Warrick Dunn and the Bucs' running game was a bright spot in New Orleans...and a resource the team wants to tap even further
Aqib Talib mistiming his leap on a 39-yard touchdown pass to David Patten.
Ronde Barber getting tangled up with Devery Henderson and falling as the receiver sprinted on for an 84-yard score.
Matt McCoy and Jermaine Phillips failing to corral the ever-elusive Reggie Bush on his 42-yard dash to the end zone.
A handful of ill-timed penalties on offense, trouble converting on third downs and some missed connections between veterans Jeff Garcia and Joey Galloway.
These were a few of the frustrating aspects of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 24-20 loss to the Saints on Sunday, and the plays that most readily spring to mind when assessing the outcome. As is often the case in the NFL, a few crucial plays and factors tipped the scales in one direction; in this case, it was away from the Buccaneers.
"I think from an offensive standpoint, our first two third downs we had opportunities to convert and we don't make a play," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It was a dogfight. I thought we picked it up a little bit from an offensive standpoint as the game unfolded. There were some opportunities that I feel we didn't cash in on, unfortunately. As I said yesterday, we played very good defensively with the exception of four or five plays. I look at one of the explosive plays, and I believe the officials missed a holding call on that play. But that's football. The game was right down to the wire. We just didn't call the right plays, I guess, there at the end."
Still, as difficult as it was to watch his team come up just short in New Orleans, Gruden still took quite a few positives away from the outing on both sides of the ball, and in the kicking game.
Uncharacteristically, the Bucs' defense fell prey to the big play on Sunday as Drew Brees completed scoring passes of 39, 84 and 42 yards. As mentioned above, however, the damage inflicted by each of those plays could have been lessened, if not altogether wiped out, by a bit of better luck.
In the first quarter, Talib seemed to be in decent enough position on Brees' pass intended for Patten. Had Talib taken perhaps one more step in retreat before jumping high in the air, he may have gotten a hand on the pass and knocked it down, if not caught it himself. Instead, the ball sailed just out of Talib's reach and Patten cruised untouched into the end zone.
Later in the game, Brees aired out another deep pass, this time for Henderson down the left sideline. But Barber got his feet tangled up with the Saints' speedy wideout and fell to the turf, leaving Henderson alone for an 84-yard touchdown.
And in the final blow of the evening, Bush took a swing pass to the right and could've been bottled up for a short gain, but McCoy's angle prevented him from getting a hand on the shifty back. Bush then proceeded to outmaneuver Phillips and outrun cornerback Phillip Buchanon on his way to a 42-yard score. He may have even been out of bounds before crossing the goal line.
While it may be easy to chalk those costly plays up to nothing more than bad luck or a lack of execution, Gruden was quick to credit the Saints' Pro Bowl passer.
"You have to tip your hat to Brees," Gruden said. "He is a great quarterback. A couple plays that no one is talking about are the plays that he made in the pocket with a guys hanging on him, throwing the ball for first downs. He made two tremendous plays in the pocket. He is a great quarterback. He had a lot to do with their success yesterday. He's on the money down the field.
"We mistimed a jump one time. We had a chance to intercept the ball and we didn't make the play. But our guys played hard. We had six or seven series in a row where we were very impressive and we uncharacteristically gave up the big play yesterday. Hopefully it gets everybody's attention and we can do a lot better than that."
That will to improve characterized Gruden's assessment of his team's first game. While a handful of plays will certainly gnaw at him and his players throughout the week, the focus has now been shifted towards Atlanta, and with a second straight division opponent on the calendar, Gruden feels there were a lot of positives his squad can build on as they prepare for the Falcons.
"I think we ran the ball extremely well," Gruden said. "Unfortunately we had two holding calls and a 15-yard personal foul penalty that put us way behind in the down and distance. It kind of took us out of the running mentality. But we had the two-minute drills, one at the end of each half and we feel like we did some great things running the football. We had some good looks in the passing game, we've just got to convert a couple of those early first downs and get the momentum going. We've got to start better.
"It's a credit to the guys for hanging in there, coming back and answering two of New Orleans' scores with scores themselves. The last drive of a game was a good drive and put our team in a position to win. I thought [Jeremy] Zuttah had a good game, first game as a Buc. I was impressed with Antonio Bryant, first game as a Buc. Jeff Faine's first game, and B.J. Askew hadn't been playing a lot of football for us, either. So there were a lot of positive things from an offensive standpoint. We've got to score more points to win and dominate, there's no question about it. We'll do everything we can to get it right this week."
Gruden had plenty to say when asked about some of the favorable aspects of the Bucs' trip to New Orleans, but he paid special notice to the Tampa Bay running game. Earnest Graham picked up 91 yards on only 10 carries, and Warrick Dunn added another 54 on just nine carries of his own.
The game situations the Bucs offense found themselves in prevented Graham from getting an even greater opportunity to make an impact, but Gruden was still impressed with his top two backs.
"We would like to get [Graham] more involved," Gruden said. "Warrick Dunn did some good things. But when you start the game and your third play you're three-and-out, you're not going to get a lot of guys involved. We got a good drive with our second possession. We got Joey Galloway a great look to keep the drive alive inside their red zone and we don't convert. We had two holding penalties and a personal foul and when it is first-and-20 and first-and-25 it is hard to run. You know you have to throw in the two-minute situation so sometimes circumstances make it a little harder than others. I will be the first to say that Earnest played well and we've got to get it to him more and Warrick Dunn included."
As tough a loss as the Bucs' season-opening defeat was to swallow — considering how much different the outcome could have been if a few key plays went in the Bucs' favor — Gruden said his team won't linger on the loss, will build on the positives and will be ready for the Falcons.
"Your back is up against the wall every day in this league," Gruden said. "We have to fight right now; we had a tough loss [Sunday]. We lost our opener on the road last year. We have the right stuff in our locker room, and we are going to play well this week, I am confident about that."