The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' preseason game against the Miami Dolphins Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium was two things at once: a necessary warm-up and a valuable fact-finding mission.
Well, three things actually. This was also a game the Buccaneers wanted to win in front of their home crowd, and they did just that when third-string QB Rudy Carpenter hit first-year TE Nathan Overbay with a seven-yard touchdown pass 57 minutes into the contest. That gave Tampa Bay its first lead of the game, and the final winning margin of 17-13, despite their overall yardage edge of 366-247 on the evening.
Those first two goals were met as well, as the Buccaneers' starters played the entire first half (and into the third quarter for the defense) and forged a virtual draw with their annual preseason rivals from downstate. Along the way, they got some encouraging performances from the likes of DE Michael Bennett, RBs Earnest Graham and LeGarrette Blount and the defensive front overall. Oh, and Carpenter, who made a good case for his continued inclusion on the roster along with the two Joshes, fellow quarterbacks Freeman and Johnson.
Carpenter completed five of eight passes for 59 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 124.5. All of Carpenter's yards came on the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, and he also turned in a key 15-yard scramble on the march, as well as a 33-yard pass to WR Murray Price that was overturned on a challenge. Carpenter spent all of last season on the Buccaneers' 53-man roster as the inactive third quarterback, but this summer might be seen to have competition from newcomer Jonathan Crompton.
Before Carpenter, starter Josh Freeman completed 12 of 23 passes for 149 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions in what will likely be his last meaningful work before the start of the regular season. Freeman was occasionally off-target on Saturday night, but he once again avoided turnovers, moved well in the pocket and was not sacked. Last summer, Freeman missed almost all of the preseason with a thumb injury but nevertheless hit the ground running when the regular season began. Freeman's best work on Saturday night came on a two-minute drive to end the first half, on which he completed three of three passes for 35 yards and also contributed a 17-yard run down to the two-yard line. Graham finished that march with a two-yard TD run on out of the shotgun to knot the game at 10-10 going into the intermission.
The successful two-minute march made Head Coach Raheem Morris feel better about Freeman's outing and his offense as a whole.
"He's doing well," said Morris. "We have got to find a way to start faster. Our guys got it going in the two-minute drive; they got a chance to get down the field and move the ball a little bit, so I'm feeling good about that. We have to put some things together on offense as far as what we need to do and how we need to get started faster."
That drive came after cornerback E.J. Biggers forced a fumble by Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall, with linebacker Geno Hayes recovering near midfield. That was the only turnover of the game, and through three preseason weeks the Bucs have given the ball away just once and have yet to fumble even a single time. Last year, it was an incredible 25-6 TD-INT ratio that elevated Freeman into the ranks of the NFL's elite quarterbacks.
The Bucs were far from flawless on Saturday night, however, as they committed a large number of penalties for the second game in a row. The Dolphins hurt their own cause with 11 infractions for 76 yards, but the Bucs outdid them with 15 penalties for 135 yards. Once again, that made it difficult for the offense to get into a rhythm, particularly in regards to the rushing game.
And it is in that area that Tampa Bay's preseason has revealed the least so far. The Bucs ran for 99 yards on 27 carries against Miami, but their three quarterbacks accounted for 39 of those yards, and no running back had more than 12 yards. It likely won't be until the regular season begins that the Bucs know if their attempt to build a power rushing attack will be successful, as starter LeGarrette Blount will finally get 60 minutes to operate.
That's not to say the Bucs' backs were ineffective on Saturday. Blount caught three passes for a team-high 62 yards, including a 52-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter that set up Connor Barth's 28-yard field goal. Blount has been working hard this summer to increase his role on third down and in the passing game in general.
"A lot of teams don't respect the fact that I can actually go out and catch a pass, so when I do, it opens up a lot of things for me and for our team," he said. "I was thinking touchdown. That's the only thing on my mind: get a touchdown by any means necessary."
Meanwhile, Graham caught two passes for 27 yards, including a key 15-yarder shortly before his touchdown run. The Bucs opened the game with Erik Lorig at fullback in front of Blount, and it looks as if Graham is developing into more of a third-down back this season in addition to his expected work as a lead blocker. That's hardly surprising, given that Graham has consistently excelled in whatever role he is needed.
The Dolphins' running game had an even tougher time gaining yards, thanks to a very impressive performance by the Bucs' defensive front. Miami ran the ball 17 times but gained only 22 yards, with starter Reggie Bus losing a yard on five carries. At the same time, the Bucs' pass-rushers put a lot of heat on Miami quarterbacks Chad Henne and Matt Moore, sacking them a total of five times. Through three games, Tampa Bay's defense has racked up 13 sacks, perhaps the most encouraging number of the preseason so far.
Bennett had one of those sacks and has 2.5 so far on the preseason. He also turned in three tackles for losses and another quarterback hit. Rookie Da'Quan Bowers, the Bucs' second-round draft pick, recorded his first NFL sack and first-year man George Johnson put down a QB for the third time in as many games.
