Rookie RB Kenneth Darby ran for 84 yards in his NFL debut and helped the Bucs mount a last-minute, game-winning drive
The night started with the ultimate Buccaneer, Mike Alstott, galloping onto the field with Tampa Bay's starting offense…wearing a jersey and jeans.
If this pregame scene prompted mixed emotions among the 65,130 Buccaneer fans in attendance, the next 60 minutes of football did little to clear them up. For every promising moment in Friday night's game against the visiting New England Patriots, there was another that raised concerns…in other words, it was your typical preseason opener.
Tampa Bay won the 2007 preseason opener for both teams by a score of 13-10, getting the winning points on a 31-yard Matt Bryant field goal as time expired. As usual, the final tally was less important than many of the individual performances, and if the Bucs were looking for positives in that regard they could point to the calm effectiveness of second-string QB Luke McCown, the typically strong preseason work of RB Earnest Graham, a fine debut by rookie RB Kenneth Darby and stout defensive work against the run.
McCown was particularly impressive, completing all seven of his passes for 68 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 146.7. He was sacked three times for 12 yards, but he conducted a pair of scoring drives to end the first half and left the game early in the third quarter with his team leading, 10-7.
"The thing we're excited about is his mobility," said Head Coach Jon Gruden of McCown. "He's been on the rise since his return from a knee injury. Had he performed like this last year, he would have been our starting quarterback, no doubt about it. Luke McCown can throw the ball, he can run and he's playing heady football right now.
"We felt good about the last two drives offensively. [It was] a little slow, surely; we missed a couple throws, dropped a couple passes, but it was a clean first half, not a lot of penalties. The guys [played] hard."
When it was all said and done, the Bucs could gather some encouragement from a strong performance by the running game and the run defense. With Darby gaining 84 yards on 15 carries and Graham adding 35 yards on seven totes, the Bucs ran for 169 yards while allowing only 90. Tampa Bay's runners averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
On the other hand, the starting offense, led by free agent acquisition Jeff Garcia, was less effective during its two possessions. Garcia's two drives were a mixed bag. The Bucs didn't record a first down, but Garcia showed good mobility in avoiding the rush and had several open looks. However, his passing was just a bit off target and he had little time to get into a rhythm, finishing the game with one completion in just four attempts.
"I think we were just a little bit off on a couple of throws," said Garcia. "I think when you come into a situation like this, it's a new place for me, you're excited, you want to do well. You are probably moving through reads and progressions a little faster than normal because you want to get the ball into your receivers' hands and allow them to make some plays. It was just one of those things where the timing wasn't right tonight and the location of the ball wasn't where it needed to be. Those are things that will be ironed out and we will get much better."
The Bucs also recorded one sack on defense – a major offseason emphasis – and lost the turnover battle, 1-0. There was, too, that emotional Alstott moment to kick off the night. While the crowd's reaction to their long-time favorite was surely gratifying for Alstott – he could be seen fighting back tears as he embraced teammate Derrick Brooks – it also underscored the fact that the Bucs would be without one of their emotional leaders in 2007.
There was no emotion lacking among Buccaneer defenders, surprisingly. Though they surely knew their presence in the game would be short-lived, Tampa Bay's starting defensemen came out of the gate with impressive gusto. Tom Brady and the Patriots' starting defense stayed in for two drives against the Bucs' first team but produced only 47 yards and no serious scoring threats. Veteran CB Ronde Barber set the tone with a tackle for loss on RB Sammy Morris two plays into the game, and rookie defensive end Gaines Adams responded with a big pass break-up on third down to thwart the second drive.
However, most of Tampa Bay's starting defense was still on the field for New England's third drive, which was led by backup quarterback Matt Cassel.
Cassel engineered a 65-yard touchdown drive to give New England a 7-0 lead two minutes into the second period. He completed three of four passes for 21 yards on the drive, but did his most important work with his feet. Facing a third-and-13 at the Bucs' 28, Cassel scrambled for 12 yards, then snuck up the middle on fourth-and-one to move the chains. RB Sammy Morris, the former Dolphin, finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown run up the middle.
