The Tampa Bay Buccaneers believe they forged a new level of team camaraderie during their insular week spent outside London preparing for their second International Series game. On Sunday, they needed every bit of that unity on a difficult evening filled with injuries and momentum-killing moments, and it finally manifested itself during a never-say-die fourth quarter.
In the end, however, it wasn't enough, and the Buccaneers left London's Wembley Stadium with a loss for the second time in three years. Tampa Bay nearly treated the 77,000 NFL-crazy fans at Wembley to one of their patented last-minute comebacks, but D.J. Moore's interception with 30 seconds left clinched a 24-18 victory for the Chicago Bears.
"It's tough to be that close and not win," said T Donald Penn. "We have no excuses at all. We were here for a week and I felt well-rested."
The Bucs got nearly half of their 280 total yards in the final quarter after struggling all game to find a rhythm on offense. It didn't help, of course, that starting RB Earnest Graham was lost to a leg injury on the first play of Tampa Bay's second offensive series, leaving them with only one healthy tailback in the person of Kregg Lumpkin. Later injuries to Tanard Jackson, Jeremy Zuttah and Mason Foster took three more starters out of the game, where they joined Gerald McCoy, Jeff Faine and LeGarrette Blount on the sideline.
The Bucs weren't looking for excuses, but they had to search a while to find an answer for Bears RB Matt Forte, who came into the game as the NFL's leader in combined rushing and receiving yards. Forte ran for 145 yards on 25 carries and added 38 yards on two catches, 36 of those coming late in the fourth quarter to set up Robbie Gould's 25-yard field goal for the game's final points. Those were also Chicago's first points after building a 21-5 lead early in the fourth quarter, an indication that the Bucs' defense found a way to keep the team in the game even with so many starters on the sideline.
The Bucs also took some time to find any lasting precision on offense and had just 137 yards at halftime. QB Josh Freeman struggled until the fourth quarter but ended up completing 29 of 51 passes for 26 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted a season-high four times, however, and finished with a passer rating of 51.4. Freeman's job was made tougher by the disappearance of the rushing attack, which gained just 30 yards on 11 carries.
"We gave too many series away early in the game and it came back to hurt us," said Penn. "You've got to start faster. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't, and when we don't it's hard to fight your way out of it, as we saw today. We've got to start faster and we've got to finish in the red zone, and that's going to be the story of our season."
WR Dezmon Briscoe, who came on strong at the end of 2010 but had been overshadowed somewhat in 2011 by fellow youngster Preston Parker, re-emerged as a threat with six catches for 73 yards and a score. He converted two important third downs by fighting through tacklers and then pulled the Bucs within three points with seven minutes left on a 24-yard touchdown.
The Bucs needed one more defensive stop after Parker's catch but Forte's breakaway got the ball down to the four-yard line. The defense then held at the goal line to apparently force a field goal, but a personal foul after a third-down sack by Barber gave the Bears a new set of downs. The defense impressively held again to save four points, but the extra three plays drained the clock down to just inside the two-minute warning. Freeman quickly drove the Bucs into Chicago territory on the ensuing drive but Moore's pick in front of Parker down the middle of the field ended the threat.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, still trailing by 16, Freeman hit TE Kellen Winslow on a two-yard touchdown pass to complete a 21-yard drive that followed Corey Lynch's one-handed interception. The Bucs went for two to try to pull within seven points but the attempt failed. Lynch, who replaced Jackson after the starting safety suffered a hamstring injury in the first half, got the Bucs their second turnover of the game. The first was turned in by Jackson before his injury, as he intercepted a tipped pass in the first half and returned it to the Bears' red zone to set up Connor Barth's field goal.
The Bucs' other two points came courtesy of Ronde Barber's tackle of Forte in the end zone for a safety in the first quarter. Barber finished the game with five tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, a quarterback pressure and three passes defensed, though one of his pass break-ups was nearly a pick six in the second quarter, and a missed opportunity that clearly infuriated the veteran defender.
Rookie DE Adrian Clayborn recorded the Bucs' other sack among his three tackles, and Lynch finished with three stops and three pass break-ups in place of Jackson. Punter Michael Koenen once again helped keep the Bucs in the game with his field-position work, averaging 47.6 yards on eight punts, with an excellent net of 43.5 and three kicks inside the 20 versus no touchbacks. Tellingly, dangerous return man Devin Hester finished with just 33 yards on five punt runbacks and 14 yards on one kickoff return.
Neither team scored on its opening possession, but one great special teams play followed a bad one and helped the Bucs' gain an early field-position edge. Koenen surprisingly shanked the opening kickoff out of bounds to give Chicago an game-opening drive start of its own 40. However, Tampa Bay's defense forced a quick three-and-out and Koenen followed the Bucs' own failed first possession with a 56-yard punt that kept Hester contained.
