Rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski directed the game's only two touchdown drives, a pair of impressive 80-yard marches
With the kings, queens and knights off the table in a hurry on Friday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' preseason opener against the New York Jets turned into a battle of the "rooks."
As in rookies.
Tampa Bay's 16-3 victory was fought largely between young roster hopefuls from both sidelines, with the starting lineups making only brief cameos. Buccaneers rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski proved to be the difference, directing an impressive 80-yard touchdown drive to open the third quarter and break a 3-3 halftime tie.
It was Gradkowski's first live action as a professional, and he completed four of five passes for 36 yards on the drive, including an 11-yard touchdown strike to second-year WR Paris Warren. Remarkably, he took his next possession another 80 yards for a second touchdown, finishing that march with a two-yard TD pass to fellow '06 draftee WR Maurice Stovall.
Of course, as impressive as Gradkowski was in his debut – he completed 11 of 13 passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 139.6 – his best-case scenario for the start of the season is probably as the second-string quarterback. It might be more notable in the long run, then, that the Buccaneers started the game with first-round pick Davin Joseph and second-round pick Jeremy Trueblood next to each other on the offensive line, at right guard and right tackle, respectively. Trueblood replaced the injured Kenyatta Walker but Joseph's start was simply a coach's decision. The pair impressed in their first action.
"Hou an you not be [impressed]?" said Gruden. "They came off the ball. We had six or seven successive runs for positive yards."
The Jets, who similarly focused on their O-line in the offseason, also started two rookies up front, with third-overall pick D'Brickashaw Ferguson opening at left tackle and fellow first-rounder Nick Mangold taking over at center.
Not surprisingly, both starting offenses were a few weeks removed from regular-season form, but the Bucs still had to be pleased with the debuts of Joseph and Trueblood. The two new linemen stayed in the game for the Bucs' second possession, led by QB Tim Rattay, and helped the team drive 73 yards on 15 plays, primarily on the ground. The resulting 25-yard field goal by Matt Bryant produced the game's first points, though the Jets knotted the score on the final play of the half on Mike Nugent's 20-yard field goal.
Other young players who should enjoy the Bucs' next film session included rookie CB Alan Zemaitis, who broke up a potential touchdown pass just before halftime, and S Kalvin Pearson, who blitzed and forced a fumble by starting QB Chad Pennington early in the second quarter, thwarting a potential touchdown drive. Pearson started for the injured Will Allen at free safety.
Stovall only touched the ball three times but he made the most of those opportunities. Shortly before his touchdown, on which he used his 6-5 frame to easily out-leap CB Rayshun Reed on a simple fade pattern, Stovall turned a very short pass into a 12-yard gain by knocking one tackler to the ground with a swipe of his arm. Later, on the final drive that drained the last few minutes off the clock, Stovall held on to a seven-yard slant on third-and-six despite a hard hit from CB Omowale Dada.
The most surprising contributor for the Bucs was fullback Carey Davis. The 225-pound bruiser has zero career carries in the NFL but he did carry the ball extensively at the University of Illinois. The Bucs made him their primary tailback for much of the second half and Davis blasted for 67 yards on 14 carries and 12 yards on two receptions. With RB Earnest Graham carrying much of the load in the first half and producing 69 yards on 17 totes, the Bucs finished the game with a 167-44 edge in rushing yards.
"Overall, as a team, I thought we did a good job running the ball for the first preseason game," said RB Michael Pittman, who started and had 14 yards on six carries, plus a pair of discouraging fumbles. "But things can always get better. Like I said, I need to hold on to the football. I was just pressing and a little nervous. That's what you get the first preseason game. But as a team I think we are doing well right now."
Overall, the Bucs gained 305 yards to the Jets' 185. Their rushing success plus a complete absence of sacks added up to a strong debut for Tampa Bay's young and developing offensive line.
The Bucs' defense, which allowed only 41 yards and two first downs in the second half, was an impressive group effort that spoke to strong depth on that side of the ball. Jamie Winborn, the free agent pickup from Jacksonville, turned in four solo tackles, including one for a loss. CB Juran Bolden, starting at left tackle in Brian Kelly's place, led the team with six tackles. LB Barrett Ruud recovered the fumble forced by Pearson and turned in three additional tackles. First-year S Steve Cargile combined three tackles with a sack and a pass-defensed, the latter two stats coming on consecutive plays in the third quarter to kill a Jets drive that had reached midfield.
