LB Wesly Mallard, who had a sack and a pass defensed, was one of the many Buc reserves who took advantage of extended playing time
Cadillac and Booger will get their chance in 10 days. Thursday night belonged to those Tampa Bay Buccaneers who are not yet household names.
It belonged to the likes of Tim Massaquoi and Charles Bennett, rookies getting a long look in front of a coaching staff facing some difficult decisions. It was in the hands of David Boston and Wesly Mallard, veteran reserves seeking to solidify roster spots. It was a golden opportunity for Jon Bradley and Mark Anelli and all those young men trying to make one final good impression. Oh, and as usual the second half belonged to Bruce Gradkowski.
On the scoreboard, however, the game belonged to the hometown Houston Texans, who snapped a four-game preseason losing streak against the Buccaneers with a 16-13 victory. The Bucs rallied for a 13-13 tie in the second half but lost on Kris Brown's 30-yard field goal with six minutes to play.
Both teams opened the game with makeshift lineups, the usual starters resting comfortably on the sidelines, and it didn't take long for the wisdom of that decision to be underscored. On the second official play from scrimmage, left guard Dan Buenning, one of the few starters in action, was piled on awkwardly and ended up limping off the field moments later. Buenning was taken into the locker room with an ankle injury and did not return to the game. His status for the opener has not yet been determined.
Many of the Bucs' regulars remained quite invested in the game, however. After Houston's David Loverne was flagged for clipping early in the second quarter, a move to which defensive players often react very testily, LB Derrick Brooks could be seen a few yards onto the grass on the Bucs' sideline, waving a white towel angrily. Brooks was still animated in the fourth quarter as the Bucs tried to rally one more time.
The Bucs did start QB Chris Simms, but he threw just two passes in the opening drive before joining his fellow starters on the bench. Tim Rattay came into a scoreless game for the Bucs' second drive and played the rest of the first half, completing nine of 16 passes for 89 yards and one interception and leading one field goal drive. Gradkowski, the rookie, took over after halftime and completed 13 of 17 passes for 90 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, compiling a 107.5 passer rating. Still, Simms, who only played extensively in one of the four preseason games, feels he and his fellow starters are sufficiently prepared for the regular season opener against Baltimore on September 10.
"Tonight the offensive linemen are really the only ones seeing the extended work," said Simms. "We are confident as an offense and we are ready for the Ravens."
Those who did play early in the game saw extended action. Boston, for instance, led all players with five receptions for 61 yards in the first half, accounting for more than half of the Bucs' total yards to that point, but the veteran's night wasn't done.
"We are going to see more of him in the second half," promised Head Coach Jon Gruden at halftime. "He's a guy we want to see more of."
Indeed, Boston was on the field for the Bucs' first snap of the second half and added one more 16-yard catch to his totals, finishing with a game-high six grabs for 77 yards. TE Tim Massaquoi, the rookie seventh-rounder fighting for a roster spot, was next with five receptions for 37 yards and one score, his most extensive output of the preseason.
It was a well-traveled Texans reserve who turned in the game's first play, leading to the opening score. On the first play of Houston's second possession, longtime AFC East denizen Antowain Smith broke free over right tackle and fought through several tackles to gain 46 yards down to the Bucs' 25. Reserve QB Sage Rosenfels finished the seven-play, 75-yard march with a two-yard rollout pass to TE Bennie Joppru.
The Texans got a second scoring opportunity just moments later when the Bucs elected to go for it on fourth-and-one from the Texans' 36 and failed. A 12-yard run around left tackle by RB Chris Taylor picked up a quick first down but LB Wesly Mallard's successful blitz up the middle broke up a pass two plays later and helped force a 34-yard field goal attempt by Brown. On the first play of the second quarter, however, Bennett blocked the attempt to keep Houston's lead at 7-0.
The Bucs' reserve offense made its first big play two snaps later, as Rattay found Boston wide open in the middle of the field for a gain of 33 yards down to Houston's 27. That led to the Bucs' initial score, a 28-yard field goal by Matt Bryant with 10 minutes left in the first half.
Boston College rookie Quinton Porter came on to replace Rosenfels on the Texans' next possession and quickly moved the team to midfield. However, a well-executed blitz by S Blue Adams forced a critical incompletion and led to a punt. Houston quickly got the ball back in Buccaneer territory, though, on S Kevin Curtis' interception of a Rattay pass.
