It seemed to take forever.
The 59-minute delay to the kickoff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Friday night preseason game against the Detroit Lions? Yes, indeed, that was a long wait. But the most drawn-out sequence of the evening doubled as the longest touchdown of any kind in franchise history and it punctuated an outstanding first half between both teams' starters in Week Three of the preseason. Detroit mounted a big second-half comeback to win, 33-30, on a late touchdown, but Tampa Bay's encouraging preseason continued.
Adam Humphries' 109-yard return of a missed 62-yard field goal attempt gave the home team its most improbable touchdown in recent memory – perhaps ever – and led to a 20-6 halftime lead in an eventual 33-30 loss. The Buccaneers also benefited from a 14-yard Peyton Barber touchdown run and a 10-yard scoring pass from Jameis Winston to Chris Godwin in forging that halftime lead.
"That fires everybody up," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter of Humphries' weaving run. "You’re always working on situational plays like that, because in the NFL they always come up. And to see those guys execute that, that was awesome.”
The Buccaneers had their starting defense on the field as the Lions were lining up for the 62-yard attempt, and safety Chris Conte alertly ran down the field in case the kick came up short. Koetter called a timeout and sent Humphries out to replace Conte for that very assignment, and that proved to be the most important decision of the game.
"I knew it was going to be short and I knew there was an opportunity to return it," said Humphries. "We actually repped that in practice about two-and-a-half weeks ago. So, I’m glad Coach Koetter called a timeout and was able to get me in there and the defense did a great job blocking for me. So, it was awesome to get that in the end zone."
Detroit scored the game's final 13 points in the last five minutes of play, beginning with an 80-yard punt return touchdown by WR Brandon Powell. Third-string QB Jake Rudock supplied the game-winning points with 30 seconds left on a five-yard touchdown pass to TE Marcus Lucas.
All three of the Buccaneers' veteran quarterbacks were sharp again as the passing attack continued to operate in midseason form. Ryan Fitzpatrick started and played the first quarter, completing six of seven passes for 82 yards and a 115.5 passer rating and leading a touchdown drive to start the game. Winston came in to play the second period and hit on six of 10 passes for 60 yards, a touchdown and a 110.4 rating. Ryan Griffin handled the second half and led a pair of scoring drives while hitting on eight of 11 passes for 100 yards, one touchdown and a 130.9 passer rating. Rookie Austin Allen played the last seven minutes of the game but mostly handed off until a final desperation drive, which ended in Tracy Walker's interception on the last play.
Through three games, Fitzpatrick, Winston and Griffin have combined for a 109.4 passer rating and six touchdowns without a single interception.
Even more encouragingly, the Buccaneers' offense first got into gear on Friday night through the ground game. Tampa Bay had struggled to run the ball through the first two weeks of the preseason, but Barber ran five times for 34 yards on the opening drive. The Buccaneers still only finished with 79 yards on the ground, but rookie RB Ronald Jones pitched in with a 37-yard catch on the team's second drive.
The Bucs' smooth offensive performance in the first half was particularly impressive given that three-fifths of the starting offensive line was out due to injuries. Mike Liedtke replaced Donovan Smith at left tackle, Adam Gettis filled in for Ali Marpet at left guard and rookie Alex Cappa took over for Caleb Benenoch three played deep into the fourth quarter. The Buccaneers allowed just one sack in the first half and none after the intermission.
"Very good," said Koetter. "We did a good job. Considering the injuries we’ve had, our guys went out there and fought hard. I’m proud of them."
Tampa Bay's starting defense stayed in for the first half and allowed only two field goals thanks to good red zone defense. Detroit got 69 yards on its opening possession but only 50 more the rest of the way before the intermission and Matt Prater's kicks from 26 and 29 yards accounted for the only points. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves had a third-down pass break-up in the end zone on Detroit's first drive and a second-down deflection at the goal line before Prater's second kick.
The Buccaneers' starting defense also dialed up a little more pressure on the quarterback after struggling in that regard through the first two games. Gerald McCoy, Will Gholston and Jordan Whitehead all had sacks in the first half, with McCoy and Gholston both stopping drives on third-down plays.
It was a mixed bag for the Buccaneers' special teams. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro made his only field goal attempt from 42 yards and is now six-for-seven on the preseason, with his only miss on a 53-yard try. Catanzaro also booted all five of his kickoffs into the end zone and netted four touchbacks, though he missed an extra point attempt for the second time in this preseason. Detroit's second-half touchback included that 80-yard punt return, but the Bucs also downed one punt at the Lions' two-yard line in the first half. Rookie RB Shaun Wilson made his mark as a return man, averaging 26.6 yards on five runbacks.
The Buccaneers opened the game with a near flawless, 66-yard touchdown drive. Barber ran three times to start it, picking up a total of 17 yards, and Fitzpatrick completed his first three passes to Jackson, Howard and Godwin for a total of 32 yards. On third-and-one from the Lions' 14, Barber got the ball again and started right, shaking a tackle a yard behind the sticks and darting forward into the clear for his second touchdown of the preseason. Seven of the Bucs' eight plays on the drive gained at least four yards, and the one that didn't was good for three yards to set up Barber's third-down touchdown scamper.
