DE Patrick Chukwurah's fumble recovery was one of two Buccaneer takeaways; three other near-misses almost turned the tide
Someday soon, Ronde Barber will be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' all-time interceptions leader. On Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, he had to settle for making a few key plays in a defensive effort that was just good enough to produce a 13-10 win at Raymond James Stadium.
The Buccaneers were concerned about their first meeting with Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young on Sunday. Instead, it was well-traveled veteran Kerry Collins who drove the Titans 84 yards for the game-tying score in the third quarter. The Titans left 1:17 on the clock, however, and that was enough for Jeff Garcia to drive the Buccaneers 55 yards for Matt Bryant's 43-yard game-winning field goal.
"Any way we can win, we'll take it, even though it got a little dramatic at the end," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We're very pleased with the victory. I think our team showed a lot today. Jeff Garcia was superb in the last minute of the game, and I credit Matt Bryant for a clutch kick.
Four plays before LenDale White's two-yard touchdown run made it 10-10, Barber appeared to make a leaping interception in front of White at the goal-line. Unfortunately, a Tennessee challenge showed that Barber's right hand hit out of bounds as he landed, and the takeaway was overturned.
It was the second interception Barber had overturned by a challenge; the first came in the third quarter when he was unable to hold onto a pick while being knocked to the ground by TE Ben Troupe. Either interception, if it stood, would have been the 32nd of Barber's career; for now he remains at 31 tied for the Bucs' all-time lead with Donnie Abraham. Barber also had another takeaway go awry when he recovered a Bo Scaife fumble only to have the ball knocked from his grasp during his return.
Still, Barber's four tackles and two breakups were part of an impressive bend-but-don't-break effort by Tampa Bay's defense, which has allowed only 14.5 points per game this season. LB Barrett Ruud paced the team with 11 tackles and DT Jovan Haye added 10 tackles, one sack and two quarterback hurries.
Young's potential for out-of-the-pocket gains was the Bucs' concern heading into today's contest. Now it's the Titans who must worry about their second-year phenom, who left the game early in the third quarter with a right quad injury. He pulled up lame just as he crossed the sideline on a three-yard scramble. Depending on Young's prognosis – no specifics were available by the end of the game – that loss could be more damaging to the Titans' playoff hopes than the one on the scoreboard.
The news could be encouraging for Tennessee, however. When Young's injury was announced, he was described as "probable" to return to the game. He didn't come back in, but he did remain on the sideline for the rest of the afternoon. In his stead, Collins completed 10 of 20 passes for 125 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions – though barely.
Before he was hurt, Young looked sharp, hitting on 11 of 14 throws for 120 yards, though he was picked off once.
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers also saw one of their own offensive stalwarts go down with an injury. TE Alex Smith had to be carted off in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury after being bent backward trying to block on the line of scrimmage. As it had for Cadillac Williams in Carolina and Michael Pittman in Indianapolis, the entire Buccaneer team came off the sideline to wish Smith well as he was taken off.
If Smith is lost for some period of time, he will join starting Williams, Pittman, LT Luke Petitgout and starting CB Brian Kelly on the sideline. The Bucs have had a difficult run of injuries in recent weeks but they have shown remarkable resilience. Ruud (knee) and WR Ike Hilliard (shoulder) played well on Sunday despite nagging injuries. Hilliard caught four passes for 59 yards, including two for 38 on the game-winning drive.
"Sometimes it's been hard to swallow," said Gruden of the run of injuries. "Barrett Ruud and Ike Hilliard, two guys who weren't feeling real good today, stepped up and had big games. We have some professional football players in that locker room who are giving it everything they have."
Before the Titans' long Collins-led drive, it appeared as if the Bucs would make a 10-3 lead hold up. WR Joey Galloway, held to only one catch of more than 20 yards and none longer than 23 during the Bucs' three previous games, broke out again with a 69-yard touchdown catch that broke a 3-3 third-quarter tie. Galloway got behind the Titans' defense, then adjusted to the ball before CB Nick Harper could, hauling it in at the Tennessee 20 and trotting in from there. That play matched the longest hookup between Garcia and Galloway through the first five games, another 69-yard TD against New Orleans in Week Two.
Tampa Bay's defense made that score hold for more than a quarter despite being on the field for an inordinate amount of time for the second straight week. Tennessee owned a 37:37-22:23 time-of-possession advantage by game's end, a week after the Colts held the ball for 38 minutes and 15 seconds. However, while Indianapolis used that time to score 33 points, the Titans could crack the Bucs' defense for only 10.
