QB Josh Freeman led his second fourth-quarter comeback in as many career starts but was trumped by Miami's last-minute drive
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't understand the answer that came from above. That left them to find their own answer from within.
A bizarre and confusing play overturned by the replay assistant near the end of the first half proved to be the turning point in the Buccaneers' 25-23 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at Land Shark Stadium, though the lead would eventually change hands twice in the game's final 90 seconds. Awarded an interception on a reversed ruling deep in Tampa Bay territory in the second quarter, Miami scored on a five-yard touchdown catch by TE Korey Sperry and tacked on an additional field goal just before halftime.
That gave Miami a 19-6 lead in a game that was very nearly 9-6 at the half. Tampa Bay did indeed find an answer, rallying all the way to a 23-22 lead with a little over a minute left in the game. However, the Dolphins had an answer of their own, driving 77 yards in the final minute to set up Dan Carpenter's game-winning 25-yard field goal.
It was somewhat fitting that a field goal should win the game, because the two kickers were nothing short of outstanding on Sunday. Carpenter made all four of his field goals, the longest from 55 yards out. Connor Barth, in just his second game as a Buccaneer, made all three of his tries, from 51, 50 and 54 yards. He became the fourth kicker in NFL history to make three field goals of 50 or more yards in the same game, joining Morten Andersen, Neil Rackers and Kris Brown with that record total. The Bucs, who relied on several enormous special teams play in winning their first game last Sunday against Green Bay, also got a blocked extra point and a game-opening kickoff return to midfield by Clifton Smith to stay close in this one.
The critical play before halftime went through a three-part metamorphosis. Facing second-and-12 from their own four-yard line with 1:43 left in the half, the Bucs tried to gain a new first down and increase their chances of running out the clock by throwing a quick curl to WR Michael Clayton. QB Josh Freeman's pass was on target and caught, but the ball eventually came loose after Clayton hit the ground.
The officials allowed the play to run and originally stated that DE Jason Taylor had returned a fumble for a 15-yard touchdown. The officials huddled and changed the call to an incomplete pass but the replay assistant in the booth upstairs trumped that decision by calling the play an interception. The final ruling was an interception, as the ball never hit the ground between Clayton and Taylor.
The Bucs sideline was clearly displeased with that ruling, expecting it to be ruled a complete pass with Clayton only losing the ball after he was down. The reaction from the Tampa Bay sideline brought on an unsportsmanlike conduct call, leaving Miami with only eight yards to the end zone. After Sperry's catch, the Miami defense forced a quick three and out and the Dolphins were able to use the last minute of the half to tack on the second of Dan Carpenter's four field goals.
The Bucs and Dolphins exchanged field goals in the second half but Maurice Stovall's 33-yard touchdown catch on the first play of the final period kept the Bucs within a touchdown of the lead. Freeman's beautiful touch pass to Stovall down the left sideline began yet another outstanding end game for the rookie QB in his second career start. A week after throwing two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against Green Bay, Freeman completed five of nine passes for 67 yards and a touchdown and added a key 14-yard run in the final period against the Dolphins.
The Bucs took their fourth-quarter lead on Cadillac Williams' one-yard dive over the middle to finish a four-play 26-yard drive set up by LB Quincy Black's first career interception. The Bucs had actually threatened on their previous drive but had turned it over on downs when Stovall couldn't quite pull in Freeman's lob at the one-yard line. The Dolphins needed one first down to be able to run out the clock and chose to gamble with a pass on third-and-seven. Black made them pay for that gamble and Williams punched it in to complete his 52-yard day.
Unfortunately, Miami had a little over a minute left, plenty of time to drive for the winning score. RB Ricky Williams, who had 102 of the Dolphins' 199 rushing yards on the day, broke free for a 27-yard gain to the Bucs' seven to set up Carpenter's final field goal. RB Ronnie Brown added 82 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries but left with an ankle injury in the third quarter.
The Bucs ran for 122 yards on 31 carries but relied heavily on Freeman's work in the pocket. The 230-pound passer took three sacks and was constantly pressured but he frequently escaped near-sacks to make plays on the run. His favorite target on the day was TE Kellen Winslow, who caught seven passes for 102 yards. Stovall added four grabs for 47 yards and a score in his second consecutive start in place of the injured Antonio Bryant.
Overall, the Dolphins topped the Bucs with 374 yards of offense to the the visitors' 302. However, Tampa Bay was in control for much of the second half, gaining 209 yards after the break.
Tampa Bay scored first, thanks mostly to the continued strong play of their special teams. Smith returned the opening kickoff 36 yards to the Bucs' 46, and a brief, 21-yard drive set up Barth's 51-yard field goal.
