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Ending On a High Note

A dazzling performance by Shaun King, continued dominance in the ground game and – rejoice, Coach Gruden! – a complete avoidance of penalties led to a 34-3 win over the Texans


QB Shaun King completed 13 of 17 passes for 146 yards, building on an outstanding preseason

Six plays into Thursday night's Tampa Bay-Houston preseason finale, Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson went down under a swarm of Texan defenders.

Tampa Bay Head Coach Jon Gruden had seen enough. Johnson grabbed a baseball cap and a spot on the sideline and officially got out of harm's way.

Truth be told, the decision to yank Johnson early was probably made before the game began, but beyond protecting the team's most valuable offensive asset the move had a very nice secondary effect.

It got Shaun King on the field.

Behind King's most inspired performance since he took Tampa by storm as a rookie in 1999, the Buccaneers routed the visiting Texans, 34-3. King, who played one drive with a group of first-teamers then finished the first half with second-teamers, was marvelous with both his arm and his feet, often using those weapons in tandem.

Alternately scrambling for yardage and to buy time for looks downfield, King completed 13 of 17 passes for 146 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He also ran twice for 17 yards. When he had time to set his feet in the pocket, King threw an assortment of impressive timing passes. His grasp of the Bucs' offense has improved so markedly that at one point he pointed an out-of-place Reggie Barlow to the right spot before the snap, then fired a 12-yard completion to Barlow moments later.

"We have to give credit to the offensive line," said a modest King. "Brad and I received good protection and were both capable of getting the ball downfield. We got a good rhythm going and kept the offense moving."

The Bucs remain Johnson's team for their highly-anticipated title defense, beginning next week in Philadelphia, but King's performance on Thursday night and throughout August was perhaps the most encouraging development of the preseason.

If so, its companion piece was the revival of the Bucs' running game, which continued in earnest on Thursday night. Once again, a variety of Buc backs got into the mix, but fourth-year man Aaron Stecker was the leader of the pack against the Texans.

Stecker turned his five runs into 35 yards and two touchdowns. His first score came on a three-yard run around left end that was so well-blocked that Stecker wasn't touched. That completed King's first drive, an impressive 59-yard march on which King completed three of three passes for 46 yards and also ran once for seven yards down to the Texans' four.

King completed his first five passes, and his first six completions all produced first downs. After the next drive ended in Martin Gramatica's 23-yard field goal, King directed a four-play, 54-yard drive for another touchdown. This time, after King deftly side-stepped a free blitzer to throw a 15-yard pass to Thomas Jones, Stecker broke free around left end and ran 25 yards for another touchdown.

LB Nate Webster's crushing sack of QB Tony Banks quickly killed Houston's next drive, and the Bucs embarked on an 11-play, 58-yard touchdown march to make it 24-0. RB Travis Stephens, who actually led the team with 65 rushing yards on 14 very tough carries, started the drive with an 18-yard dash, and King completed two third-down passes and a fourth-down throw to keep it moving. The final play was a rollout, five-yard pass to rookie WR Will Heller on third-and-goal.

King's second touchdown pass of the preseason (against no interceptions) left just 34 seconds on the clock, but the Bucs managed to score one more time in the first half. Rookie DE Dewayne White hit QB Tony Banks arm as Banks threw, causing a deflection that LB Ryan Nece intercepted. Nece handed the ball to S Jermaine Phillips, who raced up the sideline to the Houston 38. The Houston sideline emptied towards the tunnel, but the officials called them back and put three seconds on the clock.

Gruden chose to use those three seconds to let K Martin Gramatica try a 56-yard field goal. The Bucs' star kicker, who missed two games this preseason with a groin strain, emphatically signaled that he was healthy by nailing the kick with five yards to spare.

The Bucs' dominance in the first half, which was mostly contested by second-teamers on both sides, was nearly complete. The home team rang up 243 yards of offense to the visitors' 47, had 17 first downs to Houston's two, gained 5.6 yards per play while allowing 2.2, outran the Texans 107-13 and controlled the clock for 20:52 of the 30 minutes. The Bucs' defense did not allow a third-down conversion in four tries.

