Trailing the Baltimore Ravens 17-3 at halftime Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might have thought they had them right where they wanted them. And they almost did.
There would be no comeback magic from Josh Freeman and the young Bucs on this cold afternoon in Baltimore, however. Despite the never-say-die fourth-quarter surge that is becoming commonplace for the NFL's youngest team, Tampa Bay couldn't quite erase that halftime deficit, falling 17-10 in a battle of 7-3 teams.
The defense did its part, pitching a second half shutout for the fifth time in 11 games this season but the offense couldn't find the spark that had led them an average of almost 28 points per game over its last four outings until it was too late. Freeman had one of his less productive day of the season, completing 17 of 37 passes for 162 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The Bucs' rushing attack was competent, with 101 yards on 23 carries, but the early deficit forced Freeman to throw for much of the second half against a variety of Baltimore blitzes.
Not that Freeman failed to make it interesting at the end. He directed a 77-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that pulled the Bucs within seven with 3:05 left, converting three third downs in the process and eventually hitting TE Kellen Winslow in the back of the end zone for a five-yard score. Tampa Bay's only other score came in the second quarter, a 22-yard Connor Barth field goal that was set up by CB Aqib Talib's interception.
Talib's pick, his sixth of the year, was the game's only turnover. That was another positive for the Buccaneers on a day that saw them take just their second loss in six road trips this season – for the second straight game, the offense was not guilty of a giveaway.
On the other hand, the Bucs did commit nine penalties, many of them on kick and punt returns as the offense was repeatedly put in bad field position to start its drives. Eight of Tampa Bay's 12 drives on the day started at their own 23 or worse. Rookie CB Myron Lewis was also flagged for a critical pass interference call just before halftime – a call that incensed the Buccaneer sideline at the time – setting up Derrick Mason's 10-yard touchdown catch.
That was the second of QB Joe Flacco's two touchdown throws in the final three minutes of the first half. With the game tied at 3-3 and the two teams locked in a field position battle for most of the first half, Flacco found TE Todd Heap wide open in the left seam for a 65-yard touchdown pass that gave the home team a 10-3 lead. Flacco completed 25 of 35 passes on the day for 289 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He was sacked four times, however, by a Buccaneers defense that has 12 QB takedowns over its last three games.
Baltimore's longest drive of the second half was 38 yards and they gained two first downs or fewer on their first five post-halftime possessions. That was largely a result of the Bucs' suddenly stingy rush defense, which followed up its strong performance in San Francisco by holding the Ravens to 92 yards on 26 carries. RB Ray Rice gained 85 yards on 20 carries; unfortunately, Rice managed to rush or catch passes for all 38 yards on Baltimore's final drive, which drained the last three minutes off the clock after Winslow's touchdown.
Rookie DT Gerald McCoy had two of the Buccaneers' four sacks, giving him three over the last two outings. DE Tim Crowder and S Sean Jones contributed one sack each. Talib added five solo tackles and two passes defensed to his big interception.
The game hurt the Buccaneers in the NFC South standings, as New Orleans won on Thursday to improve to 8-3 and the Falcons beat Green Bay on Sunday to hold on to first place at 9-2. Still, at 7-4 with five games to play, the Buccaneers will be playing games relevant to the NFC playoff race in the month of December. The first of those arrives next week, when the Falcons visit Tampa Bay for a critical division matchup. The Buccaneers' "Race to 10," as Head Coach Raheem Morris has called it since training camp, also includes trips to Washington and New Orleans and home games against Seattle and Detroit.
The game was costly to the Buccaneers on the injury front, as well. Guard Davin Joseph left after the first drive with a foot injury and did not return. S Cody Grimm was injured while blocking after Talib's interception and also did not return; his ankle injury forced the Buccaneers to bring out the cart.
Both teams found some offensive success on their opening drives but fizzled just past midfield. The Buccaneers showed a willingness to take the deep shot, with Freeman throwing downfield to Mike Williams on third down at the end of the first possession, and to WR Arrelious Benn on a fly down the right sideline to start the second possession. Neither shot hit, however, and the Ravens started their second drive three yards into Buc territory.
Tampa Bay's defense held again but a holding penalty on the ensuing punt and a three-and-out gave the ball right back to the Ravens at the Bucs' 41. Even though the Bucs' defense essentially held again, thanks in large part to McCoy's 11-yard sack on third down from the 16, the Ravens still turned that good drive start into three points on Billy Cundiff's 45-yard field goal.
The Bucs' best field position of the first half came six minutes into the second quarter, after Talib's sixth pick of the year. Talib returned the ball to the Baltimore 36 – Grimm was injured blocking on that play – and that set up a game-tying field goal drive. Freeman converted two big third downs on the drive, one a pass over the middle to Winslow and one his eight-yard scramble, but the Bucs had to settle for a field goal after three plays from the five failed to move the ball.
The Ravens came right back with the game's first touchdown drive, almost all of it coming on Heap's 65-yard touchdown. The play appeared to be a bust by the Bucs' defense, as Heap released off the line and went straight upfield without being covered. Micheal Spurlock gave the Bucs good field position on the ensuing kickoff with a 37-yard return, but a quick three-and-out and a holding penalty on the punt and Baltimore was right back at their own 45 with 1:54 to play.
That gave the Ravens enough time to march for another touchdown and increase their halftime cushion to 14 points, though roughly half of the drive came courtesy of a pass-interference call against Lewis that prompted much yelling from the Bucs' sideline. The call against Lewis put the ball at Tampa Bay's 10, and Flacco threw a pass between two defenders to Mason for the game's second touchdown.
Click here for a detailed description of the first half of action.