However, Forte quickly turned that advantage around with runs of 22 and 32 yards, the second one finding the end zone for the game's first touchdown, just six minutes into the game. Forte's TD run was impressive, as he weaved all over the right side of the field before eventually walking in untouched.
The Buccaneers scored next after an unusual trio of plays, all won by the two defenses. Jackson needed just one hand to pick off a pass that deflected off the hands of RB Marion Barber, and he returned it 43 yards to the Bears' 12. On the Bucs' next play, Freeman hit Williams at the one-yard line but the ball was bobbled and ended up in the arms of S Chris Conte for an interception at the two-yard line. Barber got around the right edge of the Bears' line and trapped Forte, with help, before the back could get out of the end zone.
The Bucs got good field position out of that play, too, as the Bears had to kick away from their own 20 following the safety. Unfortunately, a penalty-marred series followed for the Bucs' offense and the Bucs had to punt it away. After another exchange of punts, Cutler led Chicago on a 79-yard touchdown drive that ended in his 25-yard touchdown pass to Roy Williams on a third-and-seven play.
Tampa Bay's offense did manage to get going in the final two minutes of the half, as Freeman drove it 77 yards in 10 plays to set up Barth's 33-yard field goal. Briscoe's 20-yard catch keyed the drive but a third-down pass to Lumpkin came up inches short in the red zone and the Bucs had to settle for Barth's three points.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Sunday's game.)
The Bucs got the ball first in the second half but did nothing with it, going three-and-out with three incompletions. A short punt by Koenen and a Cutler middle-of-the-field strike to Knox got Chicago right back into scoring range, and the Bears converted a third-and-11 after Clayborn's two-yard sack. Three plays later, on third-and-one, Barber took a handoff and shot right, running all the way in for a 12-yard score to give Chicago a 21-5 lead.
On the Bucs' ensuing drive, Freeman was intercepted by linebacker Lance Briggs on the second play. Briggs worked his way down the sideline to the end zone but the return was called back thanks to an illegal block after the turnover.
The Bears got it back at the midfield stripe as a result and faced a third-and-nine after CB Aqib Talib made a diving pass breakup and LB Adam Hayward tripped up Forte up the middle. Cutler escaped a collapsing pocket on third down and nearly fit a low throw in to Knox, but it was out of his reach. Moments later, the Bucs were right back at their 20-yard line after a punt and Parker's return.
This drive didn't start off any better, as an end-around by WR Arrelious Benn and a run left by Lumpkin netted a combined one yard. Briscoe got the first down by bashing through two Bears tacklers after a shot catch and extending the ball past the 30. Two passes to Winslow, one incomplete and one for just one yard, made it third-and-nine again, and this time Freeman was sacked for a 14-yard loss by DT Amobi Okoye. A short punt and a seven-yard return by Hester put the Bears right back over midfield.
The Bears' offense remained in tune, getting a first down on an outlet pass to FB Tyler Clutts and a sweep right by Forte. The Bucs' defense sniffed out a pitch to Hester, however, and Hayes dropped him back at the Tampa Bay 38 for a loss of six. Cutler got a lob off before a big Bucs blitz arrived on the next play and it found Hester for a gain of 11. On third-and-five, Tampa Bay blitzed again and a quick pass to Sanzenbacher came up a yard short. The Bears sent out K Robbie Gould to kick a 41-yard field goal but he pushed it wide to the right.
The Bucs took back over at their own 31 but a first-down screen to Lumpkin lost a yard and also resulted in an injury to center Jeremy Zuttah. On third-and-16, following a false start, the Bucs settled for a short screen to Lumpkin, who fought his way upfield but came up six yards short. A fine punt by Koenen and a penalty on the Bears took the ball back to the Chicago 10.
The Bears faced a third-and-three after DE Michael Bennett stopped Forte for no gain on second down, and Sanzenbacher's pivot route in the middle didn't get him open enough for Cutler's lob to find him. The Bears' punt was fair caught by Parker at the Bucs' 41.
Freeman's pass on second down found Williams for a gain of 13 and a first down in Bears territory. That play ended the third quarter. As the fourth period begin, a dumpoff over the middle to Lumpkin got 10 and Parker's nine-yard catch was followed by a personal foul that put the ball at the Chicago 14. However, Urlacher picked off Freeman's attempted pass to Parker over the middle on the next play but fumbled it back on his return. The Bears challenged the play and won, plus got a personal foul tacked on top to bring it all the way out to the 32.
Cutler tried a quick slant to Knox but it was broken up by Barber. On the next play, Cutler threw while falling backward with Bennett in his face and Lynch leaped to pull down the floater with one hand. Lynch's spinning return got 14 yards back to the Chicago 21, and a pass over the middle to Williams was good for six. After a slant to Williams was broken up, Freeman waited for the same receiver to work open over the middle on third down and found him with a dart at the two. The Bucs then split three receivers to the left but Freeman threw a back-shoulder pass to Winslow on the right for a touchdown. Tampa Bay went to two but an attempted slant to Williams was incomplete.