"Wow, those guys played fast," said Morris of the Bucs' defensive line. "They're getting better every single week. Every time you look back there, it was a little bit different seeing the quarterback getting hit and scrambling. It was a good look for me."
The fact-finding mission was particularly important with five players who made their preseason debuts on Saturday night: TEs Kellen Winslow and Luke Stocker, WR Arrelious Benn, DT Brian Price and CB Myron Lewis. Freeman used his returning pass-catchers early and often, hitting Winslow twice for 18 yards, Benn once for 12 yards and Stocker once for eight yards.
"It feels good just being out there with the guys, being in my place and doing anything I can to help the offense and get us to win games and all those little things to help the team," said Benn. "We're doing good with our tempo coming out of the huddle and getting where we need to get and running our plays and executing. We're going to keep working to get right where we need to be to be ready for September 11."
The Buccaneers' offense showed early signs of life, as Freeman converted a pair of third downs with passes to Winslow and Graham, but the home team eventually had to punt and the Dolphins made quick work of their first drive. Bennett sacked Henne for a loss of five on the Bucs' first defensive snap, but Henne threw a 60-yard touchdown to Marshall two plays later. Biggers had reasonably good coverage on the play, but Marshall fought him off for the ball and then weaved through several defenders for the game-opening score.
The Bucs' defense stiffened after that, with LB Dekoda Watson killing one drive with a sack and a forced fumble and Dolphins backing up to their own two on the next possession. However, Dolphins punter Brandon Field blasted two deep kicks and several special teams penalties kept the Bucs from taking field-position advantage. Fortunately, Blount took care of that by catching a short pass and breaking free for a 52-yard gain to the Miami 29 just before the first quarter ended.
The Bucs got inside the red zone on that drive but stalled out and had to settle for Barth's 28-yard field goal. The Dolphins responded with a 77-yard field goal drive the key play coming on a third-down pass attempt to Marshall that paired him up with Biggers again. The ball sailed over Marshall's head near midfield but Biggers was flagged for pass interference. Later, the Bucs appeared to thwart another third down inside the red zone but Lewis drew another pass interference flag. DT Frank Okam came up with a huge stop on Bush two plays later to make it third-and-five and the Dolphins had to settle for a field goal after Bowers caught a scrambling Henne on third down. Dan Carpenter's 21-yard boot made it 10-3 in Miami's favor with 4:15 left in the half.
The Bucs hurried up on offense under the four-minute mark, but had to punt after an abbreviated drive. Fortunately, Biggers forced a fumble by Marshall after a 30-yard gain and Hayes recovered for the home team near midfield. That allowed the Tampa Bay first-team offense to work on its two-minute drill before halftime, and it went quite well. Benn fought for a 12-yard gain on a short pass, Graham perfectly executed a screen for 15 yards and Freeman got 17 of his own on an alert scramble to the two-yard line. From there, Graham lined up in the backfield on a shotgun snap and took an underneath handoff in for the game-tying score.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Friday night's game.)
Both teams brought their starters out to open the second half and it was a good turn for the Bucs' defense, which forced its first three-and-out of the night. Okam came up big again, stopping RB Lousaka Polite for no gain on third-and-one. However, yet another gigantic kick by P Brandon Fields and a holding call on the return pushed the Bucs back to their own one-yard line.
Johnson came in to lead the offense and appeared to convert a third-and-six with a good scramble from the five, but the Bucs' offense drew yet another illegal-formation call. The Bucs got lucky on the next snap, when an apparent safety was erased by an illegal-contact call downfield. A perfect quick-hit slant to WR Micheal Spurlock picked up 12 yards to the Bucs' 20, and two plays later Johnson found Hardy on a nifty seam route for a 22-yard gain. Johnson's own 12-yard scramble got the ball five yards into Miami territory, but two incompletions and a false start made it third-and-15 at the midfield stripe. Johnson overthrew a receiver downfield on third down, and a scuffle by T James Lee cost the Bucs' 15 yards. Another penalty on the punt pushed the Bucs back another five yards but James Malone still punted Miami back to its 25.
The flurry of flags continued when the Dolphins took over, as consecutive holding and false starts moved them back to their own 10. Bowers then swarmed over Henne at the Dolphins three for his first NFL sack, and two runs by rookie RB Daniel Thomas failed to get Miami out of trouble. After a punt, the Bucs took over at their own 40.
Lumpkin shot left for a four-yard gain on first down but the drive took a hit with a holding penalty, and Johnson had to throw the ball away on second down after a scramble right. Facing a third-and-21, Johnson threw a short pass to Lumpkin but it was well short of the first down. Malone helped out with a 57-yard punt that drove the Dolphins back to their own 20.
Former Carolina QB Matt Moore came in to direct the Dolphins' next drive and immediately found WR Clyde Gates for a gain of nine. DE Tim Crowder shot up the middle for a sack on the next play, making I third-and-10 back at the 20, and a short pass to RB Larry Johnson wasn't enough to keep the drive alive.
