Like a major league pitcher winning without his best fastball, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pulled out a 17-16 win over the Miami Dolphins on Saturday night despite a sluggish night by the starting offense.
First-year S Sean Baker returned a Jonas Gray fumble 55 yards to the Miami 25-yard line in the fourth quarter to set up rookie QB Mike Glennon's 12-yard touchdown pass to WR David Douglas with one minute remaining in regulation. The Bucs won for the second straight August at Sun Life Stadium despite gaining just 160 total yards on the night and failing to establish any offensive rhythm with either its first team or its reserves. As such, Josh Freeman and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting offense will have to wait until the regular season to prove it can build on a promising 2012 campaign.
The Bucs improved to 1-2 in August and will finish the preseason slate next Thursday night at home against the Washington Redskins. That game will likely be contested almost exclusively by reserves on both sides of the ball.
Following the usual preseason pattern, the Buccaneers gave Freeman and his fellow starters a long-awaited opportunity to play deep into the game on Saturday night at Sun Life Stadium. Freeman and the starting offense produced just 63 yards in the first half and left the game trailing by three points. The Bucs did protect the football, with their only turnover coming on a fluke fumble by Freeman in which the ball slipped out of his hand as he cocked to throw late in the second quarter. However, Freeman completed just six of 16 passes for 59 yards and was sacked five times in what will likely be his only extended playing time before the regular-season opener against the Jets in New York on September 8. He wasn't helped by an ineffective running game, as starter Doug Martin was rested and the duo of Brian Leonard and Mike James had just 18 combined yards at halftime.
Tampa Bay's starting defense fared better, allowing 180 yards by halftime but putting together two rousing red zone stops to help the Bucs take a 10-6 lead deep into the second quarter. Rookie DT Akeem Spence, in particular, was a bright spot, repeatedly getting penetration into the backfield and racking up four tackles, including two for losses while going up against standout Dolphins center Mike Pouncey. DE Trevor Scott, a recent signee playing in his first game as a Buccaneer, had Tampa Bay's lone sack of the first half and added two more after halftime to emerge as a bright spot for the defense. Scott, the first Buccaneer to record three sacks in a preseason game since at least the 2000 season, was also credited with two additional quarterback pressures and a forced fumble. LB Lavonte David led the team at the break with five tackles and do-everything LB Adam Hayward had an active second half with four tackles, one stop for a loss and a quarterback pressure.
It was the special teams that kept Tampa Bay in the game in the first half, as the punt coverage unit forced two fumbles in the first half, both of which were recovered by Hayward and both of which led to Buccaneer scores. The Bucs also got a very strong night from punter Michael Koenen (51.0-yard average on three punts plus two touchbacks on kickoffs) and had to like what they saw from decisive first-year return man Eric Page. Page gained 35 yards on two punt returns and 23 yards on one kickoff return, repeatedly taking the ball from around the goal line and darting straight upfield. In addition, newly-signed placekicker Rian Lindell made his only field goal try, a 38-yarder in the second quarter that temporarily put the Bucs up, 10-3.
Freeman and the Bucs' offense got two more drives in the third quarter but failed to advance out of Tampa Bay territory, even though Leonard and James got the running game untracked a bit. Leonard finished the game with 38 yards on 10 carries also scoring the Bucs' lone first-half touchdown on a one-yard run. RB Peyton Hillis got an opportunity to play in the second half, as Tampa Bay continues to sort out its backfield behind Martin, and produced 28 yards on seven carries. Glennon played most of the second half but also failed to get Tampa Bay's offense in gear, finishing with 44 yards on three-of-nine passing. For the night, Tampa Bay's offense produced just 2.8 yards per play while their quarterbacks absorbed six sacks.
With both team's starters in the game, Tampa Bay took a 7-3 lead into the second quarter after a big play on special teams. CB Michael Adams forced the game's first turnover after the Bucs' initial drive faltered near midfield, blocking CB Nolan Carroll nearly into the Miami return man on Koenen's punt, which caused the ball to deflect off Caroll's helmet. Hayward recovered for the Buccaneers at the Miami 23, and the visitors got inside the 10-yard line two plays later when Vincent Jackson drew a pass-interference call on former Atlanta CB Brent Grimes. It took Leonard two carries to punch it in from there, a twisting seven-yarder and a one-yard score on which he jump-stepped to the right to find an open seam and walk in untouched.
That countered an opening-drive field goal by the Dolphins that had encouraging elements for both sides. Miami drove 76 yards to set up Caleb Sturgis' 22-yard field goal and converted a key fourth down in Buccaneer territory on a slant to WR Brian Hartline, but the Bucs' defense got stingy in the red zone. Thanks to a penalty, Miami ran 10 plays inside the Buccaneers' 20 but never got it over the goal line, with rookie CB Johnthan Banks' breaking up an end zone pass in Hartline's direction to force the field goal.
