WR Ike Hilliard caught six passes on Sunday in New Orleans, including a fourth-quarter touchdown toss
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense took the field for their first possession of an eventual 24-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints, 36 of wide receiver Ike Hilliard's friends and family in the stands were probably disappointed to see their man standing on the sideline.
Penciled in as the starter opposite Joey Galloway for much of the offseason, Hilliard – a native of nearby Patterson, Louisiana – watched as Antonio Bryant got the nod instead. But if he was disappointed at all by the decision, it certainly didn't show.
Hilliard came on as a reserve and paced the Bucs with six receptions for 45 yards, including a two-yard score early in the fourth quarter that temporarily gave the Bucs the lead.
"It was just a matter of having a few opportunities out there based on the defense that the Saints utilized today and a lot of the play-calling from Coach Gruden," Hilliard said after the game.
The humble Hilliard said he actually felt lucky to even have his number called on the scoring play.
"I feel like I stole one on the score," Hilliard said. "We kind of rotated the receivers. One of our starters took a breather so I was fortunate to get in there and kind of steal one there. We set up for them to play a zone coverage. We got man-to-man coverage instead and [quarterback Jeff] Garcia made a check to a quick out and made a great throw. It was an easy score for us. We had another play called, but we got man-to-man and Jeff audibled to the right play and I was fortunate enough to win on the quick out."
A 12th-year veteran, Hilliard still has plenty of gas left in the tank. Five of his six grabs on the day went for first downs, and his second catch was the 500th of his career.
"It just means I've been around a little bit longer than I needed to be," Hilliard joked. "It's great to have that kind of accomplishment, but we lost the game. I'd rather win the game."
Despite the milestone grab and his lengthy NFL tenure, Hilliard still doesn't take anything for granted. While much of the discussion leading up to Sunday's game centered on Galloway's health and the team's search for another playmaking option at receiver, Hilliard just kept on working.
"I'll leave that up to the scheme that Coach Gruden has if I'm going to be involved in the game or not," Hilliard said. "It's hard enough to get in this league and it's harder than that to stay around. I've been blessed enough to make the team and if it's for me to be involved in the offense. Then whenever I get my number called I've got to make a play."
As focused as he was on making the most of his opportunity on the field, Hilliard did admit it was exciting to come home and play in front of his loved ones.
"I'm just happy to be a part of it now 12 years in," Hilliard said. "If I get a chance to make a play and Coach Gruden gets me involved, I have to make the play or somebody else is going to be in there. But with that being said, it's always fun to come home and play in front of all my guys."
As he prepared to leave the locker room and spend a few minutes with his fan club before hopping on the team plane back to Tampa, Hilliard had already put the day's loss – as well as his excellent play – behind him.
"It was just a day where we didn't make enough plays, regardless of what I did," Hilliard said. "We can look at it and get better. We lost to Seattle [in Week 1 in 2007], but it wasn't a division game. It was a little bit tougher with this loss here because they are our division rivals. We've got some ground to make up and another division game next week with our home opener. We'll look at the film and go from there and prepare for Atlanta.
"We've got to take a look at it and see what we didn't do well. I think we've got a lot of talent in here and a good mix of youth and experience. We've just got to buckle down now with a first-week loss and figure out where we can get better."