"We are pleased with what we did in the first half, protecting the football, not committing foolish penalties and making the most of our possessions," said Gruden. "I was really pleased with the offense and obviously the defense is playing pretty good."

With all of those inflated numbers, the one that was probably most impressive to Gruden was a zero. That's how many penalties Tampa Bay committed in the game, remarkably. The Bucs came into the game with an NFL preseason high 39 penalties and had been particularly plagued by the yellow hankies in their last two outings.

"It is what we had to do and it has been a big challenge," said Gruden of erasing the infractions. "We got a lot from our crowd. I'm pleased with (the team's) effort."

The Bucs also committed just one turnover, and that one was nearly meaningless, a fumble by Stephens late in the fourth quarter on a run that wouldn't have produced a first down anyway.

A fired-up defense held the Texans to just 128 yards of offense, 46 of it on a third-quarter field goal drive that produced the visitors' only points. Nece led the team with six tackles plus two passes defensed and the Bucs' only takeaway. Rookie CB Ronyell Whitaker made four tackles, broke up a pass and delivered several very hard hits. DT Cleveland Pinkney's three tackles included his team-leading third sack of the preseason. LB Nate Webster continued his strong play of August and turned in his second sack of the preseason.

QB Chris Simms, the rookie third-stringer, answered Houston's only score with a 54-yard scoring drive finished with a third-down, scrambling, one-yard touchdown pass to WR Fabian Davis. Simms completed five of six passes for 37 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

Davis caught his second touchdown pass of the preseason but the Bucs' favorite targets of the night were Charles Lee (3-43), Karl Williams (3-36) and Reggie Barlow (3-27). Davis, Lee and Barlow are fighting for the final spots in the Bucs' receiving corps.

With the win, the Bucs finished the preseason 4-1 while Houston dropped to 0-4. Most importantly, they finished the preseason, which started almost a month ago in Tokyo.

"I'm proud of our team and our coaches," said Gruden. "It's been a long preseason. It's a great bunch of guys we have in that locker room, and from the beginning of the offseason until tonight they gave it everything they had."

Notes: The capacity crowd at Thursday night's game included several groups attending as guests of the team. The Buccaneers donated large groups of tickets to the following groups: Florida Highway Patrol, Hillsborough County Sheriff Motorcycle Unit, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa Airport Fire Department, Tampa Airport Police Department, Tampa Police Motorcycle Department and United States Special Operations. … The 2003 finale was the 119th preseason game in the franchise's 28-year history. The Bucs' all-time record in preseason games now stands at 61-58). … Martin Gramatica's 56-yard field goal at the end of the first half was longer than his career-high during the regular season. Gramatica's longest field goal that counts was a 55-yarder against Detroit in Raymond James Stadium on October 19, 2000. … Ryan Nece's interception of a pass deflected by Dewayne White was the Buccaneer's first pick of the preseason, surprisingly. Tampa Bay led the NFL in interceptions in 2002 with 32. … The Bucs finished the preseason 4-1, giving them four preseason wins for just the third time in team history. Tampa Bay went 4-0 before the 1999 season, then ended up in the NFC Championship Game in January. A 4-0 record in 1983, however, preceded a 2-14 season. The Bucs are 7-2 under Head Coach Jon Gruden in the preseason. Interestingly, this is the first time the Bucs have ever beaten four AFC teams in the preseason.

Injury Updates: TE Rickey Dudley left the game after only a few snaps with a sprained left ankle and did not return. TE Todd Yoder's night was done after a right knee sprain in the second quarter.

Quarter Reports: During Thursday's game, provided game updates at the end of each quarter. Those updates follow to offer a closer look at the game's key plays.

First Quarter Update

The Buccaneers yanked both starting after one possession apiece but still dominated the first quarter. Red-hot second-team QB Shaun King led one impressive touchdown drive and was nearing the goal line again when the period came to an end. The Bucs thus led, 7-0.

The Buccaneers won the toss but had to start at their own 18 after good kick coverage y the Texans. However, RB Michael Pittman ran into a huge hole on first down and picked up eight yards to the 26. Two plays later, on third-and-two, the Bucs came out in a power package with Darian Barnes ahead in front of Mike Alstott, but then shifted Barnes out wide before the snap. However, QB Brad Johnson still gave it to Alstott and he powered ahead for three yards and a first down.

