The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' longest-tenured playmaker and its newest rising star turned in back-to-back game-changing plays just before halftime on Sunday to allow the home team to cut the Cleveland Browns' lead to 14-10.
The Browns had taken control of the game with a power running attack in the second quarter and were threatening to add to a 14-3 lead after Mike Adams' interception near midfield. However, CB Ronde Barber, the 14th-year veteran and the Bucs' all-time leader in interceptions, took the ball right back on his 38th career pick and returned it 65 yards to the Cleveland two. On the next play, rookie WR Mike Williams showed amazing agility and concentration on his first career touchdown, hauling in a deflected pass at the back of the end zone.
The Bucs moved the ball well on their opening two possessions, the second one setting up a 48-yard Connor Barth field goal, but then struggled to maintain any offensive momentum the rest of the half. Behind the running of Peyton Hillis and Jerome Harrison and a collection of short passes by Jake Delhomme, the Browns gained 202 yards to the Bucs' 113, including 87 on the ground. Delhomme accounted for the game's first points with a 41-yard TD pass to WR Mohamed Massaquoi and Hillis scored the Browns' second touchdown on a 10-yard run after Harrison's 35-yard ramble.
The Bucs won the toss and elected to receive, sending WR Micheal Spurlock back for the return, though he had to settle for a touchback. The first play of the season was well-executed, as Cadillac Williams cut back through a hole over left guard and picked up eight yards. Two plays later, FB Earnest Graham powered over the line on third-and-one for a first down. On the next third-and-one, QB Josh Freeman put it in the air, hitting Mike Williams for a nine-yard gain. However, after crossing midfield, the Bucs failed on a third-and-four when Freeman scrambled and hit TE Kellen Winslow for a completion that lost a yard. Rookie P Chris Bryan kicked away and the ball went out of bounds at the Cleveland 13.
The Browns first play was a good one, too, as Hillis caught a swing pass and turned it up the sideline for 16 yards. DT Gerald McCoy met Hillis at the line on the next play and dropped him for no gain. That led to a third-and-three, and DE Tim Crowder dropped into coverage on a zone blitz and stuck with TE Ben Watson, breaking up the pass. On the ensuing punt, S Corey Lynch just tipped Reggie Hodges' kick, but it still rolled 34 yards to the Bucs' 30.
Obviously intent on getting the running game going, the Bucs started again with a pitch to C. Williams but the back was lucky to escape two tacklers and get two yards. The very same play on second down didn't fare much better, making it third-and-seven at the Bucs' 33. Unfortunately, a big blitz by the Browns resulted in a sack for LBs Scott Fujita and Marcus Benard, and Bryan's second punt went only 32 yards to the Cleveland 39.
The Browns used the Wildcat formation on four downs and the very dangerous Joshua Cribbs ran out of it for five yards. After a pass that was nearly intercepted by LB Geno Hayes, the Browns got a free first down when Barber went just a half-second early on his blitz and was offside. A misdirection screen to Hillis was sniffed out by a gang of Bucs, led by Hayes who dropped the back for a loss of two. Barber was the next to make a big play, nearly picking off a pass in the left flat intended for TE Evan Moore. On third-and-12, a draw play to Hillis worked perfectly and the big back just slammed straight up the middle to get just enough for a first down at the Bucs' 41. Massaquoi scored on the next play, slicing between CB E.J. Biggers and S Tanard Jackson to make a leaping catch and run the last 20 yards untouched.
The Bucs got into Cleveland territory on just two snaps, the first a pass interference on Sheldon Brown trying to cover Mike Williams and the second a surprising 33-yard run by Freeman. Freeman faked a pass as he came around the right corner, which allowed him to run right by two defenders and stride up the sideline to the Browns' 30. However, it was third-and-10 two plays later and the Bucs had to burn a timeout with the play clock slipping towards zero. After the sideline conference, Freeman tried a buttonhook to WR Micheal Spurlock but it was knocked away by CB Joe Haden. Barth salvaged three points with a 49-yard field goal.
Delhomme produced two quick first downs on the next possession, converting a third-and-five with a sharp out to WR Chansi Stuckey and then finding Stuckey again two plays later for 11 more. Cribbs took another Wildcat snap on the next play and threw an 11-yard strike to reserve QB Seneca Wallace, who has experience as a receiver. A blitz by Jackson on the next play forced Delhomme to throw his pass away two plays later, leading to a third-and-four at the Bucs' 40. Delhomme tried to go deep over the middle to Massaquoi but it fell incomplete in the end zone and the Browns punted into the end zone for a touchback.
The Bucs' next possession stalled immediately after a run blitz trapped Graham in the backfield for a loss of two and Freeman's next pass sailed over the top. Freeman had to settle for a checkdown to Winslow on the next play and it was far short of a first down. Bryan blasted a 57-yard punt and the Browns started again at their own 37.
Hillis fumbled at the end of a four-yard run but the Browns recovered at the bottom of the scrum. After another Hillis run, the Browns faced a third-and-two and Cribbs found the corner on another Wildcat snap to move the chains. Harrison then got around the corner for his 39-yard gain and one play later Hillis went around the opposite end for a 10-yard touchdown and a 14-3 Browns lead.
Spurlock broke free to cross midfield on the ensuing kickoff return by a penalty on the Bucs brought the ball back to the Bucs' 21. There was another near miss two snaps later when Freeman threw a nice deep pass to Williams but Brown made a fantastic reaching break-up at the last instant. On third-and-nine, Freeman bought time with a scramble and threw a 16-yard pass to Spurlock for a first down. Facing a third-and-five at the 43, the Bucs used a timeout and then got into Cleveland territory on the next play. Freeman threw short to Winslow, who faked out one Browns tackler and shot down the middle of the field for a 22-yard gain, bringing on the two-minute warning.
After the break, Freeman tried a deep ball to Stroughter but it was out of reach. C. Williams found the corner for a long gain on the next snap but it was called back due to holding. On the next play, Freeman's pass to Spurlock sailed high and went straight to S Mike Adams for the interception. Adams got close to midfield before he was dropped by Williams.
The Bucs got the ball back two plays later on Barber's interception. Barber cut in front of Watson, caught the ball and ran down the sideline 65 yards to the Cleveland two-yard line. On first down, with 27 seconds to play, Freeman stepped up to avoid pressure and threw a sidearm pass to a well-covered Williams. The Browns defender tipped the ball away but Williams found it, hauled it in with his back to the end line and tapped both inbounds.
A squib kickoff and one quick out allowed the Browns to try a 62-yard field goal and Phil Dawson got close, but his try sailed a little right and short.