QB Bruce Gradkowksi has directed all three of the Bucs' touchdown drives this preseason
Bruce Gradkowski received a huge ovation Saturday night in Raymond James Stadium, and that was before he took his first snap in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' preseason game against the Miami Dolphins.
On one hand, that's not terribly surprising. Fans always seem to have a soft spot for backup quarterbacks, particularly young ones who have shown signs of life in small doses. Who knows why? Perhaps it's a glimpse into one possible future for the team. It's nice when that glimpse is encouraging.
There might have been a bit more to it than the usual backup adulation this time, however. Sure, Buc fans were giving Gradkowski a hand for his star turn in the preseason opener eight days earlier, when he dominated the second half and led two touchdown drives in a 16-3 win over the New York Jets. But it also felt as if Gradkowski had already won over the home crowd, in record time. Maybe the fans were just trying to get in on the ground floor of what's shaping up to be the team's feel-good story.
Or maybe Gradkowski just inspires confidence.
Head Coach Jon Gruden found a good way to put that thought into words on Sunday, one day after Gradkowski's second outstanding game in as many chances: "He has a charisma about him that you just know something good is going to happen when he is behind the center."
It did on Saturday. Again.
After going 11-for-13 for 104 yards and two touchdowns against the Jets, Gradkowski was 11-for-14 for 193 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Dolphins. It easily could have been two more scores, as the team continued its penchant of moving down the field every time the rookie is in the game.
The Bucs were down by 10 when Gradkowski got the call with nine minutes left in the third quarter on Saturday. The heady young passer scrambled for four yards on his first play, threw a sharp, seven-yard pass to tight end Tim Massaquoi on third-and-six and then hit wide receiver Maurice Stovall on a brilliant seam pass for 36 yards, down to Miami's 19. Unfortunately, fullback Carey Davis fumbled on the next play.
"What he did last night is not typical for any rookie at all," said Gruden. "There are some plays that he's made now in the last couple of games that are rare and very, very good. His mobility is obviously a force; it's a factor for him. It allows him to create plays. He has a tremendous poise about him and command."
Gradkowski's next two drives led to punts, a first for him after three successful marches in the opener against the Jets. He then directed a five-play, 71-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter, the big strike coming on a 48-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Edell Shepherd. The play call was perfect and Shepherd's execution was so good that the receiver was an easy target, at least five yards behind the last line of defense. Gradkowski got it to him; Shepherd had to slow up for a second but still had enough cushion to get into the end zone.
"Edell was streaking through there," said Gradkowski. "It was a great call at the time for what the Dolphins were doing and with his speed down the pipe like that, he made a great play. And I just threw it out there. I said, 'Hey, let me just put air on it, let him make a play' and he made a great play."
Gradkowski got the ball back at the Bucs' 10 with four minutes to play and promptly moved the Bucs well into Miami territory. He found Shepherd for two more big-gainers, a 17-yarder and a 28-yarder. The second completion, like the one to Stovall a bit earlier, was a precision strike between several defenders, a very tough throw.
"I'm just really impressed with his progress," said Gruden. "This guy is working his tail off. He's put our team up and down the field whenever he's been behind the center. He's done it a lot of different ways. So we have a young quarterback that we're very excited about."
Of course, the Bucs are also quite excited about their starter, Chris Simms, who is not being challenged. Gradkowski's fine start speaks more to his own future than to the Bucs' hopes this year or next. Still, Gruden says that the sixth-rounder out of Toledo is "not a typical rookie."
Buc fans seem to agree.
Stacked at 'Backer
Are the Buccaneers deep at linebacker?
Well, they just played an entire game with two Pro Bowl starters on the sideline and still got outstanding production out of the position. So, yeah, the Bucs are deep at linebacker.
Tampa Bay's coaching staff chose to rest weakside starter Derrick Brooks and middle man Shelton Quarles against Miami, elevating Jamie Winborn and Barrett Ruud, respectively, into the starting 11. Not only was that a rousing success, but the Bucs' defense didn't suffer even when those two were replaced by the next wave of linebackers.
In all, the Bucs allowed only 260 yards of offense against Miami. Through two games, during which Brooks has yet to make even a single tackle, the Bucs have allowed 445 total yards of offense. The play of that deep linebacking corps has played a big part in that stinginess.
"[Antoine] Cash is playing well for us, Wes Mallard is a good player," said Gruden, ticking off several players who were prominent in the second half. "We all know Barrett Ruud, and Marquis Cooper, who got a little shoulder [injury] on the first play of the game, the opening kickoff, is a very talented player. We do still have guys named Brooks and Quarles walking around here. And Ryan Nece is really a good football player. So we've got seven or eight – I think eight – talented linebackers, and we do consider it a strength."
Ruud and Winborn have been particularly impressive. Through two games, that pair has combined for 19 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one pass defensed.
Shuffling the Line
Coming off a training camp marked by outstanding competition along the offensive line, the Bucs are doing their best to allow those battles to continue into the preseason games. That means giving a variety of players exposure to the early snaps in each ballgame.
Most notably on Saturday, it meant a starting spot at center for fourth-year lineman Sean Mahan. Mahan started all 16 games at right guard in 2005 but has spent most of this summer in competition for the starting center job with established veteran John Wade. Mahan started the last eight games of the 2004 season at center after Wade went down with a knee injury.
Gruden felt it was only fair to give Mahan some first-team exposure after Wade got the start the previous week against the Jets.
"It was the right thing to do because he is in a competitive situation with [John] Wade," said Gruden, adding that the starter for the third game has not yet been decided. "We'll make that determination here in the next couple of days."
Rookie tackle Jeremy Trueblood got some early work on Saturday, too, though he didn't start. Kenyatta Walker started at right tackle but Trueblood was called on before Miami's first-team defense was done for the night. Gruden said he wanted to get the rookie some team against the Dolphins' premier rushers, including Jason Taylor.
Rookie first-rounder Davin Joseph started at right guard for the second straight week and that appears to be the beginning of a lasting situation. Gruden had some early thoughts as to which five men would start against Jacksonville next Saturday, but had yet to finalize the front line.
"It will be [Anthony] Davis and [Dan] Buenning on the left side," said Gruden. "We started Sean Mahan at center [Saturday] night. Davin Joseph will start at right guard and provided Kenyatta is healthy and has a good week of practice, he'll start again at right tackle. We're getting a lot of guys in the rotation and in the mix. There is still some competition there. We'll try to settle on the starting five here in the next 24 hours."