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Limping to the End

A depleted and turnover-plagued Buccaneer squad couldn’t hold off a highly-motivated Tennessee team in Nashville, falling 33-13 in the season finale


A Buc defense populated largely by young players like DE Dewayne White had trouble slowing down substitute QB Neil O'Donnell

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' disappointing season came to an end Sunday with the team's ninth loss of the season, perhaps nine more than some Buc players expected to suffer after an impressive, shutout win at Philadelphia in the season's opening weekend.

By dropping a 33-13 decision to the playoff-bound Tennessee Titans, the Bucs finished on a rough note in the Music City, dominated almost as thoroughly as Tampa Bay handled the Eagles, another eventual playoff team, four months earlier. The Bucs threw four interceptions for the second straight week, balanced by just one takeaway, and saw those four turnovers turned into 16 points. The Titans also led in total yards (344-274), first downs (20-16), time of possession (32:13-27:47) and sacks (2-0).

The Bucs also finished the season with a lineup that only marginally resembled the one they put on the field at Philadelphia. S David Gibson, S Jermaine Phillips, DT Chartric Darby, DT Cleveland Pinkney, DE Dewayne White, DE Corey Smith, CB Ronyell Whitaker, FB Jameel Cook, G Kerry Jenkins, T Cornell Green, WR Charles Lee and WR Edell Shepherd all either started the finale or played critical roles due to injuries to other. By the four-minute mark of the second half, the Bucs had also ended the pounding on QB Brad Johnson, letting backup Shaun King finish the season.

Though the Bucs had pledged to play hard to the end, and undoubtedly did as King led the Bucs on a brief comeback in the fourth quarter, there was a sizeable difference in motivation for the two teams. While Tampa Bay had nothing more than a .500 record to gain from a win, Tennessee had the possibility of a first-round bye looming. As the Houston Texans simultaneously opened up a 17-3 lead over Indianapolis, the Titans' motivation only increased. (Indianapolis eventually won a last-second field goal, meaning Tennessee will be a Wild Card team.)

Actually, any thought that the game would be a flat, emotionless affair ended four minutes into the first quarter when safety John Lynch leveled wide receiver Justin McCareins at the goal line. Several Titans took offense, most notably WR Derrick Mason who was near the play, and skirmishes broke out after that play and the field goal that followed. When guard Zach Piller shoved safety Jermaine Phillips in the ensuing melee, the Titans took a 15-yard penalty on the kickoff and the Bucs' first drive started at their own 45 as a result.

Unfortunately for Lynch, his season came to an end just before halftime when he aggravated the right shoulder injury that has bothered him all season. The Bucs also lost defensive tackle Anthony McFarland to an ankle sprain in the first quarter, continuing a season of medical misery for the Buccaneers.

And, unfortunately for the Buccaneers, Mason and the Titans took over after an opening exchange of field goal, scoring 16 unanswered points under the masterful direction of recently-unearthed quarterback Neil O'Donnell. Steve McNair, the Titans' NFL MVP candidate, sat out the game due to calf and ankle injuries and O'Donnell made his first start since early in the 2001 season. Showing little if any rust despite being signed just two weeks ago, a workmanlike O'Donnell hit Mason on touchdown passes of 34 and 23 yards and completed 18 of 27 passes for 232 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

The Titans scored three times in the second quarter to build up a 16-3 halftime lead, then intercepted Johnson for the third time early in the second half and tacked on Gary Anderson's fourth field goal.

King entered the game after that turnover. The decision was less a punishment – Johnson's first pick was deflected and his third came on a lazy popup that was the result of being hit as he threw – than a concession to a season entering its final minutes. King did his best to rally the Bucs, completing 11 of 15 passes for 106 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Early in the fourth quarter, after Mason's second touchdown made it 26-6, King directed a 10-play, 71-yard drive that ended in the Bucs' only TD. After rushing for a first down on fourth-and-one, King hit RB Aaron Stecker on the next play for a 14-yard touchdown.

The Titans had an answer of their own, thanks to LB Keith Bulluck's interception at the four-minute mark. That pick put Tennessee at the Bucs' 17 and, three plays later, RB Chris Brown fumbled into the end zone, where TE Erron Kinney recovered for the game's final score.

Each teams scored on its opening drive of the game. Gary Anderson's 37-yard field goal capped a 55-yard march that ended in Lynch's hit on McCareins, who had a 24-yard catch three plays earlier. The Bucs answered with a 46-yard field goal drive, working out of the no-huddle and gaining 27 yards on successive receptions by RB Michael Pittman. Pittman, who had deferred to Thomas Jones as the starter the last three weeks, opened the game in the backfield as the Bucs wanted to attack through the air to begin the game. Martin Gramatica finished the drive with a 27-yard kick.

