Rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski's 25th and final completion on Sunday found WR Michael Clayton for an eight-yard, fourth-down, game-winning touchdown
Finally, a comeback that stuck.
Tampa Bay's last-minute, 14-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium marked the third straight game in which the Buccaneers had rallied in the second half to take a lead, including two in a row with rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski at the helm. However, while fourth-quarter leads against Carolina and New Orleans eventually slipped away, this one was successful when K Shayne Graham's 62-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation fell well short.
The rally almost didn't survive the on-field ruling of the game official's, however.
On fourth-and-three from the Cincinnati eight, Gradkowski hit WR Michael Clayton on a quick slant from the slot. Clayton made a fine grab with a Bengal defender on his back, then took one step and lunged over the goal line. As he landed, the ball bounced out of his grasp, and that led the closest official to rule the pass incomplete.
In essence, the initial ruling was the same that denied the Bucs a game-tying touchdown against Washington in the 2005 playoffs. Edell Shepherd's end zone reception in that contest was called incomplete because Shepherd was deemed to be in the act of falling as he caught the ball. In that circumstance, a receiver must retain possession when he hits the ground.
On Sunday, however, the replay official ruled that Clayton had secured the ball and then lunged, a critical difference that allowed the winning points to hit the board. About a dozen Buccaneers stood on the field with their arms lifted in the touchdown signal before the ruling was revealed, but there was a nervous murmur from the crowd until it was official.
The Buccaneers improved to 1-4 with the victory while the Bengals fell to 3-2. Tampa Bay has beaten Cincinnati five straight times, dating back to 1995.
"I'm really proud of our football team," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We beat a really good team today. It wasn't always pretty. Defensively, we did some great things against a team that had a lot going for it offensively. Offensively, we did enough to get the win."
Clayton's catch was the 25th completion of the day in 44 attempts for Gradkowski, the rookie sixth-rounder out of Toledo. Gradkowski was held in check somewhat in the first half, completing just nine of 20 passes while missing several attempts downfield. However, he completed 16 of 24 tries in the second half, including six of eight for 57 yards on the game-winning drive. The touchdown play actually had WR Joey Galloway as its first option.
"He had some moments of frustration," said Gruden of Gradkowski. "But it just shows the promise that this guy has, the will that he has and the ability to put things aside and continue to compete. To bring your team down the field in the final minute to score is a great credit to him."
Clayton has lived through some frustration since his 80-catch rookie season, too. Several injuries limited him to just 32 receptions in 2005 and he hadn't scored since 2004 before Sunday's game. Clayton finished with a season-high six catches for 55 yards.
"It was a controversial play," said Gruden of the final touchdown. "I'd like it to be a little cleaner score. But for [Clayton] to make that play and to get back into circulation making touchdowns is what we need from him. He did some good things today with some big receptions and some good blocking. That's a real good sounding board for him to get going."
The Buccaneers trailed 7-0 at halftime but tied the game early in the third quarter on a masterful, 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. A gutsy Gradkowski scramble – he added 19 yards on four carries to his 184 passing yards – converted a third-and-six at the Cincinnati 15, and TE Alex Smith's diving touchdown catch finished the march on third-and-goal from the two. Smith, who had two TDs as a rookie in 2005, has now matched that total with a score in two consecutive games.
The longest play on that drive was a 38-yard breakaway by RB Cadillac Williams powered by strong blocks from the Bucs' rookie offensive linemen, Jeremy Trueblood and Davin Joseph. From first-and-goal at the nine, Williams got the ball down to the two with a pair of runs, then Gradkowski put it in the end zone with a sharp two-yard pass to diving TE Alex Smith.
That was the Bucs' offensive youth movement in full swing. In addition to the three rookies, Smith and Williams are just second-year players and Clayton, who had one catch on that drive, is in his third season. Running behind a very youthful offensive line, Williams was sharp for the second straight week, gaining 94 yards on 19 carries.
The Bengals didn't allow the momentum to stay on the home sideline long, answering Smith's touchdown with an 11-play, 54-yard field goal drive. Palmer's 27-yard strike to TE Reggie Kelly was the drive's long play. Palmer nearly hit Houshmandzadeh over the middle for a touchdown on third-and-10 from the Bucs' 20, but DE Dewayne White tipped the pass incomplete at the line. Shayne Graham hit from 37 yards out to give Cincinnati a 10-7 lead late in the third quarter.
The Bengals drove 51 yards for another field goal on their next possession, too, with all of the yardage coming on the first play, a bomb down the right seam to WR Chad Johnson. The Bucs held there, at their own 29, but Graham slipped his 47-yarder inside the right upright for a six-point lead with 10 minutes to play.
Despite those two scoring drives, Tampa Bay's defense had a very strong day, particularly against the run. Rudi Johnson was held to 52 yards on 17 carries and the Bengals as a whole got just 53 ground yards, including just three in the first half. LB Shelton Quarles made plays all over the field despite missing time with a knee injury and finished with a game-high eight tackles, including two in a row for losses on Cincinnati's second possession.
The Bucs limited the damage by Cincinnati's high-powered passing attack, too, though Carson Palmer did complete 24 of 37 passes for 261 yards, one touchdown and no interception. He put the game's first points on the board with a 33-yard touchdown pass to WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who finished with a game-high 10 catches for 102 yards. On the play, Houshmandzadeh leaped over CB Ronde Barber and nipped the front left pylon with his foot while barely coming down inbounds. The play was reviewed but upheld.
