QB Bruce Gradkowski was calm and productive in his NFL starting debut, compiling a 107.6 passer rating
Bruce Gradkowski, the 194th player selected in the 2006 NFL Draft, introduced himself to the NFL on Sunday with one of the finest performances by a rookie quarterback in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history. Unfortunately for the Bucs, the man who many expected to go first in that draft stole the show at the end.
The Saints got their hands on USC running back Reggie Bush with the second pick when the Houston Texans surprisingly went with North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams. On Sunday in a rocking Louisiana Superdome, Bush got his hands on the ball in crunch time and showed why the Saints were thrilled by their good fortune on draft day.
Bush's 65-yard punt return for a touchdown provided the deciding points in the Saints' 24-21 victory. The game was a thrilling, back-and-forth struggle that wasn't decided until a long completion to Ike Hilliard was erased on a pass-interference call against Joey Galloway on the Bucs' final drive.
Early on, it was relatively grizzled veteran Deuce McAllister who stole the show from the two upstart rookies and even in the end his 123 rushing yards and one touchdown could be considered the difference in the game. After two fourth-quarter losses in a row to division opponents, the Bucs are now 0-4. New Orleans improved to 4-1 with the win.
Even in defeat, Gradkowski provided many encouraging moments for the Buccaneers, such as his first pass, a perfect strike to Michael Pittman on a rollout. Or his quick-twitch lob to Joey Galloway in the face of a blitz. A scramble up the middle for five yards. A touch pass to Galloway in the end zone and a parabolic post pass to the speedster for 52 yards two quarters later. A dart purposely thrown at Mike Alstott's feet to avoid a negative play. A third-down completion to Michael Clayton on a slant with DT Bryan Young draped all over him. Unnatural calmness in the pocket on his go-ahead touchdown pass to TE Alex Smith in the fourth quarter.
A Chris Simms spleen injury pushed Gradkowski into a starting job in just the fourth game of the Bucs' 2006 season, and the sixth-round rookie responded by pushing all the right buttons in his first extended NFL action. Showing the same uncommon poise that made him the Bucs' breakout player in the preseason, the 23-year-old neophyte completed 20 of 31 passes for 225 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 107.6. He was sacked twice but repeatedly moved away from the pressure and even added 19 rushing yards on six carries.
A game plan that was at once adventurous but safe didn't hurt. In the first half, the Bucs ran a wider variety of misdirection screen passes than usual and used Gradkowski's speed to move the chains on several occasions. They even dipped into their bag of trick plays for the second straight week, this time running a reverse to WR Michael Clayton that gained 27 yards in the second quarter. In the second half, after falling behind 17-7, the Bucs chose to take more shots downfield and Gradkowski handled that assignment with aplomb, too.
On a less encouraging note, the Buccaneers' rush defense continued to struggle, as a series of missed tackles contributed to McAllister's big game and New Orleans' 143 rushing yards overall. McAllister's 24-yard, go-ahead touchdown run in the second quarter, for instance, was nearly a negative play, as McAllister was briefly trapped in the backfield before breaking free. Bush, who certainly had a hand in creating some of those missed tackles, added 23 yards on nine carries but was more involved in the passing game, with 11 catches for 63 yards..
The Bucs' defense also continues to be susceptible to extended drives, at least in the first half. The Saints' two first-half scoring drives covered 83 and 88 yards, respectively, and survived several third downs. The Bucs also did not come up with a single turnover on defense. That negated a fine effort by Gradkowski to keep the ball moving and another strong day by P Josh Bidwell (four punts inside the 20).
The Bucs did avoid the turnover on offense throughout the first half, no small feat with a rookie at the helm. However, DE Charles Grant's sack of Gradkowski midway through the third quarter forced the first fumble of the season by Tampa Bay. New Orleans recovered at the Bucs' 25 and needed just four plays to put the ball in the end zone. Brees' nine-yard touchdown pass to TE Ernie Conwell came just before Brees was dragged down from behind and it gave the Saints a 17-7 lead with six minutes to play in the third quarter.
That 10-point deficit forced the Bucs to throw it a bit more frequently after picking up a season-high 112 rushing yards in the first half alone. The Bucs did finish the game with 187 yards on 33 carries, led by Cadillac Williams' 111 yards on 20 totes. Early on, the offense had difficulty running between the tackles but found success on sweeps and a few trick plays, including Clayton's reverse.
Fortunately, Gradkowski made the passing game work even under duress. His perfect, 52-yard strike to Galloway on the aforementioned post keyed a 74-yard drive on which he was three-of-four passing for 77 yards. Two plays later, Alstott's one-yard touchdown plunge brought the Bucs back within three points.
An exchange of punts worked in the visitors' favor, as Bidwell's boot early in the fourth quarter pinned the Saints back at their own five. When the defense held, WR Mark Jones fielded the resulting kick at the Saints' 49 and got it down to the 40. Williams' 33-yard breakaway run got the ball inside the five and Gradkowski converted a third-and-goal with a three-yard pass over the middle to TE Alex Smith. That gave the Bucs a 21-17 lead with 10 minutes to play.
The Bucs' defense held on New Orleans' ensuing possession, but Tampa Bay couldn't produce a first down on defense, either, as the clock ticked down to five minutes to play. That's when Bush turned the game around, taking a high Bidwell punt on the left side and cutting all the way across to the right to find an open seam down the sideline.
