WR David Boston gets congratulations from RB Cadillac Williams after catching the game's first touchdown
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 10-man draft class may be the future of the franchise, but the team's 2007 free agency group already looks like a big part of the present.
That was certainly the impression made Saturday night in Jacksonville by the likes of Jeff Garcia, Kevin Carter, Matt Lehr, Cato June and Sammy Davis The Bucs dropped a 31-19 decision to the Jaguars but more than held their own when both teams' starters were on the field.
The impacts of Garcia and Carter were particularly evident during their relatively limited appearances in the game. Garcia directed three drives and gave the Bucs a 7-0 lead on the strength of six-for-six passing for 43 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 136.1. Carter, who recorded two tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits while playing both end and tackle, was square in the middle of a rousing effort by the starting defense that held Byron Leftwich and the starting Jaguar defense scoreless for three drives.
After the Bucs' brought in defensive subs, Leftwich stayed in for all but the last two minutes of the first half and helped the Jaguars turn that 7-0 deficit into a 17-7 lead with a flurry of scores built on broken tackles and one key turnover. By the end of his night, Leftwich had completed six of 12 passes for 81 yards, though only two of his seven throws against the Bucs' first-team squad were complete. His very experienced backup, David Garrard, led a sharp two-minute drill just before halftime to make it 24-7, taking it himself on a three-yard scramble with four seconds left in the half.
The Bucs couldn't rally from that 17-point deficit and Garrard eventually turned the game into a rout, but Tampa Bay's starters were pleased with their strong opening after a shaky outing last weekend against New England.
"It was important to get your feet underneath you, get in game shape and game mentality," said Garcia. "I think we were a little bit more ready to deal with some of the adversity out there.
"Things were better. It was nice to get a scoring drive together and put some points on the board, and connect with some of the receivers on some of the plays. They made some nice grabs. There were some good plays tonight, but we also have some things to improve upon."
On the less pleasing side, the Buccaneers continued to lose the battle on the turnover front, an area Head Coach Jon Gruden made a point of emphasizing before the game. Fumbles by second-year WR Maurice Stovall and rookie RB Kenneth Darby killed two prime scoring threats and obscured another fine outing by second-string QB Luke McCown. After completing all seven of his passes in last week's preseason debut, McCown extended his run to 10-for-10 before Stovall's fumble. After a few short drives, McCown got the team moving again in the third quarter and finished with nine completions in 13 attempts for 66 yards and a passer rating of 80.9.
Both of the fumbles by the young players also led to Jacksonville scores; meanwhile, the Bucs' defense failed to come up with a takeaway until just nine minutes were left in the game after securing zero turnovers the week before. Tampa Bay's defense also struggled to get off the field after the first unit came out, and a few dropped passes plagued the young skill-position players in the second half, as when rookie FB Byron Storer dropped a sure two-point conversion. That problem is a reflection of the Bucs' recent work on the practice field, as were a string of botched and off-target snaps.
"Obviously, I like the way we started," said Gruden. "Garcia made some nice plays. The center-quarterback exchange has been a ridiculous problem. We had two shotgun snaps, we had a couple of other bad snaps – inexcusable. Our second-team defense hasn't shown up.
"There were some good things. We had a nice drive in the second quarter, but Stovall fumbled in the red zone. There's been some decent things, but not a lot here lately with the back-up players."
McCown came to the Bucs in a 2005 trade before missing all of last year with a knee injury. However, June, Lehr and Davis, like Garcia and Carter, were part of a flurry of free agents signed by the Buccaneers this spring after the franchise finally found some workable cap space. All could play important roles this season.
Lehr, who is in a battle with John Wade and Dan Buenning for the starting center job, got the start with the first-team line and helped give Garcia time to operate. June started at strongside linebacker, turned in two tackles including a big third-down stop and was a key part of a strong rush defense (14 yards allowed by the first team). Davis broke up two passes and nearly had an interception early in the third quarter.
