The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, 25-0 on Friday night at Arrowhead Stadium, but the final score was almost incidental.
The thrill of a preseason-opening victory will probably have faded by Saturday afternoon, but Buccaneers coaches are going to have a marvelous day reviewing the game tape. Considering the list of Tampa Bay players who had standout nights – a veritable primer on the young men the team is counting on the most this season – one could have hardly asked for a more promising start to the 2011 season.
The stars came in several varieties, from returning linchpins (Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount) to key draft picks (Adrian Clayborn, Mason Foster) to that one perhaps underappreciated foray the Bucs made into outside free agency (Michael Koenen).
Tampa Bay jumped on top of the Chiefs early, scoring a touchdown four minutes in after Foster's fumble recovery, and never let the home team off the mat. The final statistics were impressively lopsided – the Bucs gained 353 yards to the Chiefs' 137; outrushed the home team 139 to 86; out-passed them 214 to 51; had both of the game's turnovers; controlled the clock for just under 40 minutes; racked up 18 first downs to Kansas City's six; and got to Chiefs passers for a whopping six sacks.
The Buccaneers and Chiefs came into the game with similar storylines. Two of the league's youngest teams, the Bucs and Chiefs each surprised the NFL in 2010 with rapid turnarounds, compiling identical 10-6 records. Tampa Bay's swing from 3-13 in 2009 represented the largest single-season win improvement in franchise history, as did Kansas City's improvement from 4-12 in '09. The unusual 2011 offseason, with no team activities until two weeks ago due to the labor negotiations, left some wondering whether young teams like the Buccaneers and Chiefs could sustain their momentum from 2010. The first signs were excellent for Tampa Bay.
"It was good, obviously, for everyone to get that feeling of playing in a game," said the team's elder statesmen, CB Ronde Barber. "Usually you get a good offseason to get yourself familiar with it, but you don't really feel live bullets until the game. This [was] our first opportunity at it and I think we [were] doing all right."
And, to be certain, one preseason game will do little to take away from Kansas City's confidence in 2011, as such contests are often more about evaluation of the second and third levels of the depth chart than any game-ending statistics. Still, the Buccaneers certainly feel good about themselves after controlling the early action between first-stringers and dominating even more as the benches were cleared.
"You know, there are a lot of things to improve on, but there are also a lot of things that are really good," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We came out in our first shot out here, and the guys [were] playing really hard, fast and consistent. You have to love that."
Clayborn and Foster were both fast and disruptive. Statistically, the two rookies combined for just three tackles and a fumble recovery, but both made splash plays and looked particularly strong against the run. Foster showed off his closing speed on a critical third-down scramble by QB Tyler Palko late in the first quarter, stopping Palko shy of a first down. Clayborn controlled the right edge for the defensive line and had a big stop at the Chiefs' three-yard line two plays before Michael Bennett's sack of Palko for a safety in the second quarter.
"I thought I did well," said Foster, who started at middle linebacker. "I flew around and hustled and made a couple plays. I'm excited; it's a great start."
Other rookies who had fine moments in their debuts were seventh-rounders Anthony Gaitor and Daniel Hardy. Gaitor, a cornerback out of Florida International, recorded a sack and a key third-down pass defense and Hardy caught two passes for 37 yards. Briscoe is no longer a rookie but he played in just two games last year and at 21 years old remains one of the team's youngest players. He led all players with four receptions for 60 yards and was a favorite target of both Freeman and the Bucs' second quarterback into the game, Josh Johnson.
"He did a great job as a part of our team last year, and had a chance to be a part of our season program last year," said Morris of Briscoe, who played his college ball at the University of Kansas and had plenty of friends in the stands.. "He kind of knows what's going on and now he's fitting himself into the role."
Freeman picked up right where he left off in his masterful sophomore season and was in complete control during his four drives. He completed nine of 13 passes for 73 yards, didn't come close to committing a turnover and led three scoring drives in his four possessions in the game. Johnson came on in the second quarter and played into the second half, completing seven of 12 passes for 108 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 116.0 passer rating. He also ran five times for a team-high 57 yards. Rudy Carpenter eventually relieved Johnson and the Bucs' three quarterbacks combined for a passer rating of 97.6 on the night.
