The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFL's youngest team, took awhile to warm up to the prime-time lights on Monday, but in the end they found the national stage to their liking. With a down-to-the-wire 24-17 win over the visiting Indianapolis Colts at Raymond James Stadium, the Buccaneers staked out a share of first place in the NFC South and served notice that they may soon become regular guests on the NFL's evening circuit.
Tampa Bay improved to 3-1 with its third straight victory and remained tied with the New Orleans Saints for the top spot in the division.
The Buccaneers even gave the viewing nation a very representative taste of their own brand of victory, rallying from a 10-0 deficit in the first half. With two double-digit comeback wins already this season, the Bucs now have nine such successful rallies since 2008, the most by any team in the NFL. Two weeks prior, Tampa Bay rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit in Minnesota to defeat the Vikings, 24-20.
This one wasn't quite as dire, and the Bucs actually had a 17-17 tie heading into the fourth quarter. But they trailed 10-0 after Pierre Garcon's shocking 87-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, and then 17-10 after Garcon took a screen pass 59-yards for his second score in the third period. However, QB Josh Freeman's 13-yard touchdown pass to WR Preston Parker tied the game just before the fourth quarter and the Bucs' defense turned the heat up on first-time starter Curtis Painter throughout the final period, recording three of their four sacks.
The Bucs' signature performance also included a big day from bruising running back LeGarrette Blount, who scored the game-winning points with a 35-yard touchdown run with six minutes to play. Blount gained 62 of his season-high 127 rushing yards in the fourth quarter, once again serving as the closer after a long night of hard-fought football.
Even the game's final minutes set off feelings of déjà vu. The Buccaneers held on to a 16-13 win over division-rival Atlanta eight days earlier with a "four-minute drill" that included Blount's power rushing into the teeth of the defense and a gutsy decision to go for it on fourth down just a few yards into opposing territory. Freeman closed out that game by inducing an offside penalty by the Falcons; this time he simply snapped it and used his 260 pounds to sneak over the line for the game's final first down.
"That's awesome," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We're embracing the four-minute drill. That's where you want to be in football games. We want to be in the four-minute drill with Josh Freeman and LeGarrette Blount making smart decisions."
Freeman presided over a 466-yard offensive output that tied for the sixth-most prolific day in franchise history. He completed 25 of 39 passes for 287 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, hooking up five times each with Parker (for 70 yards), Mike Williams (66) and Kellen Winslow (33). Freeman also ran six times for 27 yards, three times producing important first downs, as the Bucs' ground game produced a season-best 192 yards overall and 5.3 yards per carry.
That the Bucs struggled to put the ball in the end zone until late despite that yardage output speaks to an evening of missed opportunities, many of them the result of ill-timed penalties. Tampa Bay was flagged 14 times for 106 yards, including one that erased a 62-yard touchdown catch by WR Arrelious Benn and one that preserved the 98-yard drive that ended in Garcon's first TD.
There were plenty of other near-misses, too. CBs Aqib Talib and E.J. Biggers both missed on potential interceptions in the second half, and Talib appeared to have an open sideline in front of him on his opportunity. Biggers' shot came early in the fourth quarter with the game tied and the Colts driving into Buccaneers territory Earlier in that drive, CB Ronde Barber was flagged for pass interference on a third-down incompletion when it appeared that TE Dallas Clark fell down coming out of his break. Fortunately, K Adam Vinatieri missed a 43-yard field goal at the end of that possession and the Bucs would score the game's only remaining points.
Painter, making his NFL starting debut after three seasons of backing up Peyton Manning, acquitted himself nicely, throwing for 281 yards, the two Garcon touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 99.4. However, the Buccaneers sacked him four times, including two by DE Michael Bennett, and hurried him into 17 incompletions in 30 attempts. The Colts had to rely on their inexperienced passer to keep them in the game because Joseph Addai and the running game produced just 62 yards on 18 carries.
DT Gerald McCoy and rookie DE Adrian Clayborn, the Buccaneers' last two first-round draft picks, each had a sack and both were regular visitors to the Colts' backfield. McCoy was credited with a team-high six tackles, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries to go with his fourth-quarter takedown of Painter.
"I am fired up about those young guys, and they're getting better and better," said Morris. "I see improvement every week. They just kept coming, putting heat on the quarterback. Those guys are really playing well and playing physical and I'm enjoying the moment. Hopefully it will translate into more wins."
Bennett's first sack, in the opening period, produced a Painter fumble that the end recovered in Indy territory, but K Connor Barth missed for the first time in 2011 on the ensuing drive, hitting the right upright on a 46-yard attempt. Barth later made a 46-yard try early in the second half that tied the game at 10 apiece, but the Bucs missed an opportunity to knot it up right before halftime when Freeman took a sack on third down in the closing seconds. The Bucs successfully rushed their field goal team on to the field and got off a good kick, but one member of the offense didn't quite get out of bounds before the snap and the three points were lost to a 12-man on the field penalty.