WR David Boston was technically part of the Bucs' 2007 free agency haul, too, although he had been with the team in their 2006 camp, as well. Though he didn't stick in '06, Boston has appeared much closer to his previous Pro Bowl form this summer and may be getting a leg up on the second starting position. He scored the Bucs' first touchdown while Stovall's night was marred by the fumble. WR Michael Clayton, the starter for the last three years, caught one pass for eight yards.
"I think everybody is going out there and playing their hearts out," said Boston. "We are just trying to find our rhythm and have some fun. It was good to get a score; everyone was pretty excited."
Tampa Bay's starting offense struggled again at the game's outset, gaining just five yards on its first series, but at least punter Josh Bidwell helped the Bucs gain the early-field position edge. Bidwell, a Pro Bowler in 2005, blasted a ridiculous punt that sailed well over the return man's head and, for good measure, curled to the middle of the field at the one instead of going into the end zone. Bidwell was given credit for a 74-yard punt, and the end result, after a Jaguar three-and-out and punt, was a new set of downs at the Jacksonville 43.
That positive field position set the stage for Garcia to show off his full set of skills as he directed a six-play scoring drive to give the Bucs' a 7-0 lead.
One of the reasons the Bucs coveted Garcia to run their offense, for instance, was his above average ability to escape pressure and keep a play alive. He showed off that facet of his game on the first play of the drive, somehow escaping what appeared to be a sure sack by DE Bobby McCray and gaining six yards on a scramble. Two precision slants to Michael Pittman and Joey Galloway got the ball down to the Jacksonville 24, and CB Terry Cousin had to hold Galloway to prevent a sure touchdown on third-and-two when Garcia audibled his receiver into a double-move route.
Finally, on first-and-10 from the 19, Garcia faked a handoff, rolled right and, just before he hit the sideline, threw back across his body to Boston, finding the receiver in the end zone between two defenders.
The Bucs sent their first-team defense out for the Jaguars' second series but immediately began sending in liberal substitutions. In fact, the defense lined up in a 3-4 front on the first snap, with rookie LB Quincy Black coming in as an edge rusher. Other defenders who came in on the next two snaps, which produced a second straight two-and-out, included DEs Gaines Adams and Greg White and CB Phillip Buchanon. Carter buried QB Byron Leftwich on a third-and-eight throw over the middle that CB Ronde Barber knocked away from WR Matt Jones at the last instant.
The Bucs' kept their starting defense mostly on the field for three drives, with some substitutions, during which the Jaguars earned a total of 20 yards and one first down. Jacksonville's fourth drive, however, started at Tampa Bay's 40 and needed only three plays to tie the game.
The big play was a short screen to RB Maurice Jones-Drew that turned into a 38-yard gain when Jones-Drew broke away from a near tackle by LBs Adam Hayward and Jamie Winborn. Rookie S Sabby Piscitelli hustled the width of the field to knock Jones-Drew out at the two, but RB Fred Taylor easily powered up the middle on the next play for the touchdown.
Jacksonville took the lead a few minutes later, even though it was the Buccaneer offense that mounted an extended drive. McCown completed his first three passes to move his squad from its own 20 to the Jaguars' 25, but Stovall fumbled at the end of a five-yard reception and S Jamaal Fudge scooped it up and ran into the open field for what appeared to be an easy touchdown.
However, the Jags got just three points out of the turnover thanks to McCown's amazing hustle and one all-over-the-field rookie. McCown ran down Fudge from behind on his return and pulled him down with one arm at the Bucs' five. Tampa Bay then put together a goal-line stand with Jackson breaking up one lobbed pass and providing the tackles on two runs up the middle. K Josh Scobee gave Jacksonville a 10-7 lead with a 19-yard field goal midway through the second quarter.
