Ed Gant's tackle-breaking, turf-burning 96-yard touchdown in the third quarter wasn't quite enough to spark a comeback win for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their preseason finale at Washington on Thursday night. That was decided when the Redskins countered with their own last-minute touchdown pass.
Still unknown, and probably more important after Washington's 29-24 victory: Was it enough for Gant to survive the weekend roster cuts and get a chance to break off big plays in the games that count?
Gant's touchdown catch, which would rank as the longest offensive play in team history if it occurred in the regular season, helped the Buccaneers rally from a 20-6 deficit to a 24-23 lead late in the fourth quarter on Thursday at FedExField. Tampa Bay took the lead in the fourth quarter on Armando Allen's 20-yard touchdown catch and Jonathan Crompton's two-point conversion pass to Gant. However, third-string Redskin quarterback Kellen Clemens threw a 41-yard scoring bomb to Donte' Stallworth with 1:07 remaining to take the lead back for the home team.
On Saturday, the Buccaneers and the rest of the NFL's 32 teams will take part in the difficult annual ritual of final cuts, paring rosters form 80 players down to the regular-season limit of 53. As has become custom for many teams, the Bucs used their final preseason game to evaluate the bottom half of the roster, giving Gant, quarterback Rudy Carpenter, running back Mossis Madu and many others the chance to prove they should make it through the weekend.
Gant finished the game with two catches for 121 yards plus that two-point conversion grab and a key pass-interference penalty drawn on the Bucs' fourth-quarter go-ahead drive. Madu ran for a team-high 41 yards on eight carries and caught three passes for 20 yards. In all, the Bucs' reserves racked up 396 yards of offense, 287 of it after halftime. There were some shaky moments in the first half, and some exhilarating ones after the break, but it probably won't be obvious how much the action mattered in the roster decisions until the coaches review the game film.
This much is clear, however: The Bucs' "youngry" players got their opportunities. Tampa Bay rested all 22 of its expected starters, as well as another half-dozen key reserves (Dekoda Watson, Frank Okam, etc.) and turned the game over to those most in need of playing time. The Redskins mostly did the same, but they left potential starting QB John Beck, along with the starting offensive line, in the game for the entire first half. Beck and fellow veteran Rex Grossman, who did not play, are battling for the Redskins' starting job.
Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris was pleased that his younger players got an opportunity to defend Beck and rush against the Redskins' top line.
"It's awesome," said Morris. "That's what you want. You want to be at your very best and you want to be challenged. So I'm going to get a great assessment of what these guys are and who they are if they are ever put in a real game for us."
For the second year in a row, young QB Rudy Carpenter got the start for the Buccaneers in their preseason finale. He and the Bucs' offense struggled in the early going and Carpenter left the game for most of the second quarter after taking a hard sack by LB Rob Jackson. Carpenter was blindsided on the play, resulting in a fumble that LB Markus White returned to the Buccaneers' two-yard line. RB Evan Royster scored three plays later on a two-yard run and the Redskins doubled their lead to 14-0 in the second quarter on Brandon Banks' 95-yard punt return.
Washington increased its lead to 17-0 in the second quarter but the Bucs got the ball back with a minute left and Carpenter came back into the game to lead a successful two-minute drive. His 30-yard pass to WR Preston Parker put the Bucs in position for Connor Barth's 42-yard field goal just before halftime.
That kind of situational work is very important to Morris during the preseason, as was the opportunity for his young defenders to work in a pressure situation in the second half.
"We got back to our two-minute offense and Rudy got a chance to move the football and we got three [points] there," said the coach. "I'm actually pretty proud of the way the defense…played. They [were] put in some tough situations out there with the turnover, the sack-fumble and the punt return, but, other than that, the defense…held up pretty tight."
The Bucs needed Gant's big play to get them into the end zone during a night when it was difficult to sustain drives. Tampa Bay was 1-14 on third-down conversions during the game, not succeeding on a third down until just before Jacob Rogers' 21-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Rogers and incumbent kicker Connor Barth combined to make all three of their field goal tries on the night. Rogers, a placekicker, also handled all of the punting on a night when the Bucs even rested their usual punter, Michael Koenen.
Tampa Bay's young defense allowed 335 yards overall but often came up big at the most important moments. S Devin Holland and CB D.J. Johnson each intercepted passes in the end zone, and Holland also picked off the Redskins' two-point attempt after the final touchdown. Rookie CB Anthony Gaitor capped a very strong preseason by making plays all over the field and finished with two tackles, two tackles for loss and two passes defensed, both on third-down plays. First-year LB Simoni Lawrence was just as visible, racking up a game-high 10 tackles, including one for a loss, and also making two stops on special teams.
The young Buc defenders couldn't quite hold the Redskins off at the end, but many of them still ended up with some pretty important game film, as did such green offensive players as Gant, Madu and Carpenter, all of whom are fighting for jobs. The Bucs' starters had the night off, but they remained engaged in the action on the sideline throughout, clearly rooting for their younger teammates. LB Geno Hayes ran 10 yards onto the field, waving a towel wildly, after Gant's two-point conversion that briefly gave the Bucs a lead.