Gradkowski made the most of the remaining time, driving the Bucs into Saints territory on sharp completions to Hilliard for 15 yards and Galloway for 18. Williams then darted 16 yards on a carry over left tackle, taking the ball down to the Saints' 41. That set up the deciding play, a 38-yard completion to Hilliard that appeared to put the ball at the Saints' three. However, Galloway was called for a pick, essentially, and the result was third-and-15 at the Bucs' 48. Two completions to Williams failed to move the chains and the Saints were able to run out most of the last 2:23 on the clock before punting.
It was the Saints who got tricky in the game's opening seconds, with a pitch on the initial kickoff return between Terrance Copper and Jamal Jones. The Bucs' coverage crew stopped Jones at the 24, however, and the defense finally got off to a strong start, forcing a three-and-out that was helped by two false-start penalties and DE Greg Spires bat-down at the line.
Speaking of very welcome fast starts, the Bucs' offense moved immediately into New Orleans territory after the Saints punt. Gradkowski's first pass as an NFL starter was a rollout strike to Pittman that picked up 23 yards down to New Orleans' 35. Williams followed with his longest run of the season to that point, a 15-yard sweep around left end, and two plays later Gradkowski threw his second pass of the drive, a perfect, 18-yard touch pass to Galloway in the front left corner of the end zone. The Bucs had a 7-0 lead just over four minutes into the game and had succeeded in quieting the hyped Superdome crowd.
How good was that start overall? Well, it was the first time in four games this season that the Buccaneers scored the game's first points, and that bit of momentum can be crucial. Over the last five seasons, Tampa Bay is 9-28 when their opponents score first.
Unfortunately, the momentum didn't stay on the Bucs' sideline for long. Gradkowski took Tampa Bay into Saints territory again, but the drive stalled at the 36. After the punt, the Saints drove 83 yards for their first score, most of the yards coming on McAllister's 57-yard breakaway run. The Bucs' defense did recover with a goal-line stand, with LB Shelton Quarles swatting a potential third-down touchdown pass out of TE Ernie Conwell's hands. John Carney tacked on three points with a 21-yard chip shot.
Gradkowski and the Bucs got into Saints territory again midway through the second quarter but once again stalled just outside of field goal range. Gradkowski converted a third-and-one at the Saints' 33 with a sneak up the middle, but Scott Fujita's coverage sack two plays later led to a punt down to New Orleans' 12-yard line. That sort of field position seemed to suit the Saints, who once again drove the length of the field for a score. McAllister finished it with a 24-yard run, breaking a tackle in the backfield before darting up the middle and then to the right for the go-ahead score with 1:44 to play in the half.
The Bucs gained a season-high 406 yards of offense against the Saints' 314 and had a positive time of possession (30:37) for the first time this year. Galloway led the way with 110 receiving yards and Pittman had 58 combined rushing and receiving yards. CBs Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber led the defense with nine and eight tackles, respectively.
Game Notes: New Orleans now leads the all-time series against the Buccaneers, 18-11. …Sunday's contest marked the 180th game played of Derrick Brooks' career. He is three games shy of tying Paul Gruber for the franchise's all-time record in that category. … Sunday's outing was also the 100th game of P Josh Bidwell's career. … WR Joey Galloway's first-quarter touchdown catch was his 17th as a Buccaneer, tying him with Keyshawn Johnson and Gerald Carter for sixth on the franchise's all-time list in that category. … The Bucs dipped into their bag of trick plays for the second straight week, once again finding success. After a flea-flicker worked for 23 yards against Carolina, a reverse to WR Michael Clayton picked up 27 yards against New Orleans in the second quarter. That was Clayton's career-long carry and, at that point, the longest of the season for Tampa Bay. … RB Deuce McAllister's 123 rushing yards resulted in his fourth 100-yard game against the Buccaneers. Only Barry Sanders (11) and Walter Payton (8) have more 100-yard rushing games against Tampa Bay. … RB Michael Pittman moved into sixth place on the Bucs' all-time rushing list with his yardage against the Saints. Pittman gained 27 yards on two carries, pushing his career Buccaneer total to 2,860. Errict Rhett previously held the sixth spot with 2,853 rushing yards as a Buccaneer. … FB Mike Alstott moved into third place on the Bucs' all-time scoring list with his third-quarter touchdown run. The all-time leading touchdown producer in team history by a wide margin with 69, Alstott now has 420 career points, moving past K Donald Igwebuike (416). The only two players still ahead of Alstott are kickers Martin Gramatica (591) and Michael Husted (502).
Inactives: Each team was required to declare eight players inactive 90 minutes before the game. The Bucs' eight included two players out due to injuries: TE Dave Moore and QB Chris Simms. The other six were CB Alan Zemaitis, FB Jerald Sowell, LB Jamie Winborn, T Donald Penn, G Jeb Terry and WR Paris Warren.
The Saints' eight inactive players are WR Devery Henderson, S Bryan Scott, FB Corey McIntyre, CB Curtis Deloatch, T Zach Strief, T Rob Petitti, DT Willie Whitehead and designated third quarterback Jason Fife. Henderson, Scott and Deloatch were all out due to injuries.
Injuries: The Buccaneers did not report an injury during the game.
For New Orleans, LB Alfred Fincher left the game in the third quarter with an unspecified injury and did not return.