LB Derrick Brooks and the Bucs' defense was stingy, but the offense couldn't mount any sustained scoring drives
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' two-game winning streak came to an end Sunday, swept away in the blustery Meadowlands by a stingy New York Giants team intent on extending its own four-game run.
In a game dominated by defense and field-position concerns, the Giants built a 14-3 halftime lead and then coasted to a 17-3 win to improve to 5-2. The Buccaneers dropped to 2-5, including 0-3 on the road.
The Giants played that field position game very effectively in the first half, using the wind and a series of five straight three-and-outs by the Buccaneers' offense to spend almost the entire 30 minutes in Tampa Bay territory. The result was two short touchdown drives, one after a Bruce Gradkowski fumble on an attempted pitch to RB Cadillac Williams. Tampa Bay's offense failed to answer with any sustained success, gaining just 174 total yards on the afternoon. Dealing with the east-west wind that gusted between 25 and 40 miles per hour, Gradkowski was able to complete just 20 of 48 passes for 139 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. Also stacking the odds against the rookie passer were at least three dropped passes and a running game that gained only 40 yards.
Tampa Bay's defense did perform admirably against the Giants' second-ranked offense holding Eli Manning and company to 251 yards, almost 150 below its per-game average coming into the afternoon. Manning completed just 16 of 31 passe for 154 yards and one touchdown and RB Tiki Barber, the league's leading rusher, gained just 68 yards on 26 totes, averaging 2.6 per run. WR Plaxico Burress was the game's most effective offensive player, catching seven passe sfor 86 yards and a touchdown. His acrobatic end-zone grab in the first quarter gave the Giants a 7-0 lead.
After beating Philadelphia a week early essentially because of two defensive touchdowns, the Bucs found themselves on the wrong side of the turnover battle in New York. In addition to Gradkowski's fumble, the Bucs lost another scoring chance on Michael Clayton's third-quarter fumble.
Meanwhile, with the Giants' offense, playing very conservatively when facing into the wind, was not forced into a single giveaway, meaning the Bucs' started all but one of their 14 drives on their own side of the field. Tampa Bay's defense had a couple chances to take the ball away but couldn't get the right bounce, including one deflected pass that hit three different Bucs before falling incomplete.
After Burress' touchdown and the one-yard Brandon Jacobs scoring run that followed Gradkowski's fumble in Buccaneer territory, Gradkowski mounted the Bucs' only scoring drive, a 13-play, 34-yard field goal march just before halftime. Matt Bryant, last week's 62-yard hero and a former Giant, easily made a 43-yarder on his one-time home field. The Giants had the only score of the second half, a 54-yard field goal drive that culminated in Jay Feely's 31-yard kick and a two-touchdown lead with four minutes to play.
After another Buccaneer punt, Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back for the offense one more time. The Bucs moved down to the Giants' 21 but Gradkowski was forced into four straight incompletions to end the game. The Bucs were led on defense by Shelton Quarles (13 tackles), Ronde Barber (10 tackles and Ellis Wyms (five tackles, one sack). DE Simeon Rice added a sack and forced a fumble that the Giants were able to recover in the second quarter.
The Bucs won the toss and got the ball to start the game but that quickly became an advantage for the home team. Going against the wind, the Bucs started out conservatively with a run and two screen passes and were able to gain only three yards. Josh Bidwell's punt into that gale carried just 37 yards and the Giants' first drive started at their own 45.
Manning had the wind at his back and quickly completed an 11-yard pass to WR Plaxico Burress on third-and-eight. However, the Bucs' defense held at its own 33 and the Giants eschewed a 51-yard field goal attempt, instead punting the ball down to the five-yard line. The same offensive approach gained three yards again, forcing Bidwell to kick out of his own end zone, and the Pro Bowl punter came up with the game's first outstanding play. Somehow Bidwell drove the ball 57 yards through the wind, forcing a circus catch by a surprised Chad Morton, who was able to get back only to the Giants' 47.
That was still prime field position, however, and this time the Giants used it to start the scoring. Manning managed to escape a sure sack on a Buccaneer blitz, completing an eight-yard pass to FB Jim Finn. That keyed a 53-yard touchdown drive that ended on Burress' acrobatic, one-handed catch over CB Ronde Barber. Barber didn't bite on Manning's pump fake to start the play and had good position on the pass, but Burress used his seven-inch height advantage to simply reach over the Buccaneer cornerback for the score. The Giants thus took a 7-0 lead with 3:27 left in the opening quarter.
Another three-and-out for the Bucs allowed the Giants to maintain their wind and field-position advantages for another drive, starting just inside Buccaneer territory as Bidwell's next punt fluttered just 22 yards. However, the Bucs' defense forced a three-and-out of its own and WR Ike Hilliard's gritty 13-yard run got the visitors out across their own 20.
