The Bucs' starting defense was stifling against the Jaguars, allowing just 95 yards before leaving the game at halftime
There were, in essence, two games played Saturday night in Jacksonville. The visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers may understandably feel they won the first one, but the Jaguars dominated the second one en route to the only victory that counts, a 29-18 decision in the third preseason game for both teams.
Of course, the game does not count in the standings, which means the Buccaneers can take legitimate solace in the fact that their starters controlled the action in the first half against Jacksonville's starters, taking an 11-0 lead into halftime. In particular, the Bucs' starting defense, itching for a chance to do more than just make a cameo, was at its swarming, stifling best.
Tampa Bay's D needs one more season in the top 10 of the NFL's rankings to make it 10 in a row and tie Dallas for the longest such streak in league history. If Saturday's game in Jacksonville is any indication, the '06 defense is ready to keep the tradition alive.
In its most extended stint of preseason action so far, the Bucs' starting defense was impenetrable against the Jaguars, holding Byron Leftwich and company to 95 total yards and four first downs in the first half.
With three sacks and one turnover on the Jaguars' first three drives, the Buccaneers managed to keep the ball on the Jacksonville side of 50 for every play of the first quarter. The Jags did manage to run three plays in Buccaneer territory in the second quarter but another Tampa Bay defender was on the spot every time Jacksonville tried to move the chains. Shelton Quarles, Simeon Rice, Anthony McFarland and Ellis Wyms all had sacks in the first half, and the Bucs didn't allow a single play of longer than 12 yards before the half. On Rice's sack late in the half, CBs Ronde Barber and Torrie Cox could be seen exchanging high-fives as their blanket coverage on the left side caused Leftwich to pull the ball down after his initial read.
"We were just trying to get up the field and create some penetration," said McFarland, whose 10-yard first-quarter sack drove the Jaguars back to their own four. "We are getting there. We are in in September the 10th shape yet, but we are getting there."
The Bucs' starting unit harassed Leftwich repeatedly, mostly without blitzing as the defensive line got a consistent upfield push.
"We don't want to get overzealous, but we are doing the right things," said Rice. "We are playing as a group. We are playing as a unit. We have overlaps going, playing with a lot of poise. We are playing like a veteran line. Our unit is clicking. If you see what we are doing from a unit standpoint, it's special."
Statistically, the Bucs' offense met with the same struggles, but they managed to turn favorable field position into two first-half scoring drives, including a methodical, 43-yard touchdown march on their first possession. Even with Cadillac Williams seeing his first action of the preseason, the Bucs had difficulty running the ball early, gaining just 12 rushing yards before halftime. However, QB Chris Simms was sharp, completing nine of 14 passes for 77 yards, including an 18-yard strike to WR Michael Clayton on third-and-12 to preserve that first TD drive. Simms was under almost constant pressure, however, taking three sacks in the first half. In all, Buc QBs were sacked five times on the night.
Still, the fast start was something the team had been looking to accomplish on offense after the starting offense had produced just one field goal in four possessions during the first two games.
"It was a great way to start," said Simms. "We haven't exactly started great our last two preseason games. We were excited to start that way. We need to keep striving to be consistent. We probably should have [put] at least seven more points on the board."
The second half belonged to the kids, particularly rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski. The Bucs skipped Tim Rattay in the quarterback rotation and gave the entire second half to their young phenom. Unfortunately, Gradkowski's third outing wasn't nearly as spectacular as his first two, at least until the Bucs' final drive. Jacksonville's defensive reserves picked the rookie off twice and held him to 50 yards through the first 28 minutes of the second half. Gradkowski rebounded with an impressive two-minute drill, driving the Bucs 74 yards on eight plays to score a last-second touchdown on a four-yard slant to WR Paris Warren. Gradkowski hit first-year WR Chas Gessner twice on the drive for 56 yards, including a perfectly-thrown fly down to the Jacksonville four.
That late surge allowed Gradkowski to finish the game with 10 completions in 17 attempts for 124 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Gessner was the Bucs' leading receiver with three grabs for 68 yards. The Bucs' rushing game produced only 58 yards on 22 carries, led by Earnest Graham's 27 yards on four totes.
The Bucs brought in their second-team defense to start the second half, and Jacksonville's starting offense took advantage, driving 79 yards on 11 plays for their first touchdown. Much of the damage was done on the ground, as the Jaguars ran nine times for 46 yards, capped by Leftwich's one-yard touchdown keeper. RB LaBrandon Toefield took a delayed handoff into the end zone for the two-point conversion, making it 11-8 in Tampa Bay's favor. The Jaguars' starting offense stayed out for one more possession against the Bucs' reserves and scored again, driving 68 yards on six plays to lead to WR Matt Jones' 19-yard touchdown catch.