The Bucs protected their end zone despite having trouble getting off the field on third down again. The Titans converted nine of 16 third down tries one week after Indy was good on 12 of 16. However, three sacks – one each by Haye, Gaines Adams and Kevin Carter – and the game's only two turnovers (discounting the net-zero effect of the consecutive fumbles by Scaife and Barber on one play) allowed the Bucs to bend but not break until the Titans' fourth-quarter touchdown drive. On that one, Collins converted third downs of one, nine and 15 yards to preserve keep the Titans' hopes alive.
Injuries may be taking a toll on the Bucs' rushing attack. After gaining 182 and 187 yards on the ground in consecutive wins over St. Louis and Carolina, the Bucs have been held to a total of 47 rushing yards in their last two games. That included just 30 on Sunday against the Titans, the Bucs first with Earnest Graham starting after injuries to Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman.
The Bucs had little luck establishing the run early, though they signaled their intentions to do so by starting the game in a two-TE set and running Graham up the middle on the first play. That run gained nothing, and neither did any of Graham's first four totes, which produced a total of one yard. The Bucs finally gained some yardage on the ground by pitching it to Graham outside, a play that gained 10 yards when Graham left CB Nick Harper on the ground with a hard fake. That would prove to be Graham's only breakaway of the game.
Thus forced to move the team through the air, Garcia seemed to absorb a painful hit on the majority of his deliveries. Though he succeeded rather admirably in the face of such pressure, the offense had difficulty sustaining a drive in the first half and netted just the one field goal. By hitting Galloway deep in the third quarter and completing four of six passes for 55 yards on the final drive, Garcia was able to ring up 274 yards and one score on 20-of-31 passing. For the sixth time in six starts as a Buccaneer, he was not picked off. His 103.4 passer rating in the game was almost an exact match for the season-long 103.6 rating he had coming into Sunday's contest.
"We knew it was going to be very difficult to run the football," said Gruden. "Forget about our injuries, we knew it was going to be a hard day at the office running the ball. We tried to put Jeff Garcia in some positions where he could make some plays, and he did. I can't even tell you how valuable he is."
The Bucs led 3-0 after a first half played mostly between the 20s. The Bucs gained 161 yards and the Titans 140 during the first two quarters but a pair of turnovers killed Tennessee's scoring chances and the Bucs couldn't punch it in on their only red-zone opportunity.
The Bucs finally broke that first half stalemate thanks to the first turnover and first big offensive play of the game. After DE Patrick Chukwurah recovered a fumble on a botched handoff between Young and RB Chris Brown, Garcia hit WR Michael Clayton with a 39-yard sideline pass on third-and-11. Clayton got down to the 12, but the Bucs couldn't punch it in from there and had to settle for Bryant's 23-yard field goal.
The Titans got into Buccaneer territory for a second time on the ensuing drive but turned the ball over again. CB Phillip Buchanon intercepted a deep pass intended for WR Roydell Williams at the Bucs' four-yard line with a little over a minute left in the half.
Though Graham's stats at the half weren't impressive – 21 yards on 10 carries and 14 yards on five receptions – he made two outstanding plays at the end of the second quarter to deny Tennessee another scoring chance. After Buchanon's pick, there was 1:18 left on the clock and the Titans tried to get the ball back by using their timeouts. On a second-down pitch, Graham reached back for a scintillating one-handed grab of a toss that appeared headed for the end zone. On the next play, he struck off left guard for a gain of five, carrying CB Cortland Finnegan for five yards in order to get past the sticks. That allowed the Bucs to run out the clock and avoid a punt from deep in their own territory.
However, Tennessee needed only one drive to dent the scoreboard in the second half. Young converted two third downs on a 45-yard march that ended in Rob Bironas' 48-yard field goal. The Bucs did hold the damage to three points when they stopped White on a third-and-three carry up the middle at the 30-yard line.
WR Mark Jones gave the Bucs a lift for their first drive of the second half, returning Tennessee's kickoff all the way to Tampa Bay's 39-yard line. However, the drive went nowhere as Tennessee's defensive line collapsed the pocket on Garcia three straight times, leading to a trio of incompletions.
The Titans lost their indispensable quarterback on the next possession. As Young ran out of bounds on a two-yard scramble around left end, he appeared to come up lame as he crossed the sideline. That put the game in the experienced hands of Collins, the 13th-year veteran and only other quarterback on Tennessee's roster. Collins couldn't sustain that drive but he did produce when the game was on the line.
The Bucs took the ensuing possession 80 yards on three plays for the game's first touchdown, most of it coming on Galloway's breakaway. Galloway beat the safety with a post move and then beat the converging Harper to the ball.
