The Tampa Bay Buccaneers planned to play their starting units into the third quarter of their third preseason game Saturday at Buffalo. As it turned out, the first half was more than enough.
The Buccaneers thoroughly dominated the Bills in the opening half of Saturday's 27-14 win at Ralph Wilson Stadium, to the point that starting QB Josh McCown came out of halftime wearing a visor instead of a helmet. McCown finished his most extended playing time of August with 13 completions in 16 attempts for 112 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 90.6 passer rating. His final pass of the game was a nifty 24-yard scoring toss to first-round rookie WR Mike Evans.
McCown's offensive line stayed in to block for second-string QB Mike Glennon on the first drive of the third quarter, but none of the starting defenders returned for the second half of play. They, too, had shown the Bucs' coaching staff plenty, holding the Bills to 82 yards of offense, forcing three turnovers and even scoring seven points of their own.
"We game-planned these guys and we went out there and executed what we had planned for them," said DT Clinton McDonald. "The whole week – starting with Gerald McCoy, Michael Johnson, AC [Adrian Clayborn], myself – we all went out there and had on our minds that we were going to stop the run and get to the quarterback like we did. Our defense played lights-out tonight. I think we're all getting better and we're all understanding what's expected out of all of us. It's a very talented defense and I'm just glad to be a part of it."
S Dashon Goldson started the defensive onslaught with an interception of QB E.J. Manuel on the game's first possession, and LB Lavonte David set up the Bucs' first touchdown with a forced fumble that was recovered by LB Mason Foster. It was McDonald, one of the Bucs' big offseason acquisitions, who scored the defense's points, picking up an E.J. Manuel fumble forced by his friend and fellow 2014 signee Michael Johnson and running 17 yards to paydirt.
"I made a joke about this, but I actually beat Lavonte to the ball this time!" said McDonald with a laugh. "I just happened to pick it up and run it in for a touchdown. Coach Lovie [Smith], he emphasizes that every time is a ball is loose, every time we go out there, try to get a turnover. It's practicing the things we want to do in a game and it just came alive."
Though McCown was often hurried by the Bills' pass rush early in the game, and the Bucs' first drive ended in an interception after TE Brandon Myers slipped on his break, the extended playing time gave McCown and the offense time to settle into a groove. The possession that ended in Evans' touchdown was essentially the offense's first extended drive of the preseason – a brilliant 11-play, 82-yard march that included two third-down conversions by WR Vincent Jackson. Jackson finished his playing time with five catches for 43 yards, while Evans snared three passes for 44 yards and his first NFL TD.
"We just responded [after the early interception]," said McCown. "Those things are going to happen. It was a bad break for us, but those things happen. The good thing is that our defense, even when we give them bad field position like that, they go out there and get the ball back for us. So we're thankful for those guys. As an offense, you take those breaks, you roll with them and you respond. We did that, and that was a good thing. After those couple bumps, I thought we played well."
McCown also had time to settle in because RB Doug Martin kept the ball moving with a series of tough runs. Ceding only a handful of snaps to reserve Doug Rainey – with both Charles Sims and Mike James out due to injury – Martin ran 12 times for 38 yards and a touchdown and also caught two passes for 27 yards. His 21-yard grab on a release pass down the middle set up his own one-yard TD plunge in the first quarter after Foster's fumble recovery. Foster was one of the team's top defensive performers on the night, combining six tackles with a tackle for loss, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery.
McCown said the big pass to Martin unfolded exactly as it had looked on the practice field this week.
"That was really sweet," said McCown. "The catch-and-carry down to the goal line, that was something we looked at this week on film. It's really fun when everybody starts to see those things come to fruition on the field. He made a great catch and I tell you what, he's committed to his craft. He dropped one in practice the other day and asked me to throw balls to him afterward. I can't say enough about Doug. You see him getting better every week and really getting himself ready to roll for the season and get back to form. That's going to be huge for us."
Buffalo tightened up the score significantly after halftime, at least in part due to the Bucs' change of plans with the starting units. Manuel and the rest of the Bills' starters stayed in for the first two possessions of the second half – which was surely Buffalo's plan from the beginning, and there was no reason for that to change – leading a pair of rather easy TD drives against the Bucs' defensive reserves. Manuel completed the first drive with a 14-yard scoring pass to former Buccaneer WR Mike Williams, and RB Fred Jackson provided the second TD with an eight-yard sweep to the right.
