WR Keyshawn Johnson has 59 catches through the first eight games, but none bigger than his sideline grab in the closing minutes of Sunday's game in Detroit
You could call the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' final drive in the Silverdome on Sunday many things. Tense, certainly. Clutch? Given the results, sure. How about touch-and-go, nerve-wracking, exhilarating or precise? Why not?
However, had that drive failed, said the Bucs afterward, you could have called it just one thing: The season.
Early in that drive, the Bucs came within one well-dragged toe of giving the ball back to Detroit in the following situation: 90 seconds left, the game tied and good ol' Uncle Mo firmly entrenched on the Lions' sideline. A Detroit field goal there, or perhaps an overtime period in a hostile, fired-up environment, and the Bucs would have flown home with a 3-5 record, 2-3 in the division and three games out of first place with eight to go. Those would have been dark days indeed.
So, in effect, the season was riding on this one two-minute drill. It is therefore a gigantic confidence-builder for this periodically struggling team that it came through when it absolutely had to.
By the numbers, it was fairly routine: eight plays, 63 yards, a minute and 45 seconds, leading to a 35-yard field goal. From the sideline, it had the feeling of a season on the brink.
"We felt like we controlled the game and they came down the stretch and had the momentum rolling," said cornerback Ronde Barber, who contributed to the win with two diving interceptions. "The crowd was in it, their players were in it and we had to make some big plays at the end with our offense moving the ball down the field to win it. This might be one of the biggest wins of the year."
It looked like the Bucs might have that much-needed win with little drama, as they led 10-0 at the half and 17-7 midway through the fourth quarter. But a furious Detroit rally tied the game, even after one long drive was interrupted by one of Barber's acrobatic picks, and suddenly 80 yards and two minutes stood between the Bucs and the frightening thought of overtime. By coming through in that situation, Tampa Bay kept a host of possibilities open, according to Head Coach Tony Dungy.
"It puts us back at 4-4," he said. "We have a chance to play Chicago now and tighten up the race again and get into things during the second half of the year. We needed this win. We have these two Central division (road) games in a row and we certainly didn't want to lose them both."
Dungy admits that his offense had not 'functioned well' for almost the entire first half before that final drive. The Bucs had a respectable 177 yards at halftime, but were up to only 211 nearly 30 game minutes later when they lined up at their own 20 with 1:49 to go. Each of their first five second half-drives ended in five plays or less, including a five-and-out and a three-and-out when they desperately needed to bleed time off the clock in the fourth quarter.
"They contained us in the second half," said Dungy. "They came aggressively, did some different things in the second half and we just couldn't find a rhythm. We needed to make a couple first downs in there, and we really didn't until the last drive. We need to be a little better and see if we can put the game away in the mid-third quarter."
With the crowd somewhat thinned out but still roaring and the Lions brimming with confidence, there was reason to worry about another three-and-out. The drive got off to an inauspicious start when, on first down, QB Brad Johnson rolled right and looked down the sideline, with Reidel Anthony and Karl Williams running routes on two different levels. Neither came open as Johnson stretched the play left, and the quarterback eventually had to throw the ball away.
A quick pass over the middle to Anthony on second down worked well, gaining seven yards, but it still left the Bucs in a very tense third-and-three situation. That's when Johnson hooked up with his favorite target, WR Keyshawn Johnson, for probably the most significant play of the game.
"That was a third-down play and there was a lot of time left on the clock," said Brad Johnson. "If we didn't hit that, we were going to hand them the ball with a minute-and-a-half to go, so that was a big, big play for us. It was actually a corner route, and we'd been trying to get to that all day long. We'd been running some underneath routes and I think we finally set them up to run a corner route. He did a great job as far as keeping his feet in bounds. It was unbelievable."
Brad Johnson wasn't the only non-believer. The replay official upstairs called for a review of the play and an agonizingly long period of time passed as referee Ron Winter formed his opinion. Eventually, he ruled that the ruling on the field, which stated that Keyshawn Johnson dragged his left foot along the turf before going out of bounds, would stand. First down at the Bucs' 45.