That scoring drive nearly ended before it started, as LB Derrick Brooks broke on a short pass to RB Sammy Morris in the left flat and was in possession to make an interception. Brooks did break up the pass but he was disappointed to have missed on the turnover opportunity.
"I broke on the play and I thought I had it, but I ended up hitting my own teammate," said Brooks. "Hopefully I'll be ready to catch the next one.
"I'm not happy we gave up a score. But we'll go back to the drawing board and see what we did wrong. We will watch the tape, make our corrections and just get ready for Jacksonville."
The Bucs countered immediately, however, when their second-team offense mounted a strong drive against the Patriots' starting defense. Quarterback Luke McCown, seeing his first game action in two years, directed a 13-play, 62-yard drive that reached New England's 11-yard line before coming to a halt. A sack by DL Mike Wright forced the Bucs into a field goal attempt, which K Matt Bryant nailed from 36 yards out.
Cassel's second drive was a quick three-and-out, but McCown continued his strong performance with 78-yard touchdown drive on the next possession. The surprisingly mobile passer kept the drive alive with several heady scrambles before turning to third-year WR Paris Warren to get the ball into the end zone. McCown hit Warren three times in succession, the last an 11-yard scoring strike over the middle. At halftime, McCown had completed all six of his passes for 61 yards and added 28 yards on three runs.
McCown left the game after one third-quarter possession, with the Bucs up 10-7, ceding the offense to second-year QB Bruce Gradkowski. New England tied the game early in the fourth quarter on a 12-play, 61-yard drive led by third-string QB Matt Gutierrez. The Bucs' defensive backups put together a nice goal line stand after the Patriots earned a first down at the Tampa Bay six on a pass-interference call, forcing Stephen Gostkowski to kick a game-tying, 23-yard field goal.
Behind Gradkowski's strong work – he complete six of 11 passes for 50 yards and no interceptions in the second half – the Bucs mounted the game-winning drive over the game's final six minutes. First-year wide receiver Kyle Smith gave the Bucs good field position with an 18-yard punt return, then converted a critical third-and-seven near midfield with a sliding catch on a deep slant.
Darby did the rest, gaining 31 yards on seven straight carries to position Bryant for his 32-yarder. Bryant made the kick with ease, sending the Bucs to their sixth consecutive preseason-opening win.
As promised, the Bucs emptied out the 86-man roster before the night was up. DT Jovan Haye, the new starter at under tackle, led the defense with four solo tackles and his main competition for that spot, Ellis Wyms, had the team's only sack to go with three solo stops. Adams finished with two tackles to go with his big pass defensed.
The Bucs make their first road trip of the year next week, traveling to Jacksonville for an 7:30 p.m. game on the evening of Saturday, August 18.
Game Notes: The Bucs are now 6-1 all-time against New England in the preseason, including 4-1 at home. They haven't lost to the Patriots in the preseason since 1981. …With fullback Mike Alstott on injured reserve as of Thursday, the Bucs reacted by starting RB Michael Pittman at fullback. … Rookie punter Sean Douglas handled the opening kickoff for the game, rather than K Matt Bryant. Douglas eventually kicked three kickoffs and also punted twice for 73 yards, one touchback and one kick inside the 20. … The Buccaneers opened the game in a nickel defense to counter the Patriots' three-receiver set. That put starting CB Ronde Barber in the slot, CB Phillip Buchanon on the outside and linebackers Ryan Nece and Derrick Brooks on the field as the nickel 'backers. LB Cato June came out in the nickel. … With starting middle linebacker Barrett Ruud out with a bruised knee, sixth-year veteran Ryan Nece started at that spot, where he has been earning his stripes during training camp. Nece also stayed in with the second-team unit when the Bucs switched defenses after three drives. He finished the game with one solo tackle … WR Paris Warren, a seventh-round pick in 2007, caught a game-high four passes for 46 yards and the Bucs' only touchdown.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during preseason play. However, the Bucs did announce before the game that the following players would not suit up: WR Michael Clayton, LB Barrett Ruud, T Luke Petitgout and S Sabby Piscitelli.
Injuries: Neither team reported an injury during the game.