Rookie WR Dexter Jackson scored the game's only touchdown on an 83-yard punt return in the second quarter
Dexter Jackson is fast.
On a night when neither the Tampa Bay Buccaneers nor the Houston Texans preferred to send any of their starters onto the field, the annual preseason finale between the two teams was best used as one final self-scouting opportunity.
And the expert analysis from the Buccaneers' 16-6 over the Texans on Thursday night at Reliant Stadium? Jackson's speed is for real.
The rookie second-rounder out of Appalachian State made his first splash play as a Buccaneer one minute into the second quarter, fielding a punt at his own 17, getting around the corner on Houston's cover team and rocketing untouched for an 83-yard touchdown. Tampa Bay took a 7-3 lead on the play and never trailed again.
Jackson also ran for 13 yards on the Bucs' third play from scrimmage and caught two passes for 17 yards.
"Yes we are excited about that," said Gruden of Jackson's big moment. "He had a big reverse for us earlier in the game and that guy is really fast. We are happy about that."
Of course, as pleased as they were to see their prospective playmaker, well, make a play, the Bucs didn't really need further evidence of Jackson's speed. Of more use between Thursday's final gun and the 4:00 p.m. roster cut to 53 on Saturday will be the game film of such young hopefuls and veteran question marks as DE Charles Bennett, QBs Chris Simms and Josh Johnson, TE Ben Troupe, CB Eugene Wilson, S Will Allen, LB Geno Hayes, DE Patrick Chukwurah and the running back trio of Michael Bennett, Kenneth Darby and Clifton Smith.
Charles Bennett, fighting for a job amid a crowded group of defensive linemen, registered three tackles, two of them for losses, and pressured Houston passers on several occasions. Chukwurah, signed little more than 24 hours before the game, started at right defensive end and recorded three tackles and a pass defensed while also making three stops on special teams. Wilson started at right cornerback and led the team with five tackles plus the Bucs' only sack. Allen started at free safety and had four tackles and a pass defensed, including a key breakup of a deep pass to preserve the Bucs' fourth-quarter lead. Hayes, the rookie sixth-rounder out of Florida State who has shown promise this summer, gave the Bucs their only takeaway with an nifty sideline interception in the fourth quarter.
Simms completed nine of 15 passes for 71 yards, no touchdowns and one interception on a deflected pass. Johnson, who had just two throws in the first three preseason games, hit on eight of 13 throws for 85 yards and directed three scoring drives in the fourth quarter. Troupe, the starter over Alex Smith at tight end, led all Bucs receivers with four receptions for 52 yards..
And, once again, the Bucs' backs looked sharp, particularly on quick-cutting runs up the middle. With Bennett gaining 48 yards on 13 carries and Darby adding 55 on 16, the Bucs ran well in the first and fourth quarters and everywhere in between. The three backs also combined for seven receptions for 55 yards, led by Smith's four grabs.
As has become the custom for most NFL teams in their final preseason games, the Bucs and Texans contested Thursday's game with a lineup full of reserves. None of Tampa Bay's projected starters played a down of offense or defense, and the Texans replaced everybody except first-year right guard Mike Brisiel. Houston started Sage Rosenfels under center and removed him after one series; the Bucs opened with Luke McCown but brought in Simms at the start of the second quarter.
Neither starter Jeff Garcia nor backup Brian Griese took a snap for the Buccaneers, meaning Garcia finished the preseason with less than two quarters of work. However, Garcia believes he can get the work he needs on the practice field between now and the season opener in New Orleans on September 7.
"I think my main reps have to come in practice, mentally getting sharp and physically doing what I need to do," he said from the Reliant Stadium sideline. "I don't feel like I need to play any more in the preseason than what I played. The main thing I am trying to catch up with is all the practice that I have missed. Getting those reps in practice this week I feel like I will be at a place where I need to be to start the opener."
For what it's worth, the Bucs' offensive reserves found more success than their Texan counterparts, though neither side could punch it into the end zone on offense. Tampa Bay out-gained the home team, 330 yards to 195, and had 20 first downs to their opponents' 195.
Once again, the most pronounced edge for the Buccaneers was in the running game, where they produced 129 yards to the Texans' 58. Over four games, Tampa Bay out-gained their opponents in the running game by a 273-yard margin, 488 to 215. Tampa Bay's rush defense, which had allowed its opponents just 2.5 yards per carry coming into Thursday's game, was impressive again, keeping Houston to 3.4 yards per carry.
"They pushed us around on the line of scrimmage pretty good," said Houston Head Coach Gary Kubiak. "[They] played a lot of eight-man fronts."
If prospect evaluation takes precedence over chasing victory, there is a third goal that surely ranks high in the preseason finale: roster health. The Buccaneers were pleased to keep their trainers relatively idle during the game, as only S Sabby Piscitelli appeared to suffer an injury of any note. Piscitelli hurt his left leg early in the third quarter and did not return, though early indications are that the injury isn't severe.
Led by the relatively experienced Sage Rosenfels, Houston drove right down the field with the game's opening possession. The Bucs appeared to get a third-down stop at their own 30 when Charles Bennett stopped RB Darius Walker on a short carry, but a false start before the snap gave the Texans another shot. However, a big blitz on the resulting third-and-seven worked perfectly, forcing an off-target throw in Anderson's direction. Kris Brown still converted the march into three points with a 53-yard field goal four minutes into the game.
The Bucs' first drive got off to a nice start, too, thanks in part to an end-around by Jackson that picked up 13 yards to midfield. Michael Bennett was the engine on the drive, however, gaining 18 yards on a total of three touches (two runs, one catch). The drive stalled in a similar spot as the Texans' first possession, but the Bucs came up empty when Bryant's 54-yard attempt fell just short of the crossbar.