Miami took the lead back on their first possession, however, driving 77 yards for a touchdown. Brown picked up much of that yardage on a 45-yard run out of the Wildcat formation, and Henne converted a pair of third downs to get the ball down to the Bucs' one. Brown ran it in from there, finding little resistance up the middle. T Donald Penn blocked the extra point, keeping Miami's lead at 6-3.
The Dolphins increased that advantage to six points midway through the second quarter with a 12-play, 43-yard field goal drive that included two more third-down conversions. LB Barrett Ruud finally stopped Williams on a third-and-four run from the 33, leading to Carpenter's 49-yard field goal. However, the Buccaneers came back with a second field goal, driving 37 yards on eight plays to set up Barth's 50-yarder. Freeman made the most critical play of the drive with his feet, escaping an almost sure sack and scrambling for 11 yards on third-and-seven near midfield.
The Buccaneers actually dodged several bullets and could have been trailing by much more before those confusing final minutes of the half. Twice Freeman was forced to fumble when Dolphin defenders swiped his arm from behind, but both times the loose ball was recovered by an alert Buccaneer (Penn on one and Williams on the other). Freeman did turn the ball over on a fumbled snap in the first quarter but Tampa Bay's defense held and forced a punt.
Miami also got the ball to start the second half but had to start at their own 10 thanks to a holding penalty. The Bucs forced a third-and-four and an attempted end-around by Ginn was stopped by S Sabby Piscitelli for no gain. Brandon Fields bombed a 62-yard punt to help Miami flip the field position, and the Dolphins defense then forced a three-and-out. Dirk Johnson's punt wasn't as long, and Miami took over again at their own 31.
Henne started the drive with a 14-yard strike to TE Joey Haynos but Brown was trapped for a loss of seven on a sweep to the left. On third-and-15 from the 50, Henne nearly hit Ginn on a long pass down the right sideline but Ginn just missed getting his second foot down. Fields forced the Bucs back to their own 14 with another fine punt.
Tampa Bay quickly faced a third-and-eight of their own but converted it when WR Sammie Stroughter made a diving catch of a pass near the right sideline for nine yards. Three plays later, third-and-seven worked out well for the Bucs, too, as Winslow caught an out near the same sideline and got around the defense for a breakaway gain of 37 yards. The snap on the next play went through Freeman's hands and though he eventually recovered it the play lost the Bucs 13 yards. Winslow caught another pass over the middle to get 12 of those yards back. A third-down look to Winslow down the middle of the field was knocked away and the Bucs settled for Barth's 54-yard field goal, making it 19-9 with four minutes left in the third period.
Williams got the ensuing drive started with an 11-yard carry on the first play, but Pat White got only one on a Wildcat keeper. Williams broke free again on the next play, slicing over left tackle for another 19 yards. On the next play, however, Brown was forced to fumble by Piscitelli, with S Tanard Jackson recovering for Tampa Bay at the Bucs' 37.
Freeman tried to get the drive started with a medium-range pass over the middle to Winslow but S Gibril Wilson timed his arrival perfectly to break it up. Freeman once again escaped a sack on the next play and scrambled around right end for a gain of eight. On third-and-two, after a timeout to talk it over, the Bucs moved the chains on an underneath route to Clayton that gained three yards. Two plays later, on the final play of the third quarter, Freeman hit Winslow for a gain of 19 yards down to the Miami 33. After the teams switched sides, Stovall ran straight down the left sideline and Freeman dropped a perfect pass over the top of the defender into the receiver's hands as he crossed the goal line.
Barth forced a touchback on the ensuing kickoff so Miami started at its own 20. However, a 15-yard catch by Bess and a facemask penalty pushed the ball to the 50-yard line. An incompletion and a one-yard gain by Williams made it third-and-nine from just inside Bucs territory, and even though the Bucs forced an incompletion an illegal contact flag on Piscitelli made it first down at the 44. A pass breakup by Tim Crowder on a second-down rollout made it third-and-six from the 40, and good coverage forced Henne to throw his next pass away. Fields hit a high punt that Smith fair caught at the Bucs' nine.
The Bucs tried to get some breathing room with a pair of RB Derrick Ward runs and it worked for a gain of seven total yards. On third-and-three with just over 11 minutes remaining, Freeman stepped up out of pressure and almost hit Winslow over the middle but the tight end couldn't hold on. The Bucs had to punt and were able to push Bess back to the Miami 30 with outstanding coverage.