Two runs by Williams gained only three yards but at least ran out the clock on the first quarter, allowing Gradkowski to try the ensuing third-and-seven with the wind. Unfortunately, that didn't matter much as Gradkowski was sacked by rookie DE Mathias Kiwanuka, New York's fill-in for injured star Osi Umenyiora.
The Giants' offense fared no better against the wind, thanks in part to DE Simeon Rice's pass break-up on third down, but veteran punter Jeff Feagles nailed another killer punt, this one hitting the one-yard line on the fly before curling back to the four. When the Bucs failed for the fifth straight time to gain a first down on offense, the resulting punt gave the home team possession at the Bucs' 41. The Giants ended up going for it on fourth-and-nine from the Bucs' 28 and LB Shelton Quarles broke up a short pass to TE Jeremy Shockey to end the drive.
That gave the Bucs their best starting field position of the first half, but they gave the ball right back on the next play. Gradkowski pitched to Williams for a sweep right but the ball bounced off Williams hands for a fumble that DT Fred Robbins recovered at the line of scrimmage. Manning found Burress on a pump-and-go that got the ball down to the three and jumbo back Brandon Jacobs leaped over Derrick Brooks from the one to score the Giants second touchdown of the game with nine minutes to play in the half.
Jay Feely's ensuing kickoff dribbled down to the Bucs' 40 where S Blue Adams fell on it. A 14-yard pass to Williams gave Tampa Bay its initial first down of the game and put the ball into Giants territory for the first time, but the offense missed a golden opportunity when Joey Galloway couldn't hold on to a deep ball at the Giants' 15. Galloway had another chance behind the defense on third down but couldn't quite hang on to a pass a bit in front of him.
The Bucs defense pinned the Giants back on the next drive thanks to Rice's sack and forced fumble of Manning. Unfortunately, the ball rolled back under Manning for the recovery and the Giants were able to punt away to the Bucs' 41. A holding call put the Bucs in an early hole, but the drive was preserved when the Giants committed a neutral-zone infraction on a fourth-and-five punt attempt, resulting in a first down. Galloway made a fine catch downfield to the Giants' 24 two plays later but the play was erased by a pass-interference call as TE Anthony Becht ran into a linebacker on his crossing route. Galloway got another chance on third-and-seven and cradled a quick slant pass for nine yards.
Gradkowski then nearly hit Clayton in the end zone just after the two-minute warning but the receiver couldn't get both feet inbounds. The Bucs had to settle for Matt Bryant's 43-yard field goal attempt, and the former Giant kicker easily handled the swirling winds to put the Bucs on the board with a minute left in the half.
The Bucs return home next weekend to face the New Orleans Saints, who lost to Baltimore, 35-22, on Sunday but is still sporting a 5-2 record.
Game Notes: Sunday's game marked the 183rd of Derrick Brooks' career, tying him with tackle Paul Gruber for the most in Buccaneers history. Brooks has started 180 of those 183 games, leaving him just three shy of Gruber's mark in that category. Brooks also has an active streak of 183 straight games played, as he has yet to miss a contest since being drafted in 1995. …The Bucs dropped to 6-10 all-time against the Giants but, strangely, they've actually outscored New York in the series. After Sunday's 17-3 final, the Bucs hold the all-time series scoring edge, 252-237). … The Bucs are now 1-12 all-time in the Meadowlands, counting games against both the Giants and Jets. Tampa Bay's only win in the windy venue came in 1997, a 20-8 decision on November 30. … DE Simeon Rice's sack of QB Eli Manning in the second quarter was the 121st of his career. He forced a fumble on the play, too, the 37th time he's done that. … DT Ellis Wyms sacked QB Eli Manning in the third quarter, giving Wyms four sacks in the last three games, including one in each of his two starts since the trade of Anthony McFarland.
Inactives: Each team was required to declare eight players inactive 90 minutes before the game. The Bucs' eight inactives were QB Chris Simms, CB Alan Zemaitis, FB Jerald Sowell, T Donald Penn, G Jeb Terry, WR Maurice Stovall, WR Mark Jones and DT/DE Julian Jenkins. Simms, Stovall and Jones were out due to injuries.
The Giants' eight inactive players were CB Sam Madison, CB Frank Walker, DE Osi Umenyiora, OL Na'Shan Goddard, T Guy Whimper, WR Sinorice Moss, DE Justin Tuck and designated third quarterback Tim Hasselbeck. Madison, Walker, Umenyiora, Moss and Tuck were out due to injuries.
Injuries: Bucs LB Shelton Quarles suffered a left ankle injury in the third quarter but was able to return to the game.
For New York, LB Brandon Short suffered a quad injury in the second quarter and did not return.