Neither team scored again, however, until six minutes were left in the half. A successful goal-line stand at the one thwarted one Tennessee threat, but the Bucs had to punt three plays later and the Titans started again at the Bucs' 38. Three plays later, O'Donnell hit Mason over the middle for a 23-yard touchdown. It marked O'Donnell's first touchdown pass since the 2001 season.

That score was set up indirectly by DE Jevon Kearse's first career interception, as he deflected a pass just out of Johnson's hand and caught the pop-up himself. Johnson was intercepted again on the Bucs' next drive, as S Tank Williams made a diving pick at the Bucs' 33. The Titans got another field goal off that turnover, a 33-yarder by Anderson, and tacked on one more three-pointer as the first half came to an end, from 43 yards out.

Even in defeat, the Bucs got several fine efforts from young players who could figure into their near future. Edell Shepherd, filling the third receiver role for the first time all season, recorded his first four receptions for a total of 38 yards. Charles Lee, the Bucs' breakout pass-catcher of the second half, led the team with 59 yards on four grabs. And RB Thomas Jones put up exactly 100 combined yards, 68 on the ground and 32 through the air. On defense, Phillips, the second-year safety, tied for the team lead with nine tackles and added a forced fumble – the one Kinney recovered in the end zone. Gibson, playing the second half in Lynch's place, turned in six tackles and S Dwight Smith added four tackles and the Bucs' only interception.

Tampa Bay finished the season with a losing record, 7-9, for the first time since 1996, when they finished 6-10. The Bucs' NFL-long streak of four straight seasons in the playoffs also came to an end, as the Bucs became the second straight Super Bowl champion to miss the postseason the next year.

Notes: S Dwight Smith's second-quarter interception was the first pick by the Bucs' defense in five games. Incredibly, after getting at least one pick in each of the first 11 games of the season, the Bucs went four games without one before Smith broke the ice. It was Smith's fifth pick of the year, giving him a career-high five on the season. He becomes the fourth different player to lead the Bucs in interceptions in the last four years, following Donnie Abraham, Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly. … The Bucs are now 1-15 all-time in season finales … The Bucs didn't fare particularly well in interconference play this season, recording a 1-3 record, all against AFC South teams. Tampa Bay beat Houston but lost to Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee … Despite losing on Sunday, the Bucs finished with a respectable 4-4 record on the road. That marks the fifth straight year that Tampa Bay has compiled a .500 or better record away from home. … Strange and perhaps meaningless note: After guessing wrong on the coin flip before Sunday's game, the Bucs had lost the toss seven games in a row. … QB Shaun King's touchdown pass to RB Aaron Stecker in the fourth quarter was King's first scoring toss in over three years. His last touchdown pass was caught by Keyshawn Johnson in the 2000 regular-season finale, a December 24 game at Green Bay. … Titans RB Eddie George reached two milestones during the game. In the second quarter, he went over 1,000 yards rushing on the season for the seventh time in eight years in the NFL. In the fourth quarter, George registered his 10,000th career rushing yard, after which QB Steve McNair presented him with a game ball at the sideline. ..

Injury Updates: DT Anthony McFarland sprained his left ankle in the first quarter and did not return. S John Lynch suffered a right shoulder stinger in the second quarter and also did not return. DT Warren Sapp sustained a left ankle sprain in the second half.

Quarter Reports: During Sunday's game, provided game updates at the end of each quarter. Those updates follow to offer a closer look at the game's key plays.

First Quarter Update

Tempers flared between the Bucs and Titans in the first quarter, which ended in a 3-3 tie. Both teams took their opening possession for a field goal, and the Bucs had the ball at Tennessee's 34 when the period came to an end. Tampa Bay's offense looked sharp in the early going, gaining 103 yards in the quarter to Tennessee's 64.

Tennessee won the toss and took the opening kickoff, with RB Ray Jackson returning the kick to the Titans' 27.

RB Eddie George took the handoff on first down and went around right tackle, cutting back for a gain of 11. George's next carry ran into a pile in the middle and gained just one, but he took a swing pass 10 yards for a first down at the Titans' 49 on the next play. QB Neil O'Donnell, starting in place of Steve McNair, found a wide-open Justin McCareins for a 24-yard gain on the next play, down to Tampa Bay's 27.

DE Dewayne White stopped George after a gain of two off left guard, but TE Frank Wycheck made an impressive, shoestring catch for seven yards on second down. On third-and-one, the Titans tried to sneak McCareins up the middle to the end zone, but O'Donnell's pass was overthrown and McCareins was flattened a moment later by a hard hit from safety John Lynch.

