RB Michael Pittman's 57-yard touchdown run gave the Bucs a 20-6 lead in the third quarter
If this game was supposed to be a defensive struggle, somebody forgot to tell the Buccaneers. And if the Miami Dolphins were waiting for the Bucs' injury-depleted troops to stumble, they're still waiting.
Playing without RB Cadillac Williams and S Jermaine Phillips for the whole game and QB Brian Griese and S Dexter Jackson for the second half – all starters – the Bucs surged to a 27-13 victory behind some new and old contributors.
With the win, the Bucs moved to 5-1, equaling their number of victories from all of last season. They remained in first place in the NFC South and have the top record in the NFC overall.
"We know where we are," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We're very realistic about how we got here and we respect how much work is still to be done."
RB Michael Pittman, starting in Williams' place, ran for 127 yards on 15 carries, including a 57-yard third-quarter touchdown on third-and-one that was the game's biggest play. QB Chris Simms, handling the second half after Griese's second-quarter knee sprain, completed six of 10 passes for 69 yards and led two scoring drives. Between them, Griese and Simms had a quarterback rating of 102.9.
"I thought our team rallied around Chris and made some plays to help us win this game," said Gruden. "They deserve the credit."
The Bucs offense gained 342 yards on the day despite throwing no passes in the fourth quarter while protecting a big lead. Contrastingly, the Dolphins gained 307 yards, but 168 of them came in the last period as the Bucs' defense sagged back with that lead.
That defense had a safety tandem of second-year man Will Allen and first-year player Kalvin Pearson for much of the game, and both players contributed big plays. Moments after Pittman's breakaway, DE Greg Spires sacked QB Gus Frerotte, starting a fumble that Allen scooped up and returned 33 yards for a touchdown and a 27-6 lead with six seconds left in the third quarter. Pearson broke up two passes, including one in the end zone in the closing seconds.
"I think what energized our defense was our offense scoring a touchdown on the first possession," said Gruden. "They like playing with the lead."
The Bucs led 10-3 at halftime, largely on the strength of the deepening connection between Griese and WR Joey Galloway. Galloway caught eight passes for 92 yards from Griese, including six for 71 yards on third down. During the Bucs' first touchdown drive, Griese found Galloway on three straight third downs, the last one a seven-yard touchdown pass that the receiver completed by spinning out of a tackle and extending the ball over the line. Galloway finished the game with nine receptions, tying a career high, and 96 yards. In his last two home games, Galloway has 16 catches for 262 yards and three touchdowns.
The Bucs don't have to play next weekend, but it won't be a bye week for Head Trainer Todd Toriscelli. In addition to Griese and Jackson's injuries, CB Juran Bolden hurt his left shoulder in the fourth quarter and LB Shelton Quarles played most of the game with a lower back bruise. Griese's knee will obviously be an obvious source of concern for the Bucs despite Simms' fine performance in relief.
Griese sustained the injury with four minutes left in the second half, as LB Zach Thomas rolled backwards onto his planted left leg. Griese crumpled in obvious pain and the cart was brought out to take him into the locker room. Griese refused to get on, rousing the crowd by limping off under his own power, but he was immediately ruled out for the rest of the game.
Griese led a mostly pass-oriented attack in the first half, completing 12 of 16 passes for 120 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Going to the ground in the second half, the Bucs eventually had an almost even split: 180 yards on the ground and 162 through the air. The rushing yards came against Miami's second-ranked rush defense.
Second-year back Earnest Graham saw the most extensive action of his career, running the ball 17 times for 50 yards, much of it in the fourth quarter as the Bucs were draining the clock. He did fumble the ball in the fourth quarter, just after a Bucs defensive stand inside the 10-yard line, leading to rookie RB Ronnie Brown's eight-yard touchdown run.
The much-anticipated reunion-slash-battle of Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown failed to materialize, thanks to injury and the return of Ricky Williams.
The Bucs deactivated their Williams for the second straight week, as his injured foot had still not healed sufficiently to let him cut with abandon. Williams' former Auburn backfield mate and fellow 2005 first-round pick was healthy, but he took a backseat in the early going to Ricky Williams, who was fresh off a four-game suspension. Both Brown and Williams started in the Miami backfield, but it was clear early that Dolphins Head Coach Nick Saban intended to go with the veteran bruiser.
The Bucs, the only team more successful than Miami at stopping the run this year, kept both backs in check. Williams, who stung Tampa Bay during a preseason Dolphins win in Miami, gained just eight yards on five carries. Brown had 22 yards on nine totes. Miami's leading rusher was actually WR Chris Chambers, who gained 25 yards on three end-arounds. Chambers also had a potential touchdown run called back on a holding penalty in the first quarter.
In all, Miami gained just 64 rushing yards, almost right on the Bucs' average of 61.6 allowed per game coming into Sunday.