WR Chad Johnson added 99 yards on six catches, including a 51-yarder in the fourth quarter that accounted for all of the yards on Cincinnati's last field goal drive. The bottom line, though, was that the Bucs allowed only one touchdown and stopped Palmer when they had to in the game's closing seconds. DE Ellis Wyms, who had both of the Bucs' sacks, got to Palmer on a big blitz with less than 20 seconds to play, which helped push back Graham's eventual field goal attempt. The team's other primary line sub, DE Dewayne White, had another strong game that included two passes batted down at the line.
In the first half, Cincinnati let Palmer run the no-huddle on the Bengals' first possession, and the Bengals got to midfield before the Bucs' defense clamped down. Gruden had challenged the defensive line to make more impact plays earlier in the week and DT Anthony McFarland answered on that first Bengals drive. His quick burst through the line and wrap-up of Johnson for no gain at midfield essentially killed the drive; Palmer fumbled the next snap and had to fall on it to set up a punt.
Quarles forced a fumble on Cincinnati's second possession, too, but Johnson was able to fall on his own miscue. Still, it was a quick three-and-out as Quarles had back-to-back tackles for loss against the big Bengal back. At the end of the first quarter, Cincinnati's vaunted offense had accounted for just 18 yards, including none on the ground.
Meanwhile, the Bucs continued their recent trend of reaching into the trickier recesses of the playbook, in this case sending Galloway on an end-around early in the game. This one was well-defended, however, and Galloway had to reverse field and run about 40 yards just for a gain of two. The Bucs still took that drive near midfield but it was essentially killed by a tripping penalty on rookie Trueblood. Similarly, the Bucs' second drive of the game had stalled on a holding call and their first possession ended on a dropped third-down pass at the sticks.
Actually, the third drive nearly ended in disaster rather than a punt. CB Tory James appeared to make an acrobatic, diving interception, catching his own rebound as he rolled onto his back then getting up for a lengthy return. However, replays clearly showed the ball hitting the ground before James first touched it, and the Bucs' replay challenge was successful. The facemask penalty that Gradkowski committed on James at the end of the run was still enforced, however, putting the Bucs in an impossible third-and-34 situation at their own 22.
An 18-yard run by Williams helped set the Bucs up with their first scoring opportunity in the second quarter. However, K Matt Bryant hit his 43-yard field goal attempt short and to the right.
The Bucs got one more possession before halftime and once again got it over midfield. However, Gradkowski suffered his first NFL interception just after the two-minute warning, trying to hit Galloway down the right sideline but instead lobbing it directly to S Kevin Kaesviharn, who was playing for the injured Dexter Jackson. The Bengals, in the no-huddle again, moved into Buccaneer territory but were turned away just outside scoring range by Wyms' first sack and White's batted pass on fourth-and-two.
The Bucs avoided their first 0-5 start since 1996 with the victory. They stay at home another week to face Philadelphia at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, October 22.
Game Notes: Sunday's victory extended the Bucs' winning streak against Cincinnati to five games. Tampa Bay won the four previous games in 2002, 2001, 1998 and 1995; all but the 1995 game were in Cincinnati. Overall, the Bucs are now 6-3 against the Bengals in the all-time series, and that winning percentage of .667 stands as their best mark against any opponent whom they've faced more than twice. … Sunday marked the 150th regular-season game in which WR Joey Galloway has played. Galloway first entered the league as a first-round draft pick with Seattle in 1995. … With Mark Jones out due to a hamstring injury, the Bucs turned to Ike Hilliard and Galloway to return punts. Neither player had a punt return last year as Jones handled all 51 runbacks in 2005. However, Galloway had a punt return for a touchdown against New Orleans late in 2004. On Sunday, Hilliard returned five punts for 37 yards and Galloway brought back two for three yards. … Galloway's 18-yard reception in the second quarter put him over 2,000 yards in the Buccaneer portion of his career. With seven catches for 67 yards on the day, Galloway finished with a three-year Buccaneer total of 2,049, becoming the 15th Tampa Bay player to eclipse that mark. … A crowd of 65,732 watched Sunday's game against Cincinnati, the second-largest regular-season NFL crowd in Raymond James Stadium history; the stadium opened in 1998. It is the third largest crowd in stadium history overall, trailing the January 15, 2000 playoff win over Washington and the December 6, 1999 victory over Minnesota.
Inactives: Each team was required to declare eight players inactive 90 minutes before the game. The Bucs' eight inactives were QB Chris Simms, CB Brian Kelly, CB Alan Zemaitis, CB Derrick Strait, FB Jerald Sowell, T Donald Penn, WR Maurice Stovall and WR Mark Jones. Simms, Kelly, Stovall and Jones were out due to injuries.
The Bengals' eight inactive players were QB Anthony Wright, S Dexter Jackson, LB A.J. Nicholson, LB Brian Simmons, C Rich Braham, WR Tab Perry, LB Rashad Jeanty and Reggie McNeal, a wide receiver who was designated as the third quarterback. Wright, Jackson, Nicholson, Simmons, Braham, Perry and Jeanty were all out due to injuries.
Injuries: S Kalvin Pearson suffered an abdominal strain in the second quarter but did return to the game. LB Shelton Quarles suffered a knee sprain early in the third quarter and also was able to return.
For Cincinnati, T Levi Jones suffered a knee injury in the second quarter and did not return. CB Tory James sustained a knee injury in the second quarter, as well, but was able to return, though he limped off again in the fourth quarter.. WR Kelley Washington sustained a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.