Tampa Bay's defense was nearly impenetrable Sunday night, holding Seattle to 176 total yards, including 44 in the first half
On Sunday night against the Seattle Seahawks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers honored #40, scored 20 points, gave up 10 and got their fifth win of the season. Those were definitely not diminishing returns for the Buccaneers, who stayed in a tie for first place in the NFC South with a 20-10 win over Seattle in the first prime time game at Raymond James Stadium in five years.
On an evening in which the 2008 Buccaneers performed for a national audience for the first time and paid tribute to retired fullback Mike Alstott, Tampa Bay's defense recalled its glory days, too. In fact, the Bucs' defense made the case that perhaps those glory days are still in full swing.
Supported by an extremely sharp performance by QB Jeff Garcia and a big night by WR Antonio Bryant, the Bucs' defense narrowly missed a shutout in front of a national NBC audience. Garcia threw for 226 yards in the first half alone — a career high — and finished with 27 completions in 36 attempts for 310 yards, one touchown and no interceptions. He had a passer rating of 109.7 and completed 75% of his passes for the second straight weekend.
The victory improved Tampa Bay's record to 5-2, equaling the best seven-game start in team history. The Bucs have been 5-2 on five other occasions in their 33-year history, most recently in 2005. They went on to make the playoffs in four of those five previous seasons.
The Bucs honored Alstott — who made the number 40 famous in Florida — throughout the evening, highlighted by pregame introductions and an emotional halftime ceremony. Alstott's former teammates seemed to feed off the emotions, rolling to a 17-0 lead and grinding out the victory in the second half. Though the running game struggled to 2.6 yards per carry, it came up big in the fourth quarter on a 10-minute field goal drive that effectively salted the game away.
The only weakness in the Bucs' armor on this dominant evening was with the kick coverage units. Seattle had a total of 212 kickoff and punt return yards, accounting for the only three times that the Seahawks got into Tampa Bay territory before the last play of the game. Both of Seattle's second-half scores came on short drives after long returns by Josh Wilson.
The Bucs' defense, so impressive a week ago against one of its top nemeses, Carolina QB Jake Delhomme, smelled blood in the water with Seneca Wallace filling in for Matt Hasselbeck in Seattle's backfield. Wallace completed only 12 of 23 passes for 73 yards, throwing one touchdown and one interception as the Seahawks had trouble mounting any offense until the closing minutes. Tampa Bay had a yardage advantage of 266-44 in the first half and 330-110 by the end of the third quarter. The one time Seattle got into Buccaneer territory in the first half — on a 61-yard kickoff return by Josh Wilson — Wallace fumbled a snap two plays later and Barrett Ruud recovered for Tampa Bay.
The Seahawks' first score came in the third quarter after another long return gave them a very short field. Strong in the red zone all season, the Bucs held but still surrendered a 26-yard field goal to Olindo Mare. By game's end, the Bucs had a 402-176 edge in yards and a 22-7 advantage in first downs. Seattle converted only two of 10 third-down tries while the Bucs were good on 10 of 18.
A scary moment early in the second quarter nearly drained all of the Alstott-inspired emotion out of the stadium. WR Ike Hilliard was sandwiched between LBs Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill at the end of a short catch and he absorbed a helmet-to-helmet hit from Hill that appeared to knock him unconscious. The mood in the stadium was somber until Hilliard eventually got up and walked over to the waiting cart, appearing quite lucid. He did not return to the game.
Garcia still found plenty of targets with Hilliard out, throwing completions to 10 different players. His favorite was Bryant.
Head Coach Jon Gruden has been singing Bryant's praises all season, and Sunday night was something of a coming-out party for the sixth-year receiver. Bryant did have 10 catches for 138 yards in the Bucs' overtime win at Chicago in Week Three but he scored his first Buc touchdown against Seattle among his six catches for 115 yards. After getting Tampa Bay off to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, he caught a 14-yard pass down to the two that set up the game's second touchdown. Bryant finished with an average of 19.2 yards per catch.
As if the Alstott tribute wasn't emotional enough, fans at Raymond James Stadium were also riding a rollercoaster with every report from the baseball game taking place across the Bay. The Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox were contesting Game Seven of the American League Championship Series and both games were coming to a head at roughly the same point. Not long after the Bucs finished their victory, Rays rookie David Price struck out Boston outfielder J.D. Drew with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the eighth. About 20 minutes after the Bucs' game went final, the Rays finished off a 3-1 victory over the Red Sox, making it a wonderful evening for Bay area sports. Thousands of fans stayed inside Raymond James Stadium until the final pitch was thrown.
The Bucs were fired up as the game began, and showed it immediately by trapping return man Josh Wilson at the 13-yard line on the opening kickoff. However, Wallace converted the first third down of the game, firing an eight-yard strike to WR Keary Colbert on third-and-four. The Bucs stopped the drive there, flushing Wallace out of the pocket on third-and-six and forcing an incompletion down the left sideline.