The Lions scored on their opening drive, as well, though they had to settle for three points on Matt Prater's 24-yard field goal after Hargreaves tipped away a third-down pass in the end zone. The big play on the 69-yard drive was a 36-yard Stafford pass to WR Kenny Golladay on a broken play after Vinny Curry flushed the quarterback out of the pocket.
The Buccaneers got into Detroit territory on the next drive thanks to a 37-yard reception down the sideline by Jones and got as far as the 19 before a sack of Fitzgerald and an offensive pass interference call on Mike Evans pushed them back out of field goal range. The Bucs chose to punt from the 36 and the outstanding guru of Josh Robinson and Ryan Smith combined to down the ball at the two-yard line.
The Lions managed to get out of trouble, as Stafford converted a third-and-nine with a 14-yard pass to TE Hakeem Valles and then moved the ball deep into Bucs territory on a scrambling third-down heave that drew a 53-yard pass interference penalty on Whitehead. The Buccaneers held again inside the 10-yard line, with Hargreaves providing another key pass break-up near the goal line on second down. Prater banged another one home from 26 yards out to make it 7-6 with 10:31 left in the half.
Winston came in to start the Bucs' next drive and had the benefit of two defensive holding calls earn first downs and move the ball to midfield. A perfect lob pass down the seam and over a defender to Jackson was good for 19 yards to the Lions' 30, but a third-and-one run by Jacquizz Rodgers from the 21 came up inches short. The Bucs chose to go for it and Winston dropped back to pass before seeing an opening and running for seven yards and a first down. Two plays later, Winston lofted another perfect lob that Godwin came down with after leaping in front of the defender for a 10-yard touchdown.
Detroit's next drive ended in a three-and-out thanks to a sack by Gholston on third-and-one. The Bucs put Jackson deep to return the ensuing punt but a penalty on the return pushed them back to their own 14. The Bucs tried to mount a two-minute drill but Howard was called for a push-off to erase a brilliant catch-and-run on which he bounced off several would-be tacklers. Winston nearly kept the drive alive with a perfect deep square-in to Freddie Martino on third-and-14 but the receiver couldn't hold on.
The Lions got the ball back with about a minute to play and got a head start on a facemask penalty called on LB Lavonte David. Detroit got the ball over midfield but saw their drive stall when McCoy sacked Stafford for a seven-yard loss on third-and-one. With seven seconds left in the half, the Lions chose to try a low-percentage 62-yard field goal, and Prater's try predictably came up a bit short. Less predictably, Humphries fielded the ball a yard shy of the back line of the end zone, shot straight forward out of the end zone and suddenly found himself with some room to run. A sharp cut to the left sideline, a few nifty moves and one key block by Kwon Alexander allowed Humphries to go the distance for a 109-yard touchdown. The play was made possible when the Bucs called a timeout to put Humphries back deep instead of safety Chris Conte, who had gone back to the end zone for the same purpose.
The Lions got the ball first to start the half as the Bucs went to reserves on defense. Detroit's first drive came up empty with Stafford still under center, after which Griffin took over against a Lions' defense that still had most of its starters on the field. Griffin quickly hit on passes of 15 yards to TE Tanner Hudson and 18 yards to WR Justin Watson, then got 26 more yards when S Darius Slay was called for pass interference. On third-and-one from the 19, Griffin eschewed an underneath throw and went over the top on the left side to Martino, who hauled in the touchdown pass over starting CB Nevin Lawson.
Detroit shot back with a 75-yard drive ending in Theo Riddick's 10-yard touchdown run. Veteran Matt Cassel completed five of his six passes on the drive, including a 13-yard strike to TE Michael Roberts to convert a third-and-eight one play before Riddick's score.
That touchdown cut the Bucs' lead back to 14 points with four minutes left in the third quarter. Detroit got the ball back quickly and went on another extended drive, this one helped immensely by a poorly-timed penalty on special teams. Tampa Bay appeared to get a stop at its own 32-yard line, with Detroit settling for a 50-yard field goal that banged off the left upright. However, DT Nathan Bazata was flagged for illegal formation, providing just enough yardage to move the sticks. RB LeGarrette Blount then converted a fourth-and-one with a second-effort run and Cassel completed the drive with a three-yard touchdown pass to WR Bradley Marquez.
That trimmed the lead to seven points with 11:34 to play. The Bucs took it back to a two-score game on their next possession, with Griffin leading a 32-yard drive ending in Cantanzaro's 42-yard field goal. Wilson gave the offense good field position with a 39-yard kickoff return to the Tampa Bay 44 and also caught an 11-yard pass to set up Catanzaro's kick.
Allen came in to run the next drive, which ended quickly on a three-and-out, leading to a punt. Unfortunately for the Bucs, their two-score lead evaporated as Powell returned Bryan Anger's kick 80 yards for a touchdown. Looking ahead to the end of the game, the Lions went for two after the touchdown but Jake Rudock's pass was broken up in the end zone. Another three-and-out gave Detroit time to drive 60 yards for the winning score, with Rudock hitting Lucas on a shallow out for the five-yard score.