The Bucs pushed their lead up to a touchdown four minutes into the second period after yet another turnover on special teams. This time, TE Tom Crabtree forced a fumble by return man Marcus Thigpen, with Hayward once again in the right place at the right time to recover at Miami's 41. A 13-yard catch by Vincent Jackson put the Bucs in position to capitalize on Lindell's 38-yard field goal. Miami cut the lead back to four points just before the two-minute warning on a 23-yard field goal by Sturgis following another stop by Tampa Bay's defense inside the 10. Miami's offense inherited a short field after Thigpen's 38-yard kickoff return, but a big TFL by Spence after the Dolphins had reached Tampa Bay's seven helped keep the home team out of the end zone.
The Bucs lost their lead just before halftime thanks to their first turnover, a bit of bad luck when the ball slipped out of Freeman's hand as he tried to cock his arm to throw on a drive that had crossed midfield. The Dolphins recovered and Tannehill took the Miami offense 48 yards on seven plays, ending in a four-yard scoring pass to Brandon Gibson.
The Bucs won the toss but elected to defer, which means the game started with a Koenen kickoff that actually went through the opposite uprights for a touchback. After a Mike Wallace catch picked up 13 yards, RB Lamar Miller found a seam around right end and picked up 20 more before he was run out of bounds by Dashon Goldson. A toe-tapping sideline catch by Wallace picked up seven yards to produce a first down at the Bucs' 31, and an eight-yard screen to RB Daniel Thomas picked up another fresh set of downs at the 15. Spence made a great play to knife through the line and drop Thomas for a loss of two on third-and one at the 12, but the Dolphins went for it on fourth down and converted on a quick slant to WR Brian Hartline. S Mark Barron led a charge to drop Miller for a loss of five back at the 10 on the next play, and two plays later the Bucs appeared to snuff the drive out when DE Adrian Clayborn forced Tannehill into a throwaway. Instead an unidentified Buc defender was flagged for illegal contact, making it first-and-goal again at the four. Mason Foster and Gerald McCoy dropped Miller for no gain on consecutive runs and Banks made an impressive diving pass deflection on a third-down throw to Hartline to force Miami to settle for a 22-yard field goal.
Page took Miami's first kickoff out of the end zone and got it to the Bucs' 22, and Leonard's first run was good for four yards. However, after the Dolphins trapped Leonard in the backfield on second down, the Bucs needed a great open-field move by Williams to turn a short pass into a 14-yard gain and a first down at the 36. The Bucs faced a third-and-five moments later and, unfortunately, a pitch to James didn't fool LB Dannell Ellerbe, who dropped the back for a loss of five to force a punt.
The Bucs got the ball right back, however, when Koenen's 45-yard punt bounced off Caroll's helmet and was recovered by Hayward at the Dolphins' 23. Adams caused the turnover by blocking Carroll into the lap of the Miami return man. Two plays later, Jackson drew a pass interference penalty on Grimes that made it first-and-goal at the eight. Leonard twisted his way down to the one on a first-down carry and then side-stepped a block on second down to easily walk into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Miami picked up one first down on the ensuing drive but were then forced to punt when Spence once again got into the backfield to drop Thomas for a loss of two and Adams nearly intercepted a downfield Tannehill pass over the middle on third-and-12. The Bucs started fresh at their own 20 after the ensuing punt, but two incompletions by Freeman put them into a quick third-and-10 hole. A punt was necessary after DT Jared Odrick dropped the quarterback for a two-yard sack on third down.
A 15-yard penalty on Adams for running out of bounds and not immediately trying to get back inbounds on the punt forced Koenen to kick a second time from his own five…which actually turned out to be in the Bucs' favor. On the re-kick – which was a fantastic 52-yard sideline blast by Koenen – Crabtree poked the ball out of Thigpen's hands and it was once again recovered by Hayward, this time at Miami's 41.
A great play-action rollout pass by Freeman to WR Vincent Jackson on a comeback route picked up 13 yards and a first down at the Miami 28, but it was third-and-seven at the 25 after DT Paul Soliai deflected a pass that was headed in the direction of Mike Williams down the middle. A short pass to WR Kevin Ogletree failed to move the sticks and Lindell came on to try a 38-yard field goal. Lindell sent it straight through the sticks to push the Bucs' lead to 10-3 with 11 minutes left in the half.
A false start penalty and a good stop by Clayborn put Miami into a third-and-11 hole to start the next drive, but Tannehill zipped an out to Hartline just past good coverage from Banks to convert the third down. CB Leonard Johnson broke up a pass down the seam to Brandon Gibson two plays later to set up another third down, and this time Scott was able to drop Tannehill for an eight-yard sack to force another punt.
A slashing 19-yard punt return by Page gave the Bucs possession at their own 26, but a missed connection on a deep pass attempt to WR Mike Williams and a five-yard sack by DE Olivier Vernon made them give it right back. Worse, a 38-yard return by Thigpen after another booming punt by Koenen got the ball into Buccaneer territory, and a diving 10-yard catch by Gibson produced another first down at the Bucs' 32. An 11-yard grab by Wallace two plays later made it first-and-goal at the Bucs' seven, but once again the defense held. Spence's drop of Thomas for a loss of three on first down helped make it third-and-goal and a throw to the back middle of the end zone to Gibson was incomplete. Sturgis hit a 23-yard field goal to cut the lead to 10-6 with just over two minutes left in the half.
