Second-year QB Josh Johnson threw one TD pass and ran for 43 yards in the Bucs' comeback attempt
Brian Clark may not have needed another strong performance to make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' regular-season roster, but he left nothing to chance on Friday night. Who else impressed in the Buccaneers' 27-20 preseason-ending loss to the Houston Texans? The answers may become clear on Saturday when the team trims its roster from 75 players to 53.
Before that much-anticipated day, there was the matter of one more tune-up before the regular season, a game that always reveals more in its details than the final score. Rex Grossman threw two second-quarter touchdown passes to key Houston's victory, but the Buccaneers — and the Texans, for that matter — got what they really needed: Sixty minutes of useful game tape and some eye-opening performances among the reserves.
The most visible reserves, of course, were young quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Josh Johnson, who split the game while veterans Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown watched from the sidelines. On a night of often sloppy football, both Joshes were intercepted on their first passes, but both hung in long enough to have some good moments. Freeman's best was a bullet of a 23-yard touchdown pass to WR Cortez Hankton that capped a very good two-minute drill before halftime. Johnson directed one fourth-quarter touchdown drive and another 84-yard march that came up five yards short near the end of regulation.
Head Coach Raheem Morris thought Freeman was a little nervous to begin the game but was impressed by the rookie's strong finish.
"It was great," said Morris. "He came out a little shaky. He had to make a couple of great scrambles there, make a couple of good third-down conversions to end that thing with a two-minute drive to get us in the end zone. It's what you want to see. You want to see these guys play better every time you go out there."
Overall, the two quarterbacks combined to complete 19 of 38 passes for 267 yard and two touchdowns but also were responsible for three turnovers. Freeman completed seven of 17 passes for 85 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions; Johnson hit on 12 of 21 passes for 182 yards, one touchdown and one pick. With the tailback trio of Earnest Graham, Derrick Ward and Cadillac Williams effectively getting the night off, the Bucs didn't try too hard to establish a rushing attack. In fact, Johnson tied RB Clifton Smith for the team rushing lead with 43 yards on five.
Clark fumbled a punt in the fourth quarter but otherwise made a positive impression with an impressive variety of plays. After Freeman's first pass was intercepted by CB Brice McCain, Clark caught McCain and popped the ball loose to cause a fumble. During Freeman's two-minute drive, Clark made a dazzling one-handed catch of a tipped pass and alertly dived out of bounds to stop the clock. Clark also returned punts and kickoffs for the Buccaneers in the second half and finished with a team-best four catches for 70 yards.
"He had some smart football plays out there," said Morris of Clark. "We have to get the rest of our team making some smarter ones. We had a couple of big penalties on third down that you can't have, we have to be a smarter football team to win in this league. That's what we are working for right now."
Other receivers who turned in splash plays for the Buccaneers included Hankton, WR Mario Urrutia, LB Bo Ruud, S Steve Cargile and DE Kyle Moore. Hankton's touchdown catch kept the game close heading into halftime; Urrutia made several impressive catches on the Bucs' final, 84-yard drive and finished with three grabs for 46 yards; Cargile tipped away a deep pass in the end zone and added six solo tackles; Ruud led the team with seven tackles, ended one drive with a fourth-quarter pass break-up and helped CB Torrie Cox pick off a pass with a third-quarter deflection; Moore had the team's only sack.
The Bucs struggled with penalties for the second straight week (six flags for 62 yards) and lost the turnover battle, 4-3. Tampa Bay's offense produced 387 yards to the Texans' 343, but Houston had four passing plays of more than 21 yards, including an 87-yard touchdown. Grossman completed nine of 16 passes for 197 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 139.8.
Neither team used their starters much, as is customary in the final preseason game. Eight of the 11 starters on offense sat out the game for Tampa Bay, with only Jeremy Zuttah, Earnest Graham and B.J. Askew opening the game. Of those, only Askew saw significant playing time.
The Buccaneers did put most of their starting defense on the field for a single series, and it took that crew just two plays to force a turnover against mostly Houston reserves. A hard hit by S Sabby Piscitelli forced TE Anthony Hill to fumble, with Barber recovering for the Buccaneers at the Houston 36. There were two more turnovers on the very next play, as Freeman's first pass of the game was intercepted by McCain, who promptly had the ball popped out of his grasp by Clark, the intended target. T Anthony Alabi recovered for the Bucs at the Houston 26, and a replay challenge failed, technically starting a new drive.
Two plays later, Freeman went to Clark again after a nice play-action fake and the Clark turned the short pass into an 18-yard gain down to the five. The Bucs couldn't punch it in from there, however, settling for Nugent's 20-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead four minutes into the game.
The Bucs' brought in mostly second-teamers on defense for the next drive, though S Will Allen stayed in the game. Allen made an immediate impact, too, crushing Hill on a pass over the middle to break up what would have been a big-gainer. Two plays later, Moore buried QB Dan Orlovsky for an eight-yard sack, forcing a punt.
Freeman showed off one of his skills on the first play of the next drive, scrambling out of pressure and juking one tackler for a gain of 11 yards to the Bucs' 41. WR Sammie Stroughter made a nice catch on a third-down slant to put the ball a yard over midfield, but the drive stalled shortly thereafter and Dirk Johnson punted down to the Houston 17.
A nice reaching catch for a gain of 21 yards by WR Jacoby Jones got the Texans' next drive started, and an eight-yard run by RB Ryan Moats put the ball a yard shy of midfield. Houston was fortunate on the next play when a pass went through Jones' hands and was caught 10 yards downfield by teammate David Anderson. The luck didn't last; on the next play, Ruud broke up a short pass and Cox intercepted the deflection and returned it 11 yards to the Bucs' 46.