Unhappy with Lynch's play, several Titans confronted Lynch and other Bucs after that play and the next one, a 37-yard field goal by Gary Anderson. One ill-timed shove cost the Titans 15-yards on the ensuing kickoff.

The Bucs' first drive thus started at their own 45, and the Bucs came out in a hurry, running a no-huddle offense. Though QB Brad Johnson's first pass was incomplete, he followed with passes over the middle to RB Michael Pittman for gains of 14 and 13 yards, the second down to Tennessee's 28. Offsetting personal fouls erased the next play, a five-yard catch by FB Jameel Cook, but RB Thomas Jones took a pitch around left end for seven yards on the makeup play.

On second-and-three from the 21, Jones went up the middle, paused for a moment, then slid left into a seam for a gain of eight yards. Jones got four yards on his next carry, though he fumbled at the end, with T Cornell Green recovering at the six for a total gain of seven. A 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty cost Tampa Bay five yards, making it second-and-eight from the 11.

Johnson executed a very good fake handoff on second down, but his rollout pass to Cook gained only two yards. The Bucs called a timeout before running a play on third-and-six from the nine, but Johnson's pass attempt over the middle to WR Keenan McCardell was broken up by S Tank Williams.

Jackson's second return got out to the Titans' 32, and Tennessee started with George again, sending him over left tackle for a gain of six. George's second-down carry, stopped by DT Warren Sapp, picked up nothing, setting up third-and-four. O'Donnell settled for a short pass underneath to WR Derrick Mason, and Lynch's quick tackle stopped Tennessee a yard short of the sticks. Craig Hentrich's first punt went out of bounds at the 14 but was called back by a penalty. Unfortunately for the Bucs, the next kick rolled to a stop at the 11.

The Bucs got a good gain on first down, however, as Jones got around one tackler on a swing pass and ran up the left sideline for a gain of 15. Jones got just two on a run off left tackle, however, and a pass over the middle to Pittman added four. On third-and-four from the Bucs' 32, the Bucs picked up a big blitz by the Titans and Johnson found rookie WR Edell Shepherd on the left sideline. Shepherd extended nicely for the catch, then spun upfield for a gain of 14.

From the Bucs' 46, Pittman tried the middle and got two yards before LB Keith Bulluck stood him up. Shepherd then made another fine catch, leaping in front of S Lance Schulters and holding on for a gain of 12 despite a hard hit from Schulters. Shepherd was the target again on the next play, catching a seven-yard pass in traffic over the middle. A last-second dumpoff to Cook lost a yard thanks to LB Peter Sirmon's quick reaction, and the first quarter came to an end.

Second Quarter Update

Tennessee owned the second quarter, scoring three times to open up a 16-3 halftime lead. After a solid first quarter, the Bucs gained just 20 yards in the second period and fell behind in the yardage battle, 215-123. Two Buccaneer interceptions led to a pair of quick scores for the Titans, who tacked on one more field goal with a successful two-minute drill.

The Bucs faced a third-and-four at the Titans' 34 when the second quarter began, but failed to convert thanks to good coverage downfield. QB Brad Johnson had a long time in the pocket to look for an open man, but he eventually was forced into a running throw by DT Robaire Smith. CB Andre Dyson nearly intercepted the pass, but the incompletion forced a Tampa Bay punt, which went into the end zone for a touchback.

QB Neil O'Donnell tried to hit RB Eddie George on a middle screen on first down, but George was screened from the pass by the umpire. DT Warren Sapp's quick penetration on second down allowed S Jermaine Phillips to trap George for a loss of two. On third-and-12, O'Donnell stood in against a rushing Sapp and delivered a 22-yard seam pass to TE Frank Wycheck, out to the Titans' 40.

O'Donnell found WR Drew Bennett wide open on the left sideline for 16 more on the next play, and another screen to George picked up four. O'Donnell tried to hit Mason downfield against a big Buc blitz on second down, but Mason couldn't locate the high throw. Another blitz elicited another deep pass, this one intended for Bennett, but S Dwight Smith made a leaping interception in the end zone.

After the touchback, the Bucs started at their 20, handing off to RB Thomas Jones for a three-yard gain up the middle. A pass interference penalty on FB Jameel Cook pushed the Bucs into a second-and-17, and the result of the next play was even worse. DE Jevon Kearse threw up a hand to deflect Johnson's short pass over the middle, then beat Johnson to the deflection for an interception at Tampa Bay's seven.