QB Gus Frerotte managed to complete 21 of 43 passes for 267 yards, much of it in the fourth quarter, but he was sacked four times and he fumbled twice, with the Bucs recovering each time.
Simms looked sharp coming out of the locker room in the second half. After the Dolphins opened the third quarter with a 38-yard field goal drive, cutting the Bucs' lead to 10-6, Simms got the points back with an impressive, 14-play march. Simms converted two key third downs on the drive and threw a collection of laser-like passes in moving the Bucs down to Miami's 16. Simms completed six of eight passes for 69 yards on the march, though his final throw was nearly intercepted at the goal line by S Lance Schulters. Bryant made it 13-6 with a 32-yard field goal a little over four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The Bucs' game-opening scoring drive was a wonderful illustration of the connection Griese and Galloway have formed. The Bucs faced three third downs on the drive, all of at least five yards, and each time it was Galloway who moved the chains. He salvaged a third-and-nine with a 19-yard post over the middle to get the drive started, then scored on a third-and-goal from the seven when he caught Griese's pass at the two and just extended the ball over the goal line as he was tackled. Pittman also gave that drive a boost with a 33-yard cut-back run over right tackle that put the ball at the Miami 25. The Bucs had a 7-0 lead six minutes into the game.
The Dolphins answered right back with a 43-yard field goal drive on which the biggest play was WR Chris Chambers' 19-yard run on an end-around. Chambers appeared to go 34 yards for a score on another end-around a few plays later, but most of the play was erased by a holding penalty on C Seth McKinney. CB Brian Kelly nearly intercepted a third-down pass to WR Marty Booker two plays later and the Dolphins had to settle for Olindo Mare's 47-yard field goal and a 7-3 deficit.
The Bucs got those three points back immediately on a 62-yard field goal drive that fizzled at the Miami 10. Three consecutive plays gained 60 yards on the march, a 21-yard third-down pass to Galloway, a 23-yard catch-and-run by FB Mike Alstott and a 16-yard run around left end by Graham. Bryant finished the drive with a 36-yard field goal.
Neither team scored again in the first half, as the next seven drives ended in punts. The Bucs had a first down near midfield when Griese went down, but the Dolphins blitzed mercilessly when Simms came in, quickly thwarting that drive and the next one, which started at the Miami 48 with two minutes to play.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers, eager to re-establish a real home field advantage after two seasons of struggles at Raymond James Stadium, are now 3-0 on their own turf. That marks the team's first 3-0 start at home since 1998, the first season at Raymond James. … The Bucs' 5-1 record equals the best six-game start in franchise history. The 1979 and 1997 teams both started 5-0 before losing their sixth games, and the 2002 team lost its first game before winning five in a row. … RB Earnest Graham earned his first professional start, thanks in part to a penalty. The Bucs actually had RB Michael Pittman on the field to start the game, but Miami jumped offside and that play didn't officially count. Thus, the second snap, on which Graham replaced Pittman and got the carry, was the one that determined the starting lineup. That also put rookie TE Alex Smith in the starting lineup, in place of FB Mike Alstott. … K Matt Bryant continues to be the deadly-accurate kicker for which the Bucs have been searching. He is now 10 of 11 on field goal tries this season. … P Josh Bidwell also extended a marvelous season with another big day. He averaged 48.9 yards on seven punts, with a net of 38.9, and dropped five inside the 20 against no touchbacks. … RB Michael Pittman's 57-yard breakaway in the third quarter was the 15th-longest run in franchise history and the longest since his own 58-yarder against New Orleans last December 19. It was also the ninth-longest touchdown run in Buccaneer annals. … S Will Allen's 33-yard return of a Gus Frerotte fumble in the third quarter was Tampa Bay's first defensive touchdown of the season. It was the Bucs' first fumble return for a score since CB Ronde Barber's 18-yard scoop-and-score at New Orleans last October 10. … Before today's game, the Dolphins had gone four games without allowing a single third-quarter point. The Bucs scored 17 points in the third quarter to take a 27-6 lead.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: S Jermaine Phillips, RB Carnell Williams, S Donte Nicholson, T Chris Colmer, DT Anthony Bryant, C Scott Jackson, WR J.R. Russell and designated third quarterback Luke McCown.
The Dolphins named the following eight players inactive: CB Eddie Jackson, LB Junior Seau, LB Eddie Moore, G Joe Berger, DT Manuel Wright, T Anthony Alibi, WR Cliff Russell and designated third quarterback A.J. Feeley..
Injuries: QB Brian Griese was lost for the rest of the game when he suffered a sprained left knee with four minutes left in the first half. S Dexter Jackson sustained a right hamstring injury early in the third quarter and did not return. LB Shelton Quarles sustained a bruised lower back while assisting on a tackle of Ricky Williams on Miami's first play from scrimmage. Quarles returned to the game on the next defensive series. CB Juran Bolden injured his left shoulder in the fourth quarter while tackling massive Dolphins TE Randy McMichael.