The Bucs' next third down was a third-and-nine, and Johnson was swarmed over by several Houston rushers, including LB Charlie Clemons, who got the sack for a loss of 10 yards. Fortunately, Tom Tupa broke off a 54-yard punt, Jack Golden made an impressive diving tackle of return man J.J. Moses and a block-in-the-back penalty on Houston moved the line of scrimmage back to the Houston 24.

The Bucs' starting defense, knowing it's night would be short, reacted to RB Stacey Mack's first carry with a swarming tackle led by DT Warren Sapp and Shelton Quarles. After that one-yard gain, Mack got four more yards going up the middle on second down. On third-and-five, the Bucs brought a blitz and QB David Carr tried to hit Moses on a slant, but it was incomplete, with CB Brian Kelly providing tight coverage and S John Lynch nearly intercepting the deflection.

Shaun King came in to quarterback the offense on its next drive and immediately completed a 12-yard out to WR Karl Williams on the left side. On the next snap, from Houston's 47, King threw a deeper out to WR Joe Jurevicius on the right sideline and it was a perfect toss, just over the defender's hands and into the receiver's for a gain of 14. King threw again on the next play, hitting Williams again down the right sideline for a pickup of 20. On the play, King pump-faked to Williams, who then went deep, then stepped up under pressure as Williams stopped his fly and came back for the pass.

From the 13, the Bucs tried their first running play of the drive, a two-yard run off left guard by Aaron Stecker. King scrambled on second down and picked up seven yards, though he was denied the first down by a hard tackle from Clemons. On third-and-inches, Stecker plugged up the middle for one yard and a first down at the three.

On the next play, first-and-goal from the three, the blocking up front was so dominating that Stecker basically walked into the end zone around the left end for a 7-0 Bucs lead.

The Bucs brought in their second-team defense for Houston's next drive, while the Texans chose to stick with their starters on offense a bit longer. On first down, Carr hit WR Jabar Gaffney on a comebacker for a gain of 12 yards out to Houston's 36. Two runs by Stacey Mack picked up four yards, but on third-and-three DT Cleveland Pinkney broke immediately through the line and sacked Carr before he could throw a simple out.

The Bucs' next drive began at its own 26 but moved into Houston territory under King's continued hot hand. On first down, the fifth-year passer threw a bullet to WR Reggie Barlow in the left flat for a gain of 12, and on the next snap he scrambled to the right again, sliding to the ground after a gain of 10. King's hot streak continued on the next snap as he tossed a lob down the left sideline that WR Charles Lee made a fine spinning catch on for a gain of 24.

Three plays later, after King's first incompletion and a Buccaneer timeout, the home team faced a third-and-seven from the Texans' 21. King was flushed out of the pocket, but he fired another pass to Barlow as he ran left, resulting in a nine-yard completion and a first down at the 12 as the quarter came to an end.

Second Quarter Update

The Bucs' domination not only continued into the second quarter but intensified. Behind Shaun King's continued hot hand, the Bucs scored two more touchdowns to take a 24-0 lead, then added an improbable 56-yard field goal in the closing seconds for a 27-0 edge at halftime. Behind King's 13-17 passing, the Bucs gained 243 yards to Houston's 47 and controlled the clock for nearly 21 of the 30 minutes.

The Bucs opened the second quarter with a first down at the Houston 12 but had to settle for a field goal. On third-and-eight, King scrambled away from pressure and hit WR Reggie Barlow heading towards the left edge of the end zone, but CB Jason Bell made the tackle at the four. Martin Gramatica converted the field goal easily from 23 yards out, giving the Bucs a 10-0 lead.

An impressive tackle by S Jermaine Phillips on the ensuing kickoff forced Houston to start from its own 19, and RB Tony Hollings' two runs were stopped for a total of one yard thanks to DT Cleveland Pinkney. On third-and-eight, second-team QB Tony Banks threw a screen to rookie RB Domanick Davis and Davis nearly got the first down but was brought down just short by LB Ryan Nece.

