The Bucs' defense celebrates one of Jermaine Phillips' two interceptions
The 100th regular-season victory for the Malcolm Glazer-era Tampa Bay Buccaneers may not have been one of the national highlights on the NFL's Week 16 schedule, but it combined many of the elements that characterized the franchise's rebirth since it was purchased by the Glazers in 1995.
A stifling, ball-hawking defense. A methodical rushing attack and efficient work under center. A dangerous pass rush. Big plays on special teams. On Sunday, it all added up to a dominant 22-7 road victory over the Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay's first win away from home this season. The win simply improved the Bucs to 4-11 with one game to play, but it suggested that last week's sudden resurgence in Chicago was no fluke.
QB Tim Rattay certainly didn't appear to be a one-hit wonder. After leading a stunning comeback in relief against the Bears in an eventual 34-31 overtime loss a week earlier, Rattay made his first start as a Buccaneer and impressed again. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 212 yards and helped the offense sustain drives by converting eight of 17 third-down attempts. Rattay spread the ball around, completing four passes each to Ike Hilliard, Alex Smith and Michael Pittman and two each to Maurice Stovall and Joey Galloway.
The only uncomfortable moment for Rattay came in the fourth quarter when he was sacked hard by rookie Kamerion Wimbley, forcing a fumble that CB Daven Holly returned 40 yards for Cleveland's only score. That play kept the Bucs' defense from posting the 10th shutout in team history and the first since 2004.
Otherwise, the Bucs' defense was nearly flawless, enjoying the type of output it has so often produced in the past. LB Derrick Brooks scored on a 21-yard interception return early in the fourth quarter to give the Bucs a 19-0 lead, spearheading an effort that allowed Cleveland only 187 yards of offense and produced three sacks. That marked the first time this season the Bucs have held an opponent below 200 net yards of offense.
Facing the inexperienced Derek Anderson, the Bucs' defense came up with the turnovers in the passing game that had eluded them for most of the season. In fact, S Jermaine Phillips' two interceptions were not just a career high, they constituted just the second time this season that the Bucs had picked off more than one pass in a game as a team. The last time was against Philadelphia in October, a game the Bucs won in large part due to Ronde Barber's two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. The Bucs entered the game with six total interceptions through 14 games but were able to snare four of Anderson's passes, including Phillips' two, Brooks' TD and a late pick by CB Phillip Buchanon, who now has two interceptions since taking over as a starter.
Phillips' two picks didn't produce that same windfall – together they led to three points thanks to the Bucs' repeated inability to punch the ball in from inside Cleveland's 10-yard line – but they did help the visitors control the action in the first half en route to a 6-0 lead at halftime.
The Bucs' struggles near the goal line really were crippling. Four times in the first half the offense drove methodically down to or inside Cleveland's 10-yard line, but those four drives netted only two field goals, one interception and one ball lost on downs. The Bucs snapped the ball nine times on plays starting at the Cleveland 10 or closer and gained a total of four yards on those snaps.
The Bucs broke out of that unfortunate pattern with their very first drive of the second half, however. Perhaps the key was not quite getting to the 10-yard line; Pittman capped a 74-yard touchdown drive with an 11-yard run off left tackle, countering off an excellent crackdown block by the rookie Stovall. The Bucs took a 12-0 lead on the play, as the ensuing extra point was blocked. Stovall, who made his first career start, was a powerful force in the running game all day, frequently taking on linebackers and keeping them out of downfield running lanes.
The Bucs' running game looked like the one of old, even down to some of the principle ballcarriers. Playing without leading rusher Cadillac Williams, who stayed behind in Tampa to get treatment on an injured foot, the Bucs had one of their better offensive outputs of the season. The rushing game became a three-headed attack featuring Pittman, Mike Alstott and Earnest Graham, three gritty runners who pounded out 153 yards on the ground despite not having a carry longer than 11 yards.
Pittman was particularly effective, gaining 86 yards on 16 carries and scoring the Bucs' only offensive touchdown, an 11-yard run early in the third quarter. Coming into Sunday's game, Pittman had exactly 86 rushing yards on the season. Alstott did much of the dirty work, pounding for 56 yards on 22 carries, most of it into the teeth of a loaded Cleveland front.
After Pittman's touchdown, the Browns mounted their first real scoring threat since the game's opening moments on the next drive, thanks in part to a big third-down catch by former Buccaneer Joe Jurevicius. However, the Bucs held in the red zone and G Jeb Terry made a leaping, one-handed deflection of K Phil Dawson's 31-yard field goal attempt, preserving the shutout for the time being.
Brooks' interception followed at the start of the fourth quarter, giving the Bucs a 19-0 lead. Holly's score briefly inspired the Browns, but the Bucs followed with a nine-play, 35-yard field goal drive on which each play was a run. Matt Bryant capped the scoring with a 37-yard field goal.
DE Greg Spires helped produce Brooks' turnover by hitting Anderson from behind as he threw. Spires was a force off the left end all day, combining two sacks with four tackles and four quarterback hits. Chris Hovan led the team with eight tackles and also produced the Bucs' third sack.
