S Sabby Piscitelli returned a fumble 24 yards for a touchdown at the beginning of the second half
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the New England Patriots Sunday night, 27-10, at Raymond James Stadium. Of course, as the calendar has yet to flip to September, that is only half of the story.
The Bucs and Pats' meeting was the second game of the preseason for both, and thus there was more to the wins and losses than what was apparent on the scoreboard. Mid-August is prime "fight for your job" territory, and that was clearly a driving force for several Buccaneer reserves.
So, were any jobs won on Sunday night? It sure seemed that way three minutes and five seconds into the second quarter, when Antonio Bryant reached out to snag a high pass in traffic, immediately danced around two Patriots and got around the corner for a 33-yard gain. Bryant was given the start in Joey Galloway's absence and made the most of it, gaining 37 yards on two catches and adding a key 16-yard run on a third-down end-around on the opening drive.
Or perhaps at the 5:45 mark in the second quarter, when RB Michael Bennett turned a simple run up the middle into a 23-yard gain by twice breaking out of apparent tackles. Bennett was strong in the preseason opener at Miami – 74 yards on 19 carries – but he was a revelation on Sunday night, running with both power and ankle-breaking moves. He finished the game with 57 yards on eight carries plus one reception for 13 yards and looks like he could be a real threat in the regular season.
The only question is, whether there enough jobs to go around, because Bryant and Bennett weren't alone in opening eyes on the NFL Network Sunday night. Second-year back Kenneth Darby showed off some impressive moves on back-to-back plays three minutes before halftime, gaining 12 yards on a carry and 11 on a reception. Second-year S Sabby Piscitelli came on a blitz on the first play of the second half and ended up in just the right spot, scooping up an errant shotgun snap on one hop and returning it 24 yards for a touchdown. Piscitelli blitzed the corner again two official plays later and dropped RB Sammy Morris in the backfield. And rookie CB Elbert Mack, an undrafted free agent, followed up a crushing hit on scrambling QB Matt Cassel in the second quarter with a tiptoeing interception on the sideline early in the third.
It would be hard to say that any jobs were won or lost at quarterback, however, as once again the Bucs enjoyed several strong performances at that position. Luke McCown and Brian Griese switched places from the week before, with Griese getting the first two drives and McCown finishing the half, but both of the primary competitors for the top backup spot were extremely sharp.
Griese completed all eight passes on the game-opening, 17-play touchdown drive. After two games, he is 19 of 24 for 98 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
"I feel really comfortable," said Griese. "I feel more comfort in this offense than any other offense I have been in. I really enjoy the fact that the quarterback has a lot of responsibility for getting the team in and out of the right plays at the right time, and I take that responsibility seriously."
McCown followed a reasonably good performance at Miami with an outstanding one against the Patriots, producing 10 points on his two first-half drives while completion six of seven passes for 76 yards and a touchdown before the intermission. He also came out in the third quarter and directed one short drive before giving way to Chris Simms.
Simms directed two brief drives and completed two of four passes for 24 yards. Rookie Josh Johnson came into the game with 10 minutes to play but threw only one pass (a six-yard completion) as the Bucs ran out the clock The two second-half quarterbacks received somewhat poorer protection than Griese and McCown, absorbing a total of three sacks after there were none in the first half.
The Bucs were less explosive in the second half, but the defense remained dominant and the offense once again held onto the ball. After committing zero turnovers in the preseason opener at Miami, the Bucs duplicated the feat on Sunday night. If that was impressive for one August outing in which nearly 80 men got into the game, it is now doubly so after two weeks.
A better opening drive than a week ago allowed the team's front-line skill-position players a chance to actually touch the ball. RB Earnest Graham, for instance, got the handoff on the first two plays of the game and produced nine yards with his trademark tackle-breaking style. RB Warrick Dunn was also prominently featured in the opening drive, running three times for 12 yards and catching three passes for 15 more.
Dunn received a huge round of applause after his seven-yard catch on the seventh play of the possession, a rousing homage to his five popular years as a Buccaneer (1997-2001). Dunn got his first carry of the preseason on the next play and eluded a tackle in the backfield to get just enough for a first down.
"It felt like everyone missed me, so it was good to get introduced to the crowd and they all welcomed me back with a standing ovation. That was great," said Dunn. "It was great to come out in the first quarter just to establish ourselves defensively, because I didn't play last week. It was good to get a feel for the game a little bit and just get into it. It was a great atmosphere."
Dunn's play helped preserve a drive that eventually stretched to 17 plays for 80 yards, draining 9:38 off the clock. Griese was precise on a series of mostly underneath passes, converting four third downs in the process. Griese also produced a touchdown on his only drive in the preseason opener at Miami, a similar 19-play march on which he appeared to be in complete command. Sunday night's opening possession was even more impressive in that it came against New England's starting defense, albeit with four starters on the bench.