On the first play after the two-minute warning, Freeman hit Williams on the left sideline and the receiver made two sharp cuts to elude the tackler and pick up 19 yards to the Bucs' 42. The Bucs were fortunate to get another set of downs just inside Miami territory when the defense was flagged for holding on an eight-yard scramble by Freeman on third-and-10. That was immediately followed by a bit of bad luck, as Freeman fumbled on an attempted pass, with the ball slipping out of his grasp as he tried to take it back.
That gave Miami possession at the Bucs' 48, and Tannehill immediately found WR Marvin McNutt down the middle for a gain of 17. After S Mark Barron made a fabulous pass breakup at the goal line on the next play, Tannehill moved the sticks with a 14-yard pass to Hartline. A five-yard catch by Gibson on third-and-two made it first-and-goal at the four and Tannehill found the same receiver cutting over the middle on the next play to put Miami ahead with 10 seconds left in the half.
A holding penalty on the kickoff to start the second half pushed the Bucs back to their seven to start, but James burst over right guard on first down to pick up 14 yards. He got four more running left on the next play but it was third-and-six after a sack for no yards on second down. An attempted out pass to Williams fell incomplete and the Bucs had to punt.
Miami brought in Pat Devlin at quarterback to lead the next drive, but it was RB Jonas Gray who broke off a 10-yard run on the first play of the possession, giving Miami a first down at its own 43. DE Adrian Clayborn batted down Devlin's first pass. Three plays later, Devlin barely escaped a Clayborn sack and was able to scramble for just enough for a first down. The Bucs held, however, thanks in large part to Scott's second sack for a loss of six yards on third-and-nine. P Brandon Fields put the Bucs in a bad position, however, when his 47-yard punt bounced sideways out of bounds at the three.
Freeman got the Bucs some breathing room with an eight-yard sprint-out pass to WR Kevin Ogletree near the left sideline for eight yards and a first down at the 14. Two plays later, Leonard moved the sticks again with a dancing 12-yard run up the gut out to the 31. The Bucs couldn't overcome the subsequent third-and-17, however, after LB Jonathan Freeny dropped Freeman for a loss of 10.
Miami started again at its own 34 after the punt, with both teams going fully to second and third-stringers. WR Brian Tyms got the ball back into Buccaneer territory with a spectacular diving catch for 13 yards on the right sideline. However, Scott shot around the left tackle moments later to pounce on the unsuspecting Devlin, forcing a fumble that Miami recovered. LB Jonathan Casillas tackled RB Mike Gillislee on a short pass to force a punt, and this one was once again downed inside the Bucs' 10.
Glennon took over under center but quickly faced a third-and-seven after a Hillis three-yard run and an incompletion. A deep pass over the middle in Ogletree's direction was also incomplete and the Bucs had to punt again.
A tackle for loss by Hayward and a hard hit by LB Jonathan Casillas that caused a drop by McNutt put Miami into a third-and-11 at the Bucs' 48 as the third quarter came to an end. On the first play of the fourth quarter, however, Devlin converted the third down with an 18-yard pass down to the middle to TE Dion Sims. The Dolphins gained a first down at the Bucs' 15 but the red zone defense held strong again, with DE Da'Quan Bowers batting down Devlin's third-and-five pass to force a field goal attempt. Sturgis hit his third short kick, a 28-yarder, to increase Miami's lead to 16-10 with 13 minutes to play.
After a touchback, Glennon got the next drive started with a 19-yard strike to TE Danny Noble but the Bucs had to punt again moments later. A false start and an incompletion hurried by a strong Buc pass rush put Devlin into a third-and-15 situation at his own 19, and his third-down toss to Gillislee came up well short.
Glennon got the Bucs moving quickly on the next drive, hitting TE Tim Wright for 13 yards near midfield, and Hillis followed with an 11-yard run over left tackle, down to Miami's 46. The drive ended three plays later, however, when DE Josh Kaddu burst up the middle to drop Glennon for a nine-yard sack on third down.
Devlin drove the Dolphins back into Buccaneers territory on the ensuing drive but the Bucs' defense came up with a key turnover just after the three-minute mark. Rookie DE William Gholston stripped the ball from Gray on a run to the left and Baker scooped it up on the bounce, dashing down the right sideline for a 55-yard return to the Miami 25.
Three runs by Hillis took the ball down to the Miami 13, including a three-yard blast over right guard to convert a third-and-one. Miami then used its second timeout of the half with 1:21 left in regulation. After a one-yard Hillis run and a final Dolphins timeout, Glennon found Douglas cutting over the middle and Douglas cut upwards into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 1:03 to play.
Miami had one last chance to regain the lead but a sack by DE Steven Means put them in a deep hole and an interception by S Keith Tandy sealed the victory for Tampa Bay.