QB Brian Griese threw for 189 yards and two touchdowns on third down against Detroit
For a few minutes on Sunday afternoon, Jon Gruden's moods flowed in perfect synchronicity with the weather.
Dark clouds were gathering off the north end of Raymond James Stadium when, 10 minutes into the second quarter, Detroit Lions linebacker intercepted a third-down pass intended for Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Ike Hilliard and returned it to the Bucs' eight-yard line.
The clouds opened up and doused the field with a depressing rain just as Lions running back Kevin Jones was dashing into the end zone for an eight yard score.
Then, just as quickly as the clouds had swept over the stadium, they hurried out. The sun was actually shining only a few minutes later as Gruden's Buccaneers rallied 90 yards to tie the game before halftime. It was a glorious day all over again as Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman galloped into the end zone with a 41-yard catch-and-run.
"I felt the rain clouds moving in," said Gruden. "I felt down after the interception when the Lions captured the lead. Pittman makes the big play on third down, Galloway makes another and I think the touchdown right before the half put us right back into a lively mode. Those we're big plays and they gave us hope as the season unfolds."
Truth be told, there was something else at work here in the interim in which the game switched hands, from Detroit leading 10-3 with 10 unanswered points to the Bucs back on top 17-10, one minute into the third quarter. Something less elemental and more explicable. Something that has been working in the Bucs' favor all season.
Sunday's win, and the biggest difference between the Bucs' effective offense of 2005 and the sputtering versions of the last two years, comes down to third-down success.
The Bucs were seven of 16 on third-down tries against Detroit, and that's quite good. Any time you can get in the vicinity of 50%, it's a great day on third down. And that was no fluke. Here are the Bucs' offensive third-down percentages from each of their first four games: 47.1%; 50%; 50%; 43.4%. This is the first time since the Bucs rose to prominence in 1997 that they have had a third-down conversion rate of at least 40% on offense for four straight games.
The Buccaneers were first in the league in third-down conversions coming into Sunday's game, a position usually reserved for high-powered attacks in Minnesota or St. Louis or Indianapolis. For the first three games, a big part of that efficiency was attributable to Cadillac Williams and the Bucs' steamrolling running attack. Short third downs mean more successful third downs.
That was not the case against Detroit, however. Nine of the Bucs' 16 third-down attempts were from eight yards or farther and 12 of 16 were from five yards or farther. Still, the offense converted.
"That's obviously a critical down, and we converted some long-yardage third downs today, where maybe in previous weeks so many of our conversions were third-and-one to third-and-three," said Gruden. "We converted some third-and-10s today that will show up as significant plays in victory today."
Both of the Bucs' touchdowns came on third downs. After that cloudy Jones touchdown, Griese and the offense responded with a 90-yard drive that survived three third downs. On third-and-10 from the 10, Griese hit Pittman on a little out-and-in route – a specialty of the fleet back that has worked many times before – for a gain of 16. On third-and-12 from the Bucs' 32, Griese found Galloway over the middle for a gain of 20. And on third-and-three from Detroit's 41, Pittman shot out of the backfield and ran under a perfect pass from Griese for the game-tying touchdown.
Fifty-five seconds into the second half, on the Bucs' opening possession, Griese called an audible at the line and threw a deep post to Galloway, who caught the perfect spiral on the run and split two defenders into wide-open green. That 80-yard touchdown proved to be the game-winning score.
Griese's pass was right on the money, but he didn't know that until the crowd roared.
"I didn't get to see what happened," he said. "I just let the ball go and I don't know how close of a play it was, but I know if he gets the ball in his hands, that no one is going to catch him."
Galloway, in turn, gave the credit to his passer.
"Really more than anything, it was a nice play call and a nice throw by (Brian) Griese," said Galloway. "My job was easy – just run through, catch it and run to the end zone."
As much credit as the Bucs' running game deserves for the third-down success, Griese has been sharp in that situation, too. Coming into Sunday's game, he ranked ninth in the NFL in third-down passing, with a rating of 88.7 that just exceeded his overall mark of 84.8. He was tied for first in completion percentage on third downs (75.9%) and third in yards per pass attempt (9.76).
Really, the one stat that had dragged his rating down a bit and kept him off the very top of the chart was his two interceptions in 29 attempts. And that struck again in Sunday's game against the Lions. Overall, Griese was 8-12 for 189 yards and two touchdowns on third-down passes against the Lions, but two of his four incompletions were interceptions. He was also sacked twice in that situation and he scrambled once on third down for a gain of seven.
That scramble play, just a few minutes into the second quarter, actually may have had a lot to do with everything that came after it. Griese absorbed a hard hit from linebacker Boss Bailey at the end of a seven-yard run, one that, to use football terminology, "rung his bell." Griese said he doesn't remember much else that happened in the first half.
Gruden knew that his quarterback was a little wobbly, and he thinks that had a lot to do with Griese's up-and-down performance.
"He had a couple birdies," said Gruden. "He had an eagle and he had a couple double bogeys, but he put us in a position to win."
When Griese sees the game tape this week, he'll probably see a few plays that are missing from his memory. He'll see a couple that he won't like, such as the fourth-quarter pass that was intercepted by safety Terrence Holt, one that Gruden called an "aggressive" play, one in which his quarterback tried to fit the ball into a very tight space. But he'll also see a lot of critical conversions, a handful of plays that, if missing, would have cost the Bucs their fourth victory.
The kind of plays that made the sun come out again.