A short punt that bounced off the leg of a Houston cover men netted the Texans just 26 yards, giving the ball to the Bucs at their own 46. King then threw a quick-strike pass to FB Darian Barnes over the middle and the hard-nosed Barnes barreled through two defenders for a gain of nine yards. RB Thomas Jones got the first down on the next play with a quick dart up the middle down to Houston's 40.

On the next play, King had a Texan blitzer in his face immediately, but he took one quick step to the right and simultaneously threw off his back foot to Jones in the left flat. Jones made two good cuts to pick up 15 yards down to the 25. On the next play, RB Aaron Stecker scored his second touchdown of the game, darting around left end thanks to a great block by Kerry Jenkins and outrunning the defense for a 25-yard score. The Bucs led 17-0.

Houston's next drive started at the Texans' 24 but moved back due to a holding penalty on first down. Two underneath passes to Hollings picked up 15 yards and Houston tried to convert the third-and-five with a quick pass to the right. However, blitzing LB Nate Webster got immediately into Banks line of vision and the quarterback just pulled the ball down before Webster swarmed over him for a five-yard sack.

Another short punt by Chad Stanley gave the ball back to the home team at their own 42, but RB Travis Stephens got the ball back into Houston territory without delaying, taking a first-down run through right guard and to the sideline for a gain of 18. An end-around by Barlow picked up seven yards, but two snaps later, on third-and-three, Stephens' run up the middle was stopped two yards short. The Bucs elected to go for it on fourth down from the 32, and a laser-quick and perfectly-timed rollout pass from King to Karl Williams picked up four yards and a new set of downs.

A short run by Stephens and an incompletion on a pass into the end zone brought up a third-and-eight moments later, but King converted again, this time hitting WR Charles Lee on a slant for 12 yards. Stephens followed with a five-yard run and King hit FB Jameel Cook for four more. On third-and-one, King rolled right and stared at the underneath receiver before throwing across his body to a wide-open Will Heller for the five-yard touchdown. The Bucs thus had a 24-0 lead with 34 seconds to play in the half.

Houston decided to try to use the remaining time for one final scoring drive, but the move backfired when, on the second play, rookie DT Dewayne White hit Banks' arm as he threw and LB Ryan Nece caught the deflection. Nearly tackled, Nece alertly pitched the ball to S Jermaine Phillips, who made it up the sideline to the Houston 38. With three seconds left on the clock, the Bucs sent Martin Gramatica out to try a 56-yard field goal and Gramatica nailed it at the buzzer.

Third Quarter Update

The Texans finally cracked the scoreboard in the third quarter with a 17-play field goal drive, but the Bucs still headed into the final period with a 27-3 lead. Tampa Bay's statistical edge after three periods included a 269-96 advantage in total yards and a 19-6 lead in first downs.

J.J. Moses got his return out to the Texans' 35 to begin the second half, and RB Tony Hollings picked up two yards up the middle on first down. After Hollings' seven-yard dash around left end, the back dove over right tackle for two yards and a first down. LB Ryan Nece's coverage on the next snap led to an incompletion in Hollings' direction, but the back picked up six yards on a second-down run. On third-and-four, RB Justin Swift caught a short pass and just extended the ball over the first-down line before S Jermaine Phillips rode him out of bounds.

QB Tony Banks tried to hit WR Atnaf Harris on a bomb down the left sideline on the next snap but CB Tim Wansley matched him stride for stride and the pass was too deep to reach. Banks did hit Harris underneath Wansley for a gain of nine on second down, and a rollout completion to WR Derick Armstrong moved the chains.

From the Bucs' 32, Hollings busted over left guard for a gain of three. Two plays later, on third-and-three, Nece stopped Hollings inches short on a run over right tackle, and the Texans elected to go for it on fourth down. Hollings found a seam to pick up three yards up the middle.

FB Moran Norris got three yards on first down, but a diving Buck Gurley stopped Hollings for a loss of two on second down. Banks tried to lob a touchdown pass to Harris on third down, but Wansley had a bead on it and nearly made a leaping interception. Harris, turned defender, broke it up, but the Texans had to settle for Kris Brown's 37-yard field goal.

