The NFL's 2012 regular season is now just two weeks away. From the look of things on Friday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are ready.
With both teams' starters playing into the third quarter, the Buccaneers defeated the New England Patriots, 30-28, at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs led 20-7 at halftime and even fared reasonably well with their defensive reserves for most of the third quarter against Tom Brady and the Patriots' starting offense.
Even after they pare their roster down to 53 players over the next week, the Buccaneers may find themselves relying heavily on a handful of rookies in the regular season. The good news: Those newcomers made an enormous impact in the win over New England. The team's pair of first-round picks, S Mark Barron and RB Doug Martin, scored the game's first two touchdowns, and the Bucs also got big returns from second-round LB Lavonte David, sixth-round CB Keith Tandy and seventh-round RB Michael Smith.
QB Josh Freeman led the Bucs on a touchdown drive to start the game and finished with 10 completions in 19 attempts for 102 yards and no interceptions. He has not committed a turnover this preseason and has been at the helm for three touchdown drives in just over three quarters of play. Freeman made good use of his new number-one target, hooking up with WR Vincent Jackson for three completions and 49 yards on the game-opening drive.
Martin scored on a one-yard drive to complete that march and finished the game with 13 carries for 53 yards. He got the start, one week after incumbent LeGarrette Blount suffered an injury scare against Tennessee, and was the leader in a 133-yard rushing performance by the Buccaneers. Blount did play, running seven times for 2 yards, and Smith excelled late with 38 yards on six carries and two receptions for another 16 yards. The Bucs averaged 4.8 yards per carry overall.
Three possessions after Martin's touchdown, the Bucs scored their first defensive touchdown of 2012. Ronde Barber, who has made a successful transition from cornerback to safety this year, tipped a Brady pass that was then intercepted by Barron near the right sideline. Barron dashed directly upfield, untouched, for a 22-yard scoring return.
The Bucs' next nine points were all scored from long distance, as Tampa Bay's special teams had an impressive evening that included three field goals of longer than 50 yards. Incumbent Connor Barth had the first one, a 56-yarder in the second quarter that put the Bucs up 17-7, and first-year player Kai Forbath added 51 and 55-yarders in the second and third quarters, respectively. The Bucs also got excellent results on kickoff return from Smith (three for 78) and held New England's return men to an average of 23.2 yards per kickoff runback.
QB Dan Orlovsky had his second strong performance of the offseason, relieving Freeman on the second drive of the third quarter and completing six of seven passes for 53 yards and a touchdown. His eight-yard TD pass to WR Sammie Stroughter completed an 11-play, 78-yard drive in the fourth quarter.
Even with all of that, the performance of the Buccaneers' defense against New England's high-powered attack might have been the most encouraging aspect of the evening. Brady directed one lengthy scoring drive in the first half, ending in Stevan Ridley's one-yard run, but otherwise New England was forced into three-and-outs on five of their first eight possessions. Brady did get the ball into the end zone on his final possession of the night, late in the third quarter, on a 19-yard touchdown pass to TE Rob Gronkowski but finished with just 127 yards on 13-of-20 passing. His longest completion was just 24 yards – that one also in the third quarter against reserves – and he was sacked twice for a loss of 19 yards. The Bucs brought a variety of blitzes throughout the first half, resulting in sacks by DE Michael Bennett and Adam Hayward and four other hits on Brady. Bennett's sack in the first quarter caused a Brady fumble, and while it was recovered by New England it resulted in a long third down and, on the next play, Barron's interception.
Hayward started in place of Mason Foster, who was rested with a minor hamstring ailment, and led the team with seven tackles and his one sack. Tandy added six tackles and also made two stops on special teams. David, playing extensively in the nickel defense for the first time, turned in two key tackles as well as a third-down hit on Brady that caused an incompletion.
The Bucs' offense started off in impressive fashion, driving 68 yards on eight plays for a touchdown to open the game. Freeman looked to Jackson to convert a long third down early in the march, then found him two more times, for a total of 49 yards, the last a 10-yard grab at the New England six. Martin got five yards on a first down carry then dived over the pile on second down to score his second TD in just three NFL games.
