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Lost in the Middle

The Bucs started strong and finished with a rush on Saturday but lost their second preseason game to Miami, 13-10…The first-team defense and rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski shined


DT Anthony McFarland's sack was one of three times the Bucs dropped QB Daunte Culpepper on Miami's first two drives

Football coaches aren't big on moral victories, even in the preseason. Still, there was a definite silver lining in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 13-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night: The home team's starters were very sharp, particularly on defense.

Two silver linings, actually. The Bucs also got another eye-opening performance by rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski, who nearly rallied the team to victory in the fourth quarter.

The game pitted starters against starters for most of the first quarter, and that period belonged to the Buccaneers' first-string defense…what was left of it, that is. After two series each between the starting units, Tampa Bay had a 3-0 lead and had allowed only 11 yards of offense to new Miami QB Daunte Culpepper and his Dolphin attack. Culpepper eventually directed a 70-yard touchdown drive against the Bucs' second string defense, and Miami used three second-half turnovers to turn away Tampa Bay's comeback attempt.

The Bucs started a lot of new blood on defense but still got off to a much better start than they had a week before. The Dolphins' first offensive series went back two yards on three plays against a unit that included Jamie Winborn, Barrett Ruud, Dewayne White and Kalvin Pearson instead of Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles, Simeon Rice and Will Allen. It was an old stand-by who made the first big play on defense, however, as CB Ronde Barber's lunging PBU denied a potential first-down pass to big-play receiver Chris Chambers.

"We had four guys that didn't start for us," said Barber. "Overall, I was impressed with the first group. We were in there for two drives, we had two three-and-outs and I think we had two or three sacks in our drives. So we got off to a fast start and that's what we were talking about all week."

That story repeated itself on offense, as a smattering of new starters didn't slow down the Bucs' opening drive. David Boston replaced Joey Galloway at receiver, Earnest Graham stood in for Cadillac Williams in the backfield and Davin Joseph and Sean Mahan represented changes on the offensive line. Again, however, it was a handful of last year's standouts that made the big plays early. WRs Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard had 14 and 13-yard catches of Chris Simms passes to move the Bucs down to the Miami 27, and FB Mike Alstott followed with a pair of his patented crowd-pleasing rumbles to get the ball down to the 13. The drive stalled there, but Matt Bryant gave the Bucs the game's first points with an easy 33-yard field goal at almost exactly the midway point of the first quarter.

"We came out aggressive as an offense," said Clayton. "We ran the ball well. We came out aggressive in the passing game and we were able to get a couple first downs and completions. That's the mode we want Chris to be in when we come out early for our regular season."

Both teams kept their starting units on for the Dolphins' second possession, but the Miami coaching staff might have wished they hadn't considering an understandable level of concern over Culpepper's surgically repaired knee. The former Minnesota Vikings star, acquired in a trade during the offseason, was sacked on each of the first two plays of the second drive, once by a blitzing Ruud and once by DT Anthony McFarland. Culpepper popped up quickly both times, but the Dolphins punted again and through two possessions had no first downs.

Both starting crews were still on the field for the Bucs' second series, too, but this one was a non-starter for the home team. Simms actually threw an impressive 16-yard strike to Hilliard on third-and-15, but the play was erased by Sean Mahan's holding penalty and the Bucs had to punt.

"Our starting defense played two series and got off the field quickly," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "The offense put points on the board on the first possession. Overall, I was pleased with the way our offense and defense started this game tonight."

The Bucs were the first to pull their starters, sending in the second-team unit against Culpepper and company on the Dolphins' third series. Not much changed, as Ruud got to Culpepper again, forcing a 15-yard intentional-grounding penalty and the Dolphins had to punt again. The Bucs also kept their starting offense out for a third set against Miami's starting D, but that drive went nowhere, either. Still, Tampa Bay's starting defenders were impressed with their immediate replacements.

"Those guys are ready to play," said Barber. "Monte [Kiffin] always talks about having quality depth and it definitely showed up on that drive. We know what K.P. can do in there, he's been in there for us before. And with Barrett getting some time, that's good for him in the long run. Overall, I was impressed with their play."

Culpepper and the Miami starters finally got moving against the Bucs' reserves on the next possession, marching 70 yards on 13 plays. Rookie WR Derek Hagan had a key 12-yard catch on third-and-nine to get the ball into the Bucs' red zone and RB Sammy Morris dived over the top from one yard out on third down to give Miami a 7-3 lead with five minutes to play in the first half.