Unfortunately, Miami was able to drive back into scoring position. Henne hit Sperry again on third-and-two for a 13-yard gain to the Bucs' 34. Three plays later on third-and-four, the Dolphins tried to convert with a Williams run to the right but Ruud held him to no gain. Miami brought on Carpenter to try a 45-yarder and he had no trouble converting to make it 22-16.
Down by six, the Bucs embarked on a promising drive as the clock ticked below five minutes. Williams ran twice for 11 yards and a first down and Winslow caught a pass on the third play for 11 more. Two plays later, Freeman found Winslow again, threading a pass between defenders for 17 more to the Miami 26. Freeman tried to hit Williams in the end zone on a wheel route on the next play but the Dolphins had good coverage. A four-yard charge up the middle by Ward made it third-and-six, and Freeman nearly got Stovall at the one-yard line but the receiver couldn't hang on. Freeman's fourth-down pass near Winslow had no chance.
Williams got three yards on a first-down sweep to bring on the two-minute warning. The Dolphins were flagged for a false start, however, which meant Williams' five-yard run made it third-and-seven. Miami tried to throw in order to get the game-sealing first down but that strategy backfired when Black grabbed his first career interception and returned it three yards to the Bucs' 26.
On first down, Freeman took off to the left and ran for 14 yards down to the Miami 12. After a four-yard pass over the middle to Winslow, the Dolphins used the first of their three timeouts with 1:29 left. After the pause, Williams powered his way up the middle for seven yards, making it first-and-goal at the one. The Dolphins used their second timeout with 1:19 to play. Williams put it in himself on the next play, leaping over the top of the right guard and riding the wave into the end zone. Barth kicked the extra point through to give the Bucs a one-point lead with 1:14 left.
It wasn't all good news, however, as Winslow was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play, forcing the Bucs to kick off from their own 15. Barth made another huge play, blasting a low bouncer all the way down the field and past Ginn, who was eventually tackled at the Miami 16.
However, Henne hit Bess for a gain of 25 and Ruud absorbed a pass interference penalty to make it first down at the Bucs' 50. Bess then made a leaping catch along the right sideline at the Bucs' 34 and Henne spiked the ball with 23 seconds to play. Williams' 27-yard run then put Carpenter in position for his last field goal of the day.
With the loss, the Bucs drop to 1-8 and return home next Sunday to play the 9-0 New Orleans Saints. The Dolphins improve to 4-5 and will play the Panthers in Carolina on Thursday night.
Game Notes: The Bucs and Dolphins have now played nine times in the regular season, with Miami taking a 5-4 edge in the series with Sunday's win. The loss snapped Tampa Bay's three-game winning streak in the series. … G Davin Joseph played in his 50th regular-season NFL game on Sunday. Joseph started at right guard and blocked for Tampa bay's 122-yard rushing output. … T Donald Penn blocked a Miami extra point attempt in the first quarter, marking the second time Tampa Bay has rejected a PAT this season. CB Ronde Barber recorded the first one at Washington on October 4. … K Connor Barth's 51-yard field goal was the longest of his career…for about two quarters. He previously hit a long of 45 last season while playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. Barth later added a 50-yard field goal in the second quarter and a 54-yarder in the third quarter, making him the first kicker in team history with three 50 -yard field goals in the same game. Martin Gramatica had the previous record with two, accomplishing that feat four times, the most recent one against Carolina on October 27, 2002. Gramatica hit four field goals in that game, a thrilling 12-9 win for the Buccaneers en route to the Super Bowl, including one from 53 yards and one from 52. No other Buc kicker ever hit multiple 50 -yarders in the same game. … Barth's 54-yarder also tied for the fifth-longest in team history. … S Tanard Jackson recovered a fumble in the third quarter, leading to a Buccaneer touchdown drive. Jackson has now snared a turnover in four straight games, as he had an interception in each of the previous three contests.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Yamon Figurs, CB Mike Mickens, FB Chris Pressley, G Shawn Murphy, T James Lee, WR Antonio Bryant, DE Stylez G. White and designated third quarterback Byron Leftwich. Bryant and White were out due to injury.
The Dolphins deactivated these eight men: RB Kory Sheets, LB Erik Walden, LB Joey Porter, T Andrew Gardner, G Justin Smiley, TE Anthony Fasano, DE Paul Soliai and designated third QB Tyler Thigpen. Walden, Smiley, Fasano and Soliai were out due to injury.
Injuries: The Buccaneers did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.
For the Dolphins, starting left guard Donald Thomas left the game in the second quarter with a neck injury but was able to return. RB Ronnie Brown sustained an ankle injury late in the third quarter and he did not return.