The first drive for the Bucs' defense went just as well. RB Laurence Maroney gained eight yards on a pair of carries to start the drive, but Cassel's first pass attempt was broken up by diving LB Barrett Ruud on third-and-two. Ruud appeared to intercept the pass, but replays showed the ball hitting the ground after he initially deflected it with one hand.
The Bucs' offense went three-and-out on the next possession and New England ended up with good field position after WR Maurice Stovall was flagged for fair catch interference on the ensuing punt. Stovall got to return man Chad Jackson a bit early, and the 15-yard penalty brought the ball out to the Patriots' 38. While the result wasn't good, the play was in one way encouraging for the Bucs' special teams. Both Stovall and fellow gunner Piscitelli quickly beat the two-man blocking crew in front of them to get quick pressure on the return man.
Still, when WR Wes Welker caught a 12-yard pass on third-and-eight from midfield, the Patriots were suddenly in scoring territory. However, the drive ended on the first turnover of the preseason for the Buccaneers' defense, as Ruud forced a fumble by RB Kevin Faulk and DE Jimmy Wilkerson recovered at the Bucs' 25.
Bennett promptly broke two tackles on a 13-yard first-down run up the middle, and Bryant followed with his 33-yard catch-and-run down to New England's 30. McCown, on his first drive in the game, barely missed TE Jerramy Stevens on a third-down post into the end zone, but the Bucs still capitalized on the drive with K Matt Bryant's 34-yard field goal midway through the second quarter.
The Bucs brought on their second-team defense for the next drive and the reserves responded magnificently. Cassel and the Patriots were forced into a quick punt, in part due to DT Ryan Sims' tackle of Maroney three yards deep in the backfield.
A penalty on the punt return pushed the Bucs back to their own 14, but that only gave the Bucs' hard-charging reserves more room to operate. Bennett immediately kick-started the drive with a 23-yard run up the gut on which he shrugged off several would-be tacklers. On the very next play, Stovall snared an 18-yard pass over the middle. Darby got into the act with his 19 yards on two plays, and Bennett dazzled again with a 13-yard slash-and-dash to the one. McCown capped it with a play-action toss to FB Byron Storer on first-and-goal, making it 17-0 for the home team with 1:13 to play.
Piscitelli's fumble return made it 24-3 just after halftime, and Mack's interception set up Bryant's second field goal, a 23-yarder. Micheal Spurlock's 19-yard punt return midway through the third quarter got the ball to midfield, but Simms absorbed the first sack of the game and the Bucs had to punt after a three-and-out.
The Patriots scored on Stephen Gostkowski's 53-yard field goal to end the first half, then finally cracked the end zone five minutes into the final period on RB Heath Evans' one-yard run. For the most part, however, they had great difficulty sustaining drives against the Bucs' defense, particularly in the first half. The Patriots had just 87 yards of offense at halftime and 98 after three quarters. Evans' run, which capped a 58-yard drive, was the first touchdown Tampa Bay has allowed this preseason.
The Buccaneers are 2-0 in the preseason and will stay home for another week to play the Jacksonville Jaguars at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night. The 0-2 Patriots will head home to play host to the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday night.
Game Notes: The NFL has a new option during the opening coin flip, and the Patriots took advantage of it on Sunday night. Teams that win the toss are now allowed to defer their decision to the second half, which is what New England did after winning the toss. The Bucs then chose to receive to start the game and the Patriots got the opening possession in the third quarter. … S John Lynch made his first appearance in Raymond James Stadium since his 11-year Buc tenure came to an end after the 2003 season. Lynch, signed earlier in the week by the Patriots, came into the game on the very first drive and recorded one tackle. … The Buccaneers are now 2-0 on the preseason after also winning their opener last weekend at Miami. That marks the first time since 2003 that the team won its first two preseason outings. … Sunday's game was played on Head Coach Jon Gruden's 45th birthday. … The Buccaneers beat the Patriots in the preseason for the second straight year and are now 7-1 all-time against New England in preseason play. That .875 winning percentage marks their best total against any team in the NFL.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during the preseason. However, FB B.J. Askew didn't suit up for the Buccaneers and QB Jeff Garcia, WR Joey Galloway and DT Jovan Haye were held out due to injury.
The Patriots held quite a few players out, including QB Tom Brady, T Matt Light, G Stephen Neal, S Rodney Harrison, S James Sanders, LB Victor Hobson and LB Adalius Thomas.
Injuries: Neither sideline reported an injury during the game.