In 2010, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rebounded from a home loss to the Detroit Lions with two straight victories but, in the end, ran out of time to salvage their playoff hopes. Planning to take the next step into the postseason in 2011, the Buccaneers began with another home loss to the Lions, but this year they have plenty of time to recover.
On Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the visiting Lions defeated the Buccaneers, 27-20, in the 2011 regular-season opener for both teams. Much like last season, Tampa Bay simply ran out of time just as it was hitting its stride, especially on offense.
Down 27-13, QB Josh Freeman led one late touchdown drive and two other fourth-quarter incursions into Detroit territory, but the game ended on a wild, multiple-pitch play as time expired. The late-game rally has become a calling card for Freeman in his young career, but the Buccaneers will need to produce faster starts as 2011 progresses in order to achieve their postseason goals.
"Too little, too late," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We ran out of time. We've got to find a way to start faster. We've got 15 more weeks to figure it out."
The Lions offense, impressively productive in the preseason behind third-year QB Matthew Stafford, stayed hot into Week One of the regular season and did start fast, rolling up 431 yards of offense on the day. Tampa Bay's attack struggled on third downs for three quarters and never established a running game, ending up with just 56 ground yards.
The Bucs dropped to 0-1 with the loss, matching the 2011 starts of the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. Last year, all three of those NFC South teams won at least 10 games; obviously, that race is just beginning.
Stafford, who missed most of second season due to injury, tossed three touchdown passes and finished the day with a passer rating of 118.9. He was rarely pressured by a young and developing Buccaneers defensive line that had been impressive during the preseason. The Bucs did not record a sack in Week One, though that was due in part to the Lions' quick-hitting style of offense. As usual, Stafford's favorite target was WR Calvin Johnson, who finished the day with six catches for 88 yards, including a one-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter that gave the Lions that 27-13 lead. In the first half, Stafford and Johnson hooked up for a 36-yard score on a fourth-and-three play, and shortly before halftime the Lions passer found TE Tony Scheffler for an 11-yard score.
The Lions' rushing attack consisted largely of draw plays and quick counters, and many were effective, especially in the second half. Detroit ran for 126 yards as a team, lead by second-year RB Jahvid Best's 72 yards on 21 carries.
Freeman was accurate when he had time to throw but in the first half often had inadequate time to get through his progressions. He completed 28 of 43 passes for 257 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His lone interception came on a deep pass attempt into the end zone to WR Arrelious Benn in the second quarter. Freeman briefly had to leave the game and head to the locker room in the third quarter after suffering from a leg cramp, but he returned after missing just four offensive plays.
The Buccaneers' running game produced just 56 yards, but that was largely due to game circumstances as the team ran it only times. RB LeGarrette Blount, who the Buccaneers believe will be the centerpiece of a power rushing attack as the season progresses, got it just five times and produced 15 yards.
When the offense struggled early, the Bucs' defense and special teams kept them in the game with big plays. WR Sammie Stroughter returned Detroit's first kickoff 78 yards to set up Connor Barth's 38-yard field goal, tying the game after the Lions opened with their own field goal drive. Less than two minutes later, CB Aqib Talib gave the Bucs a 10-3 lead with an interception and 28-yard touchdown return of a tipped pass.
Overall, the Lions moved the ball well throughout the first half, however, with four sustained drives and a total of 324 yards. Talib added four tackles and two passes defensed to his big interception, but Detroit managed 25 first downs and was aided by several ill-timed penalties by the Buccaneers.
S Sean Jones, LB Quincy Black and LB Geno Hayes each chipped in with eight tackles, and CB Ronde Barber had seven stop for a loss. The Bucs were good on special teams, with new punter and kickoff specialist Michael Koenen producing three touchbacks. Tampa Bay had a total of two touchbacks during the entire 2010 season. Koenen also averaged 52.2 yards per punt, with a net of 45.4, and had no touchbacks and one punt inside the 20. The Bucs' coverage units were superb, holding the Lions to 34 total return yards.
The Lions opened the game with a fairly impressive first drive, mostly throwing short and running misdirection plays with Best and WR Nate Burleson. A 20-yard end-around by Burleson was the biggest gain, and Best contributed 39 yards to the march on three runs and two receptions. Still, the Bucs' defense held inside its own 10-yard line, with a tackle-for-loss by Price on Best the key play. Hanson's 23-yard field goal ended the drive and gave the Lions a 3-0 lead six minutes into the game.