The ensuing drive ended in three plays, despite a powerful seven-yard run by Smith. Askew bounced a third-and-one carry outside and got trapped by LB Connor Barwin for a loss of two yards. Johnson's punt came to rest at the Houston 10, but Grossman and Jones hooked up on their 87-yarder two plays later.
A well-designed screen pass to RB Clifton Smith was erased by a tripping penalty on T James Lee and the Bucs couldn't make up the 10-yard penalty, punting away moments later. The Texans had their own 37-yard run erased by a holding penalty, but a pass-interference call on CB Darrell Hunter kept the drive alive. Cargile turned in a nice play, tipping away a sure touchdown pass at the last moment on the next snap, but DE Louis Holmes committed a roughing-the-passer penalty to put the ball at the 14. Three plays later, Grossman threw his second TD pass with a sharp toss over the middle to TE James Casey.
The Buccaneers gave the ball right back, as Freeman's pass over the middle to TE Jason Pociask was a bit off target, deflecting off Pociask's left hand and into the arms of LB Kevin Bentley. Starting again at the Bucs' 14, Houston earned a first down at the Bucs' two but Tampa Bay's defense made a stand. Cargile and DT Dre Moore made stops on RB Arian Foster and Grossman was forced to throw away his third-down pass, leading to Kris Brown's 19-yard field goal.
The Bucs had time for a two-minute drive and got it started well with an 11-yard scamper by Smith on a screen pass. After the two-minute warning, Freeman scrambled for 14 yards and got out of bounds at the Houston 49. A nice run on a draw by Smith converted a third-and-one and got six yards to the Houston 34. The Bucs used their first timeout with 1:03 left. A holding penalty on T Xavier Fulton cost the Bucs 10 yards, but Clark made his incredible catch on the next snap and a defensive holding penalty made it first down at the Houston 25.
The clock had ticked down to 15 seconds left when the Bucs faced a third-and-eight at the Houston 23. Freeman made the most of his last chance of the half, zipping a hard seam pass down the right hashmarks to Hankton for the score, making it 17-10 in the visitors' favor at halftime.
Johnson came in to start the second half and was immediately intercepted by Busing, who returned the ball to the Bucs' one, setting up Hall's one-yard TD dive. Johnson fared better on his second drive, lofting a beautiful touch pass down the right sideline to WR Patrick Carter for a gain of 31. A nine-yard scramble took the ball down to the Houston six, and another dash made it third-and-goal at the Houston one. After a false start, Johnson tried to zip a pass to Clark through traffic at the end of the end zone but it was broken up, leading to Nugent's second field goal, a 24-yarder.
Grossman took his hot hand into the second half, firing a 28-yard pass to WR Glenn Martinez to get the next drive started. A fine third-down tackle by Cargile on Casey on a third-and-10 pass forced the Texans to try a 45-yard field goal and Brown hit it to restore the visitors' 14-point lead.
A replay challenge overturned an apparent lost fumble by Johnson and the speedy quarterback scrambled for 10 yards and a first down at the Bucs' 35. Clark converted a third-and-10 moments later with a 14-yard catch on the left sideline but Pociask dropped a pass on the next third down, leading to a punt.
The Bucs' defense held but the home team was stung by another turnover when Clark fumbled the ensuing punt and it was recovered by Houston at the Bucs' 36. Ruud's fourth-down breakup of a play-action pass kept the Texans from capitalizing on the turnover.
WR Marcus Maxwell made an impressive diving catch for 12 yards to midfield and Smith followed with an 11-yard tote. Johnson then found Clark open cutting towards the right sideline for a gain of 24, down to the Houston 16. Two plays later, Johnson threw a 14-yard rope to Purvis for a score to make it 27-20 with eight minutes to play.
Grossman threw deep again and found Jones for a gain of 40 yards down the middle of the field. The Bucs' defense held again, however, forcing a punt that rolled out of bounds at the Bucs' 11. Urrutia made a pair of dazzling catches for a total of 37 yards, sandwiched around another Johnson scramble for eight yards, putting the ball at the Houston 21. A near-miss TD toss to Urrutia was followed by another scramble for 11 yards. After Jameel Cook barreled around right end for seven yards, Johnson was pressured into two incompletions, leading to fourth-and-goal from the three. Johnson had to run from pass-rushers on fourth down but was trapped by DE Frank Okam at the seven for a sack of three yards.
The Bucs had three timeouts left but didn't use them as Houston ran out the game's final 1:40.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers and Texans have now finished the preseason together for eight straight years. The two teams have met in the preseason in every year of Houston's franchise existence, and the Buccaneers hold a 6-2 edge in the overall series. The Bucs have won three of the four games played in Tampa. … Second-year lineman Jeremy Zuttah was the only one of the Bucs' usual starting five to play in the game, but he switched positions for the night. Usually the starter at left guard, Zuttah manned left tackle to start the game. … The Bucs finished the preseason with a 1-3 record.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during the offseason. However, the Buccaneers revealed eight players prior to the game who would definitely not participate: Leftwich, McCown, Phillips, Williams, Ward, Huggins, K Matt Bryant, S Donte Nicholson, C Jeff Faine, LB Rod Wilson, LB Adam Hayward, G Jeremy Trueblood, T Donald Penn, G Davin Joseph, WR Michael Clayton, TE Kellen Winslow, TE Jerramy Stevens, TE John Gilmore and WR Antonio Bryant.
The Dolphins did not announce any players who would be held out of the game.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, T Xavier Fulton left the game late in the second quarter with a knee injury and did not return. Fellow 2009 draftee CB E.J. Biggers left in the third quarter with a shoulder injury and did not return.
The Texans did not report an injury during the game.