Raheem Morris says he has two goals for his defense, and neither center around the NFL's defensive yardage ranking. Those two goals: Score and get the ball back.
No, Ronde Barber didn't quite get in the end zone for his 14th career touchdown on his 38th career interception in the second quarter, but he did indeed get the ball back. And that's something the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did time and again in the second half to produce a 17-14 comeback win over the Cleveland Browns at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
Tampa Bay's defense did not allow a single first down by the Browns for a game-time span of 24 minutes and six seconds in the second half, allowing QB Josh Freeman to produce the only points after the intermission on a 33-yard touchdown pass to WR Micheal Spurlock. Cleveland's eight drives of the second half ended like this: fumble, three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, interception, turnover on downs, end of game.
As a result, the Buccaneers are 1-0 for the first time since 2005 as they begin what Morris has called, "The Race to 10."
"Good win for our football team," said a very stoic Morris after the game. "We take them one at a time. This was not our best performance but I'm not going to cry about that when we get a win. It was a great job going out there and getting this win, but that means nothing in this league. We have long-term goals."
Freeman's touchdown pass to Spurlock came after that fourth straight three-and-out and a fine 11-yard punt return, also by Spurlock. The play converted a third-and-10, gave the Bucs a three-point lead with seven minutes to play and gave Spurlock, the converted quarterback and former return man only, his first NFL touchdown reception.
Freeman also delivered the first career touchdown catch to rookie sensation Mike Williams, who recalled a famous Joe Jurevicius play in Philadelphia in 2003 by spinning around to catch a tipped ball in the end zone. Williams led the Buccaneers with five receptions for 30 yards as Freeman completed 17 of 28 passes for 182 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 182.
That 60.7% completion rate for Freeman, despite fairly significant pressure that led to three sacks by the Cleveland defense, was impressive given the fact that he hadn't played since fracturing his right thumb against Kansas City in Week Two of the preseason. After the game, Morris praised Freeman for his "mental toughness," and indeed the young passer stayed calm in his first career opening-day start despite some rough drives for the Buccaneers' offense in the second and third quarters.
But the story of the day was the second-half response of the Buccaneers' defense, which had allowed 202 yards and touchdowns by Mohamed Massaquoi and Peyton Hillis in the first half. CB E.J. Biggers, starting in place of the suspended Aqib Talib in Biggers' first regular-season NFL game, was beaten on Massaquoi's 41-yard scoring catch in the first quarter but was brilliant in the second half. His interception off QB Jake Delhomme in the fourth quarter came as the Panthers were trying to respond to Spurlock's touchdown.
"He was victimized early but I liked the way he responded to being victimized," said Morris. "He was able to keep his head up and make big plays for us."
The Buccaneers entire defense responded after the intermission, allowing 138 yards, four first downs and no points. LBs Geno Hayes and Barrett Ruud provided eight tackles each, the former adding two stops in the backfield and the latter a critical forced fumble that started the second-half surge. Biggers added six tackles and two passes defensed in addition to his interception. The Buccaneers did not record a sack but pressured Delhomme into 10 incompletions on 19 second-half throws. Morris said the turnaround was not a matter of rethinking the team's strategy during the break.
"It's not always about second-half adjustments," he said. "A lot of times it's about going out and executing the game plan that you came in with. We were able to do that in the second half and it was a lot of fun to see those guys go out there and play. There were a lot of things we saw that we didn't know we were going to see, but that's part of the first game of the season."
The turnaround really started late in the second quarter, with the Bucs trailing 14-3 and the Browns driving again. Barber picked off a pass headed for TE Benjamin Watson and returned it 64 yards down the sideline to the Cleveland three. Freeman's sidearm touchdown pass to Williams came one play later and made it 14-10 at the break.
"He's a consummate pro," said Morris of Barber, the team's longest-tenured player, now in his 14th season. "He is our leader and all our guys rally around him. His 34-year-old legs didn't let him get into the end zone like he used to, but he set us up for a touchdown."