The Bucs answered immediately thanks to the season's first big play on special teams. Stroughter took a high kickoff just on the edge of the end zone, found a seam up the middle and then bounced to the right sideline for a 78-yard gain. The Bucs' offense failed to move the ball, thanks in part to Stephen Tulloch's third-down sack of Freeman, and Barth tied the game with a 38-yard field goal.
The home team grabbed its first lead of the game moments later on Talib's interception return, the second touchdown of his young and promising career. Talib had good coverage on TE Will Heller on a short third-down throw, and when the ball bounced off Heller's hands he was able to pick it off and run untouched down the right sideline for the score.
Detroit put together another strong drive on the ensuing possession but the Bucs held again in the red zone. A beautiful leaping catch by Pettigrew for 19 yards got the ball inside the 20 but Barber got a hand in TE Brandon Pettigrew's face on a third-down throw into the end zone and Pettigrew couldn't hold on. Jason Hanson's 28-yard field goal cut the lead to 10-6.
The Bucs' offense finally got on track to start the second quarter, with Freeman's precise third-down pass to WR Preston Parker putting the ball across midfield. However, on the next play Freeman looked deep to WR Arrelious Benn and CB Chris Houston intercepted it in the end zone. A flag was thrown on the snap, and Freeman might have believed he had a free play to work with, but the infraction was on the Buccaneers and Detroit took over at its own 20 on the touchback.
The Lions then drove the length of the field to retake the lead on Johnson's 36-yard scoring grab. The Lions went for it on fourth-and-three in Bucs' territory, and really went for it by going up top. Johnson faked an in and then ran downfield, and he got just enough separation from Talib to allow Stafford to fit the ball right over the fingertips of the leaping cornerback.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Friday night's game.)
The Bucs got the ball first in the second half, after a touchback of course, and a belly play to RB Earnest Graham opened the drive with a nine-yard gain. However, disappointingly the Bucs couldn't move it that 10th yard on two more Graham runs and they had to punt.
Good coverage on Koenen's punt pushed the Lions back to their 30, and Best's first-down carry was strung out and stopped by Talib after a gain of two. Another short run by Best made it third-and-six, but an incompletion was rendered irrelevant when Talib was flagged for illegal contact against Johnson. Jones forced a fumble by Morris moments later but the Lions were able to recover after Black somehow kept the loose ball inbounds.
That allowed the drive to continue, and it reached the Bucs' 11 on a six-yard run by Jerome Harrison that produced a first down. The Bucs blitzed right and Stafford threw left to Burleson for 10 yards, followed by a one-yard leaping touchdown catch by Johnson on a quick fade.
The Bucs once again missed on their initial first down by just inches. A second-down scramble by Freeman made it third-and-three, but Freeman had to run into the locker room after the play. Johnson came in for the third-down play and eventually scrambled too, but he just missed getting over the first down line and the Bucs had to punt.
The Lions quickly faced a third-and-10 after Barber knifed into the backfield to drop Harrison for a loss of three. Stafford rolled right on third down but then stopped and threw very deep to Titus Young on the left side; Jones was there to break it up, nearly intercepting the pass.
The Bucs started again at their own 18, with Johnson still at the helm, and the first play was a seven-yard catch by WR Dezmon Briscoe. Johnson's next pass was batted into the air at the line, and he was pressured into an incompletion on third down, with Freeman out of the locker room and back on the sideline.
The Lions started their next drive at their 25 and got a first down on runs of five and seven yards by Harrison. However, DE Adrian Clayborn chased Stafford out of the pocket on a third-and-three play and the quarterback's running throw downfield to Johnson was broken up by Talib. After the punt, the Bucs took over at their own 12. Freeman returned to the game and, on third-and-three, threw over the middle to a wide-open Winslow for 22 yards. After an eight-yard sideline pass to Parker, a long-developing screen to Graham got 10 more across midfield and to the Lions' 45. Benn made a nice move on the next play after a short pass and ended up with another 10 yards and a first down. An incompletion and a short draw play left the Bucs in a third-and-eight, but Freeman moved the chains with a perfect deep out to Williams at the 20. Two incompletions put the Bucs' attack in another tough spot, and Freeman then found Parker for a nine-yard gain to make it fourth-and-one. The Bucs obviously went for it down by 14 points with eight minutes to play, but a draw play to Graham failed when he was stopped just short. Graham fumbled on the play, too, but recovered.