"I felt I was in, but at the same time you never know," said Keyshawn Johnson. "Television sometimes gives you weird angles, and they really can't see if my foot hit, and stuff like that. I knew I was in. I dragged my foot on purpose."
Apparently emboldened, Johnson threw the most frightening six-yard pass in league history (pardon the hometown embellishment). FB Mike Alstott released from the backfield towards the right sideline, and Johnson's out pass seemed to hang in the air forever, with a Detroit defender closing in on an angle. The pass had the distance, though, barely getting over the Lions hands and into Alstott's as he made a nice, over-the-shoulder catch on the sideline. This play was also reviewed by replay and also upheld.
The Bucs' next snap was, in effect, the game-winner. It was a play that could have turned the tide for either team, a late-developer that, in a Buc-unfriendly alternate universe might have resulted in a sack or a difficult third down.
Instead, Johnson had time to run through his progressions and eventually hit on RB Warrick Dunn, who had released from the backfield. Dunn was almost not an option.
"Warrick's play actually was the same kind of route we had run previously when Keyshawn caught the ball," said Johnson. "He got knocked down and he did a great job as far as not giving up on the play and staying on the ground. He got up and was my only outlet that was left, and he made a great run after the catch."
Johnson had other reasons to doubt that Dunn would be available, as the tough, little back might have been needed to block, depending on how the play unfolded.
"They'd been going man to man and had been kind of key blitzing with the man with the guy that Warrick was on, so I actually wasn't counting on him being in the route," said Johnson. "I was kind of looking for the best side, and I thought that side was to Keyshawn and Karl Williams. Those guys were covered, and that's when I came to my outlet. I just had to trust Warrick, and he did a great job of staying with his route."
Apparently because Dunn's fall had delayed the route, Johnson actually pumped once in his direction before eventually delivering the ball. The result was the Bucs' most exciting player in the open field, which Dunn exploited for 23 yards down to the Lions' 26. That was well within kicker Martin Gramatica's range, and maybe it was enough to breathe life into the Bucs' season.
"The pass to Warrick, when he caught that ball I said, 'Okay, it's over now,'" said Keyshawn Johnson. "I knew Martin would make the field goal. I asked the coaching staff how far we need to get to get into field goal range and they said the plus-30 (the opponent's 30-yard line).
"At that point, we were at about the 40-yard line, and I felt we could get those 25-30 yards. I felt we would get it, and then with Martin, you figure, okay now the season is starting to move in the right direction. If you can just take one game at a time and not look ahead and think about what can happen in the future, then I think our chances are still open to make the playoffs."
After that catch, the Bucs had a first down with about 45 seconds remaining. Surprisingly, the Bucs stayed in the shotgun, and Johnson hit a seven-yard out to Williams. Dunn followed with a two-yard run, and those two plays gave Gramatica some breathing room, but Dunn's long catch-and-run had really been all the Bucs needed.
"The goal with Martin is really to get to the 33-yard line," said Brad Johnson. "We were at the 50-yard line and our goal was to get 20 yards. On the very next play is when Warrick had the big catch to get us in the red zone, then we came back with another completion. You really just want to give yourself a chance to kick the field goal at that point. (Gramatica) did a great job. He's a clutch kicker."
Indeed, after his two field goals on the day, Gramatica is 11 of 13 on the two seasons, with his two misses coming from 52 and 54 yards out. His teammates appreciate knowing that they have a money-in-the-bank kicker waiting on the sideline. Gramatica appreciates that the entire team has remained unified in their quest to turn around the season, the results of which showed during the final two minutes of Sunday's game in Detroit.
"Detroit doesn't give up," said Gramatica. "They just kept coming and coming, and they got the scores, but we didn't give up either. This just shows how united we are. We're going to do whatever it takes and keep fighting to get the wins."