Miami's second-string quarterback, Joey Harrington, finally got into the game with two minutes to go in the first half and was sacked on his first play by a blitzing Winborn. However, Harrington made the most of the remaining time in the half, however, driving Miami down to the Bucs' 23 to give K Olindo Mare a chance to kick a 41-yard field goal as time expired.

After Tim Rattay's interception ended the Bucs' first drive of the second half, the intriguing Gradkowski, star of Tampa Bay's 16-3 win over the New York Jets last Friday, came in to a huge round of applause from the Raymond James crowd. They were rewarded with a nice series by Gradkowski, though that first drive ended in another turnover. Gradkowski found two of his fellow 2006 draftees, TE Tim Massaquoi for seven yards and WR Maurice Stovall for 36, but FB Carey Davis fumbled the ball away at Miami's 17.

Gradkowski was once again a bright spot among the team's young reserves. He completed 11 of 14 passes for 193 yards, one touchdown and one interception, compiling a passer rating of 112.8. He also ran three times for 10 yards. Through two games, Gradkowski is 22 of 27 for 297 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

In the fourth quarter, he connected on a 48-yard touchdown pass to WR Edell Shepherd that brought the Bucs to within three with seven minutes to play. The defense got the ball back with four minutes remaining, but Gradkowski's valiant attempt at a winning drive ended on a deflected ball interception just after the two-minute warning. Before the turnover, Gradkowski had hit Shepherd for two more gains of 17 and 28 yards to get the ball down to Miami's 32.

"He's going to be a heck of a young quarterback," said Gruden. "He is a heck of a young quarterback. He made a couple of great audibles. The Dolphins do a great job of blitzing. It's a tough defense to move the ball against and he made some great plays – decisions and throws. It's unfortunate the game ended the way it did, but he stood in there tough. I'm really pleased with what he did tonight."

Overall, however, the Dolphins controlled the action for most of the second and third quarters, and that made the difference. The Bucs did rally for 300 yards and 14 first downs on offense, but roughly half of that came on Gradkowski's last two drives. Tampa Bay's various waves of defense allowed only 260 yards after giving up just 185 to the Jets last Friday.

The Bucs are now 1-1 in the 2006 preseason and will hit the road for the first time next weekend, traveling to Jacksonville for a Saturday night game against the Jaguars on August 26.

Game Notes: Sean Mahan started at center for the first time since the 2004 season finale. Mahan opened the last eight games of the '04 season at that position after a season-ending knee injury to John Wade, but Wade made an inspiring recovery from that injury to start every contest in 2005 while Mahan slid over to right guard. This summer, rookie first-rounder Davin Joseph has started both games at right guard, while Wade and Mahan have split the first two starts at center. Head Coach Jon Gruden held out Wade on Saturday night specifically to get a look at Mahan with the first-team unit. … Special teams jobs can often earn players a spot on the roster, even if they're not being counted on to play extensively on offense or defense. One of the more kicking-team jobs is that of "gunner" or "forcer" on punt coverage, the two men who split wide on punts and are allowed to leave before the kick. CB Blue Adams and WR Derek McCoy were the forcers on the Bucs' first punt of the night, though Josh Bidwell's booming, 62-yard punt into the end zone rendered their efforts moot. … Rookie CB Justin Phinisee was the second Buc to line up deep on punts after last year's return man, Mark Jones, fielded Miami's first two punts. Phinisee returned two punts for a total of six yards. … CB James Patrick returned Miami's first kickoff, which came with five minutes left in the first half. Patrick gained 24 yards on the runback. … The Bucs are now 7-14 all-time against the Dolphins in 21 preseason meetings. The two teams have split their eight regular-season decisions evenly. … The Buccaneers will officially begin work at their new, state-of-the-art training facility on Sunday morning. The team will allow the press into the facility's enormous weight room in the afternoon to conduct interviews with Head Coach Jon Gruden and veteran LB Derrick Brooks. The team's first practice at the facility will be on the morning of Monday, August 21.

Inactives: Technically, there are no inactive players for preseason games. There were a handful of players who didn't participate in the game, however, including LBs Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles, S Will Allen, DE Simeon Rice, RB Cadillac Williams and WR Joey Galloway. Jamie Winborn started at weakside linebacker, Barrett Ruud at middle linebacker, Dewayne White at right defensive end and Kalvin Pearson at free safety. David Boston replaced Galloway in the starting lineup on offense, while Earnest Graham got the call in place of Williams with reserve Michael Pittman also held out of the contest.

The Dolphins didn't play starting CB Travis Daniels, who was replaced at right cornerback by Andre` Goodman..

Injuries: LB Marquis Cooper suffered a shoulder injury on the game's opening kickoff but was able to continue playing in the game. Miami DT Kevin Vickerson sustained a hand injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.

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