"These guys are playing hard," said Hayes. "They know what they're doing, they're playing their keys, they are understanding situational football. They're playing hard. You can't get mad at them for that. You have to realize you might go down and get hurt, so you have to make sure the guys behind you are up on the game, coached well and know what's going on. Seeing the guys go out there and do what they do, then on the sidelines they ask me what's going on and get my point of view. That helps us out as a team."
The Buccaneers had an early chance to score when DE Da'Quan Bowers recovered RB Evan Royster's fumble on the second play of the game. Lumpkin broke off runs of 11 and six yards to get the ball to the Washington one-yard line, but two more runs up the gut by Lumpkin were stuffed and Tampa Bay turned it over on downs.
The Redskins never really threatened during most of the first quarter but they flipped the field position and kept most of the action in the Buccaneers' half of the field. In fact, a nice punt by Sav Rocca put the ball at the Bucs' one-yard line at the four-minute mark in the first period, but the Bucs challenged the ruling and got a touchback instead.
That moved the ball out to the 20 and the Bucs drove out to midfield before Jackson sacked Carpenter from behind and forced a fumble White recovered and took off down the sideline, but rookie RB Allen Bradford hustled to down him at the two. Three plays later, Royster ran it in over right guard for the game's first touchdown, with 24 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Redskins doubled their lead to 14-0 a few minutes later when Banks returned Jacob Rogers' punt 95 yards for a score. The play was reviewed because Banks came close to flipping the ball out of his hand before scoring, but the score was eventually upheld.
The Redskins increased their lead to 17-0 minutes later after Crompton's high pass was intercepted by CB Josh Wilson deep in Bucs territory. Tampa Bay's defense did put up a nice stand inside the 10-yard line, forcing the home team to settle for Graham Gano's 22-yard field goal.
Washington threatened again late in the second quarter, with TE Logan Paulsen's 22-yard catch getting the 'Skins into the red zone. However, the Bucs' defense stiffened again, forcing a third-and-six at the 15, and Holland's blitz forced Beck into a lob into the end zone that was intercepted by Johnson. Carpenter came back into the game and used the final 1:06 to drive the team 57 yards for a field goal. Parker's 30-yard catch-and-run was the big gain on the drive, which Barth finished with a 42-yard field goal.
(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 and got one first down on Crompton's rollout pass to FB Erik Lorig, but they eventually had to punt after Crompton was sacked by DB Davonte Shannon on third-and-eight.
QB Matt Gutierrez came in to lead Washington's next drive and saw Royster start the drive with a 16-yard cut-back run into the open field. Gutierrez found WR Donte' Stallworth for 10 yards and Royster for 14 more to put the ball into the Bucs' red zone, and Royster then powered for nine yards to the Bucs' 10 Two plays later, the Bucs' defense read a rollout pass well and Gutierrez tried to throw the ball out of the end zone. He didn't get enough on it, however, and Holland intercepted for the Bucs in the end zone to kill the scoring threat.
The Bucs false-started on the first play of the ensuing drive but Crompton had a lot of time to throw on the next snap and found WR Murray Price on a crossing route for a gain of 30 to the Redskins' 45. Another pass to Lorig two plays later took it down to the Washington 35 on a 16-yard gain. However, the drive stalled there and the Bucs let rookie Jacob Rogers try a 49-yard field goal. Rogers easily nailed it to make it 17-6.
Washington countered with two quick first downs, the first on a late hit on the sideline by McKenzie. McKenzie delivered a nice shot on Torain three plays later on third-and-three but the Redskins back got just enough for a first down. A run by Torain for 18 yards got the ball to the Bucs' 10, but the Bucs stopped two runs from that point to make it third-and-goal at the nine. The Bucs didn't blitz on third down but DE Kyle Moore got quick penetration and Gutierrez was chased into a throwaway. Gano tacked on a 27-yard field goal to put the Redskins back up by two touchdowns.
Carpenter came back in once again on the next drive and threw a quick 10-yard pass to Ryan Purvis, but the play was erased by a chop-block penalty. Carpenter then scrambled for a big gain but that play two came back due to a clipping flag. Those two miscues only served to give Gant more room to run on the ensuing play. Carpenter found his young receiver over the middle on the next play and Gant bounced off one tackle to find open field in front of him. Nobody caught him as he flew right down the middle of the field for the 85-yard score.
The Bucs' defensive reserves then responded with a three-and-out, though Sav Rocca's 65-yard punt and a penalty backed them up to their own 11. Washington's defense returned the favor with a quick three-and-out of its own, and Rogers angled another punt out of bounds at the Redskins '47.