The Bucs scored the game's second touchdown, too, but this time on defense. Barber, showing he has made a seamless transition from cornerback to safety, was the hidden factor on two straight outstanding plays by Tampa Bay's defense. On second down from the New England 15, Barber timed a blitz perfectly, thereby freeing up Michael Bennett for an eight-yard sack of Brady. Though New England recovered Brady's resulting fumble at their own seven, the Bucs scored on the next play when Barron returned an interception 22 yards to the end zone. On the play, Brady tried to find TE Rob Gronkowski but Barber darted alertly into the path of the throw and tipped it high in the air, where it was caught by Barron.
The Patriots managed to cut the Bucs' lead in half on the next possession, helped out by a third-down pass-interference call on Barber. Ridley's 29-yard run put the ball inside the 10-yard line, and two more runs by the second-year back made it 14-7.
The Bucs' defense set up another score later in the second quarter, though not with a turnover this time. Three different New England runners tried to gain a single yard after a nine-yard completion on first down at the Patriots' 41, but Bennett stopped Danny Woodhead, E.J. Wilson leveled Eric Kittani and George Johnson finished it with a tackle of Ridley on fourth-and-one to turn the ball over on downs. Tampa Bay's offense failed to move the chains but still got three points when Barth nailed a 56-yard field goal with a low line-drive of a kick.
New England got the ball two more times before halftime but Tampa Bay's defense didn't allow Brady and company to pass midfield. David's big hit on Brady on a third-and-six caused an incompletion and killed the first of those two marches, and CB Myron Lewis had good coverage on two straight incompletions on the next possession. That gave Tampa Bay last crack at the scoreboard, and the offense did just enough on a two-minute drill to set up Forbath's 51-yard field goal in the final seconds. Martin's 19-yard run and WR Preston Parker's 12-yard catch-and-run were the big plays on the drive.
The Buccaneers played one series with their defensive starters after halftime, then went to a group of reserves on the next drive, but the results were the same. With Brady still guiding the Patriots' attack on both possessions, the Bucs forced a pair of three-and-outs, with big stops by DL Wallace Gilberry and recently-signed CB Brandon McDonald.
Tampa Bay brought in QB Dan Orlovsky to run their second possession of the third quarter. Orlovsky's first pass of the game was a quick slant to WR Sammie Stroughter, who caught it on the run and gained 15 yards to New England's 43. Orlovsky's fourth-down throw from the 37 was incomplete, but Forbath came in to kick a 55-yard field goal with plenty of distance, improving the Bucs' lead to 23-7 with 4:25 left in the third quarter.
Obviously looking for a good long tune-up for the regular season, the Patriots kept their starters on the field as the third quarter drew to a close, and the veteran passer finished his night with an impressive touchdown drive against the Bucs' defensive reserves. A 24-yard completion down the sideline to TE Aaron Hernandez got the Patriots into Tampa Bay territory, and a pass-interference call on CB Leonard Johnson made it first down at the 27. Brady finished the drive by going to his favorite target, TE Rob Gronkowski, on a 16-yard TD pass down the middle.
Smith started the next drive with a nifty 22-yard kickoff return than took care of moving the Bucs the rest of the way into New England territory with runs of seven and 11 yards and catches of four and 12 yards. Another nine-yard run by Smith was called back by a holding penalty on the edge, and a delay-of-game penalty made it second-and-13 at the New England 31. It was third-and-nine when RB Mossis Madu took a delayed handoff and dashed up the middle for 19 yards, and Orlovsky put the Bucs in the end zone on the next play with an eight-yard TD pass to Stroughter.
With Ryan Mallett taking over the Patriots' offense, the visitors followed Stroughter's score with a find drive of their own. RB Jeff Demps' 29-yard run got the ball down to the Buccaneers' nine, and two plays later Mallett scrambled right and threw a three-yard touchdown pass to WR Jeremy Ebert. That closed the Bucs' lead to 30-21 with four minutes to play.
The Patriots used a timeout on the Bucs' next possession to preserve time for a two-minute drill, and Mallett led his team on a march deep into Tampa Bay territory. With just over 30 seconds left, Mallett escaped what looked like a sure sack and managed to throw a four-yard touchdown pass to WR Jesse Holley in the back of the end zone. The play was reviewed and upheld.