Tampa Bay's defense started the second half in a good way, forcing a three-and-out by standing tall against Flacco on a third-and-one quarterback sneak. The Bucs' first drive of the second half started at their own 32 and also got off to a good start as Blount galloped around the field for 16 yards. Cadillac Williams got around left end for a gain of 11 three plays later to make it third-and-two at the Baltimore 44. Williams was upended at the end of the run by S Dawan Landry, but it was Landry who remained on the turf after the play. After a long break to tend to Landry, who eventually walked off on his own, Freeman tried to hit C. Williams on a rollout right but it was incomplete and the Bucs had to punt.
Tampa Bay's defense came up strong again after Malone's punt was downed at the Baltimore seven. A sack by Jones and heavy pressure from blitzing S Sabby Piscitelli on third-and-17 forced a punt from deep in Ravens territory. Unfortunately, Sam Koch blasted a 58-yard punt and the Bucs were flagged for an illegal block once again on the return, pushing the ball back to the Bucs' 28.
Still, Tampa Bay got quickly into Baltimore territory when TE John Gilmore caught an out pass, eluded two defenders and rambled for 30 yards. However, the drive stalled inside the Ravens' 30 when Freeman tried to hit Winslow on the run but couldn't make the connection, leading to another punt.
The Bucs avoided disaster moments later when Rice appeared to break off a 76-yard touchdown run but WR Anquan Boldin was flagged for a block in the back. The Ravens still got to midfield with a 22-yard Boldin catch-and-run, but with the Bucs' defense blitzing on virtually every play the drive eventually ended with a third-down incompletion broken up by LB Barrett Ruud.
The drive was still a success for the Ravens, who were able to down the ensuing punt at Tampa Bay's nine. The Bucs once again failed to move the ball, and they had to use a replay challenge to overturn an apparent interception by DE Cory Redding inside the 10-yard line. Malone blasted a 55-yard punt to help the Bucs flip field position, but Heap got open over the middle for a gain of 14 to the Ravens' 44. Two plays later, on the final play of the third quarter, McCoy got his second sack of the game to make it third-and-16 heading into the fourth. The Bucs held, forcing a dumpoff to Rice, and Koch's punt went into the end zone for a touchback.
Freeman couldn't find an open man on first down of the ensuing drive but was able to scramble left for 12 yards. He dumped a pass off over the middle to C. Williams on the next play but a deep shot to Spurlock on third-and-two was incomplete and the Bucs had to punt again, this one going out of bounds at the Baltimore 26.
The Bucs' defense continued its second-half surge, allowing one first down but then forcing a punt that was downed at the Bucs' 23. Freeman immediately hit Mike Williams on a slant for 11 yards, then averted potential disaster when he picked up a fumbled snap and pulled free from a defender's grasp to throw a sideline completion to Spurlock. The Ravens challenged the call but Spurlock was ruled to have made the six-yard grab, costing the home team a timeout. Freeman then threw an out to a wide-open Kellen Winslow, who slipped past one would-be tackler for another 11 yards to the Ravens' 49. On first down, Freeman rolled right and threw a bomb downfield to Spurlock, who couldn't quite get his body turned enough to get two hands on the ball. Two plays later, on third-and-inches, Freeman snuck over left guard for two yards to the 38, then got the offense back to the line for a quick snap an incomplete pass in Benn's direction. Freeman had to sneak it again two plays later and was able to spin out of a tackle to fall for four yards to the 25. A dumpoff to Cadillac Williams and a failed fade pass to Mike Williams in the end zone made it third-and-one with 3:41 left in the game, and the draw play to Cadillac Williams that had been so successful in recent weeks worked again for 11 yards to the five. On the next play, Winslow made a fine leaping catch in the back of the end zone for the Bucs' first touchdown of the game.
The Ravens essentially needed a first down to ice the game, and they got two quickly, one on a spectacular one-handed catch by Rice and another on a 16-yard burst by the same man over right guard. The latter play brought on the two-minute warning with the ball at the Baltimore 47 and the Bucs holding just one timeout.
Game Notes: Sunday's meeting was just the fourth ever between the Buccaneers and the Ravens, and just the second in Baltimore. The series is now tied at 2-2, including 1-1 in Baltimore. … TE Ryan Purvis made his first career start on Sunday, as the Bucs opened in a three-TE set with Purvis and John Gilmore joining usual starter Kellen Winslow. … CB Aqib Talib's interception in the second quarter marked the first time this season that Baltimore QB Joe Flacco had been picked off in a home game. … Talib's pick was also his sixth of the season, giving him 15 so far in his first three campaigns. That already ties for the fifth-most picks in a three-year span ever by a Buccaneer player. The record is 20, by Donnie Abraham from 1999-2001. … DT Gerald McCoy's two-sack effort was only the second one of the season for the Buccaneers. DE Tim Crowder had the first, in the Bucs win at Carolina in Week Two. … QB Josh Freeman's five-yard scoring pass to TE Kellen Winslow in the fourth quarter extended his streak to eight straight games with at least one TD throw.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: CB Elbert Mack, FB Erik Lorig, T Will Barker, T Derek Hardman, DT Frank Okam, WR Preston Parker, DE Kyle Moore and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. Moore was out due to injury.
The Ravens deactivated these eight players: WR Marcus Smith, S Tom Zbikowski, CB Fabian Washington, LB Dannell Ellerbe, G Chris Chester, TE Ed Dickson, DT Brandon McKinney and DT Lamar Divens. Zbikowski, Chester and Dickson were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, G Davin Joseph suffered a foot injury in the first quarter and did not return. S Cody Grimm sustained an ankle injury in the second quarter and did not return.
For the Ravens, RB Le'Ron McClain sustained an ankle injury in the second quarter and did not return. T Michael Oher suffered a knee sprain in the third quarter and did not return. S Dawan Landry incurred a concussion in the third quarter and did not return.