One week after containing rushing-threat QB Cam Newton, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new-look defense picked off prolific pocket passer Eli Manning three times Sunday at MetLife Stadium, leading to a 24-13 halftime lead over the New York Giants.
Eric Wright, one of the Buccaneers' key free agent acquisitions in the offseason, returned the third of those picks 60 yards for a touchdown just before halftime, nimbly eluding a host of Giants tacklers near midfield before finding the left sideline. Interceptions by LB Brandon McDonald and Mason Foster in the second quarter also led directly to Tampa Bay touchdowns.
QB Josh Freeman found WR Vincent Jackson for a beautiful 29-yard touchdown following Foster's pick, and rookie RB Doug Martin scored after McDonald's takeaway on a nifty eight-yard run that started with a spin move in the backfield. The Freeman-to-Jackson connection was the Bucs' best offensive weapon in the first half, as the two hooked up three times for 87 yards, including a 41-yard strike in the first quarter that set up Connor Barth's 45-yard field goal.
Manning did lead the Giants' offense to 277 first-half yards, but the Bucs were opportunistic when they needed to be. The home team's only touchdown of the half was a 23-yard catch by WR Hakeem Nicks, who had five catches for 93 yards. Fellow starter Victor Cruz caught nine first-half passes for 94 yards as Manning repeatedly worked it to him in the middle of the field.
Three members of the Giants' offense left the game with injuries before halftime: starting right tackle David Diehl (knee), starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) and reserve wide receiver Domenik Hixon (concussion).
The Buccaneers deferred after winning the toss and rookie RB David Wilson took the opening kickoff out of the end zone to the Giants' 30. After throwing a quick slant to Nicks on the first play, Manning pumped a similar play on second down then went down the right sideline to the same receiver. CB Aqib Talib was right on Nicks, but the receiver made an impressive leaping catch and got 40 yards to the Bucs' 22. Tampa Bay held there, as another shot to Nicks on the outside was batted away by Talib in the end zone. Lawrence Tynes got the scoring started with a 37-yard field goal.
The Bucs dodged a bullet on the ensuing kickoff when Arrelious Benn fumbled on the return but Quincy Black recovered for Tampa Bay at the 13. The Bucs went immediately to the rookie Martin, who got four tough yards up the gut, and Freeman moved the sticks with a button-hook pass to Williams for 11. Three plays later, on third-and-seven, a screen to RB D.J. Ware came up short and Connor Barth came on to tie the game with a 45-yard field goal.
A rare mis-hit on the kickoff by Michael Koenen resulted in a short bouncer and possession for the Giants at their own 31. Bradshaw got nothing on first down thanks to DTs Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller, but Cruz found a hole in the Bucs' zone on second down and got 16 yards almost to midfield. A slant over the middle to Domenik Hixon got the Giants down to the Bucs' two, thanks in part to an unnecessary roughness call on LB Mason Foster. An attempted trick-play pass to tackle-eligible Will Beatty failed when Beatty had the ball go through his hands in the end zone. Bradshaw got just a yard up the middle on second down and Diehl came off the field with an apparent injury after the play. Before the third-and-goal snap, a false start cost the Giants five yards. Manning was able to thread a pass through traffic to TE Martellus Bennett on third down but it was dropped, and the deflection nearly intercepted. The Giants settled for another Tynes field goal, this one a 24-yarder to make it 6-3.
An end-around by Preston Parker got the Bucs a quick first down on the ensuing drive, and Freeman got the ball over midfield with a 17-yard dart through traffic to Jackson. However, a deep ball to Jackson on the next play just missed and Freeman was buried by LB Chase Blackburn before he could set up to throw on second down. A draw play to Ware couldn't convert the third-and-17 and Koenen came on for the game's first punt on the first play of the second quarter.
The punt was fair caught at the 11 and Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back one play later. Manning tried to hit Bennett down the left seam but Foster cut into the throw's path and intercepted it at the Giants' 28. It was third-and-11 two plays later, however, when the Bucs went up top. Freeman stood alone in the backfield and had the rush in his face as he lobbed a perfect pass down the left sideline to Jackson. Jackson fought off coverage from CB Michael Coe and separated at the two-yard line to make the catch and glide into the end zone.
After a Cruz catch for 12 yards nets a quick first down, Talib got another pass break-up on a quick slant attempt to Nicks. On third-and-seven, it was Nicks against Talib again, and though the Giants' receiver made an impressive catch, Talib pulled him down two yards short of a first down and New York had to punt for the first time.
The Bucs started at their own 26 but quickly faced a third-and-16 after a sack of Freeman by DE Jason Pierre-Paul, and a screen to TE Dallas Clark was swarmed over for a loss of four. After Koenen's second punt, a 52-yarder, Manning and the Giants started up again at their own 45. A Cruz catch put the ball over midfield but on third-and-six from Tampa Bay's Manning overthrew Cruz and McDonald intercepted and followed a wall of blockers down the sideline. RB Andre Brown was able to pull McDonald down, but he was flagged for a horse-caller penalty, putting the ball at the Giants' 13. Martin ran once up the middle for five yards, then on second down pulled off a stunning spin move in the backfield and found the left corner for the eight-yard score.
Brown broke free up the middle for 23 yards on first down to start the next drive but a holding penalty on Brown's next run backed the Giants back to their 33. A defensive holding penalty on Eric Wright got New York out of that hole, and Manning started working the middle of the field for a bunch of short passes to Cruz. A three-yard out to Cruz on third-and-two put the ball at the Bucs' 35 just before the two-minute warning, and Brown found a gap up the middle again for 12 more. After the two-minute warning, the Bucs blitzed and Manning found Nicks in a seam down the right side for a 23-yard score.
A three-and-out by the Bucs' offense allowed the Giants to take another crack at the scoreboard before halftime, although a long return of Koenen's punt was erased by a pair of penalties. Still, Manning threw a quick post pass to Nicks to start the drive with a 17-yard gain to the New York 42. The Giants used their last timeout of the half after a 13-yard Cruz catch put the ball at the Bucs' 39 with 29 seconds left in the half.
After an incompletion made it third-and-two, manning tried to throw a real short pass right at the line of scrimmage and Wright somehow picked it off. Wright then began weaving around the middle of the field, avoiding would-be tacklers and looking for a seam. He found one, suddenly, hit the right sideline and ran 60 yards for a touchdown.