WR Antonio Bryant hauls in the 38-yard pass that set up the game-winning field goal in Chicago
If you would have told Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brian Griese before Sunday's contest in Chicago that he would attempt a club-record 67 passes and throw for a career-high 407 yards, all without the services of his top target, Joey Galloway, he probably would have laughed at the thought.
Galloway sat out Sunday's game due to an injured foot, but Griese still posted those incredible passing numbers against his former team. Griese's big day was due in part to a Chicago defense that essentially forced the Bucs to pass, but it was also the product of some of his other targets – namely Antonio Bryant and Jerramy Stevens – stepping up and providing the spark the Bucs needed.
The final stats for these two were outstanding by themselves, but the numbers don't tell the entire story. Bryant, for instance, led the team with a career-high 10 catches for 138 yards, but his day wasn't complete until his final, clutch grab.
In the Bucs' game-winning overtime drive, Bryant beat his man down the left sideline and reeled in a Griese pass in stride, making it all the way to the six-yard line before being tripped up. Moments later, kicker Matt Bryant booted the ball through the uprights from 21 yards out and gave the Bucs the win.
The sixth-year veteran said it all came down to being resilient and continuing to fight.
"I guess it was us hanging in there a bit longer than they did," Bryant said. "We knew it was going to be a fight, so we just had to go out there and continue to press for energy because you could see everybody was tired on the field."
After being praised all offseason and throughout training camp by Head Coach Jon Gruden, Bryant credited his breakout performance to little more than finally getting his bearings in the Bucs' offensive scheme.
"I didn't play much in the preseason," said Bryant, who was out of the league in 2007. "I haven't played much, so being able to come out and spread my wings a little bit and be more involved in the offense and do everything that Coach asks me to do, I was able to get relaxed."
As for Stevens, he picked up right where he left off last season. After notching all four of his scores in 2007 in December, Stevens caught the game-tying touchdown pass from Griese in his first action of 2008 on Sunday.
In a play eerily similar to the game-winner Stevens caught in New Orleans last season, he showed the versatile skills that have the Bucs excited about the potential he brings to the table. Stevens started the play lined up in a typical spot for a tight end, right next to left tackle Donald Penn. Before the snap, however, Stevens motioned out to the left, where he was faced with one-on-one coverage from Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer.
In New Orleans last year, Luke McCown threw a high pass to Stevens, who had run an out to the sideline. But this time, with the Bears possibly expecting a similar throw, Stevens instead broke to the inside on a quick slant. Griese's pass was right on the money, and Stevens' sure hands secured the late score.
"It was just a one-on-one isolation play," Stevens said. "I knew I was going to run the slant, so we were hoping they were thinking we were going to run the high point, the jump ball. I was leading him outside and he jumped and it was a walk-in score.
"I just split out, and if he split out with me, I knew I had a good shot. So I was just thinking, 'Stay on my route and bring the ball down.'"
In only his 16th career game in pewter and red, Sunday's score was already Stevens' second display of late-game heroics. Despite the elation he felt, Stevens repeatedly stressed after the game how thankful he was just to be back on the field with his teammates.
"It just feels great to have an impact on the game when you can get back in," Stevens said. "I was just happy to be involved and obviously a touchdown is huge, tying it in a game like this. Hopefully this can give us the momentum that we need to keep going in this season. I'm just glad to be back on this team.
"I'm just real pleased that I was able to help us win. To come back in your first game and have an impact on the game and feel like you're part of the team and help us win was huge. It felt good."
As phenomenal a job as these two Bucs did filling the void created by Galloway's injury, neither player clamored for the spotlight after the game. In a joyous and spirited locker room deep beneath Soldier Field, both Bryant and Stevens credited the entire team's effort in an emotional victory and said it would pay huge dividends the rest of the season.
"It's an NFC game," Bryant said. "Chicago is a great team. They gave us a hard time and they felt us fighting back the whole time through. We'll probably see them again. Don't forget the effort of those guys.
"I just think our tight ends did an exceptional job, along with our O-line and Griese sticking it out. I think we encouraged each other a lot as a team because guys stepped up and made plays and continued, play after play, from Mike [Clayton] to Alex [Smith] to Jerramy to Ike [Hilliard], everybody just kept making plays and that just kept us going."
Added Stevens: "It was just a huge effort from the whole team. It was really a team win. Everybody was stepping up. It wasn't just one guy, it was everybody stepping up and making huge plays. Man, it was just a huge effort; I don't know what else to say.
"It's one of those wins that you remember. When you have a good season and you look back, this will be one of those games when you say, 'This was the jump-off. This was the point where we announced ourselves to the world.' Obviously we've still got to take it week-to-week, but this is a huge win."