The Lions took over on downs at their 11 and burned several minutes off the clock on a three-and-out. A punt gave it back to Tampa Bay at its own 41 with less than six minutes to play and the Detroit defense laying back and allowing underneath throws. Short passes to Graham and Winslow got the ball just over midfield, but Freeman had the ball knocked out of hand on the next play, with Graham scrambling to dive on it. Freeman then escaped another collapsing pocket for an amazing 15-yard scramble and a first down. A potential touchdown pass to rookie TE Luke Stocker just missed down the middle, but Freeman found his veteran tight end, Winslow for a 12-yard gain to the Lions 12. After a short pass to Graham lost a yard and brought on the two-minute warning.
After the break, Freeman tried to find Williams in the end zone but it was incomplete. An underneath throw to Benn made it fourth-and-three at the five, and the Bucs used a timeout with 1:40 left. After the pause, Freeman went to his favorite red zone target and Williams made an incredible leaping catch with the double toe-tap exclamation just inbounds.
Still down a touchdown, the Bucs had to try an onside kick, and while Koenen got a nice bounce the Bucs were blocked away from it and Johnson made a leaping catch to keep possession for Detroit.
The Lions obviously ran the ball to chew clock, but the Bucs used their last two timeouts and the Lions committed an unnecessary roughness penalty after the third-down run to help out. That allowed the Bucs to get the ball back at their own 20 after a punt and a touchback.
Freeman scrambled on second down for eight yards and got out of bounds with 54 seconds left. A quick pass to Benn got a new set of downs and Freeman spiked the ball at the Bucs' 34 with 38 seconds left. Freeman's amazing backhand lob to Graham on third-and-three got the ball just over midfield and the Bucs spiked it again with 16 seconds left. A 12-man-on-the-field penalty moved it to the 42 but Freeman's first heave downfield was incomplete. With eight seconds left, Freeman threw underneath to Graham, starting one of those end-game multiple-pitch play. As usual, that long shot was unsuccessful and the Lions were able to hold on to the win.
Game Notes: The Lions now lead the all-time series with Tampa Bay, 29-25. Since the Buccaneers left the old NFC Central, the two teams have met five times, with the Lions winning three of them. The 25 wins against Detroit still represent the Bucs' largest total against any team. … The Bucs are now 14-22 all-time on opening day. Tampa Bay won its opening game in 2010 but otherwise has lost four of the last five … Fans at Raymond James Stadium were treated to a very special military flyover just before kickoff. Two planes started over the stadium in formation, then one pulled away, representing the "Missing Man" in honor of Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon, who passed away a week earlier. … Tampa Bay players wore the #63 on their helmets to honor Selmon, as they will do all year. In addition, a large black-and-white stenciled 63 adorned the sidelines on the four corners marked by the two 20-yard lines. The Bucs also replaced one of their "Battle Flags" at the top of Raymond James Stadium with an orange 63 flag, which was flown at half-mast. … CB Ronde Barber took over as the NFL player with the longest active starts streak on Sunday. Barber opened the game at right cornerback, making his 184th consecutive start, a streak dating back to 1999. Barber had been second among active streaks to Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning, but Manning's 208-game run ended Sunday when he did not suit up due to his continued recovery from neck surgery. … Sammie Stroughter's 78-yard kickoff return in the first quarter is the eighth-longest in team history. It is the second-longest in Stroughter's career, as he also holds the team record with a 97-yarder against Carolina on Oct. 18, 2009. Sunday's return was the fourth-longest non-scoring kickoff runback in team history. … TE Kellen Winslow caught QB Josh Freeman's first pass of the game in the first quarter. Winslow now has a streak of 77 consecutive games played with at least one reception. … Detroit K Jason Hanson became the 15th player in NFL history to play in 20 seasons on Sunday. Hanson made both of his field goal attempts and three extra-point tries . … Tampa Bay bucked one of its own trends by losing. Over the previous five seasons, the Bucs were 10-2 in games in which they scored on defense.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: RB Allen Bradford, S Larry Asante, CB Myron Lewis, CB Anthony Gaitor, T Demar Dotson, G Derek Hardman and TE Zach Pianalto. Only Lewis was out due to injury.
The Lions declared these seven inactives: QB Drew Stanton, CB Alphonso Smith, LB Doug Hogue, G Jacques McClendon, T Jason Fox and DT Nick Fairley. Smith, Fox and Fairley were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, WR Sammie Stroughter suffered a foot injury in the first quarter and did not return. QB Josh Freeman left the game in the third quarter due to a leg cramp but did return. DT Brian Price sustained a hamstring injury and did not return.
The Lions did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.