, it was Jurevicius who had the top numbers – five catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns. In addition, Galloway had three catches for 33 yards, including a 22-yarder on second-and-21 that sustained a long drive in the first half.
"Jurevicius is coming back to life as a football player," said Gruden. "He's been very frustrated with the injuries that he has had. He delivered today and hopefully that's a good sign of things to come. We would like to have him playing at a high level with a rookie and Galloway."
With Jurevicius and Clayton together on the field, the Bucs have two big receivers who can catch passes and make yards even with defenders around them, and Galloway's toughness is underrated. Plus, all three have proved they can get deep, as Jurevicius did on a 42-yard score just before halftime. Clayton, in fact, proved it on two consecutive snaps; when one acrobatic, 30-yard grab was called back by a penalty, Clayton simply ran the same route on the next play and caught another 36-yarder. The Bucs scored a few plays later.
"[Galloway] told me before the game he felt as good as he's felt up to this point," said Griese. "I'm excited about not only having Joe Jurevicius back, but Joey Galloway coming back and getting some more reps and confidence in his offense. You couple those guys with Mike Clayton and we have some players."
Even the Bucs' defensive success on Sunday had something to do with the newfound diversity on offense. With Griese sustaining drives by converting seven of 12 third-down tries, the Bucs had possession of the ball for over 33 and a half minutes. Thus, a rested Tampa Bay defense was able to swarm all over quarterback Tim Rattay, leading to five sacks and a multitude of ugly throws.
Linebacker Derrick Brooks, who had the first of those five sacks on a superbly-executed blitz, liked what he saw from the Bucs' healthier group of receivers.
"Jurevicius had two balls he needed to catch and he did," said the 10th-year veteran. "Joey Galloway caught his passes up the middle on third down, and Clayton played crazy with the pass downfield."
The Bucs didn't use the tight end much in Sunday's game (Ken Dilger and Will Heller combined for two catches for 20 yards) but Dilger had emerged as more of a downfield threat in recent games, catching 10 passes in the last two contests. In addition, Pittman and Alstott are excellent receiving options out of the backfield but neither had a catch against the 49ers. And even first-year back Earnest Graham showed he can contribute, rushing for 27 yards on four carries in moments of relief for Pittman.
In other words, there are still more options for the Bucs to explore. And that's good because Griese isn't looking to force the ball to one particular player or another.
"We really don't feature guys in our game plan," he said. "It just comes during the game as guys make plays and get open, or defenses roll a certain way and guys get an opportunity to make plays."
Against the 49ers, a lot of guys got that opportunity, and they all came through. The Bucs hope that's a sign of things to come.