The game started out poorly for the Buccaneers, who drew flags before the first play from scrimmage was even run, but they avoided any damage with a defensive stop. After losing five yards on an offside call on their first kickoff attempt, the Bucs saw Bryant's second attempt bounce out of bounds, which gave Cleveland a starting spot of their own 45. One big gain, a 25-yard pass over the middle to WR Dennis Northcutt, put them in scoring position. However, the Bucs' defense held and the Browns elected to pooch punt out of a field goal formation from the Tampa Bay 27-yard line. The punt kicked into the end zone for a net gain of seven yards.
The Bucs' first drive was impressive, though it too stalled before the end zone. Rattay's 18-yard strike to Stovall converted a third-and-seven at the beginning of the march, and the two hooked up again for 27 yards on third-and-14 from the Cleveland 33. That made it first-and-goal from the six, but the Bucs couldn't get any closer and had to settle for Bryant's 23-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead eight minutes into the game.
Cleveland got to midfield on the next possession but had to punt. The Bucs used all three of their rotating backs to get a first down – running Graham (five yards), Pittman (four) and Alstott (two) in succession to start the drive – but had to punt after CB Ralph Brown absolutely leveled Smith on a third-down pass attempt.
Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back for the offense in Cleveland territory on the first play of the second quarter. Anderson tried to hit TE Kellen Winslow on a third-and-five slant but Winslow was well-covered by CB Phillip Buchanon and the ball deflected off the tight end to Phillips. Phillips made a lunging interception, then got up and returned it 16 yards to the Browns' 43.
The pattern continued as the Bucs drove down inside the 10-yard line before stalling. This time, however, they came up empty, thanks to a fourth-down gamble that failed. Hilliard caught an underneath pass on third-and-11 and lunged for the first-down line, only to come up a half-yard short. The Bucs brought in Alstott, who had already run four times for 19 yards on the drive, but he was stood up by S Brodney Pool on a counter to the right side and the Bucs had to give the ball up on downs.
The Browns got out of the shadow of their end zone immediately on Droughns' 18-yard run but Phillips took the ball away again. Anderson tried to go deep to Winslow down the right numbers, but Winslow was well covered by LB Shelton Quarles and the pass sailed over the tight end's head to Phillips, who returned the pick 29 yards to the Browns' 29.
This time, the Bucs at least netted another field goal, thanks to Smith's impressive 20-yard catch at the Cleveland nine. Smith was visibly fired up after the play, likely still thinking about Brown's big hit. The bad news: The Bucs failed to punch it in again and had to settle for Bryant's 23-yarder and a 6-0 lead with six minutes to play in the half.
The Bucs got the ball back at their own 20 with three-and-a-half minutes to play and got an immediate 31 yards on a pass to Hilliard down the right sideline. Another Hilliard catch for 13 yards put the ball at Cleveland's 13, but Holly intercepted Rattay's third down pass intended for Galloway, killing yet another scoring threat.
The Bucs will conclude their 2006 season next Sunday at home against the Seattle Seahawks.
Game Notes: WR Maurice Stovall made his first career start, moving into the flanker spot ahead of veteran WR Ike Hilliard. Stovall, who had four catches on the season heading into the game, finished with two for 45 yards against the Browns. … Tampa Bay secured its first win ever in Cleveland on Sunday. Heading into the game, they were 0-2 all-time in road games against the Browns. … LB Shelton Quarles made his 112th start as a Buccaneer on Sunday. That moved him into a tie with Jimmie Giles for ninth place on the team's all-time game started list. … Stovall's 27-yard reception on third-and-14 in the first quarter led to a rare third-down conversion of that length. Coming into the game, the Bucs were two for 26 on third down attempts of longer than 11 yards. That's not unusual; Buccaneer opponents were two for 30 in that range coming into Sunday's game. … S Jermaine Phillips' second-quarter interception was the third of his career and his first since Nov. 7, 2004, against the Kansas City Chiefs. Phillips snagged another interception later in the same quarter, doubling his career total in that category. … Matt Bryant made 23 and 24-yard field goals in the first half to give the Bucs a 6-0 lead, then added a 37-yarder in the fourth quarter to make it 22-7. Bryant has made 15 of his last 16 attempts, dating back to the Philadelphia game on Oct. 22. … RB Michael Pittman's third-quarter touchdown was his first rushing score in over a year. His previous one was a 57-yard breakaway against Miami on Oct. 16, 2005. … The Browns blocked Matt Bryant's extra point attempt early in the third quarter, marking the first failed PAT by the Buccaneers since Martin Gramatica missed one wide left against Kansas City on Nov. 7, 2004. … G Jeb Terry's leaping deflection of Phil Dawson's kick in the third quarter was the third blocked field goal of the year for the Buccaneers. Phillips and Dewayne White each had blocks at Atlanta on Sept. 17.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: RB Cadillac Williams, CB Alan Zemaitis, C Nick Mihlhauser, T Donald Penn, TE Doug Jolley, DE Charles Bennett, DT Jon Bradley and designated third quarterback Luke McCown. Williams was out due to injury.
The Browns named the following eight players inactive: CB Leigh Bodden, LB Andra Davis, DT Alvin McKinley, RB Chris Bradley, DB Ben Emanuel, OL Rob Smith, OL Fred Matua and designated third quarterback Charlie Frye. Bodden, Davis, McKinley and Frye were all out due to injuries.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DE Dewayne White suffered bruised ribs on the game's first drive but did return in the first quarter.
The Browns G Cosey Coleman suffered knee and ankle injuries in the second quarter and did not return. DL J'Vonne Parker sustained an ankle injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.