Yet another Houston quarterback got into the game after the turnover, as former 49er Cody Pickett got the call. Three runs by Taylor got the ball down to the Bucs' 13 at the two-minute warning but Patrick broke up a third-down pass and the Texans had to settle for Brown's 31-yard field goal and a 10-3 lead. When the Bucs failed to sustain the subsequent two-minute drill, Pickett and the Texans responded with a successful one of their own and tacked on Brown's 40-yarder to make it 13-3.
The tide turned, as it has several times this preseason, when Gradkowski came into the game. Consistently scrambling out of trouble, the always impressive rookie immediately led a 13-play 79-yard touchdown drive to pull the Bucs within three. Gradkowski converted a fourth-and-six from the Houston 35 with a 14-yard ramble up the middle and completed four of six passes for 41 yards on the march.
WR Paris Warren demonstrated why an extended stretch of playing time aids in player evaluation. Warren muffed a punt early in the second half which would have given the Texans possession inside the Bucs' 10, but the play was erased by a penalty on Houston. Later in the quarter, Warren returned another punt 39 yards to midfield and turned in a key completion on a 45-yard field goal drive. Had he been replaced after that first miscue, Warren would not have had an opportunity to redeem himself.
That field goal drive was Gradkowski's second march, and it included a 20-yard run by the speedy quarterback on a play-action rollout. By the end of the game, Gradkowski was the Bucs' leading rusher, with 47 yards on three carries. Bryant's 24-yard field goal at the end of the play tied the game at 13-13 with 14:55 to play.
The Texans gained only 80 of their 327 total yards after halftime, as reserve defenders such as Bradley helped Tampa Bay get back into the game. Bradley, fighting to preserve his 2005 spot in the defensive line rotation, was a force in the middle, finishing with six tackles, including three for losses.
The Houston offense mounted one more scoring drive behind Pickett, however. After the Bucs tied the game on Bryant's field goal, the Texans drove 66 yards on 15 plays to set up Kris Brown for a 30-yard field goal. That proved to be the game's final points as Gradkowski and the offense couldn't overcome terrible field possession on the ensuing drive.
Not that the heady rookie didn't give it his best effort. After driving the Bucs past the Tampa Bay 40, Gradkowski was forced to go for it on fourth-and-12. As the pocket collapsed on him, he smartly threw up a desperation heave and it managed to find TE Mark Anelli for just enough yards to move the sticks. Unfortunately, the play was erased by another illegal motion penalty and the resulting fourth-and-17 play failed.
The game concluded an eventful preseason for the Buccaneers but left a lot of work on the table for Tampa Bay coaches. By Saturday at 4:00 p.m., the Bucs must trim 22 players from the roster to get down to 53 for the regular season. Thursday's game generated plenty of new evidence to be factored into those decisions.
Rookie CB Alan Zemaitis, for instance, started the game and finished with a team-leading six solo tackles, plus a pass defensed. First-year CB James Patrick also started and combined five tackles with two passes defensed. Mallard started in place of Ryan Nece at strongside linebacker and mixed four tackles with a sack and a pass defensed.
Anelli, caught in a crowded tight end group, particularly after Thursday's acquisition of Doug Jolley, snared four passes for 24 yards. Earnest Graham carried the ball 10 times for 37 yards, running hard between the tackles. RB Derek Watson got all of the kickoff returns and gained 97 yards on four runbacks.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers have been on Houston's preseason schedule in each of the five years of the Texans' existence. In each case, the two teams have met in their respective preseason finales. The Bucs had won the first four games by a combined score of 106-39 before Houston's win on Thursday. … The Bucs finished the preseason 1-3, marking the first time a team coached by Jon Gruden had posted a losing record in the preseason. … The Bucs did not commit a penalty in the first half, drawing their first flag, for illegal motion on TE Mark Anelli, with less than two minutes to play in the third quarter. … Second-year WR Derrick Lewis, a former Buccaneer, got the start for Houston with Andre Johnson and Eric Moulds sitting out. Lewis finished the game with four receptions for 37 yards.
Inactives: Technically, there are no inactives in preseason games. However, both teams elected to rest the majority of their respective starting lineups. For the Buccaneers, that meant a long list of veterans who did not appear in the game, including every defensive starter, WRs Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton, RB Cadillac Williams and FB Mike Alstott. Among the Texans who sat out were QB David Carr, RB Wali Lundy, WRs Andre Johnson and Eric Moulds, DE Anthony Weaver and CB Dunta Robinson.
Injuries: G Dan Buenning suffered a left ankle injury in the first quarter and did not return.