RB Warrick Dunn turned the tide with a 68-yard reception
During the Buccaneers' bye week in October, safety John Lynch made an appearance on the Fox studio show. He was impressive with his football acumen, but Tampa Bay is not eager for Lynch to hang up his cleats for a microphone.
On Sunday, Lynch did it all, delivering a critical play in the Buccaneers' 23-16 win over Detroit then uttering the phrase that summed the victory up. "It takes big-time players to make plays," said Lynch, after the Bucs had clawed back from a 16-9 fourth-quarter deficit.
He could not have been more right. Tampa Bay might be languishing in second place and figuring out tie-breaker scenarios if Warrick Dunn, Warren Sapp, Brad Culpepper, Lynch, Reidel Anthony, Frank Middleton, Mike Alstott and Shaun King hadn't come up big on Sunday. Though Lynch's fourth-quarter interception set up the game-winning score, it's difficult to pinpoint a single play as the most crucial in the victory.
The first game-turning play for Tampa Bay occurred close to halftime, when Warrick Dunn turned a short pass into a 68-yard gain that set up the Bucs' first touchdown. Dunn took King's pass just over the line of scrimmage on the right side, turned inside a Middleton block and raced down the sideline for his longest career reception. It was a welcome long-gainer from a homerun hitter who had not gone deep often in 1999.
"That screen pass was the first big play I've made all year," said Dunn, perhaps too modestly. "I've been nicked up a little bit this year and that humbles you a little bit. I broke out a lot of old films from high school and college before the game tonight, and it made me realize that great players make great plays in great games. It really made me hungry."
Perhaps that hunger is why Dunn was insistent on playing a full role in the offense on Sunday, despite a still-injured ankle that kept him out of last Monday's game and made him a question mark heading into the Lions contest. Dunn's absence on Monday made Alstott the featured runner; while that wasn't necessarily the case on Sunday, Alstott still managed to be the featured scorer in the fourth quarter.
Alstott scored both Buccaneer touchdowns in the final period, including the game-winner on a 22-yard reception that again got its spring from Middleton. Middleton took out two would-be Lion tacklers early in the play and Alstott did the rest, recording his team-high sixth touchdown of the season. "I could have walked in with the blocking I had," said Alstott. "It's a great feeling when you turn upfield and you have all of your blockers in front of you. I knew I was going to score."
Alstott's first touchdown, a one-yard plunge on third-and-goal, was less spectacular, but it concluded a scintillating 65-yard drive. The march seemed to be doomed from the beginning when a personal foul put the Bucs in a third-and-16 hole from their own 28. However, King hooked up with Anthony on a nifty 30-yard pass to convert that troublesome situation, threading a pass between three defenders and watching as his third-year receiver hung on despite several hard hits. It was Anthony's only reception of the day, but he also displayed his big-play potential with a pair of kickoff returns that gave the Buccaneers possession near the 40-yard line.
King and Anthony's connection was a bit of an impromptu moment. "That play is in our playbook," said King, "but it wasn't in the gameplan. Coach (Clyde) Christensen sort of drew it up on the sideline. Reidel ran a great seam route and I was able to get the ball between two defenders. Reidel has taken a lot of criticism lately, but he made a great catch. That catch helped sustain that drive."
After that drive and Alstott's second touchdown put the Buccaneers on top, Tampa Bay's defense was in the very familiar position of having a slim fourth-quarter lead to protect. The familiar feel continued when Sapp and Culpepper disrupted the Lions last chance with severe pressure up the middle. Detroit regained possession with four minutes remaining but never got out of its own end thanks in large part to a shared 11-yard sack by the Bucs' penetrating tackles on third-and-eight. Both had early claimed sacks of their own, Sapp on a forced fumble just one drive earlier and Culpepper on a safety early in the third quarter that briefly pulled the Bucs to within one at 10-9. This play forced a fourth-and-18, and Sapp and Culpepper were again in QB Gus Frerotte's face as he scrambled in desperation. Though Frerotte escaped Culpepper and Sapp several times, he eventually fired a hopeless incompletion as he was falling to the turf with Sapp on his back.
In such a game of big-play efforts, the work of a Derrick Brooks (14 tackes, four passes defensed) or Karl Williams (four receptions for 31 yards) might seem to get lost. Not in the eyes of Head Coach Tony Dungy, of course, who sees his collection of stars as one tight unit. "I was really proud of the way our football team hung in there and fought for 60 minutes," said Dungy. "I thought Detroit played an excellent game. They are an excellent football team and they are very well-coached. But today we came together as a football team and got things going our way."