Terrific red zone defense, including an interception and 80-yard return by LB Barrett Ruud, allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to take a 10-6 lead over the Jacksonville Jaguars into halftime on Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium.
With both teams playing their starters throughout the half, as is the norm in the third week of the preseason, the Buccaneers' defense turned back three possible Jaguar scoring drives, forcing two field goals and setting up the game's only first-half touchdown on Ruud's big play. QB Josh Johnson threw a two-yard touchdown pass to FB Earnest Graham just after the two-minute warning, completing a 19-yard drive.
Starting in place of QB Josh Freeman, who will miss the second half of the preseason with a fracture to the tip of his right thumb, Johnson completed six of eight passes for 83 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. For the second straight week, Johnson was coolly efficient, compiling a passer rating of 147.4, and was also able to make plays with his legs. His 18-yard scramble in the first quarter actually made Johnson the Bucs' leading rusher in the first half.
Tampa Bay's running game struggled, gaining just 25 yards, but Johnson set the tone early in the passing game, hitting rookie WR Mike Williams for a 53-yard gain on the Buccaneers' first play from scrimmage. Johnson spread his six completions out to six different players.
The Bucs' linebackers made a series of big plays. Ruud broke up another pass in the end zone and added two solo tackles. Quincy Black recorded a team-high seven stops, including two for losses. Geno Hayes contributed three tackles and a key pass breakup at the goal line. The front line didn't sack Garrard but provided consistent pressure, with Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Tim Crowder and Kyle Moore combining for six quarterback hits.
The Bucs won the toss but deferred to the second half, so the Jaguars chose to receive. Unfortunately, return man Scotty McGee found his way around the left edge and got all the way to the 50. QB David Garrard looked deep downfield on the first play from scrimmage, then settled for a 26-yard pass to TE Marcedes Lewis. Black invaded the backfield on the next play to drop RB Rashad Jennings for a loss of one, which was followed by a Jacksonville false start. Now facing second-and-16 back at the Bucs' 30, Garrard threw to Lewis again but Hayes caught him from behind after a gain of seven. Hayes stopped Jennings on a short pass on third down as well, forcing the Jaguars to settle for Josh Scobee's 35-yard field goal try. Scobee nailed it to give Jacksonville the game's first lead.
The Bucs narrowly avoided disaster on the ensuing kickoff when Clifton Smith fumbled at the 12 but the ball was eventually went out of bounds at the 12. Good thing, too, because the very next play was Williams' long reception. CB Derek Cox fell down on the play as Williams got past him off the line, and Johnson's pass hit the Buc receiver in stride down the sideline. He was eventually dragged down at the Jacksonville 35. The Bucs couldn't overcome a false start on the next play, though, and settled for Barth's 51-yard field goal.
The Bucs were much tougher on McGee on their second kickoff, with LB Dekoda Watson dropping him at the 17. Sean Jones leveled WR Tiquan Underwood two plays later on a catch over the middle but Underwood held on for a first down at the 29. Garrard tried to hit Mike Thomas very deep over the middle on the next play but it was well overthrown. A block in the back downfield erased much of 20-yard catch by Jennings against a big Bucs blitz, and a short Thomas catch was negated on the next play by another Jacksonville false start. Thus, it was third-and-seven at the 32 when Garrard scrambled away from trouble and passed the sticks, only to have that play negated by holding. On third-and-17, quick pressure up the middle from rookie DTs McCoy and Price force a desperation dumpoff to Jennings and a punt.
The Bucs quickly faced a third-and-nine at their own 24 but converted it when Johnson escaped a collapsing pocket and accelerated quickly for a gain of 18. Three plays later, it was another third down, with the Bucs needing five from the 47, and Reggie Brown's dig over the middle failed when CB Rashean Mathis broke it up.
Brent Bowden's 25-yard punt went out of bounds at the Jacksonville 28. Jennings was forced wide on first down by a penetrating McCoy and ended up losing a yard. McCoy also shot through to chase Garrard on second down but the QB got the pass off and Jennings picked up 10 yards as the first quarter came to an end.
The lightning-prompted delay followed, with the Jaguars facing a third-and-one when play resumed. The Jags ran a nifty option play to Jennings to pick up 12 yards but the play came back due to holding. Pressure from McCoy and Ronde Barber on the next play forced Garrard to heave one up over the middle but Sims-Walker managed to snatch it off the turf for a gain of 18 to the Jags' 47. Head Coach Raheem Morris challenged the play but it was upheld. Two runs by Jennings picked up 11 yards, pushing the ball into Buccaneers territory. Yet another McCoy pressure forced an overthrow on first down and Barber's open-field tackle of Thomas made it third-and-nine. C Brad Meester's shotgun snap on third down flew over Garrard's head, and although the Jaguar passer recovered the ball, he was eventually chased out of bounds by McCoy at the original line of scrimmage.
A punt into the end zone and another Jacksonville penalty gave the Bucs possession at their own 25 but they failed to move the chains this time. Two short Williams runs made it third-and-seven, and a short pass over the middle to Williams came up just inches short. The Bucs interfered with McGee on the resulting punt return, drawing a penalty that put the ball exactly on the midfield stripe.
A quick slant to Thomas two plays later picked up 10 yards and a first down at the Bucs' 35. A collection of short passes and strong runs by Montell Owens got the Jaguars down to the 10, where they gained a first down with five minutes to play in the half. Garrard zipped a slant to WR Jarrett Dillard between several Buc defenders for a nine-yard gain down to the one, but Hayes stopped Owens for no gain on second down.
That's when Ruud struck with the biggest defensive play of the first half. Garrard faked a handoff to Owens and tried to hit FB Greg Jones at the goal line. Ruud read the play perfectly, cut in front of Jones on a dead run and intercepted the pass. He followed a Buc convoy downfield for a return of 80 yards to the Jaguar 19.
Jerramy Stevens made a dazzling sliding catch on the next play for a gain of 12 down to the Jaguars' seven. WR Reggie Brown let a potential touchdown pass slip through his fingers but the Jaguars were flagged for defensive holding and the Bucs got a first down at the three. After Graham jumped over the pile for a gain of one, the two-minute warning halted the action. When action resumed, Johnson executed a play-action fake and threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Graham, who had run an out towards the right pylon. The Bucs thus took a 10-3 lead with 1:51 left in the half.
Tampa Bay's defense guarded against the big play but Garrard completed a series of underneath throws to get the ball into Buccaneer territory. A Brock Bolen eight-yard catch earned a first down at the Bucs' 26 with 29 seconds left in the half. Hayes broke up a pass at the goal line intended for TE Zach Miller on the next play, nearly coming away with the interception. Two plays later, Ruud nearly got his second interception, this one in the end zone, and the Jaguars had to settle for Scobee's 43-yard field goal.