The red-hot Tampa Bay Buccaneers rode a wave of big-play offensive exploits through the second quarter of the 2012 season but needed a full-team effort to get the second half of the campaign started with another victory. Tampa Bay scored in offense, defense and special teams on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium to down the San Diego Chargers, 34-24, and win their fourth game in the last five weeks.
"Our guys today played team football, and that's what we needed to do," said Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano. "It's like a pitcher when he goes out there and maybe doesn't have his best fastball but he goes to his other pitches and finds a way to win. What we did was we played off each other, all three phases, and guys made plays when we needed to have them."
The Bucs improved to 5-4 with the victory and sent the Chargers below .500 to 4-5. Tampa Bay is now 3-0 against AFC West teams in 2012, with a game at Denver coming up later in the season.
Rookie CB Leonard Johnson's 83-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter gave the home team a 10-point lead with 13 minutes to play. In a game that featured six lead changes or ties, the Buccaneers had taken a 24-21 lead late in third quarter on Josh Freeman's 15-yard touchdown pass to Tiquan Underwood. In the first half, Tampa Bay scored on a three-yard touchdown catch by TE Dallas Clark and a 29-yard return by LB Adam Hayward of a punt blocked by LB Dekoda Watson.
Another rookie cornerback, LeQuan Lewis, forced into extended duty by an injury to Eric Wright, intercepted Rivers in the game's closing minutes to set up Connor Barth's game-clinching 45-yard field goal with one minute remaining. Barth also made an early 40-yarder on an outstanding day for the Buccaneers' special teams. P Michael Koenen blasted five more touchbacks on seven kickoffs and dropped a key third-quarter punt down at the San Diego two-yard line.
Big plays on defense and special teams proved critical on an afternoon on which the Bucs' offense, which had averaged 477 yards and 36 points over the previous four weeks, saw more modest production. Tampa Bay's offense by no means struggled against the Chargers; it was, in fact, rather efficient and for the third time in the last four games did not commit a single turnover.
Freeman was particularly efficient. He completed 14 of his 20 passes for 210 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. With a passer rating of 137.5 on the day, he became the first quarterback in franchise history to exceed 100 in that statistic for five games in a row.
Similarly, breakout rookie back Doug Martin got nowhere near his record-breaking 251-yard, four-touchdown performance of a week ago in Oakland but was nonetheless one of the most dynamic players on the field. With 68 yards on 19 carries, most of it on rugged runs between the tackles against the NFL's fourth-ranked defense, and another 51 yards on three receptions, Martin produced over 100 yards from scrimmage for the fifth straight week.
Martin's 42-yard catch-and-run on Tampa Bay's opening possession set up Freeman's scoring pass to Clark and restored some Buccaneer momentum after Chargers WR Danario Alexander had gone 80 yards for a touchdown on the third play of the game. San Diego managed 410 yards of offense on the afternoon and had a trio of 80-yard touchdown drives but had the game's only two giveaways, as well as the critical blocked punt by Watson.
The Buccaneers lost LB Quincy Black to an undetermined injury in the third quarter; he was taken off the field on a cart and stretcher and transported to a local hospital for observation. "There's obviously something we're going to have to deal with, but I think he's going to be okay," said Schiano of Black.
The Bucs' young defenders picked up the slack, as rookie LB Lavonte David had 14 tackles to give him 30 over the last two games and rookie S Mark Barron added six tackles and a pass defensed. The Bucs' two sacks were recorded by second-year LB Mason Foster and third-year DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim.
The Bucs had been trending towards fast starts in recent weeks but got the exact opposite on Sunday. After forcing San Diego into a quick third-and-10, Tampa Bay gave up a third-down conversion and much more. Rivers hit Alexander over the middle and the receiver somehow managed to keep his knees off the ground as he was spun down by Johnson. The rest of the way was a sprint for Alexander, who scored the 80-yard TD just a minute into the game.
The Bucs came back with an 80-yard drive of their own, thanks once again to their red-hot rookie back. His first carry was a tackle-breaking 14-yarder around left end, and his first catch was a short pass that he turned into a 42-yard gain down to the San Diego six. Two plays later, Freeman faked a handoff to Martin, rolled right and completed an easy TD pass to Clark.
The Bucs appeared to get a stop on the next drive on a third down pass-breakup by Barber against Gates, but Barber was flagged for defensive holding, and Gates then got deep down the middle on the next snap for a 33-yard gain to the Bucs' 16. Two plays later, Gates was once again wide open down the middle and Rivers hit him easily for a 13-yard touchdown.
Lewis muffed the ensuing kickoff and was only able to get it out to the nine-yard line. The Bucs eventually had to punt, but the defense responded with a stop of its own and Freeman got his squad back into scoring territory with a 54-yard completion to Williams on third-and-12. On third-and-three from the 21, the Bucs tried a tricky direct snap to RB D.J. Ware, but the snap was a little too hot to handle and Ware was fortunate just to avoid a turnover. Tampa Bay had to settle for Connor Barth's 40-yard field goal to cut the lead to 14-10.
Rivers converted an early third-and-nine on the next possession with a deep in to Alexander, and the Bucs dodged another deep-ball bullet to Gates when Barron broke it up and the refs discussed and then picked up a flag that had been thrown. A well-executed blitz on third-and-five from the San Diego 42 forced Rivers into a hurried dumpoff and, more importantly, forced San Diego to punt. That turned into seven points for the Bucs, as the return team overloaded the right side of the Chargers' line and Watson broke through to block Mike Scifres punt. Watson was in so quick, in fact, that he essentially blocked Scifres' entire leg, and Hayward was able to scoop up the football and run it in 29 yards untouched for the go-ahead score. Scifres was shaken up on the play and took several minutes to be helped off the field.