The Bucs had good starting position for their first drive after the punt, opening up at their own 37. RB Warrick Dunn made a nice hustle play to prevent an early turnover after Hill had made an impressive breakup of Garcia's second pass. Hill leaped high in the air to get a hand on the ball and was about to wrap up the deflection when Dunn flew into the picture and knocked the ball away. Garcia then converted the third-and-three with a pass to Graham in the left flat.
Three plays later, the Seahawks brought a big blitz on third-and-seven, the Bucs picked it up and Garcia threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Bryant. Bryant's first score as a Buccaneer was confirmed after a short delay. Bryant and CB Kelly Jennings had tangled up just before the ball arrived, with Jennings hitting the ground a flag following immediately after. The refs conferred and determined no foul was committed, upholding the Bucs' 7-0 lead just six minutes into the game.
Wilson shot out to the 33 on the ensuing kickoff return but the Bucs' defense forced a three-and-out, even after an eight-yard run by RB Julius Jones on first down. CB Ronde Barber tripped up Jones for no gain on second down and Phillips sniffed out a Wallace run on third-and-two and forced the quarterback to throw it away. Jon Ryan's punt went into the opposite end zone for a touchback.
Dunn was shaken up on the next drive after a five-yard catch over the middle. That brought Jameel Cook into the game at fullback for the first time, with Earnest Graham sliding back to tailback. The drive ended two plays later and Seattle took over on its own 15 after Josh Bidwell's 58-yard punt.
Seattle got all of one yard with their next three plays as the Bucs brought a high-pressure defense for three plays. DE Gaines Adams tipped away a third-down pass as part of another big blitz. The Bucs got the ball back at their own 41 after the punt.
Dunn came back into the game and produced a quick first down with a six-yard run on second-and-three, pushing the ball back into Seattle territory. Garcia then gave the Bucs another set of downs with an impressive backhanded pass to Cook for a gain of 12. Garcia did it himself three plays later, darting around left end for an eight-yard scramble on third-and-six.
The Bucs pulled out the suddenly popular Wildcat formation on the first play of the second quarter, with Dunn handing off to Graham for a gain of three. Garcia made something out of a broken play on third-and-seven, scrambling away from DT Craig Terrill with a stiff arm then threading the needle to Bryant for a gain of nine, down to the 11.
Two plays later, the game took a somber turn with the big hit on Hilliard. Hilliard walked off the field to the crowd's delight but the play was still a terrible one for the Buccaneers. A Seattle replay challenge turned the ruling of an incompletion into a fumble and the Seahawks took over at their own four.
The Bucs' defense forced a quick hit with the help of a holding call that erased a 21-yard run by long-time Buc killer T.J. Duckett. Garcia led the Bucs right back into Seattle's red zone, hitting Stevens with a 31-yard strike down to the 16. A 14-yard strike to Bryant got the ball down to the two and a pair of Graham runs punched it in for a 14-0 Bucs lead. Graham was at tailback on first down but scored on the second play while lined up in front of Dunn at fullback.
Seattle's next drive lasted all of one play. Wallace tried to find Koren Robinson down the left seam but Ruud deflected the pass and Talib snatched it out of the air for his third interception of the season. Talib's 19-yard return to the 35 set the Bucs up for another immediate scoring chance, and Garcia hit Smith for a gain of 16 on the next play. This time, the drive stalled at the 10 when the Bucs couldn't convert a third-and-two and Matt Bryant finished it with a 28-yard field goal three minutes before halftime.
Wilson's long return — S Tanard Jackson hustled from far across the field to prevent the Seahawk returner from going the distance — put Seattle into Buccaneer territory for the first time. On second-and-seven, Wallace dropped a snap under center and Ruud was able to fight through the sea of bodies to get to the ball. With a little over two minutes remaining, the Bucs pressed the issue, driving back into range for a long field goal try. Bryant lined up fro a 47-yard kick but hit it a few yards short.
The Bucs got the ball first to start the second half, having deferred the winning coin toss to start the game, but that nearly led to disaster. Mare's kickoff bounced off Dexter Jackson's chest to start the problems; Jackson picked up the loose ball but then fumbled again at the end of a short return. The Bucs recovered but were trapped inside their own 10 and had to punt it away minutes later. Justin Forsett returned a low kick 25 yards back to the Bucs' 24.
Tampa Bay's defense held but the Seahawks still capitalized on Mare's field goal, making it 17-3 in the home team's favor. Tampa Bay's next drive fizzled after just one first down and an uncharacteristically short punt by Bidwell gave it back to Seattle at their own 35. On the next play, the momentum continued to swing in Seattle's favor as RB Maurice Morris danced around left end and ran 45 yards down to the Bucs' 20.