One reason for that was the outstanding protection they received throughout the evening, especially from the first-team offensive line. Freeman routinely enjoyed long stays in the pocket, and he scored the game's first touchdown on a five-yard scramble at the end of a very long-developing play. Freeman was not sacked, and Buccaneer backs rang up 4.1 yards per carry on the night. That figure had reached 5.0 before the Bucs ran repeatedly into the teeth of the defense in the fourth quarter to drain the clock. Starting back LeGarrette Blount had just five carries but he looked as strong as ever, breaking tackles repeatedly on his first three runs, all four-yarders. Blount also caught a six-yard pass and may be more involved in the passing game this year.
To complete the night's dominant effort, the Bucs were also outstanding on special teams. Most notably, Koenen, signed away from Atlanta as an unrestricted free agent, handled the first four kickoffs and hit all of them deep into the end zone. That resulted in three touchbacks and one drive that started at the Kansas City eight. Rookie K Jacob Rogers added two touchbacks on two tries in the second half, for a total of five on the night for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay had all of one touchback during the entire 2010 regular season. Koenen and incumbent punter Robert Malone combined to average 46.5 yards on six punts, with a net of 43.3. Kicker Connor Barth and Rogers combined to make all three of their field goal tries and rookie WR Jock Sanders pitched in with a 21-yard punt return in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs cracked the scoreboard first on their second possession, needing just two plays to punch it in from the nine after Foster recovered a fumbled snap on the first play of Kansas City's second drive. After a four-yard run by Blount, Freeman dropped back to pass and had plenty of time but no open men in sight. He eventually scrambled left, pump-faked to freeze the defenders and then ran it in himself for a five-yard score.
The Bucs extended their lead to 10-0 minutes later following another fumble, this one by RB Jackie Battle that was recovered by S Sean Jones at the Kansas City 49. A three-yard run by Blount on third-and-one and a 21-yard Freeman-to-Briscoe reception put the Bucs in position for Connor Barth's 25-yard field goal.
Freeman directed a fourth drive before departing the game and put the Bucs on the scoreboard for the third time. The 23-year-old passer completed six of eight passes on the drive, including a key third-down toss to Briscoe that put the team in range for Barth's 40-yard field goal four minutes into the second quarter.
That essentially signaled the end of the night for the Bucs' first-teamers on both sides of the ball, but Tampa Bay's defensive reserves held again on the ensuing drive, forcing a punt after rookie CB Anthony Gaitor broke up a third-down pass to WR Verran Tucker. Josh Johnson came in to direct the Bucs' next drive and the offense immediately went on the move again. Johnson got the team to midfield before a punt was needed, with second-year P Robert Malone rolling one down to the Chiefs' three. Three plays later, DE Michael Bennett got to Palko moments after the snap to stand him up in the end zone for a safety and a 15-0 lead.
Johnson directed an even better drive on his next possession, following the safety free kick, but it came up empty in terms of points. Highlights on the drive were 20-yard completions to Briscoe and TE Ryan Purvis and an amazing 24-yard scramble by Johnson down to the four. Two Bradford runs failed and Johnson wasn't able to get it in on passes to WR Micheal Spurlock and TE Daniel Hardy on third and fourth down.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Friday night's game.)
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half but fell into a third-and-18 hole when a well-timed KC blitz resulted in a 12-yard sack of Johnson. Johnson took off on another scramble on third down and very nearly weaved his way to the sticks, but he was tackled a yard short.
A sack and a forced fumble by DE Tim Crowder on third-and-six quickly short-circuited KC's next drive, and the Bucs got the ball back at their own 45 after a short punt and a six-yard return by Parker. Johnson started the drive with a 20-yard strike to WR Ed Gant, then scrambled for eight yards two plays later. On third-and-two from the Chiefs' 27, Bradford powered up the middle for three yards and another first down. Johnson threw a perfect strike to Parker at the five on the next play but the ball was dropped. A nice cutback run by Bradford made it third-and-five at the 19 but a false start pushed the Bucs back five yards. Johnson still converted the third down by finding Spurlock at the nine for a gain of 15. After a holding penalty, Johnson threw twice in a row to the left sideline, finding Hardy for a gain of 16 and then Spurlock for a three-yard touchdown just inbounds.
