RB Kenneth Darby only touched the ball a few times Sunday night but he showed big-play potential in his cameo
One of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers primary goals this offseason was to find a playmaking option for the offseason to couple with their one true home run hitter, wide receiver Joey Galloway.
Galloway has been sidelined by a groin strain since training camp began in late July, but that hasn't stopped the search from moving forward. Halfway into the preseason schedule, a handful of candidates appear to be emerging.
Could it be Antonio Bryant? Michael Bennett? Warrick Dunn? Maurice Stovall? Even 2007 seventh-round draft pick running back Kenneth Darby flashed a few dazzling moves on consecutive touches in the win over the Patriots Sunday night.
It's still early, but the flashy plays a variety of Bucs were able to execute in the win over New England certainly have Head Coach Jon Gruden excited about the possibilities.
"I thought that our quarterbacks, both Brian [Griese] and Luke [McCown] did some good things and Michael Bennett flashed and made some plays," Gruden said. "It was also good to see Warrick Dunn, he's going to add a lot of life to our team. Again, it was an effort that I think was pretty universal by the guys that played in the first half. We were pretty pleased with them."
The Bucs found their big plays Sunday with a pleasant amount of variety. Led by Brian Griese, the offense first went on a grinding, dink-and-dunk, 17-play scoring drive to start the game, which was capped by a one-yard Earnest Graham touchdown run. The march downfield ate up nearly 10 minutes of time off the clock.
After a punt on their next possession, the Bucs put together two quicker scoring drives in the second quarter, each one roughly half as long in both time and plays as their first one.
This was due in part to a number of big gains the club was able to pick up. Over these two possessions, the Bucs got runs of eight, 12 and 23 yards and a 13-yard completion out of Bennett, a rush for 12 yards followed by a catch for another 11 from Darby, a 33-yard grab by Bryant and an 18-yard completion to Stovall.
The catch by Bryant was perhaps the play of the game. In full sprint on a crossing pattern, Bryant extended his arms to snag a pass that was a bit out in front of him, shrugged off a would-be tackler and sprinted all the way across the field before turning up the opposite sideline and being forced out of bounds.
Along with his 16-yard gain on an end around in the first quarter, the play was just a glimpse of the stunning skills the veteran receiver still possesses.
"He's a talented guy and he's going to be held to high standards because he's been blessed with great talent, rare talent," Gruden said. "He made some exceptional catches, and he made a great run on a reverse. I'm proud of him. At the same time, we expect him to deliver like that. He's been blessed with that kind of skill and Wide Receivers Coach Richard Mann and Antonio have done a great job working together."
After averaging 4.7 yards per play on their first scoring march, the next two saw the Bucs pick up 6.6 and 10.8 yards per play, respectively.
That ability to grind out tough yards as on the first drive, or grab them in chunks in the next two, could be positive signs for a Bucs offense looking to improve upon the strides it made from 2006 to last season.
"We came out ready to play, we got into a good rhythm, and a nice 17-play drive to start the game was impressive," Gruden said. "I'm proud of our football team and the way we came out in the first half, particularly with a very good drive to start the game. We converted some third downs and got a lot of people involved. I though Brian Griese was exceptional to start the game and our offensive line did some good things against a very good football team."
The splash plays were not limited to the offensive side of the ball. The Bucs were also able to make some game-changing plays on defense, picking up three turnovers as well as a defensive touchdown.
After narrowly missing a highlight-reel interception earlier in the game, linebacker Barrett Ruud forced a fumble in the second quarter which defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson promptly fell on.
In the third quarter, rookie cornerback Elbert Mack made a great read on a Kevin O'Connell pass near the sideline and got in position for the interception. The NCAA's interception leader a year ago was excited to finally get his hands on an NFL pass.
"It's a great accomplishment," Mack said after the game. "When I was getting interceptions in high school I always dreamed of getting interceptions in the NFL and I finally got my first one. It feels good."
In the defensive play of the night, on the very first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, safety Sabby Piscitelli saw an errant snap bounce right into his hands as he came on a blitz. He then dashed untouched 24 yards into the end zone for a defensive score.
"It was definitely a Christmas gift," Piscitelli said of the play. "Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin made a great call. He called a great blitz on the strong safety blitz. It was just being in the right place at the right time and making a play. It was instinct – see the ball, get the ball, and make a play. That is the biggest thing you can do. Like I said, Coach Kiffin made a great call on that blitz in that package so it worked out well."
While the defense was busy forcing some mistakes out of the Patriots, the offense continued its impressive run of mistake-free football. After a rare zero-penalty, zero-turnover performance in Miami, the Bucs again managed to take care of the football and minimize errors against New England.
The team did tally its first penalty flags of the season Sunday night, picking up three infractions for a total of 35 yards, but through two preseason games the Bucs rank fourth in the league with a plus-three turnover differential and are No. 2 in fewest penalty yards.
Many games are decided by costly turnovers and penalties, so the team's impressive play in these areas – especially during the preseason, when mistakes are to be expected as new players learn the ropes and veterans iron out some wrinkles – is extremely encouraging, Gruden said.
"We made a big deal about that and the players responded," Gruden said. "I don't know what our win-loss record is the past six or seven years when we haven't turned the ball over, but I would venture to say it's outstanding, it's exceptional.
"That's the key to winning in this league. If you don't beat yourself with turnovers and useless penalties, you have a chance to compete at a high level in pro football and if you don't, you won't. I'm proud of our team, we've emphasized it, we've enforced it and the players are getting it done on the field. It is a credit to them."
McCown, who has completed a tidy 64 percent of his passes so far this preseason, agreed that taking care of the football and limiting penalties were major goals and would continue to be so as the Bucs march on toward the regular season.
"I think that is something we can build on," McCown said. "That says a lot for being a smart team, being a team that executes. There is a lot that can be said for that but there is a lot to build on as well. We want to keep that going and look at the film and get better from it."