The Bucs coverage teams stopped Hester at the Bears' 13 on the kickoff, but two runs by Forte made it third-and-one at the 22. The Bears gave it to Barber to try to convert the third-and-one but DT Frank Okam led a gang to the ball and stopped him for no gain to kill the drive. A penalty on Chicago on the punt allowed Tampa Bay to start at the Chicago 48.
The Bucs pulled out a trick play on first down, with WR Micheal Spurlock taking a handoff and then doubling back to the right to throw deep downfield to Williams. Spurlock's throw was a deep, tight spiral but Williams had Conte on him and couldn't quite pull it down. Freeman found Winslow after a long time in the pocket for a 14-yard gain and a first down, but the Bucs were flagged for delay of game before the next snap. On first-and-15, another Winslow catch picked up eight, and two plays later Briscoe once again fought through tacklers for just enough to move the sticks on third down. Freeman rewarded him by going right back to him on the next play for a 24-yard touchdown that pulled Tampa Bay within a field goal, 21-18, with 7:17 left in regulation.
The Bears started at their own 29 and got six yards on a Forte run up the gut. A play-action pass to Hester got the ball right to the midfield stripe as the clock ticked down to six minutes. Cutler buried a screen pass in the turf on first down but Williams held onto the ball on a seam pass after bobbling it to get to the Bucs' 35. A quick-hitter to Forte then worked perfectly as he took it all the way down to the Bucs' four. Cutler tried to hit Hester on a quick slant but it was well-covered and incomplete. Lynch almost made a diving pick on the next play, an ill-advised lob over the middle.
The Bucs were then hit by a wild swing of emotions. Barber timed a blitz perfectly to sack Cutler before he could even get the play started, ostensibly forcing the Bears to try a field goal. However, after the play Talib and Roy Williams began jawing and the Bucs' DB was eventually flagged for a personal foul that carried an automatic first down.
The Bucs' defense wouldn't quit and stopped Forte and Barber runs for a total loss of five yards back to the Tampa Bay 12. A sweep to Forte didn't work either, but it brought on the two-minute warning as the Bears brought out the field goal unit. Gould easily made a 25-yarder, leaving the Bucs with 1:50 on the clock and a six-point deficit.
Parker fielded a bouncing kickoff on the run and got it back to the Bucs' 28, but Freeman's first-down pass was thrown away under pressure. Parker worked open on the next play up the left seam and Freeman found him at the 43 for a first down. Williams made a sliding catch on the next play after Freeman stepped up in the pocket and fired the ball over the middle of the field. An incompletion down the left sideline stopped the clock with 44 seconds left and the ball at the Chicago 39.
Freeman acrobatically escaped a sack on the next play and threw to Parker on the sideline but it was incomplete. On third down, Freeman tried to hit Parker again down the middle of the field but it was picked off by Moore.
Game Notes: Chicago leads the all-time Bucs-Bears series, 36-18, though it's an even 3-3 since the 2002 realignment put the two teams in different division. … OL Jeremy Zuttah, who started the game at center in place of the injured Jeff Faine, appeared in the 50th game of his NFL career. He has started 35 of those 50 games at three different positions – LG, RG and C. … The Goo Goo Dolls performed on the field prior to the start of Sunday's game. Noah Stewart than sang the U.S. National Anthem and Katherine Jenkins sang God Save the Queen. … CB Ronde Barber put another statistical mark in his incredible career in the first quarter when he tackled RB Matt Forte in the end zone for a safety, the first of Barber's career. It was only the 10th safety in Buccaneers history and the team's first since Sept. 18, 2005, when LB Shelton Quarles sacked Buffalo QB J.P. Losman in the end zone.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Sammie Stroughter, CB Myron Lewis, RB LeGarrette Blount, C Jeff Faine, T James Lee, TE Zack Pianalto and DT Gerald McCoy. Stroughter, Blount, Faine and McCoy were out due to injury.
The Bears declared these seven inactives: QB Nathan Ederle, S Major Wright, T Gabe Carimi, DT Matt Toeaina, WR Earl Bennett, DE Mario Addison and DE Corey Wootton. Wright, Carimi, Toeaina and Bennett were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, RB Earnest Graham sustained an ankle injury on the Bucs' opening drive and did not return. LB Mason Foster suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter, as well, and did not return. FB Erik Lorig sustained a right shoulder injury in the first quarter while covering a punt but was able to return in the first half. S Tanard Jackson left the game in the second quarter with a hamstring injury and did not return. C Jeremy Zuttah hurt his knee in the third period and did not return.
If the Bears suffered any injuries of note on Sunday, they did not report them from the sidelines during the game.