Barber made a big play on a second-down swing pass, stopping Jones for a loss of five yards to make it third-and-15. The Seahawks had to settle for another field goal trya and Mare missed this one from 38 yards out.
The Bucs regained a little momentum when Garcia found Bryant again on third down, with the receiver shaking off several tackles to pick up 19 yards to midfield. A 13-yard strike to Clayton converted another third down and put the ball at Seattle's 33, but a fumble by Garcia in the backfield on a sack by Brandon Mebane made it third-and-11 at the 34. The Bucs had to punt two plays later and this time the coverage team trapped return man Bobby Engram at the 16. Seattle was facing a third-and-one when the third quarter came to an end.
After switching sides, the Seahawks tried to run Duckett around left end but most of the Buccaneers' defense beat him to the corner, creating a one-yard loss. Ryan blasted the resulting punt 52 yards to the Bucs' 24.
The Bucs obviously wanted to run the ball with a two-touchdown lead and Graham made that strategy pay off on first down with a tackle-breaking, 12-yard run around right end. Garcia moved the chains minutes later with a 12-yard out pass to WR Brian Clark on third-and-six, moving the ball just over midfield, and Bryant got it down to the Seattle 34 with a nice catch of a low pass over the middle.
Graham powered up the middle for two yards on a successful third-and-two carry up the middle, getting a new first down at the 24. The next third-and-two was put in Garcia's hands and he converted with a three-yard pass to Cook. The drive came to a stop at the Seattle nine, allowing Bryant to push the score to 20-3 with a 27-yard field goal at the 4:34 mark in the fourth quarter.
Another long return by Wilson put the ball at the midfield stripe to start Seattle's next drive, and a 21-yard run by Jones got it down to the Bucs' 11. The Seahawks faced a fourth-and-one at the Bucs' two when the two-minute warning arrived. After the break, Wallace faked a handoff, rolled right and threw a two-yard TD pass to wide-open TE John Carlson. The Bucs still had a 10-point lead with 1:55 to go.
The Seahawks tried an onside kick but Clayton fielded a high bouncer without any trouble at the Seattle 39.
The Buccaneers stayed in a tie for first place in the NFC South with the Carolina Panthers, who beat New Orleans earlier in the day. Tampa Bay heads to Dallas next weekend. Seattle, which fell to 1-5 with the loss, will take on San Francisco next weekend.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers came out in a uniform combination they hadn't worn in six years, sporting red jerseys over white pants. The last time the Bucs chose that sartorial combination was on September 15, 2002, for a road game against the Baltimore Ravens. The Bucs won that game, 25-0. The last time the Bucs wore that combination at home was in 1999, for a November 21 game against Atlanta. Tampa Bay also won that one, 19-10. Overall, including Sunday's win over Seattle, the Bucs are 9-3 when wearing red jerseys with white pants â€¦ The Buccaneers are now 2-7 all-time against Seattle, having secured their first-ever home win over their 1976 expansion partners. The Bucs are 1-4 against Seattle at home, leaving San Diego (4-0 in Tampa) as the only team they haven't beaten at home. â€¦ WR Antonio Bryant's 115 yards on six catches gave him his second 100-yard receiving game as a Buccaneer and the ninth of his career. â€¦ Dunn's final catch of the evening pushed him into a tie with TE Jimmie Giles for seventh place on the Buccaneers' all-time receptions list. Dunn finished the night with four catches, giving him 279 as a Buccaneer to equal Giles. â€¦ The Buccaneers moved to 4-0 in home games this season with Sunday's win over Seattle. This marks the first time since 1998, Raymond James Stadium's opening year, that the Bucs have won their first four home games. It is only the third time in team history they've accomplished that feat, also doing it in 1981. â€¦ The Bucs' 16-play field goal drive in the fourth quarter, which consumed 9:34 off the clock, was the team's longest scoring drive of the season in terms of plays and time.
Inactives: The Buccaneers named the following eight players inactive before Sunday's game: QB Brian Griese, FB B.J. Askew, T Anthony Davis, T James Lee, WR Joey Galloway, WR Maurice Stovall, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Josh Johnson. Griese, Askew, Galloway and Stovall were out due to injury.
The Seahawks named the following eight players inactive: K Brandon Coutu, QB Matt Hasselbeck, CB Kevin Hobbs, G Mansfield Wrotto, WR Deion Branch, TE Will Heller, DE Baraka Atkins and DT Howard Green. Hasselbeck, Branch and Heller were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, RB Warrick Dunn sustained an ankle injury in the first quarter but was able to return. WR Ike Hilliard was knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a head injury.
For the Seahawks, LB Lofa Tatupu left the game in the second quarter with a concussion and did not return.