Of course, evaluating success in an early preseason game always goes beyond glancing at the scoreboard. For one thing, the two teams' starting lineups generally play only a series each, as was the case Friday night. It's instructive to note the gains and losses during those series…but only to a point. A defense that bends a bit early, for instance, won't necessarily break.
The Jets' offense had the ball first and seemed determined to advance the ball down the field with short passes. The strategy worked to the Bucs' 36 before Tampa Bay's defense forced three straight incompletions and a punt.
Things were a little rougher for the Bucs' starting offense, which started at its own 20 after a punt into the end zone but moved backwards due to a false start penalty on WR Michael Clayton and a personal foul facemask call on Joseph. However, when the Bucs sent Clayton a quick slant on second-and-21, veteran CB Ray Mickens committed pass interference and the Bucs had a new first down…five yards behind where they started the drive.
The second chance allowed the Bucs to get the ball out to their own 31, but that was the extent of the drive, and the first-team's involvement in the game, on both sides of the ball. Tampa Bay's second-team defense came in for the ensuing drive, even though the Jets stuck with their starting offense. Converting five of their first six third downs, the Jets managed to march methodically into Bucs' territory, eating up most of the first quarter clock in the process. Pearson thwarted the scoring attempt with his well-timed blitz forcing a fumble that second-year LB Barrett Ruud recovered and returned to the Bucs' 20.
"I liked the fact that we came off the field and didn't give up any points," said DE Simeon Rice. "I liked our rush, it really came on. I thought we played fast, that always aids a defense. What we have to work on is our coverage. It wasn't real sharp like it should be. I think it will all come together. I know we have the pieces in place. It's just the first time out, but I'm happy we didn't give up any points. That's really the main thing."
The game was thus still scoreless early in the second quarter, but the downside of the Jets' clock domination in the early going was that Bucs second-stringer Tim Rattay didn't get a hold of the offense until only 13 minutes were left in the first half. Rattay made the most of his opening drive, however, marching the Bucs 73 yards on 15 plays to set up Matt Bryant's 25-yard field goal. The Jets answered just before halftime with a 46-yard drive that ended in Mike Nugent's 20-yard kick. The Bucs' goal-line stand on first down from the four was keyed by Zemaitis' breakup of a fade intended for WR Jerricho Cotchery.
Game Notes: CB Juran Bolden drew the start at left cornerback due to the absence of Brian Kelly. Kelly was excused from the game due to a family matter. … One of the NFL's newest rules got an early test when RB Michael Pittman fumbled at the Bucs' 42. The play was originally ruled down-by-contact on the field, but that determination is now open to replay review. The Jets threw the red flag for good reason – it was clearly a fumble. However, the new rule also requires that an immediate and obvious recovery is made by the defense for the ball to change hands. Pittman fumbled into a mass of people and the referee couldn't determine who got his hands on it first. … First-year K Xavier Beitia handled the Bucs' second kickoff of the game, after Matt Bryant's 25-yard field goal in the second quarter. He later got two extra point attempts, making one of them. Beitia played his high school football at Jesuit High School in Tampa, about a mile up the road from Raymond James Stadium. … Jets rookie Brad Smith, a highly-productive quarterback at the University of Missouri, is being converted to receiver by his new NFL team. Smith converted a third down with a short catch in the third quarter and finished with three catches for 13 yards. … The Jets avoided announcing a starting lineup for Friday's game, right up to game time. They arranged their depth chart in alphabetical order and announced no changes prior to the kickoff. Among the more notable starting decisions was Andre Dyson at cornerback and Derrick Strait at free safety.
Inactives: Technically, there are no inactive players for preseason games. There were a handful of players who didn't participate in the game, however, including RB Cadillac Williams, CB Brian Kelly, S Will Allen, G/C Daniel Martz, T Kenyatta Walker, WR Joey Galloway and DE Charles Bennett.
Injuries: The only injury reported during the game was a second-quarter ankle ailment sustained by CB Torrie Cox. He did not return to action.