The Buccaneers did sprinkle in a couple reserves during their dominant first half, including recently-signed DE Larry English. English made the most of his playing time, which also included some work in the second half, recording two of the Bucs' four sacks.
The Bucs scored first, turning their second takeaway of the opening quarter into seven points. Foster's 24-yard return of a fumble recovery set up a 39-yard drive that was almost all Martin. The tough running back ran three times for 13 yards and caught a pass for 21 yards on the five-play drive. He originally appeared to score on an acrobatic finish to a 22-yard catch, but the play was reviewed and he was ruled down at the one. No problem – Martin dived over the pile on the next play to get the ball into the painted turf.
The Bucs' defense continued to dominate in the second quarter, in one series pushing the Bills back into a third-and-40 situation at their own 15. The resulting punt gave the ball back to the offense at midfield, setting up an eight-play, 27-yard field goal drive keyed by McCown's own 19-yard dash on a play-action play. Connor Barth knocked it home from 43 yards out to give the visitors a 10-point lead.
Tampa Bay's defense made it 17-0 just minutes later, this time putting the ball in the end zone on its own. DEs Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn swarmed over Manuel in the backfield, forcing a fumble that
McDonald recovered and ran 17 yards with to the end zone. The final touchdown of a dominant first half was the result of that extended drive, with McCown completing all six of his passes on the drive for 62 yards. The final 24 came on a fantastic route by the rookie Evans, who fooled CB Ron Brooks with a stutter step, then blew by Brooks to catch McCown's rainbow six yards deep in the end zone.
After the Buccaneers won the toss and deferred, the Bills started at their own 20 after a Michael Koenen touchback. They got the ball to midfield with one first down and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Foster. However, Goldson picked off a short Manuel pass after TE Scott Chandler slipped, giving the ball to the offense at the Bucs' 43.
The takeaway clipped a Bills drive but didn't lead to any points for the Bucs, as the offense failed to move the ball. In fact, a bubble screen to rookie WR Robert Herron lost two yards and a third-and-seven dropback by McCown ended in a sack and a fumble that G Patrick Omameh caught in midair to prevent the turnover. Outstanding coverage on Michael Koenen's 60-yard punt, plus a holding penalty, forced Buffalo to start its second drive at its own six.
Two runs and a catch of a third-down swing pass by RB Fred Jackson got only six yards, leading to a short 34-yard punt by Brian Moorman put the ball back in McCown's hands at the Buffalo 46. Unfortunately, the ensuing drive only lasted two plays as TE Brandon Myers appeared to slip on his route, giving S Da'Norris Searcy an opportunity to make a nifty interception.
Searcy got the ball back to the Bucs' 42, but two plays later LB Lavonte David forced a fumble by RB C.J. Spiller that Foster recovered and ran back to the Buffalo 39. On the next play, Martin found a seam over right tackle and darted through it for a gain of 13. The Bucs faced a third-and-six three plays later and Martin slipped out of the backfield, caught a short dart over the middle (after an initial juggle), dashed between two defenders and then rolled over tackler Searcy into the end zone for the game's first score. That was the initial ruling, at least. The play was reviewed and overturned but Martin was able to dive into the end zone on the next play to give the Bucs a 7-0 lead.
The Bills overcame an early third-and-six with a 12-yard sideline pass to WR Mike Williams, with CB Johnthan Banks slipping a bit as the ball arrived. Manuel tried to go right back to Williams in the same spot on the next play but this time Banks closed quickly and broke it up. Banks then ran Spiller out of bounds on a sweep on the next play to make it third-and-10. DT Clinton McDonald barreled in on third down and hit Manuel as he threw, forcing an off-target incompletion down the middle of the field, followed by a punt.
Martin got the next Bucs drive started, rushing for five and six yards to create a first down at Tampa Bay's 45. Evans got the Bills DB turned around with a comebacker on the next play, catching a 12-yard pass on the right sideline. The drive stalled there, however and the Bucs had to punt it away. Nickell Roby called a fair catch at the seven.