The Chargers took the lead back before halftime, however, chewing most of the last nine minutes of the half off the clock on an 80-yard TD drive that featured three third-down conversions by Rivers. Working almost exclusively out of the shotgun, even on running plays, Rivers eventually finished the march with a three-yard TD pass to Floyd with 27 seconds left in the period.
Tampa Bay got the ball first to start the second half and was able to drive into San Diego territory before stalling. Koenen dropped a sideways-bouncing punt down at the Chargers' two and the Bucs forced the Chargers to punt it back from their nine after a big tackle-for-loss by David. With good field position at their own 41, the Bucs moved right back into scoring territory, with Freeman converting a fourth-and-inches with a sneak and then immediately firing a 31-yard sideline strike to Jackson at the San Diego 15. On the very next play, Freeman dropped back to pass, took a long time to survey the field and eventually found Underwood inside the five-yard line, cutting right to left. Freeman got him the ball and Underwood walked into the end zone untouched.
Black was injured on the first play of the next drive while stopping Mathews for a loss of one. Two plays later, Rivers once again converted a long third down, hitting Alexander over the middle for a gain of 19 to the Chargers' 40. Three plays later, it was the same thing – a quick slant to Alexander converted a third-and-four and gave San Diego another first down just inside Bucs territory.
However, shortly after switching sides for the fourth quarter, Rivers faced another third down, and this time it went very much in Tampa Bay's favor. The Chargers QB scrambled around right end and, just as it appeared he would run out of bounds, tried to throw down the sideline to WR Eddie Royal. Johnson was in the way, however, and he intercepted the pass and sprinted back up the sideline, barely tight-roping between a Chargers' lineman and the edge of the field. He had to beat one more hustling San Diego lineman to make it to the end zone, but Johnson was able to high-step the last 10 yards as he put the Bucs up by 10 points.
The Chargers came right back with another long drive, converting two more third downs in the process, but Barber disrupted a third-down pass intended for TE Dante Rosario at the Bucs' five-yard line and San Diego had to settle for Nick Novak's 34-yard field goal. Novak just slipped his kick inside the right upright to reduce the Bucs' lead to a single touchdown with seven minutes to play.
Tampa Bay got one first down and drained three minutes off the clock before punting. San Diego started up at their own 22 but Rivers absorbed a 10-yard sack by Te'o-Nesheim on first down. He tried to get it back and more on second down with a long pass up the left sideline to Alexander, but Lewis had good coverage and was able to make a leaping interception in front of the receiver at the San Diego 45.
The Bucs gained a first down at the San Diego 34 on Freeman's lob over several blitzers to Martin, and the Chargers had to burn their second timeout with 2:53 remaining. San Diego eventually stopped a Martin sweep on third down at the 27, but Barth came on to boot a 45-yard field goal that restored Tampa Bay's 10-point lead with just 1:07 to play.
- The Buccaneers deactivated the following seven players for Sunday's game: WR Arrelious Benn, RB Michael Smith, S Cody Grimm, CB Danny Gorrer, LB Jacob Cutrera, LB Najee Goode and G Roger Allen. Benn and Grimm were out due to injury.
- San Diego's seven inactive players were WR Seyi Ajirotutu, CB Chris Carr, S Brandon Taylor, LB Jonas Mouton, T Jared Gaither, TE Ladarius Green and LB Antwan Barnes. Gaither was out due to injury.
- Rookie WR Chris Owusu played in his first NFL game Sunday. He was targeted on one Josh Freeman pass but did not record any statistics.
- TE Nate Byham made his first start as a Buccaneer on Sunday. He previously made three starts for the San Francisco 49ers in 2010.
- Fans in the lower bowl of the stadium participated in a card stunt at the end of the first quarter. The sidelines spelled out "Thank You Veterans" on one side and "Thank You Military" on the other, and the end zones displayed red and white stripes, as on the American flag.
- LB Dekoda Watson's block of Mike Scifres' second quarter punt was the Bucs' second punt block of the season. Former Tampa Bay CB Aqib Talib had the first one against Carolina in the season opener. LB Adam Hayward's 29-yard return of the loose ball was Tampa Bay's first touchdown off a blocked punt since November 8, 2009. On that date against Green Bay, LB Geno Hayes (a Florida State product, like Watson) blocked a Jeremy Kapinos punt and Ronde Barber returned it 31 yards to the end zone.
- QB Josh Freeman threw touchdown passes to Dallas Clark and Tiquan Underwood on Sunday. He is the first Buccaneers passer to throw at least two TD passes in five straight games since Brad Johnson did so from Nov. 3 to Dec. 8 in the 2002 campaign.
- Rookie CB Leonard Johnson intercepted a Philip Rivers pass early in the fourth quarter and returned it 83 yards for a touchdown to give the Bucs a 31-21 lead. That ranks as the fourth-longest interception return in franchise history. The three longer returns: Shelton Quarles, 98 yards vs. Green Bay, Oct. 7, 2001; Derrick Brooks, 97 yards at Baltimore, Sept. 15, 2002; and Sabby Piscitelli, 84 yards vs. Oakland, Dec. 28, 2008. Piscitelli's is the only one of the those four that did not go for a touchdown.