RB Michael Pittman and the Bucs' offense had difficulty eluding the swarming Baltimore defenders on Sunday
When two great defensive teams square off in the NFL, the game usually turns on big plays and big mistakes.
Unfortunately for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their regular season opener on Sunday, most of the former belonged to the visiting Baltimore Ravens and most of the latter were homegrown. Two 60-yard interception returns allowed the Ravens to build a 17-0 halftime lead en route to a 27-0 road victory.
"We're very disapp in the game," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I apologize to our fans. Baltimore is a very physical team and that showed today. We never got going offensively and that's a credit to Baltimore as well.
"We just didn't make any plays and their blitz scheme got us a few times and put us in difficult down-and-distance situations. We had a couple tipped passes and that hurt us."
Shut out for the first time ever in Raymond James Stadium, and the first time at home since 1996, the Bucs had certainly hoped for a stronger start to their division-title defense. Still, there is precedent that suggests the Bucs' season will not be defined by Sunday's opener.
The Bucs have now lost the last three season-opening games they've played at home, dating back to 1999, and return touchdowns have been the key every time. In the '99 opener against the New York Giants, the Bucs held the visitors to 107 yards of offense but lost 17-13 on two defensive scores. In '02, the home team rallied for a 20-20 tie only to lose to New Orleans in overtime on an end zone interception.
The good news? Both of those seasons turned out fine. The Bucs won their road opener the following weekend each time and ended up in the NFC Championship Game in 1999 and as Super Bowl victors in 2002. This year's squad travels to Atlanta next weekend for its first division test.
There are certainly reasons for concern, however. Though RB Cadillac Williams looked loose and sharp, the running game gained only 26 yards, in part because the Bucs were playing catch-up all day. QB Chris Simms was intercepted three times overall and was forced into a high percentage of dump-off passes. The defense tightened considerably after struggling on the first drive but failed to create a single turnover. And the Ravens were able to run the ball fairly effectively late in the game when their main goal was to drain the clock.
It was no surprise that defense ruled the day in the third-ever meeting between the Bucs and Ravens, widely considered the two best defensive teams of the last decade. There were three former NFL Defensive Players of the Year on the field Sunday, in fact, but it was also little surprise when two-time award-winner Ray Lewis emerged as the biggest playmaker.
It was his tipped pass that led to the second of those picks, and his sack moments later allowed the Ravens to get the ball back one more time before halftime. Lewis finished with one sack, three passes defensed and seven tackles, including the hit of the game, a leveling of RB Michael Pittman near the Ravens goal line on a third-down pass attempt in the third quarter. Down by 20, the Bucs went for it on fourth down and Lewis stopped that, too, tipping away a pass intended for WR Michael Clayton.
Baltimore's first interception was turned in by Chris McAlister, who leaped for a pick on the left sideline and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0 on the first play of the second quarter.
Tampa Bay's defense, led by 2002 Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks, was strong, too, but failed to come up with any turnovers. With the Bucs' offense struggling throughout the afternoon and forced into a high percentage of check-down passes, the home team needed a few more short fields to get back into the game. Overall, the Ravens gained 271 yards of offense and 16 first downs.
The Ravens have high hopes for that offense this season with former Tennessee Titan Steve McNair now at the helm, and the opening possession was certainly encouraging for the visitors. McNair completed his first official pass as a Raven to former Titan running mate Derrick Mason for nine yards and a first down and ended up four of five on the march for 44 yards. He and Mason clearly still have rapport; McNair's audible to a quick slant to Mason near midfield preserved a drive that had been backed up by a holding penalty, and his 15-yard strike to Mason moments later converted a third-and-eight. McNair's passing opened holes for power runner Jamal Lewis, who broke off a 12-yarder on this third carry and had seven carries for 33 yards on the drive. McNair finished the game with 17 completions in 27 attempts for 181 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 94.8 passer rating.
The opening drive was also preserved by a third-down pass interference call against Ronde Barber, a flag with which the veteran cornerback disagreed vehemently. Jamal Lewis scored two plays later on a four-yard sweep right, capping a drive that ate the first nine minutes off the clock.
It was an exceedingly tough way for the Bucs' season to begin, and it didn't get much better on the Bucs' first drive, or for the rest of the afternoon for that matter. Tampa Bay has high hopes for its offense this season, too, but that unit's first drive resulted in a quick three-and-out. The Bucs came out in a run-heavy formation but ran play-actions on the first two plays, neither of which caught Baltimore by surprise. A blitz forced a short completion on third down and the Bucs had to punt after a one-minute possession.
The Ravens found some good fortune on their second drive, too, even though it went backwards seven yards overall. On the last two plays of the possession, the ball hit the ground, first on a botched handoff and second on a ball that slipped from McNair's hand as he cocked his arm, but the Ravens recovered both times and Sam Koch's booming 56-yard punt took care of the field position problem.
Cadillac Williams' first carry, which opened the Bucs' second drive, was encouraging, however. He zipped around left end for a gain of seven, successfully turning the corner on Ray Lewis. Williams' second carry was even better, a seven-yard dance up the middle, but it was erased by a holding call on Sean Mahan, which also put the Bucs in a first-and-20 hole. Two plays later, on the first snap of the second quarter, Simms tried to pick up a big chunk of yardage down the left sideline to TE Doug Jolley, but CB Chris McAlister made a leaping interception and followed a convey down the sideline for a 60-yard touchdown.