The Tampa Bay defense continued to excel on the next possession, forcing a punt when Gutierrez was chased out of the pocket on third-and-six and forced to throw it away. However, Allen had the ensuing punt bounce off his chest, with RB Keiland Williams recovering it in midair for Washington at the Bucs' 24. Lawrence ran a boot-legging Gutierrez down on second down, and Mack broke up an end zone pass to Stallworth on third-and-three to force another field goal attempt. Gano banged it home from 35 yards out to put Washington up by two scores with nine minutes left.
Madu's 25-yarder got the next drive started in a hurry, and Carpenter then found Purvis down the right seam for another 28 yards to the Redskins' 31. A sack by White two plays later put the Bucs into a third-and-10 hole, but Carpenter looked to Gant again and he made a leaping catch near the left sideline for 25 yards to the Redskins' six. Madu ran hard around left tackle on first down to get it to the two but was stopped for a loss of two in the middle on the next play. Carpenter had to scramble right on the next play and was stopped at the three, leading the Bucs to bring on Rogers for a 21-yard field goal, making it 23-16 with 4:12 to play.
The Redskins brought in QB Kellen Clemens but he was unable to move the chains as DE Alex Magee stopped Torain for no gain on first down and Gaitor broke up a third-down pass to Paul. Allen fair caught the ensuing punt at the Bucs' 40. Crompton came back into the game and immediately escaped a sack to buy time for an eight-yard pass to Madu. Two plays later, Crompton looked for Gant deep down the right sideline and the red-hot receiver drew a pass-interference penalty on S Chris Horton. That put the ball at the 20, and Crompton then tossed a short screen pass to Allen, who weaved through the defense and powered over the goal line for a touchdown. The Bucs went for two and Crompton threw an easy out to Gant at the front left of the end zone for the go-ahead points.
Banks' returned the following kickoff 32 yards to the Washington 26 taking the clock down to 2:01. Gaitor then rushed up to tackle Paul for a loss of six yards on a first-down throw down the line, bringing on the two minute warning. After the break, Clemens hit Leonard Hankerson over the middle for 14 yards, and then seven yards on the left sideline. Washington called its first timeout with 1:23 left and the ball at the Washington 43. Good coverage led to an incompletion when play resumed but Magee was flagged for a personal-foul hit on Clemens to move the ball to the Bucs' 41. The Bucs' blitzed on the next play and Clemens went deep down the right sideline to Stallworth, who made a juggling catch as he crossed into the end zone to put Washington back on top. The Redskins went for two and failed when Clemens pass was intercepted by Holland. Though the play was whistled dead, Holland tried to return it and the process drew an unnecessary roughness penalty that forced Washington to kick off from its' own 20.
Preston Parker's 38-yard return of that kick got the ball almost to midfield, but Crompton's next three passes were incomplete. That put Tampa Bay into a do-or-die fourth-and-10 with 42 seconds left but Crompton kept the visitors alive with a 14-yard strike over the middle to Maurice Price. The Bucs used their second timeout with 34 seconds left and the ball at Washington's 41. Crompton then found Madu out of the backfield for 12 more yards and the rookie back alertly got out of bounds with 28 seconds left. A holding penalty cost the Bucs 10 yards, and the Bucs used their last timeout after a short pass to Madu. With 14 seconds left, Crompton tried a fly to Price but it was broken up by Brandyn Thompson. The Bucs wanted to get off a Hail Mary pass on the last snap but Crompton was sacked to end it.
Game Notes: Thursday's game broke an all-time 5-5 preseason tie between the Buccaneers and the Redskins. This was only the second time the two teams met in the preseason in the 'Skins' stadium; the first was a 16-13 Bucs win at the end of the 1999 preseason. … The Buccaneers finished the 2011 preseason with a 2-2 record, going 1-1 both at home and on the road.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during the offseason. However, the Buccaneers revealed a long list of players who would be held out on Thursday, including all 22 designated starters. The following Tampa Bay players did not suit up for the game: WR Mike Williams, T Donald Penn, G Ted Larsen, C Jeff Faine, G Davin Joseph, T Jeremy Trueblood, TE Kellen Winslow, WR Arrelious Benn, QB Josh Freeman, RB LeGarrette Blount, FB Earnest Graham, OL Jeremy Zuttah, TE Luke Stocker, QB Josh Johnson, DE Michael Bennett, DT Gerald McCoy, DT Roy Miller, DE Adrian Clayborn, LB Quincy Black, LB Mason Foster, LB Geno Hayes, CB Aqib Talib, CB Ronde Barber, S Sean Jones, S Cody Grimm, DT Frank Okam, LB Dekoda Watson and CB E.J. Biggers.
The Redskins rested the majority of their starters, as well, among them WR Santana Moss, RB Tim Hightower, LBs Ryan Kerrigan, London Fletcher and Brian Orakpo and CB DeAngelo Hall.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, CB Myron Lewis left the game with an ankle injury in the first quarter and did not return.
For the Redskins, CB Phillip Buchanon sustained a shoulder injury in the second quarter and did not return.