The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got big plays from all three phases of their team – offense, defense and special teams – as they built a 20-7 halftime lead over the visiting Patriots on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium. With both teams playing their starting units for the entire first half, the Buccaneers pulled ahead on touchdowns by a pair of rookies and held a powerful New England offense to just 118 total yards.
Rookie RB Doug Martin, the second of Tampa Bay's two first-round picks in April's draft, scored on a one-yard run to cap a 68-yard game-opening drive led by QB Josh Freeman. Three possessions later, S Mark Barron – the Buccaneers' other 2012 first-rounder picked off a pass that had been tipped by S Ronde Barber and returned it 22 yards for the game's second score.
Two field goals of more than 50 yards, one each by kickers Connor Barth (56) and Kai Forbath (51) allowed the Bucs to stretch their lead to 13 points by the intermission. New England scored its only points in the second quarter on a 12-play, 81-yard drive that ended in RB Stevan Ridley's one-yard touchdown run.
Freeman completed five of his first six passes but the Bucs' passing game failed to hold onto that early momentum, as he finished the first half with nine completions in 17 attempts for 89 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. He completed three passes to WR Vincent Jackson on the opening drive for a total of 49 yards. Pro Bowler Tom Brady was harassed frequently by the Buccaneers' defense and finished with nine completions in 14 attempts for 80 yards, no touchdown and one pick.
The Bucs finished the first half with a 138-118 edge in total yardage, helped by Martin's 42 yards on 10 attempts. The Patriots ran for 57 yards on 15 carries, but more than half of that came on one 29-yard run by Ridley on the aforementioned TD drive. Tampa Bay's defense sacked Brady twice, with DE Michael Bennett and LB Adam Hayward getting the two QB takedowns.
Several other rookies had strong first halves for the Buccaneers. LB Lavonte David, playing extensively in both the base defense and the nickel package, had two big tackles and a third-down hit on Brady to force an incompletion. RB Michael Smith returned a pair of kickoffs for 56 yards, including a game-opening 39-yarder that put the Bucs in good position for their first scoring drive.
The Bucs won the toss and got a nice start on Smith's return out to the 32. A personal-foul facemask call on New England on the first play moved the Bucs close to midfield, and Freeman found Jackson the first official play for a gain of 19 to the New England 28. Two short runs and a false start then put the Bucs into a third-and-12 at the 30, but Jackson ran a very sharp hook just past the sticks and Freeman fit it through a crowd for a gain of 14. Another Freeman-Jackson hookup got 10 more to the six, and two Doug Martin runs, the second a one-yard dive over the pile, put the ball in the end zone.
The Patriots started with an eight-yard catch by superstar TE Rob Gronkowski but faced a third-and-two after an impressive stop on the outside by David. The Patriots tried to run on third down, too, but RB Stevan Ridley was stopped by Barron, again for no gain, and the Patriots had to punt
Veteran TE Dallas Clark got the Bucs' next possession moving with his first catch as a Buccaneer, grabbing a short pass over the middle and slipping one tackler to get 12 yards and a first down at the Bucs' 43. The drive stalled at midfield, however, when a third-and-seven pass to WR Mike Williams came up three yards short. Great coverage on the resulting punt led to rookie CB Keith Tandy halting return man Julian Edelman at the Patriots' 11.
After a short pass on first down, Bennett flew around the left edge of the line and sacked Brady for a loss of eight yards. The hit caused a fumble but the Patriots' recovered at their own seven-yard line, setting up a third-and-14. That set up the Bucs' biggest defensive play of the season so far, as Barber tipped a pass intended for Gronkowski and Barron caught the deflection at the 22. The right sideline was wide open and the rookie safety easily returned the interception for Tampa Bay's second touchdown.
The Bucs' defense came out just as hot on the next drive, with DT Roy Miller stopping RB Shane Vereen for a loss of one on first down and DE George Johnson tipping away a second-down pass at the line. However, a short pass over the middle to TE Aaron Hernandez worked well on third-and-11, picking 13 yards and New England's initial first down of the game. After another first down, Ridley found the left edge on a handoff and gained 11 more to the Bucs' 48, bringing the first quarter to a close. A great stop on a first-down run by DL E.J. Wilson helped put New England in a third-and-seven at the 45, but a third-down incompletion was erased by a pass-interference call on Barber. Two plays later, Ridley shot through a seam on the right side and got 29 yards to the Bucs' five-yard line. Ridley needed two carries from there to punch it in and cut the Bucs' lead in half.
The Bucs faced a third-and-seven at the start of their next drive, but a rather obvious pass-interference call on Tavon Wilson led to a first down at the Bucs' 39. Three plays later, on third-and-six, Freeman tried to find WR Preston Parker on the left side but the throw was at his feet and the Bucs had to punt.
However, Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back for the offense in New England territory a few minutes later. The Patriots started their next drive with a nine-yard catch by Danny Woodhead, but three runs from that spot failed to move the line of scrimmage. Wilson stopped FB Eric Kittani on third-and-one, and a fourth-and-one attempt failed when DE George Johnson and Hayward combined for a big stop on a sweep left.
An eight-yard burst up the middle by Martin on second down made it third-and-two from the New England 38, but a false start backed the Bucs up by five yards. A deep post attempt to Parker was incomplete and the Bucs let Barth try a 56-yard field goal. Barth nailed it with a long, low line drive to push the Bucs' lead to 17-7.
On New England's next play from scrimmage, Hayward timed a blitz perfectly and was unblocked up the middle, dropping Brady for a loss of seven. The Bucs nearly got Brady on the ground on the next play as well, though he managed to get off an eight-yard pass to Hernandez. Tampa Bay challenged the play, thinking they had recovered Hernandez's fumble at the end of the play, but the ball went out of bounds before it could be secured. Brady found Deion Branch just past the sticks to convert the resulting third-and-13, but a holding call two plays later backed the Patriots up to their own 29. After an impressive hustle play on a screen play by LB Quincy Black, New England faced a third-and-six at their 38 and couldn't convert. David hit Brady hard on a blitz and the quarterback's pass sailed out of the reach of Hernandez downfield.
The Patriots got one more shot on offense before halftime, however, after forcing a three-and-out on the Bucs' next possession. However, Tampa Bay's defense came back with a three-down stop of its own, with Lewis providing coverage on a pair of short incompletions after an eight-yard run on first down.
The Bucs got the ball back at their own 28 and immediately got it close to midfield on a 19-yard run by Martin on which he shot up the middle and then spun off a would-be tackler near the end. The Bucs got another first down with one minute remaining on Freeman's 12-yard crossing-route pass to Parker, putting the ball at the Patriots' 38. Freeman's next two passes were incomplete, and a third-down screen pass to Martin gained just five yards. The Bucs let the clock run down to three seconds, then brought on Forbath to try a 51-yard field goal. Forbath drilled it to give the Bucs a 20-7 lead heading into the break.