George pounded over right tackle for a gain of four, then got the ball down to the one with another run. A gang of Buc tacklers, led by Phillips stopped George as he headed left on third-and-goal from the one, and the Titans elected to go for it. On fourth down, O'Donnell made a nice play-action fake and rolled right, but the Bucs were ready for it, and S John Lynch eventually broke up an end zone pass to TE Shad Meier.

That put the Bucs in a hole at their own one, and Jones' first-down carry barely got back out of the end zone. Johnson took a hard hit at the back of the end zone on second down but got off a five-yard pass to Jones. A third-down slant to WR Charles Lee was well-defended and incomplete, and the Bucs had to punt out of their own end zone. Tom Tupa got off a 49-yard kick, but Justin McCareins got it back to the Bucs' 38.

George immediately ripped off a 12-yard run around left end, then got three more in the same direction on the next play. On second-and-seven from the Bucs' 23, O'Donnell hit Mason on a post to the middle of the field for a touchdown and a 10-3 Tennessee lead.

A hard tackle by Ken Amato on return man Aaron Stecker forced the Bucs to start at their own 16, and they gave the ball back to Tennessee three plays later. After a three-yard catch by WR Keenan McCardell and a five-yard grab by Jones, Johnson tried to hit RB Michael Pittman on a quick slant. Unfortunately, S Tank Williams beat him to the ball and made a diving interception at the Bucs' 33.

LB Derrick Brooks stopped George for just two yards on first down, but O'Donnell found George wide open on second down for a 15-yard pass. From the Bucs' 16, George went over left guard for a gain of three. Another run in the same direction lost two yards thanks to DT Chartric Darby, and also brought on the two-minute warning. After the intermission, O'Donnell tried to hit McCareins on the left edge of the end zone but McCareins came down out of bounds. The Titans settled for Gary Anderson's 33-yard field goal and a 10-point lead.

The Bucs started on their own 20 after a touchback and Jones got four yards on a first-down carry. A personal-foul call on the Titans tacked on 15 yards, putting the ball on Tampa Bay's 39. From there, McCardell momentarily got open on a double move, but CB Andre Dyson recovered to break up the pass. Johnson had to throw the ball away on second down, and LB Peter Sirmon nearly intercepted Johnson's pass on third down. The Bucs had to punt, and Tupa had to shoot his kick below a rusher, getting just 36 yards down to Tennessee's 25.

RB Chris Browns ran hard up the middle for a six-yard gain and the Titans called their first timeout with 57 seconds left in the half. After the break, O'Donnell hit TE Erron Kinney over the middle for a first down at the Titans' 38. Kinney got to the sideline on the next play and caught another eight-yard pass before going out of bounds with 34 seconds left. O'Donnell then dumped a four-yard pass off to Brown for a first down at midfield, and the Titans used their second timeout with 25 seconds to go.

O'Donnell then got a pass off just before being sacked by DE Simeon Rice, finding Mason for a gain of 15, with Mason seeking the sideline and finding it with 17 seconds to go. After another pass over the middle to Kinney picked up nine yards to the Bucs' 26, the Titans let the clock run down to two seconds then called a timeout to try another field goal. Anderson easily nailed the 43-yarder to give Tennessee a 16-3 lead at halftime.

Third Quarter Update

Tennessee increased its lead by seven in the third quarter, following an exchange of field goals with the period's only touchdown. The Titans thus took a 26-6 lead into the fourth quarter, plus 305-211 edge in total yards. The Bucs did have the ball near Tennessee's red zone when the period ended.

A holding penalty on the opening kickoff of the third quarter erased most of a return past midfield by Thomas Jones, forcing the Bucs to start at their own 19. RB Michael Pittman got three yards on a first-down run, followed by a three-yard pass over the middle to TE Ken Dilger. QB Brad Johnson was hit as he threw on third down, however, and S Tank Williams made a leaping interception of a pop-up at the Bucs' 32.

RB Eddie George got three yards off right guard on first down, followed by a nine-yard strike by QB Neil O'Donnell to WR Derrick Mason. From the Bucs' 20, George got another carry, this one for another three yards, then ripped off a nine-yard run around left end to the Bucs' eight.

DT Warren Sapp got to George for a loss of one on the next play, and the Bucs forced him out of bounds at the six on another run around right end. On third-and-goal from the five, O'Donnell saw only well-covered men in the end zone and had to throw the ball out of the back of the end zone. Gary Anderson then came on to nail a 23-yard field goal that pumped Tennessee's lead to 19-3.