Ricky Stanzi came in at quarterback for the Chiefs' next drive but it made little difference as the defense forced another three-and-out. DE Kyle Moore nearly sacked Stanzi on third-and-nine but Stanzi got free just long enough to pitch it to Battle, who nearly got the first down but was stopped a yard short by S Larry Asante.
Rudy Carpenter came in as the Bucs' third quarterback to start the ensuing drive and faced a quick third-and-eight after two runs by Bradford. On third down, Carpenter scrambled away from a blitz and found Hardy on the left side. The rookie tight end made several nifty moves to pick up 21 yards to the midfield stripe. Armando Allen came in to provide a spark with a shifty 16-yard run, but a second good jaunt up the middle was lost to a holding call. The offense couldn't recover from that step-off and had to punt down to the Chiefs' 15.
As the fourth quarter began, the Chiefs tried to throw deep to WR Jeremy Horne but Asante arrived just in time to deliver the night's hardest hit and jar the ball loose. Moore followed with a five-yard sack of Stanzi and the Chiefs had to punt for the sixth time. A weaving 21-yard punt return by rookie Jock Sanders put the ball at the 50-yard line once again.
An 11-yard Carpenter strike to TE Nathan Overbay got the ball down to the Kansas City 34 but a third-down try to WR Detron Lewis sailed a bit high. Rookie K Jacob Rogers came on to try a 46-yard field goal and easily pushed it through the uprights, giving the Bucs a 25-0 lead with 11:44 to play.
After yet another touchback, the Chiefs ran a hurry-up offense with Stanzi and got close to midfield with a series of draw plays and short passes over the middle against a sagging defense. A blitz by rookie LB Derrell Smith led to a four-yard sack for DE George Johnson and a third-and-14 at the KC 43. A dump-off to Battle gained 13 and made it fourth-and-one, but Stanzi's fourth-down throw in Zeke Markshausen was knocked away at the last instance by CB Elbert Mack.
The Bucs went to the ground to run the clock and Allen ripped off runs of five and two yards up the middle. The Chiefs rightfully expected a turn on third-and-three and LB Micah Johnson blitzed right up the middle to drop Allen for a loss of five.
The Bucs punted and gave up yardage on a personal foul on the kick when S Devin Holland hit the would-be return man in a defenseless position. The Chiefs' offense still couldn't mount a drive of substance, however, thanks in large part to consecutive sacks by Moore and CB Anthony Gaitor
With the clock now moving below four minutes, the Bucs kept it on the ground again, with similar results. Mossis Madu got four and three runs on his first two carries but was swarmed over on a third-down try for a loss of three.
The Chiefs took a similar approach on their final drive, putting the ball in Battle's hands for a series of short runs that ran out the clock.
Game Notes: Friday's game was the sixth preseason meeting between the Buccaneers and Chiefs. The Bucs now hold a 5-1 edge in the all-time series. Tampa Bay is 2-0 in the preseason at Arrowhead Stadium, having also won there in 1999, 17-7. The Bucs also own an active three-game winning streak against the Chiefs in the regular-season, including a win at Arrowhead in 2008. … Friday's win snapped a two-game losing streak in preseason openers for the Buccaneers. … With DT Gerald McCoy and CB Aqib Talib sitting out due to minor injuries, DT Frank Okam and CB E.J. Biggers started the game at DT and LCB, respectively. On offense, WR Dezmon Briscoe, FB Rendrick Taylor and TE Ryan Purvis started in place of Arrelious Benn, Earnest Graham and Kellen Winslow, respectively. … The Buccaneers' 25-0 win at Arrowhead marked the team's first preseason shutout since 2002. Tampa Bay defeated Jacksonville 20-0 on August 16, 2002.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during the offseason. However, the Buccaneers revealed eight players prior to the game who would definitely not participate: CB Myron Lewis, CB Aqib Talib, FB Erik Lorig, TE Kellen Winslow, TE Luke Stocker, WR Raymond Webber and DT Gerald McCoy. WR Arrelious Benn suited up but did not play.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DT Roy Miller sustained a bruised knee on the first play from scrimmage and had to leave the field, but he returned on the team's next defensive series. No other injuries were reported from the sideline for either team during the game.