The Bucs' offense would have had a good start to the second half in New York if Michael Pittman's 16-yard run had not been erased by penalty
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took their first loss of the 2005 season on Sunday in New York. That, of course, is not one of those "firsts" you look forward to. First win, first interception, first touchdown of the season…all enjoyable milestones. First loss...no one's in a hurry to reach that one.
It was, as they say, a "day of firsts" for the visitors at the Meadowlands, in so much as very little went right the first time the Bucs tried it, and that had a lot to do with the score at the end of the game.
In fact, the Bucs' early struggles in what would prove to be a two-point decision was the first thing Head Coach Jon Gruden chose to discuss the following morning, after he had updated the injury report.
"I didn't like the way we started either half," said Gruden. "We're late off the ball on our first offensive play, we got a penalty on our first defensive play, we dropped the opening kickoff. We opened the second half with a 60-yard touchdown drive on defense and we have a 16-yard gain called back because of a careless penalty. If that's how you start, generally that's how you finish."
Gruden's selected details help to explain how a team could control the ball for 23 minutes and allow only 59 yards of offense in the first half, secure the only turnover of the second half and surrender just 52 yards in the fourth quarter and still lose, 14-12.
Cornerback Torrie Cox let a short opening kickoff go through his hands, and eventually had to fall on it at the Bucs' 16. On the first play from scrimmage, the line allowed defensive tackle James Reed to shoot right through and drop running back Michael Pittman six yards into the backfield.
On the Jets' intended first play from scrimmage, DT Chris Hovan jumped offside, giving New York a first-and-five at its own 42. Blessed with that situation, the Jets used their official first play to look downfield and wide receiver Laveranues Coles caught a 31-yard pass that accounted fore more than half of the Jets' first-half yardage.
After settling down, the Bucs built a 9-7 lead going into halftime. But return man Justin Miller got the opening kickoff of the second half out to the Jets' 41 and New York took that first drive 59 yards for what would prove to be the game-winning points. The Bucs appeared to respond well on their first play of the second half, as Pittman steamed around left end for a gain of 16, but the play was erased by a holding penalty.
The penalties might be the most frustrating part of that sequence. The Bucs can get a surer set of hands back for the kickoff, as Gruden suggested they would do on Monday. And the long first drive of the second half can be considered an aberration, given that it was the first second-half touchdown allowed by the Buccaneers all season. But the penalties have been a problem all season – only Cincinnati has been flagged more often – and constitute a more difficult issue to pinpoint and eliminate.
Still, that has become one of Gruden's top priorities.
"We've got to minimize the penalties," he said. "We had four first-down runs called back because of penalties [Sunday]. Once the down-and-distance gets in the other teams favor, we're just like anyone else with a struggling offense.
"You have to contemplate making changes at certain positions. We'll do that. At the same time, you scream and yell, emphasize fundamentals and techniques and maybe hire a new officials staff [for practice] to explain the rules better, because obviously the point is not being made strongly enough."
The Bucs got through most of their "good" firsts before running into the "bad" ones this year. They won their first road game, won their first home game and got their first victory in Lambeau Field since 1989. They scored first in four of their first five games, and even took over first in the tough NFC South, a position they still hold. The Jets game – that first loss – doesn't change any of that. And the struggles to get going in New York won't necessarily be repeated in coming weeks. But the Bucs, who languished through slow starts frequently in 2003 and 2004, want to be sure to stay out of that trap in 2005.
"You don't get too high with the highs and too low with the lows," said Gruden. "You look at that tape and you slam your fist on the table a few times. There's no way that should have happened. We should have made this play, that play, and this play. But Detroit said that the week before. Green Bay said that in Lambeau. That's just the way this league is. It's going to be decided every game by a few twist and turns along the way. We got to address that.
"I do know this: We've got to start games faster. That's been our theme around here, let's start fast."