The Texans brought in first-year QB Shane Boyd for their second drive but got nowhere, going three-and-out in part due to Chukwurah's hit on Boyd as he was throwing on third-and-10. The resulting punt went into the end zone for a touchback.
The Bucs' second drive crossed midfield again when McCown found WR Cortez Hankton wide open down the right sideline and hit him for a gain of 28. However, this one also ended without points when the Bucs went for it on fourth-and-two from the Houston 27 and saw Bennett corralled short of the sticks by former University of South Florida LB Ben Moffitt.
CB Aqib Talib's driving hit on WR Jacoby Jones on the Texans' next play forced an incompletion and helped set up another three-and-out. The resulting punt came early in the second quarter and led to the Bucs' first points, as Matt Turk's 48-yard blast fell into Jackson's hands at the 17. Jackson crossed the goal line 1:11 into the second quarter to give the Bucs a 7-3 lead.
With Simms at the helm, Tampa Bay's next drive sliced deep into Houston territory, thanks to a 10-yard run by Darby and a three-of-four passing by Simms. However, Bryant missed again, pushing it to the right as he has on several occasions this preseason, on an attempt from 36 yards out.
The Texans managed to cut Tampa Bay's lead to one point just before halftime, as Boyd led a successful two-minute drill to set up Brown's 41-yard field goal at the buzzer. Down-the-middle completions to TE Joel Dreessen and WR Mark Simmons got Brown in range for his three-pointer.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half and tried a quick strike downfield, but CB Dexter Wynn was able to break up a sideline pass to WR Chad Lucas at the last second. The drive still reached midfield thanks to Bennett's 11-yard run on the next snap and a 14-yard catch by rookie FB Carl Stewart, but it ended a few plays later on the game's first turnover. Simms' third-and-14 pass over the middle deflected off the helmet of C Dan Buenning and was intercepted by DT Anthony Maddox. Maddox also had a sack of Simms two plays earlier.
Impressively, the Bucs' defense held again. With rookie Alex Brink in at quarterback, the Texans were forced into a three-and-out and a punt that Micheal Spurlock fair caught at the 19. That drive faced a third-and-12 a few plays in, but Simms moved the chains with a nifty 12-yard pass to Smith under heavy pressure. The drive ended near midfield but not before Simms made a nifty move to escape a near sack and nearly completed a third-down pass along the sideline. The Bucs punted from their own 49 and pinned Houston at its own eight thanks to Allen's bat of the ball as it neared the goal line.
The Texans escaped that field position when Brink scrambled for eight yards and a 15-yard personal foul by rookie CB Elbert Mack was tacked on the end. On the next third down, Brink threw deep downfield to WR Darnell Jenkins but the pass was incomplete and nearly intercepted by S Sergey Ivanov after it went through Jenkins' hands.
The Bucs brought the rookie Johnson in to start the next drive, and he helped move the team to midfield as the third quarter expired. On the first play of the fourth period, Johnson rolled out to his left and hit a wide-open Troupe for a gain of 30 yards down to the Houston 22. The drive stalled there, but Bryant pushed the Bucs' lead to four points by nailing a 40-yard field goal attempt.
Jackson went deep early in the next drive and drew a pass interference call on CB Antwaun Molden that was good for 31 yards to the Houston 27. That set up another field goal attempt by Bryant, who nailed a 29-yarder to give the Bucs a seven-point lead with nine minutes to play.
The Bucs had a chance to ice the game when Hayes intercepted a Brink pass on the right sideline at the Houston 42 with six minutes to play. However, Johnson and Smith botched a handoff three plays later and DE Jesse Nading recovered for the Texans at their own 32.
However, that simply provided one more challenge for the Bucs' defense, which allowed a total of three yards on the next four plays and took over on downs at the Houston 35 with 3:05 to play.
The Bucs finished the preseason 3-1 and will open their regular season in New Orleans on September 7. The Texans finished 2-2 and will open at Pittsburgh on the same day.
Game Notes: Before Dexter Jackson's 83-yard sprint in the second quarter was Tampa Bay's first punt return for a touchdown in the preseason since Nilo Silvan scored on a 91-yarder against Miami on August 23, 1996. The last Buc to score in that manner in the regular season was Joey Galloway, who returned a punt 59 yards for a TD against New Orleans on December 19, 2004. … K Matt Bryant's tough preseason continued in the first half on Tuesday, as he missed on attempts from 54 and 36 yards before the intermission. However, Bryant finished on a strong note, making 40, 29 and 31-yard shots in the fourth quarter. Through the four games of August, Bryant made seven of his 12 attempts, missing twice from beyond 50 yards. … The Bucs and Texans have now played each other in the preseason seven straight years, since Houston's inaugural season of 2002. Each time, the game has been the preseason finale for both teams. With the win, the Buccaneers lead the preseason series, 6-1. … The Bucs' didn't score while QB Luke McCown was at the helm in the first quarter, but McCown was relatively pleased with the offense's performance in that span. "I think we did pretty well," he said. "We put a string of six, seven, eight plays together on a couple of drives. We came up short on both of them, one on third down and one on a fourth-and-one or so. But it felt great to get out and move the ball. I think we did some good things. It will be a good film to look at." … The Buccaneers finished the preseason with a 3-1 record for the second straight season. Tampa Bay has had a winning record in five of its seven preseasons under Head Coach Jon Gruden.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during the preseason. As mentioned, both teams chose to rest almost all of their usual starters.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, S Sabby Piscitelli sustained a knee sprain in the third quarter and did not return.
For the Texans, T Rashad Butler sustained a right shoulder sprain in the third quarter and did not return.