LB Derrick Brooks would like to see the Bucs come out of halftime with more
Thanks to a fine, 32-yard kickoff return by Justin Miller, the New York Jets started the third quarter just 59 yards away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' goal line, trailing 9-7. Ah, for one more yard between the Jets and the end zone.
Through five games, the Buccaneers' defense has faced 41 possessions that began 60 or more yards away from their own end zone. Only two of those drives – none on Sunday in the Meadowlands – ended in the Bucs' end zone, and a third resulted in a field goal. It has been nearly hopeless to maintain an extended drive against Tampa Bay's top-ranked defense this season.
As it turned out, the Bucs ended up needing that extra yard quite literally. The Jets took that opening possession of the first half 59 yards for what would prove to be the winning touchdown, but they didn't get it into the end zone until they elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the one. RB Curtis Martin dived over the pile, and though he was wind-milled halfway around, his momentum still carried him over the line and down the backside of a mountain of bodies. Martin landed right on the goal line, the ball nosing across.
That was the first touchdown the Buccaneers had allowed in the second half this entire season, and it would be the last on Sunday. It was still a killer, and it left a bad taste in linebacker Derrick Brooks' mouth.
"After that drive, they didn't get anything going," said Brooks. "We didn't come out of the locker room as on top of the keys, on top of the screws as we needed to. That's something that we've got to respond to as a defense. We've got to come out of the locker room and hit the field playing a lot better than we did the opening drive of the third quarter.
"That's a lesson for us. After halftime, we've got to come out and hit the field with some fire."
Had the Bucs scored a touchdown rather than a field on their penultimate drive, or had they gotten off a field goal in the frantic, timeout-free last minute of the game, the Tampa Bay defenders might have felt good about the afternoon. Already ranked first in the league in yards allowed per game, they surrendered just 215 to the Jets, including just 59 in the first half. But that opening drive doubled both the Jets' points and yardage and proved too much of an obstacle for Tampa Bay's own up-and-down offense to overcome.
"I think in the first half the defense stepped up and made some plays to thwart some scoring drives, but we didn't get anything going on offense," said Barber. "It felt like a little bit of a reverse in the second half; we couldn't stop any of their drives. They didn't come away with points on all of them but they ate up a lot of time. The more we're on the field, the less our offense has a chance to go down the field and make the game interesting. We just didn't play well."
Barber certainly had some impressive moments. He was outstanding in run support around the line of scrimmage, he batted away a possible touchdown pass late in the third quarter and he intercepted another deep ball on the same Jets play call in the fourth quarter. His interception kept the Jets from padding a five-point lead and led to the Bucs' final field-goal drive.
But Barber didn't feel any better about the outcome than his teammates, who missed an opportunity to go 5-0 for the first time in eight years. Still, the Bucs are 4-1, they are in first place in the NFC South (everyone else in the division lost Sunday, too) and they are keyed into the factors that cost them victory in New York.
"We'll go to work just like if we had won this game," said Barber. "We know we've got areas we need to improve in. A loss on our record doesn't change our overall goal. We'll worry about it when we have to worry about it and move on to Miami."
On that third-quarter drive that proved to be the game's most critical possession, the Bucs allowed a third-down conversion for the first time in the game (the Jets were 0-4 in the first half) and helped New York in the red zone by committing an unnecessary roughness penalty. It was one of 12 penalties on the day for the Buccaneers, who have been having problems with the flags on a weekly basis.
Over the season's first quarter, the Bucs overcame mistakes like that, and three of their first four victories were very tight. On Sunday in New York, they couldn't overcome them, and the difference was one little yard.
"We made mistakes and helped them out in crucial situations," said defensive end Simeon Rice, another of the Bucs' defensive stars on the day. "We made more mistakes than they did. We're going to fight again next week. We're still going to show up. It's not all lost in one game, it's not all won in one game. What I'm saying is, we're not going to panic because we lost one game. We're not going to pat ourselves in the back because we won four games. It's still early in the season. We're just coming into the second quarter. We stunk it up today, we learn from it, and we move on."