The Buccaneers were obviously determined to establish a power running game, though they got only middling results at first. Four of Tampa Bay's first five drives began with running plays, and the team ran on half of their first-half plays despite gaining only 57 yards, 33 of them on a scramble by Freeman. Cadillac Williams ran hard throughout the game, however, eventually racking up 75 hard-earned yards on 22 carries. After Biggers got the ball back for the offense in Cleveland territory and with a lead, the call went to Williams again, who six times for 36 yards on the next two drives. Only Earnest Graham's fumble at the two-yard line kept the Bucs from turning those ground-chewing drives into some insurance points.
Cleveland scored the game's first points on their second possession, driving 61 yards on six plays for a touchdown near the end of the opening period. Hillis converted a third-and-12 with a sneaky draw play up the middle and on the very next snap Massaquoi leaped to catch a pass down the left seam just as Biggers and S Tanard Jackson crossed in front of him. Massaquoi was alone behind the defense after the catch, easily loping in for a 41-yard score.
The Bucs came back to score their first points on the next possession, a 48-yard field goal drive that came mostly on the strength of Freeman's 33-yard scramble up the right sideline. The march stalled at the Browns' 30 but Connor Barth, who was outstanding from long range in 2009, punched his kick high and straight to make it a 7-3 game.
The Browns trumped that score, however, with another touchdown in the second quarter. This time Jerome Harrison's 39-yard run around right end set up Hillis for a 10-yard touchdown to the opposite corner. That followed a Buccaneer three-and-out as the home team's offense continued to sputter after a good start.
Click here for a detailed report of the game's first half.
The Browns moved deep into Buccaneer territory to start the second half but once again the Buccaneers' defense took it away. After TE Evan Moore had broken free of a tackle on a short pass and rumbled 49 yards to the Tampa Bay 28, the Browns ran Hillis up the middle several times in row. On the last one, Ruud stripped the ball from his hands and Quincy Black fell on it at the Bucs' 15.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay's offense couldn't move the chains and the Bucs had to punt it back to Cleveland after a three-and-out. However, the Tampa Bay defense countered with one of its most inspired series of the game, forcing a Browns punt in return. Rookie DT Brian Price nearly sacked Delhomme on third-and-nine, and even though the Browns quarterback managed to flip the ball out sideways to Watson, the play lost a yard.
The Bucs' subsequent drive started with an 18-yard pass to WR Sammie Stroughter, but it was then hurt by a holding penalty that erased a 16-yard Cadillac Williams run. The Bucs ended up giving the ball back but the Tampa Bay defense responded again, forcing a second straight three-and-out. This time, the Bucs put it back in Williams' hands and he picked up 25 yards on the first two plays, the second a tackle-breaking 20-yard reception. The Bucs faced a third-and-10 three plays later, however, and Winslow fought for extra yardage on a short reception but couldn't reach the sticks.
The third straight three-and-out recorded by the Bucs' defense got the ball back for the Buccaneers near the start of the fourth quarter, and Freeman immediately hit Mike Williams for a gain of 17. Three plays later, the Bucs faced a third-and-five at the Cleveland 49 and the pocket collapsed on Freeman for a sack of four yards by LB Marcus Benard. However, Chris Bryan's punt bounced down to the Cleveland seven to put the Browns in a hole.
The Bucs' defense then responded with its fourth straight three-and-out and a fine return in traffic by Micheal Spurlock got the ball back to Cleveland's 47 with 8:37 left in the game. Stroughter converted a big third-and-10 with a 14-yard reception, but Freeman missed a wide-open Mike Williams on a play-action pass on the very next play. No matter, two plays later on another third-and-10, Freeman went deep again and this time found Spurlock for the go-ahead, 33-yard score. Spurlock had to fight out of illegal contact by CB Joe Haden, then find the ball over his shoulder as he ran into the end zone.