Jackson may have been the Bucs' top rookie performer. He knocked away another near touchdown pass to Jones late in the second quarter and finished with three tackles, two passes defensed and a stop on special teams before leaving the game in the third quarter with cramps. Darby had another effective outing, with 28 combined rushing and receiving yards and the Bucs' lone ground score, but did lose that critical fumble. Adams, the team's first-rounder, played extensively and once again flashed with several big plays. He finished with three tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two quarterback hits.
With Leftwich still at the helm and still running behind a starting O-line (minus an injured Chris Naeole), the Jaguars quickly tacked on another score, this time on a 60-yard touchdown drive. The big play was a 17-yard run by Greg Jones on which the young Buc defenders once again whiffed on several tackle opportunities. RB LaBrandon Toefield took it in from eight yards out on a first-down run up the middle.
Leftwich finally ceded control to Garrard for the final drive of the half, and Garrard kept up the Jags' momentum, leading a nine-play, 62-yard touchdown drive that used up all but the last four seconds of the half. Jackson's second PBU delayed the score, but Garrard took it in himself on second-and-three.
With Garrard still in through the third quarter, Jacksonville extended its lead to 31-7 on a 95-yard drive that immediately followed Darby's fumble. The Buccaneers answered in the fourth quarter under the direction of second-year QB Bruce Gradkowski, who led an impressive seven-play, 80-yard scoring drive on his first action in the game. On third-and-10 from the Bucs' 47, Gradkowski stood in against a big blitz and found WR Mark Jones over the middle for a 53-yard touchdown pass.
Gradkowski led the Bucs to paydirt again on his next possession, putting together a 48-yard touchdown drive after Jacksonville's only turnover of the game. After LB Ryan Nece forced a fumble by WR Roosevelt Kiser, Gradkowski immediately hit WR Chas Gessner for 20 yards, kick-starting a drive that ended in Darby's one-yard TD plunge.
Gradkowski finished the game with seven completions in 11 attempts for 113 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, and he was also the victim of several egregious drops. Gessner, his favorite target, amassed 48 yards on a game-high four receptions.
The Bucs' offense never got the ball back after that second score, as rookie RB D.D. Terry and the Jags offense kept it on the ground and moved the chains long enough to run out the game's last six minutes. In all, Jacksonville gained 154 yards on the ground and 377 yards of offense total. The Bucs countered with 322 total yards, 114 on the ground.
The Bucs fell to 1-1 during the 2007 preseason with the loss. They will play their third preseason contest in Miami in one week.
Game Notes: Veteran DE Kevin Carter, a free agent acquisition this past offseason, started for the second time in two games as a Buccaneer, though at a different position than a week ago. Against the Patriots, Carter started at right defensive end, replacing Patrick Chukwurah, another 2007 free agent signee. Against the Jaguars, Carter started at left defensive end over long-time starter Greg Spires. … The Buccaneers' offense started in a three-receiver set, with WR Ike Hilliard joining Joey Galloway and David Boston. The formation did not include a fullback, but the Bucs did run on that first play, losing three yards. … C/G Matt Lehr made his first start for the Buccaneers. Though John Wade was the announced starter at center, it was Lehr who came on with the first-team line. … The Jacksonville Municipal Stadium game clock malfunctioned several times during the first quarter, with the first digit dropping off the display and leading to a significant amount of confusion. At one point, Garcia trotted off the field, thinking the first quarter was over as the clock counted down to 0:00. It was really the 10-minute mark, however, and play resumed moments later.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during the preseason. However, the Jaguars announced several scratches before Saturday's game. They included QB Quinn Gray, DE Jeremy Mincey, DE Brian Smith, LB Clint Ingram, C Brad Meester and DE Paul Spicer. The Buccaneers did not hold any players specifically due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, LB Antoine Cash suffered a left knee sprain in the first quarter and was ruled out for the rest of the game.
For the Jaguars, G Chris Naeole suffered a sprained knee in the first quarter and did not return. S Reggie Nelson left in the second quarter with a left ankle injury and was taken in for X-rays. He did not return, either, nor did DT Tony McDaniel, who suffered a sprained knee in the third quarter.