The Colts converted a pair of third downs and took the game's opening possession 53 yards on 11 plays for a field goal. Vinatieri banged home a 45-yard field goal after Painter found trusty TE Dallas Clark twice for 27 yards and a pair of first downs. The drive reached the Bucs' 27 but stalled when heavy blitzing forced the young Colts QB to throw off-target on third-and-eight.
The Bucs wasted a prime scoring opportunity later in the quarter after Bennett's impressive rush up the middle resulted in a sack and a forced fumble, which Bennett recovered himself at the Colts' 32. However, Williams couldn't quite hold on to a well-thrown out pass on third-and-six and Barth hit his first attempt off the right upright.
The Bucs drove into Colts territory again in the second quarter but had to punt, with LB Adam Hayward downing Michael Koenen's kick at the two-yard line. Unfortunately, a defensive-holding call on Talib helped Indy escape their goal line and two plays later Garcon got free for his big play, the second-longest reception ever against Tampa Bay's defense.
Tampa Bay's offense awoke in response, mounting its first sustained drive to cover 81 yards and pull the home team within three points. A 21-yard catch-and-run by Winslow on the first play came back due to a holding call but Freeman came right back with a 43-yard strike to Benn on the next play to get it into Indianapolis territory. A run of eight yards and a catch of 14 by Blount put the ball into the Colts' red zone, and Preston Parker converted a big third down with a square-in that he took to the one-yard line. Freeman finished the drive with a sneak on first-and-goal, easily pushing over the line behind LG Jeremy Zuttah.
With the noise at Raymond James Stadium peaking, the Bucs' defense forced a quick three-and-out as McCoy got a big stop of Addai for a loss of four on second down. The Bucs' offense got the ball back just after the two-minute warning and, as usual, set off on a strong two-minute drill. In this case, it would come up empty, however, as a third-down sack by Robert Mathis forced the Bucs' field goal team to rush onto the field in a mad scramble. That crew somehow got the kick off in time, but the three points were erased because one of the original offensive players couldn't quite get to the sideline in time and the result was a 12-men-on-the-field penalty.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Friday night's game.)
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half and immediately embarked on an impressive drive. Freeman started it with a 23-yard strike to Williams on the left side, then later converted a third-and-14 near midfield with a crossing route to Williams that was good for 17. The drive stalled at the Indy 28 when a down-out-and-up to Parker on third down didn't work, but Barth tied the game with a 46-yard field goal.
The Colts' offense came out hot, too, getting an 18-yard catch on a slant from Williams and an eight-yard cutback run from Addai to get to their own 46. Addai came up a few inches short on second down, and Talib just missed an interception on Painter's rollout third-down throw.
The Bucs got the ball back at their own 21 on the punt but had to kick it back a few plays later. Blount picked up three yards on first down but Freeman's next two passes were incomplete, including a third-down throw in Parker's direction that he just got off before being dragged down. The Colts got good field position after an uncharacteristic 37-yard punt by Koenen.
From there, it was just one play to the end zone, as Garcon turned in his second big play. On this one, the pass only traveled a few yards, but the Colts blocked the bubble-screen perfectly to get it started and Garcon did the rest in the open field for the 59-yard score.
Getting the ball back midway through the third quarter, the Bucs got runs of seven and five yards from Blount sandwiched around a short pass to Williams, but a deeper pass down the left side to Williams went through his hands. That left Freeman in the shotgun on third-and-four, and he slid left to buy time and eventually fire a 21-yard strike to Parker. A sack by rookie DE Jerry Hughes on the next play could have hurt but fellow DE Jamaal Anderson committed a personal foul away from the play and cost his team 15 yards. On first-and-10 from the 33, Winslow caught a five-yard pass over the middle but Blount's run gained nothing. After Graham's draw play came up a yard short, the Bucs brought in reserve QB Josh Johnson to run an option with Blount, and Johnson kept it to easily convert the fourth down with an eight yard gain to the 16. Freeman fired high on a seam pass to Winslow near the goal line and Benn's end-around was good for just three. On third-and-seven, Freeman found Parker underneath again and the young receiver outran the Colts tacklers to find the left pylon for the game-tying score.
The Colts converted a third down on the ensuing drive just as the half ended, with Painter getting a pass off with Bennett in his face and Austin Collie making a spectacular shoestring catch for a first down at the Indianapolis 34. Two plays later, Painter tried a pump-and-go to Garcon but Talib had good coverage and the pass sailed overhead incomplete. An apparent third-down incompletion didn't kill the drive, though, when CB Ronde Barber was flagged for pass interference. Bennett raced around the right tackle for his second sack on first down but a big blitz on second down backfired when Painter got a pass off to TE Dallas Clark for 19 yards to the Bucs' 41. Biggers nearly intercepted the next pass but Painter converted another third down with a 21-yard sideline pass to Wayne, who made a falling, juggling catch just inbounds. McCoy got to Painter for a six-yard sack on first down and a second-down pass in Garcon's direction was deflected away by Talib. After a third-down incompletion, Vinatieri pushed his 43-yard field goal attempt wide to the left.