The Bills got out away from their goal line with a Spiller run up the middle for 18 yards and a 20-yard sideline catch by Williams. However, consecutive penalties on Bills O-Linemen pushed the ball all the way back to the Buffalo 25, and McCoy and McDonald then ganged up on Jackson in the backfield for a loss of five. Manuel got flagged for a pass from beyond the line of scrimmage on the first play of the second quarter, moving it back to the Buffalo 15, where it was third-and-40. A surrender screen pass picked up 10 but the punt on fourth down went just 27 yards, so the Bucs started again two yards shy of midfield.
Photos from the Bucs' preseason game vs. the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Bucs faced a third-and-five moments later and lined up in a five-wide formation, with TEs Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Brandon Myers among those split wide. Jackson was in the slot on the right and he simply ran a short button-hook, catching a seven-yard pass for a first down. On the next play, McCown got the entire Bills defense moving left with a play-action fake, wheeling around to find an open field that he exploited for a 19-yard run. The drive stalled there and the Bucs settled for Connor Barth's 43-yard field goal.
The game's next points were scored on Buffalo's ensuing possession, but not by the Bills' offense. On first-and-10 from the Bills' 22, DEs Adrian Clayborn and Michael Johnson met at the quarterback, sacking Manuel and forcing a fumble. DT Clinton McDonald jumped on the loose ball, got to his feet and rumbled 17 yards for a touchdown.
A sack by DE Larry English on a blur of a rush around right tackle cost the Bills five yards on third-and-eight early in the next possession, leading to another punt. Rookie WR Solomon Patton caught the kick at almost the exact moment he was hit by S Duke Wilson and somehow held on to the ball at the Bucs' 18. Three plays later, McCown converted a third-and-eight with a bullet of a throw to Jackson down the left numbers. McCown and Jackson hooked up again on the next third down, with McCown hitting his receiver in stride on a crossing route for a gain of 13. Martin's tough eight-yard run brought on the two-minute warning.
The Buccaneers got the ball first to start the second half, with Glennon under center. Passes of 12 yards to WR Louis Murphy and 11 yards to TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins helped get the ball to midfield, but the drive ended there. Buffalo started at its own 10 after the punt, with the Bucs bringing in all defensive reserves. The Bills' starting offense took advantage, quickly marching 85 yards on nine plays, ending in Manuel's 14-yard, third-down touchdown pass to Mike Williams.
The Bucs' second drive of the half ended quickly and Buffalo started again at its own 40 after the punt. The ongoing matchup of Buffalo's first-team offense against the Bucs' defensive reserves continued to be a mismatch as Manuel drove the 60 yards on six plays for another touchdown. Jackson ran this one in from eight yards out to make it 24-14 with 2:39 left in the third quarter.
The Bucs' next drive ended quickly, too, and QB Dennis Dixon came in to lead Buffalo's next drive. Dixon got the ball into Tampa Bay territory but a fumbled snap on an attempted fourth-and-one conversion gave the ball back to the visiting team.
The Bucs took over at their own 40, and Glennon drove the team 51 yards on 13 plays to set up Patrick Murray's 27-yard field goal. RB Jeff Demps ran seven times for 30 yards to provide much of the forward movement on the drive.
- The Buccaneers announced six players that would not dress before Saturday's game: CB Mike Jenkins, RB Mike James, RB Charles Sims, CB Danny Gorrer, DE Da'Quan Bowers and DE William Gholston. LB After the game began, it was announced that LB Jonathan Casillas was not with the team due to disciplinary reasons; Danny Lansanah got the start at SLB in his place. S Bradley McDougald started in place of SS Mark Barron but Barron came into the game on the Bills' second possession. CB Rashaan Melvin, LB Brandon Magee, T Matt Patchan and T J.B. Shugarts also did not play due to injury.
- The Bills held the following players out of the game due to injury: WR Sammy Watkins, CB Mario Butler, S Jonathan Meeks, CB Bobby Felder, G Chris Williams, TE Tony Moeaki, DT Alan Branch and DT Kyle Williams.
- The Bucs led 24-0 at halftime. The last time a Tampa Bay team scored at least 24 points in the first half of a preseason game was August 30, 2007. The Bucs led Houston, 24-0, at halftime of a 31-24 victory at Raymond James Stadium.