Barber's first two would-be turnovers followed, putting the ball at the Bucs' 33. Collins converted another third down to get the ball down to Tampa Bay's 17, but consecutive sacks by Haye and Carter pushed the Titans back out of scoring range and forced a punt.
Garcia and the Bucs' offense had little luck with their next possession and had to punt with just over 10 minutes remaining. A holding penalty on the return helped push the Titans back to their own 18, and Collins came out again to lead the offense. A fired-up Buccaneer defense stood strong, forcing a quick three-and-out that gave the ball back to the Bucs close to midfield.
Though the offense failed to gain a first down again, the positive field position still allowed Josh Bidwell to punt it back to Tennessee's 14. This time, however, Collins got them out of the shadow of their end zone with one big play. Facing a third-and-nine from the Tennessee 26, Collins found Gage on a deep post and hit him for a 42-yard gain down to Tampa Bay's 32.
Four plays later, Barber apparently intercepted Collins again, leaping in front of White for a pick at the goal line. However, the Titans challenged this one, too, and won again, as Barber's second point of contact, his right hand, hit just out of bounds. Collins then zipped a 17-yard pass to Scaife on third-and-15 to put the ball at the Bucs' six as the two-minute warning arrived. White needed two runs from there to get to the end zone.
The Bucs had 1:17 left to try to get into position for a game-winning field goal. After two incompletions, Garcia scrambled forward and hit Hilliard over the middle. Hilliard not only picked up 28 yards, but he weaved through the defense to find the sideline and stop the clock with 54 seconds to play. Two plays later, Hilliard's 10-yard grab put the ball out of bounds at the Tennessee 25.
With just 16 seconds left and no timeouts remaining, the Bucs elected to kick on the next snap. Bryant calmly nailed the 43-yard game-winner, though a blizzard of flags in the end zone led to worries that yet another Tampa Bay success would be overturned.
The flags, it turned out, were for the Titans having 12 men on the field. Bryant's kick was good – he is eight of nine on the season – and the Bucs merely had to run off 11 ticks to win the game. After the kickoff, Collins had time for one deep pass downfield, and it was broken up by S Tanard Jackson.
With the win, the Bucs took over first place in the NFC South at 4-2, with the 3-2 Carolina Panthers just beginning their game at Arizona as Tampa Bay and Tennessee finished. The Titans fall to 3-2. The Bucs travel to Detroit next week for a 1:00 p.m. game on Sunday, October 21.
Game Notes: The Bucs broke a five-game losing streak in the all-time series with Tennessee. The Titans, formerly the Houston Oilers, still lead the series, 7-2. … Rookie DE Gaines Adams notched his first NFL sack late in the first quarter with a three-yard takedown of QB Vince Young. Adams has to share the credit, however, with Titans RB LenDale White. Young actually went down after tripping over his teammate, with Adams the first one to touch him on the ground. … TE Jerramy Stevens made his first start as a Buccaneer when the team opened in a two-tight end set. Stevens joined TE Alex Smith in the opening-play alignment, replacing FB B.J. Askew. … With his 23-yard field goal in the second quarter, K Matt Bryant broke a tie with former Bucs K Bill Capece and moved into sole possession of seventh place on the team's all-time scoring chart. Bryant finished the game with seven points and needs just two more to pass former TE Jimmie Giles (204 points) for sixth place on the list. … With their 3-0 halftime lead, the Bucs pitched a first-half shutout for the fourth time in their last five games. … WR Joey Galloway's 69-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter moved him into a tie for sixth place on the Bucs' all-time TD list. Galloway now has 26 scores as a Buccaneer, equaling Warrick Dunn's mark. On more score would tie Galloway for fifth with Mark Carrier. … DE Kevin Carter's 13-yard sack of QB Kerry Collins in the fourth quarter was the 99th of his illustrious career. Carter played four seasons (2001-04) with the Titans. …
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: CB Brian Kelly, RB Michael Pittman, LB Jeremiah Trotter, LB Adam Hayward, G Dan Buenning, T Dennis Roland, DT Ryan Sims and designated third quarterback Luke McCown. Kelly and Pittman were out due to injuries.
The Titans declared the following eight players inactive: P Josh Miller, WR Paul Williams, CB Kelly Herndon, RB Chris Henry, G/C Leroy Harris, DE Sean Conover, WR Brandon Jones and DE Bryce Fisher. Jones and Conover were out due to injuries.
Injuries: For the Bucs, DE Patrick Chukwurah sustained a shoulder injury early in the second half and did not return. TE Alex Smith suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.
For the Titans, QB Vince Young sustained a strained right guard in the third quarter and did not return.