With Shaun King now at the helm of the offense, the Bucs started again from their own 37. King threw on first down, tossing a pass down the line to WR Charles Lee, who ran it upfield for a gain of 20 to the Titans' 43. After a four-yard run up the middle by Jones, the same back made it around right end for 18 more, down to the 21.

Another Jones run to the left picked up only three yards, and King's attempt to scramble up the middle on second down netted only one yard. On third-and-six, King settled for a short pass to FB Jameel Cook and the play came up three yards short. Martin Gramatica came on to nail a 33-yard field goal.

A short kickoff gave Tennessee possession at its own 36 and, after a three-yard George run, the Titans picked up 16 on a well-designed screen pass to the same man. George also got the next two carries, gaining eight and three yards and a first down at the Bucs' 34. On the next play, O'Donnell went deep to Mason and the pass just got over a leaping Ronde Barber. Mason juggled the ball but held on as he hit the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown catch. The extra point gave Tennessee a 26-6 lead.

The Bucs started the next drive at their own 29 and immediately got 14 yards on a Jones run up the middle. Nearly sacked on the next play, King still got off a six-yard pass to Lee, and a personal foul tacked on 15 yards to the Titans' 36.

After a three-yard Jones run, King nearly hit Lee on a post, but the pass was just off the receiver's fingertips. On third-and-seven, Dudley moved the sticks with an outlet pass to TE Rickey Dudley, who fought off LB Keith Bulluck for a gain of nine. From the Titans' 24, Jones took a sweep right then cut back toward the middle for a gain of one, bringing the third quarter to an end.

Fourth Quarter Update

The Bucs briefly summoned thoughts of a comeback with an early score in the final period, but Tennessee answered with a touchdown of its own and the final margin was still 20 points in the Titans' favor. Tampa Bay's 33-13 loss dropped the team's final 2003 record to 7-9, while Tennessee improved to 12-4.

The Bucs faced a second-and-nine at the Titans' 23 when the quarter began, and quickly picked up seven yards on QB Shaun King's pass over the middle to RB Thomas Jones. Jones then made a nice move on a sweep right to get near the sticks on third down, though he came up a few inches short. The Bucs went for it on fourth down and King ran it up the middle on a sneak for a gain of one and a first down at the 14.

On the next play, King let the traffic clear out of the middle then hit RB Aaron Stecker on a short pass, allowing Stecker to turn and run it into the end zone for a touchdown. That cut Tennessee's lead to 26-13.

RB Ray Jackson got the ensuing kickoff out to the Titans' 41, but Tennessee went three-and-out. Two Eddie George runs up the middle netted just three yards, and QB Neil O'Donnell's third-down pass to George was incomplete. However, Craig Hentrich's booming punt pushed the Bucs back to their own 10 with 11:39 remaining.

A short pass over the middle to RB Michael Pittman picked up four, but King was forced into a throwaway on second down. On third-and-six, King found WR Charles Lee over the middle for a gain of 17 and a first down at the Bucs' 31. Another strike to Lee on the next play picked up 16 more, but King was sacked for a loss of eight by DE Juqua Thomas on the next play.

The Bucs faced a third-and-18 after an attempted screen to RB Michael Pittman fell incomplete. King then hit WR Edell Shepherd on the right sideline on third down, but the play picked up just five yards and the Bucs had to punt. Justin McCareins called for a fair catch at the Titans' 19 with 8:40 remaining.

The Titans were more than happy to run the ball and drain the clock, and George got a combined 11 yards on his first two carries. Chris Brown came in to take the next carry and got five yards, followed by a six-yard reception by WR Derrick Mason. An offsides penalty on the Bucs made it first-and-five at the Titans' 46, but Brown's next two runs gained just one yard. O'Donnell then tried to hit Bennett deep down the right sideline but Bennett landed out of bounds after making a leaping catch.

The Bucs got a touchback on the ensuing punt, but King's first pass of the drive deflected off Pittman and was intercepted by LB Keith Bulluck, who got the ball back to the Bucs' 17.

Brown then shot off right tackle for a gain of nine and picked up three yards up the middle on his next tote. On first down from the Bucs' five, the Titans scored in a rather unusual play. Brown gained two yards on a run to the right but was forced to fumble by S Jermaine Phillips. The ball bounded into the end zone and was eventually recovered by TE Erron Kinney for the score.

Tampa Bay got the ball back at its own 34 but couldn't gain any significant yardage. After a five-yard catch by TE Rickey Dudley, King was sacked for a loss of nine by Rien Long. A Pittman run up the middle gained 10 yards but the Bucs punted as the clock ticked under one minute. Tom Tupa's kick went out of bounds at the Titans' 28 with 30 seconds to play, and Tennessee ended it with a single kneel-down.

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