The Bucs' defense tightened up considerably after the Ravens' first drive. After allowing 80 yards on that opening possession, Tampa Bay allowed just 57 the rest of the first half and slowly worked field position in its favor, thanks in part to the consistently excellent work of punter Josh Bidwell (46.5 gross average, 36.9 net and three dropped inside the 20 on eight punts). After an impressive three-and-out inside the Baltimore 10, Mark Jones returned the ensuing punt 13 yards to Baltimore's 42 with five minutes left in the half.
That promising drive reached the 30 before disaster struck again. On second-and-nine, Simms tried to throw a short pass in the right flat but the pass was deflected at the line by Ray Lewis and intercepted on the run by jumbo rookie Haloti Ngata. The 340-pound rookie managed to find the sideline and enough blockers to rumble all the way down to the Bucs' nine on a 60-yard return. That led to Matt Stover's 20-yard field goal and a 17-0 halftime lead for the Ravens.
The second half didn't start any better for the Buccaneers, who got the ball first but went three-and-out when LB Bart Scott came in untouched for a third-down sack of Simms. The Ravens thus started their first drive of the third quarter at the Bucs' 37 and the chances of a second-half comeback dimmed considerably. Tampa Bay's defense held but the Ravens still netted Stover's 42-yarder, stretching their lead to 20-0.
The Bucs' offense followed with its first sustained drive of the game, built on completions of 27 yards to WR Michael Clayton and 19 yards to Alex Smith, but that possession, too, came up empty. The Bucs drove inside the Ravens' 10 but felt compelled to go for it on fourth-and-four from the six and were unable to convert. Lewis was on the spot again, leaping to break up an attempted pass to Clayton in the end zone.
The Bucs neared midfield on their next drive as well but another former Defensive Player of the Year, S Ed Reed, ended that march with an interception in front of Clayton at the Baltimore 39. Simms' three picks came amid a 17-of-29 passing day for 133 yards. Gruden chose to use the last seven minutes of the game to give rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski a little season, but the Ravens defense cut the young passer little sack and he finished with just one completion for four yards in five attempts.
Following Reed's pick, the Ravens drove 61 yards on nine plays for the game's final score. McNair's last pass of the day was a four-yard scoring lob to former Buccaneer TE Dan Wilcox on third-and-goal.
The Bucs' special teams were a bright spot overall. In addition to Bidwell, the Bucs averaged 24.5 yards on six kickoff returns, five by Michael Pittman. Mark Jones averaged 9.4 yards on five punt returns and the Bucs allowed only 18 yards on the one kickoff they covered.
The Bucs are 0-1 after the first week and headed to Atlanta to face the Falcons, who defeated Carolina in their home opener to start out 1-0.
Game Notes: The last time the Bucs were shut out was December 17, 2005, a 28-0 loss at New England. The last time they were blanked at home was September 29, 2006 in a 27-0 loss to Detroit. … The Buccaneers opened their season at home for the first time since 2002. The Bucs have opened only 14 of their 31 seasons at home and are now 5-9 in those contests. Overall, Tampa Bay is 13-18 in season openers. … The Ravens earned their first victory in the all-time Tampa Bay-Baltimore series. The Bucs won the only other two meetings, 22-10 in Tampa in 2001 and 25-0 in Baltimore in 2002. … The Bucs wore the relatively rare uniform combinations of white jerseys and white pants against the Ravens on Sunday. That marked just the seventh time since the team introduced new uniforms in 1997 that they have worn white-on-white. The team is now 4-3 all-time in that combination. … DE Dewayne White recorded the Bucs' first sack of the season, a 13-yarder against McNair near the end of the first quarter. It was the 10th sack of White's career. … TE Anthony Becht made an impressive spinning catch of a third-down pass to preserve the Bucs' second drive. It was the 150th reception of his seven-year career. Becht finished the game with 27 yards on four receptions. … Head Coach Jon Gruden used his replay challenge option for the first time two minutes into the second quarter. The Bucs challenged a spot on a third-and-eight pass to RB Michael Pittman, but the referee ruled that Pittman had been correctly ruled down a yard short of the sticks and the Bucs had to punt. Coincidentally, the Ravens threw the red flag for the exact same reason on the next drive; they, too, were unsuccessful in their challenge.
Inactives: Each team was required to declare eight players inactive 90 minutes before the game. Three of the Bucs' inactives were starters sitting out due to injuries: G Dan Buenning, G Davin Joseph and LB Shelton Quarles. The other five were CB Alan Zemaitis, WR Paris Warren, WR Maurice Stovall, DT/DE Julian Jenkins and designated third quarterback Tim Rattay. The Ravens' are not currently carrying a third quarterback, so their eight inactives were CB David Pittman, CB Derrick Martin, RB P.J. Daniels, RB Cory Ross, LB/DE Dan Cody, G/C Chris Chester, WR Clarence Moore and DT Aubrayo Franklin.
Injuries: TE Dave Moore suffered a rib injury in the third quarter and did not return.
For the Ravens, DE Trevor Pryce suffered a mild concussion in the third quarter.