The nearly unrelenting penalties continued on the ensuing punt, as the Bucs committed holding and were pushed back to their own eight. Two runs gained only three yards, but Johnson got the Bucs a new set of downs by rolling right and hitting WR Aundrae Allison over the middle for a gain of 19 to the 30. The drive stalled there, however, and the Bucs had to punt away from their 32 as the fourth quarter began.
Crowder's strong stop of Johnson on second down made it third-and-eight, but Moore responded with consecutive completions of 23 and 18 yards to WR Marlon Moore, putting the ball at the Bucs' 27. DE Kyle Moore chased the Dolphins' QB into an incompletion on the next snap and DE George Johnson snipped the drive several plays later with a sack, but the Dolphins still took the lead on a 47-yard field goal by Carpenter.
Carpenter came in to lead the offense and handed off twice to rookie RB Allen Bradford for a total of seven yards. Carpenter tried to pass on third down but had a pass-rusher in his face before he could set up and did a good job of just getting an incomplete throw off.
Thomas got the ball back into Tampa Bay territory early on the ensuing drive with a screen pass for 19 yards. A holding penalty and a nice stop of Thomas by DT John McCargo helped put the Dolphins into a third-and-20 moments later, and Moore was pressured into a quick incompletion to lead to a punt.
Starting at his own 29, Carpenter threw an out to Overbay, who bulled his way through several tacklers to gain 16 yards. Three plays later, on third-and-five from midfield, Carpenter went deep to WR Maurice Price and seemed to connect for a 33-yard gain, but the Dolphins quickly challenged and replays showed Price's second foot coming down out of bounds.
With 5:38 to go, the Buccaneers chose to go for it on fourth down and Carpenter made a scrambling throw to Madu for a gain of 19 and a first down at the 31. Madu got the first down and then another 10 yards after impressively keeping his feet after an initial hit. Two plays later, the Bucs were in the red zone when Carpenter found WR Ed Gant on the left sideline for a gain of 15. Carpenter took off on his own on next snap and scrambled down to the four to make it first and goal. The Bucs' 15th penalty backed them up five yards, but Carpenter found Overbay down the left hash marks two plays later for the seven yard score with 3:11 remaining.
Miami hurt itself with another flag, too, on the ensuing drive, taking a holding call two plays in to help make it third-and-11 from their 19. Moore tried to find WR Dedric Epps deep downfield on third down but the pass was well overthrown and – with 2:28 left and three timeouts remaining – the Dolphins punted. Fields predictably fired off a 63-yard punt to push the Bucs back to their own 29.
The Bucs understandably ran on the first two downs, getting just three yards but bringing on the two-minute warning. After the break, Allen took a handoff on a draw and got tot the 37, but the Bucs had to punt with 1:54 remaining. On the punt, 265-pound DE George Johnson hustled downfield to drop return man Phillip Livas at the Miami 24. The Dolphins subsequently completed one short pass but faced fourth-and-four from their own 30 with one minute to go. Miami obviously had to go for it, but rookie CB Anthony Gaitor had tight coverage on Marlon Moore on a failed out to the left sideline.
The Buccaneers improved to 2-1 on the preseason with the victory while Miami took its first loss of August and is also 2-1. Tampa Bay will conclude the preseason schedule next Thursday with a road game against the Washington Redskins.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers improved their all-time preseason to 10-16, snapping a two-game Miami winning streak in the process. The Bucs more games played, wins AND losses against Miami in the preseason than any other team. … Prior to Saturday night's game, General Manager Mark Dominik revealed that the NFL had informed him that CB Aqib Talib would not be suspended for any games in 2011. Talib had met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell earlier in the week regarding an off-the-field incident. … The Manatee Pee Wee Wildcats conducted a ceremonial kickoff for the entire nationwide Pop Warner organization at Raymond James Stadium about three hours prior to Saturday's game. In addition, the Buccaneers hosted several thousand youth football league players from 30 organizations throughout Central Florida at the game. … Five Buccaneers saw their first action of the 2011 preseason after missing the first two games: TEs Luke Stocker and Kellen Winslow, WR Arrelious Benn, CB Myron Lewis and DT Brian Price. … First-year DE George Johnson recorded his third sack of the preseason in the fourth quarter. He has had a sack in each of the Bucs' three games so far.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during the offseason. However, the Buccaneers revealed three players prior to the game who would definitely not participate: CB Aqib Talib, S Ahmad Black and DT Roy Miller.
The Dolphins announced five players prior to the game who would not see action: WR Patrick Carter, RB Lex Hilliard, FB/TE Charles Clay, G Garrett Chisolm and T Allen Barbre.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, TE Kellen Winslow left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury. He was considered probable to return but did not play again. Two Buccaneers defensive linemen – Brian Price and Michael Bennett – had the wind knocked of them in the first half but both returned to the game.
The Dolphins did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.