Barth blasted the ensuing kickoff six yards deep into the end zone but Cribbs elected to bring it out. Bad decision: Cribbs was dropped by LB Niko Koutouvides at the 17 and a holding penalty took it back to the six. CB E.J. Biggers made a spectacular diving break-up on a first-down pass and LB Quincy Black had outstanding coverage on Watson on the next play. On third-and-10, it got even better, as Biggers stayed with Massaquoi on a deep ball and intercepted it at the Cleveland 39.
After that, it was time for the Cadillac. Two power runs up the middle made it third-and-two and then Williams broke free on a draw and dashed 20 yards to the Cleveland 11. Two plays later, on third-and-one from the Cleveland two, Graham fumbled and the ball was recovered by LB Eric Barton. Fortunately, Barton chose to secure the ball and not get up and run, because he had nothing but open field in front of him.
Cleveland thus started again at its own three and got three yards on a pass to Hillis to bring on the two-minute warning. Heavy rains came as the Browns started up again but Delhomme still found Hillis for a gain of seven. Pressure forced an incompletion on the next snap, and DE Tim Crowder nearly sacked Delhomme on second down, causing another incompletion. After a six-yard catch by Cribbs and a false start, the Browns faced a fourth-and-nine at their own 14. Barber had perfect coverage on Chansi Stuckey and Delhomme's fourth-down pass sailed over the receiver's head.
The Bucs thus took over at the 14 and Williams gained two and six yards up the middle on the next two carries, with the Browns using timeouts after each. On third-and-two, Williams burrowed into the line for a gain of one and Cleveland used its last stoppage with 39 seconds left. Rather than risk a blocked field goal, or the kickoff to Cribbs that would follow a make, the Bucs went for it on fourth down and the play failed when Cleveland sniffed out Freeman's sneak and dropped him for a loss of six.
Delhomme completed a 22-yard pass down the middle to Moore, then spiked the ball with 13 seconds to play. The Browns got off one more pass, a strike to Stuckey on the sideline, but Hayes wrapped up the receiver to keep him in bounds and the last four seconds ticked off the clock.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers are now 3-5 in their all-time series with the Browns. The Bucs have won the last three meetings after losing the first five. Prior to Sunday's game, the last meeting between the two teams was in 2006, a 22-7 Tampa Bay victory at Cleveland Browns Stadium on December 24. The last Bucs-Browns game in Tampa occurred in 2002 and also ended in favor of the Buccaneers, 17-3. … Five of the six players the Buccaneers drafted in 2009 were in the starting lineup on Sunday: QB Josh Freeman, DT Roy Miller, DE Kyle Moore, CB E.J. Biggers and WR Sammie Stroughter. The Bucs also started two men from their 2010 draft: DT Gerald McCoy and WR Mike Williams. ... The Bucs bucked a trend by winning the game after trailing 14-3. From 2005-09, Tampa Bay was 11-24 when the opposition scored first, as Cleveland did on Sunday. … QB Josh Freeman's 33-yard scramble in the first quarter is the longest run of his career. It was also the longest run by a Buccaneers quarterback since a 48-yard touchdown run by Vinny Testaverde in 1990. . … CB Ronde Barber's 64-yard interception return in the second quarter was the third longest of his career in the regular season. It is his longest non-scoring INT return. … TE Kellen Winslow's eight-yard reception in the third quarter was the 300th of his career. … WR Micheal Spurlock's 33-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter made him the only player in team history to have scored at least once on a kickoff return, a punt return and a reception.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Kregg Lumpkin, C/G Ted Larsen, DL Michael Bennett, WR Maurice Stovall, WR Preston Parker, DE Erik Lorig and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter.
The Browns deactivated these eight players: WR Carlton Mitchell, S Nick Sorenson, LB D'Qwell Jackson, G Shawn Lauvao, C Steve Vallos, TE Alex Smith, LB David Bowens and designated third quarterback Colt McCoy. Sorenson, Jackson and Bowens were out due to injury..
Injuries: Neither team reported an injury from the sideline during the game.