A touchback put the Bucs at their own 20 with rookie Chris Simms in at quarterback. After RB Travis Stephens' four-yard run off left end, Simms fired a seven-yard pass to WR Charles Lee in the right flat for a gain of seven and a first down. Under pressure, Simms hit Stephens for a gain of two on second down, but DT Keith Wright tripped up the rookie passer as he scrambled on third down, leading to a punt.

Rookie Domanick Davis got the next two carries, from the Houston 28, but DT Cleveland Pinkney stopped him after a one-yard gain on first down and DE Ron Warner trapped him for no gain on second down. On third-and-nine, Banks dumped a pass off to Davis but CB Ronyell Whitaker dropped him with a hard tackle at the 30 and the Texans had to punt.

The Bucs got the ball back at their own 40 thanks to Wansley's nine-yard punt return, and two plays later Stephens ran 11 yards up the middle to the Houston 48. That brought the third quarter to an end.

Fourth Quarter Update

The Buccaneers added a touchdown on an impressive drive led by rookie QB Chris Simms, but it was just window-dressing on a 34-3 blowout of the visiting Houston Texans. The Bucs dominated in every phase of the game, gaining 334 yards to Houston's 128, picking up 24 first downs and not committing a single penalty.

The Bucs had a first down at Houston's 48 to start the fourth quarter but were soon backed into their own territory. After RB Travis Stephens' three-yard run around right end, Simms was sacked at the Bucs' 49 by Demarcus Faggins. Simms tried to hit WR Charles Lee on a slant but Faggins made a diving breakup to force a punt.

Dave Ragone came in to lead the Texans' next drive, but the first play was a RB Tony Hollings carry around right end for eight yards. On third-and-two, Ragone ran left under pressure and completed a three-yard pass to WR JaJuan Dawson, producing a first down at the Houston 38.

After a delay-of-game penalty DT Cleveland Pinkney flushed Ragone out of the pocket on the next play, helping DE Josh McKibben get a four-yard sack. After Hollings fumbled on third-down and lost two yards, and the Texans committed a false start, Ragone was faced with a third-and-27 from the Houston 21. He found nothing downfield and had to scramble, eventually going down in the arms of DT Buck Gurley after a gain of six.

That defensive stop helped the Bucs flip the field position and start their next drive at their own 46. A play-action pass to TE Will Heller worked marvelously for 17 yards, the last seven courtesy of a crushing block by WR Charles Lee. Two plays later, Simms found WR Fabian Davis for a gain of 10 down to the Texans' 25.

FB Jameel Cook got a rare carry on the next snap and made the most of it, dashing around left end for a gain of 22 down to the Texans' three. Stephens and Cook each ran for one yard to set up third-and-goal at the one. Simms put the Bucs in the end zone on the next play, scrambling forward before throwing to Davis in the back of the end zone. The score padded the Bucs' lead to 34-3 with 5:40 left on the clock.

A 28-yard return by J.J. Moses put Houston at its own 41, but the Texans immediately gave the ball back. RB Jonas Lewis fumbled on first down and S Dwayne Stukes recovered for Tampa Bay at the Houston 36.

QB Shane Stafford came on to direct the next drive, seeing his first action of the preseason. Though a run was fairly predictable, Stephens still managed to pound up the middle for a gain of 10 yards. Four plays later, however, Stephens fumbled after a botched exchange on a fourth-and-four carry.

Houston took over at its own 21. After two Lewis carries, the Texans faced a third-and-five and Ragone converted it with a six-yard strike to Dawson. Two plays later, Lewis ran for nine yards to the Houston 44 and the visitors called a timeout with 1:20 remaining.

Ragone was flushed from the pocket on first down and forced into an incompletion, but he hit Justin Swift for four yards on second down. Houston called another timeout with 58 seconds left, but the next play was an incomplete pass to Swift, broken up by LB Michael Brown. On fourth-and-six, Ragone tried to hit Dawson on the right sideline but Whitaker dove to break it up

The Bucs took over at the Houston 48 and ran two plays to kill the clock.

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