The ensuing drive got off to a bad start for the Bucs as Davin Joseph was flagged for holding. The offense continued in the wrong direction on the next snap as Winslow committed a personal foul to make it first-and-31 back at the 12. The Bucs didn't come close to crawling out of that hole and eventually punted from the 28-yard line. Koenen at least gave the Bucs a field-position boost by angling his 49-yard punt out of bounds at the Indy 24.
A one-yard run by Addai and a false start made it second-and-14, and Clayborn sacked Painter for a loss of eight on second down after Bennett's quick rush moved the quarterback from his original dropback. McAfee's high 37-yard punt was fair caught by Parker at the Bucs' 40.
The ensuing drive started well when Blount bashed over right guard for 10 yards. Blount got three more on the next snap and Freeman's second-down scramble very nearly moved the chains. Unfortunately, it became third-and-six when the Bucs ran out of time before the next snap, but Freeman took care of business by scrambling forward and gamely diving forward to cross the first-down line. Blount then broke off a four-yard run down to the 35, setting up his biggest play of the night. Pausing for just a moment after getting the handoff, the Bucs' jumbo back then shot through a seam on the left side and found himself in open field. With just one Indy defender to beat, Blount made it to the right pylon and dived just far enough to put the ball into pay dirt.
The Bucs' defense continued its fourth-quarter surge, forcing a huge three-and-out. Clayborn hurried Painter into a first-down incompletion and, on third-and-five two plays later, CB Elbert Mack nearly intercepted a seam pass intended for Austin Collie. The Colts punted and Parker made a nifty return to get back to the Tampa Bay 33.
Two plays later, Freeman caught the Colts defense off guard with a bootleg around the left end, moving the chains with a 12-yard run to the 48. The Colts used their second timeout, then their third after Blount's steam-roller seven-yard run up the middle. Blount was stopped for a loss of one on the next play but that play at least brought on the two-minute warning. On third-and-four after the break, Blount willed his way through a gang of tacklers to turn what appeared to be a run for no gain into a contentious play that produced a spot of the football right by the first-down sticks. The play was measured and judged to be short by mere centimeters, with the replay booth taking an extra look before action resumed. Freeman dispensed of any further drama by pushing for two yards just off C Jeff Faine's left shoulder on fourth-and inches. One more kneel-down brought the clock down to all zeroes.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers evened their all-time record on Monday Night Football to 9-9 with the win, including a record of 8-3 at home. They also snapped a three-game losing streak on the popular series and gave Indianapolis only their second Monday Night Football loss in their last 11 tries. Even with the loss, the Colts are 39-22 all-time on Monday night, third-best in the series' 42-year history. … Tampa Bay is now 5-7 all-time against the Colts, including 3-3 at home, breaking a three-game losing streak in that series, too. Their five wins against the Colts are tied for their third-most against any NFC team, trailing seven against Cincinnati and six against Buffalo. … P Michael Koenen played in the 100th regular-season game of his NFL career on Monday night, as well as his 100th consecutive game. He played 96 games over his first six seasons (2005-10) with the Atlanta Falcons. … With six points on the night, K Connor Barth passed WR Kevin House to move into ninth place on the Bucs' all-time scoring list. Barth finished the night with 189 points as Buccaneer. House had 186. … With his 287 passing yards on Monday night, QB Josh Freeman moved past Craig Erickson for sixth place on the Buccaneers' all-time list in that category. Freeman now has 6,275 yards as a Buccaneer, surpassing Erickson's 6,094 yards from 1992-94. … WR Preston Parker's 13-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was the first scoring play of Parker's two-year NFL career. … RB LeGarrette Blount recorded the fifth 100-yard rushing game of his two-year NFL career on Monday Night, carrying 25 times for 127 yards. Blount's rushing yardage total has gone up each week of the season, from 15 in the opener against to Detroit to 71 at Minnesota in Week Two to 81 last Sunday against Atlanta and finally to Monday's high-water mark.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Sammie Stroughter, RB Allen Bradford, CB Anthony Gaitor, G Derek Hardman, T James Lee, TE Zack Pianalto and DT Frank Okam. Stroughter, Lee and Pianalto were out due to injury.
The Colts declared these seven inactives: QB Kerry Collins, WR Anthony Gonzalez, QB Peyton Manning, CB Kevin Thomas, LB Ernie Sims, G Ryan Diem and DT Fili Moala. Collins, Gonzalez, Manning, Diem and Moala were out due to injury.
Injuries: The Buccaneers did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.
For the Colts, DT Eric Foster sustained an ankle injury in the first half and was taken to a nearby hospital. The Colts announced that Foster would remain in the hospital overnight for observation. DT Drake Nevis sustained a lower back injury and did not return. In the fourth quarter, T Ben Ijalana sustained a knee injury and did not return.