Gradkowski's two interceptions and one fumble led to Jacksonville's last three touchdowns and the lopsided final score. That didn't erase the encouragement of the first half.
The Bucs' starting offense struggled after its opening drive but did tack on a field goal in the second quarter on a 66-yard drive. That march was the direct product of David Boston's matchup with veteran CB Rashean Mathis. Two consecutive fly patterns to Boston ended the same way, with pass-interference penalties on Mathis for a total of 62 yards, down to Jacksonville's 15. That was virtually all the Bucs were able to gain on a four-play, 66-yard field goal drive that made the score 11-0 with four minutes to play in the first half.
The Bucs' starting defense won only one of the first four plays, but that was enough to give the offense outstanding field position. RB Fred Taylor gained five, six and six yards on the first three plays of the game, but the Jaguars made the mistake of passing on the next snap. Under immediate pressure, Leftwich scrambled forward and was sandwiched by DT Chris Hovan and Quarles. Leftwich fumbled, LB Derrick Brooks recovered and an instant replay challenge by the Jaguars was denied, giving the Bucs possession at Jacksonville's 43.
RB Cadillac Williams saw his first action of the preseason and got the initial drive started with a 10-yard reception. Williams' also turned in a five-yard run down to the two to set up FB Mike Alstott for a two-yard touchdown dive, which was facilitated by FB Rick Razzano's explosive lead block.
The Bucs put an exclamation point on the early score with a rare dip into the trick-play bag, faking the extra point attempt and going for two. Holder Josh Bidwell took the snap and rolled right, looking for DE Dewayne White. The Jaguars actually defended the play very well and S Donovin Darius was in position to intercept Bidwell's desperation pass, but White somehow managed to swipe the ball away from Darius to complete the two-point play and give the visitors an 8-0 lead.
McFarland's second-down sack – he simply shot through the guard-tackle gap and sacked Leftwich before the Jags QB could even set up – killed Jacksonville's second drive and led to a second Buc possession starting in enemy territory. The Bucs actually backed up from there, thanks to a Paul Spicer sack, but punted the ball back to Jacksonville's nine. The Bucs' defense continued to stifle Jacksonville, pushing them back to the four on DT Ellis Wyms' third-down sack.
The Bucs took the ensuing possession down to the Jags' nine but came away empty thanks to two sacks and a 45-yard field goal try by Matt Bryant that just slipped to the outside of the right upright. Joey Galloway, also playing for the first time this August, caught two passes for 28 yards to get the Bucs down to the nine, but two sacks backed Tampa Bay out to long field-goal range.
Galloway finished with those two catches for 28 yards, while Williams had three yards on four carries and nine yards on two receptions.
The Bucs are now 1-2 in the 2006 preseason. They will play the preseason finale Thursday night in Houston.
Game Notes: Saturday's contest was the rubber game for the Jags and Bucs, who have played each other for five straight preseasons, splitting the first four. The Bucs won the first two contests, in 2002 and 2003, and the Jags came back with wins in '04 and '05. … The Buccaneers' offense started the game in a three-receiver set, with WR Ike Hilliard replacing FB Mike Alstott. … Second-year WR Paris Warren got an extended look on punt return in Saturday's game. After WR Mark Jones fielded Jacksonville's first kick, Warren was deep for four in a row, returning three punts for 16. … RB Derek Watson got his first action of the preseason after overcoming a sprained ankle. Coming in early in the fourth quarter, Watson ran three times for four yards. … The 29 points scored by Jacksonville was the most allowed by the Buccaneers in a preseason game since a 40-10 loss to Washington on August 24, 2002. …Buccaneer players will get the day off on Sunday and will return to practice on Monday afternoon, from 2:15-4:15 p.m. ET. The Bucs must prepare quickly for the preseason finale on Thursday in Houston.
Inactives: Technically, there are no inactives in preseason games. However, prior to the game, both teams identified players who would definitely not participate in the contest. For the Buccaneers, those players included CB Brian Kelly, DT Kevin Lewis and T Torrin Tucker. The Jaguars ruled out the following eight players: DT Marcus Stroud, S Gerald Sensabaugh, G Dan Connolly, T Mike Williams, DE Elton Patterson, TE Brian Jones, TE Marcedes Lewis and DT Tony Williams.
Injuries: CB Juran Bolden sustained a bruised thigh in the second quarter and did not return.
For the Jaguars, LB Mike Peterson suffered a sprained right knee in the first quarter and did not return. RB Greg Jones sustained a sprained left knee in the third quarter and also did not return.