Rookie TE Alex Smith is averaging two touchdowns per game in his NFL career
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into the 2005 season hoping a healthy dose of rookie RB Cadillac Williams would recharge the offense. Sure enough, Williams was a busy man in his NFL debut at Minnesota on Sunday, but it was 2005 draft mate Alex Smith, the dangerously active tight end, who stole the show.
At least until the final seconds, when Williams turned in the single biggest play of the game.
Smith's two touchdown receptions in the second quarter against the Vikings, gave the Bucs a 14-7 lead en route to a 24-13 win and a rousing, 1-0 start to the season. He became the first Buccaneer rookie tight end to score touchdowns in a single game. It wasn't over, however, until Williams' 27th carry, when he needed one yard and got 71.
CB Brian Kelly had two interceptions to key an impressive defense effort, which held Minnesota's high-powered offense out of the end zone for four quarters and allowed just 248 yards, including only 66 in the first half.
Kelly's second interception, off a high pass that deflected through RB Moe Williams' hands inside the Buccaneers' 10-yard line, ended Minnesota's last scoring chance. Needing to kill the final 1:40 on the clock, the Bucs ran Williams three times. His first two carries, tough runs up the middle, gained nine yards and burned both remaining Viking timeouts. On third down, Williams burst over left guard and into the open, not only getting the game-killing first down but dashing 71 yards, with WR Michael Clayton as his escort, for the game's final score.
Williams finished his first NFL game with 148 yards and a touchdown on 27 hard-nosed carries.
Smith scored on two of his first three NFL receptions, as he proved to be a favorite target of QB Brian Griese. Griese got off to a rough start when his third pass of the game was returned 88 yards for the opening score by former Packer Darren Sharper, but he righted himself quickly, directing two long scoring drive on the Bucs' next two possessions.
Griese's interception, on a short pass intended for WR Joey Galloway in the left flat, came on third-and-15. However, the veteran passer converted five straight third-down plays on the two touchdown drives that ensued, including one that turned into a 41-yard catch-and-run by second-year WR Michael Clayton. Galloway was Griese's favorite target, at least before he got near the end zone, as the crafty speedster caught four passes for 91 yards in the first half and finished with five for 97.
In other words, the Bucs' formula for success in 2005 following two straight sub-.500 seasons worked marvelously. The keys to that formula: Run Williams repeatedly, rely on Griese's accuracy and a deep group of receivers on third down, stop the run on defense, force turnovers and make their field goals. One game into the season, you can put a check mark next to each category, and you can officially upgrade your expectations for the playoff race.
The Bucs were particularly determined to follow through on that first goal, handing the ball to Williams a remarkable 18 times in the first half and 27 overall. The coaching staff clearly wasn't worried about running too many miles off their new Cadillac in the first game, and the durable and energetic rookie responded with just the type of performance Gruden predicted he would. The Bucs clearly have a new grind-it-out back at the end of close games, and tellingly, Williams' longest carry was his last.
The Bucs featured Williams right from the first snap. The offense came out in a two-tight end formation, pairing Williams with Michael Pittman in the "Rocket" backfield. Williams swept left for a gain of four on his first NFL carry. On second down, the Bucs even brought in tackle Todd Steussie as an extra tight end, running left again, but this time for only two yards. Tampa Bay even ran on third-and-four, though it was a bit of a gadget play, with Galloway coming in motion and taking a pitch on an end-around. Galloway was stopped for no gain, though, and the Bucs' first possession went three-and out.
Williams ran on the first play of the second drive, too, as the Bucs were backed up at their own four. He went left again and cut back inside a tackler to gain eight yards. His second-down carry got three more and the Bucs' initial first down of 2005. QB Brian Griese's first pass of the game didn't come until Tampa Bay's sixth play from scrimmage. It was a well-thrown dart through traffic to WR Michael Clayton, but Clayton dropped it. Griese's first completion came two plays into the third drive, a five-yard strike to Smith.
The turnovers were also key. Kelly recorded his first interception of the season early in the first quarter, erasing Minnesota's first scoring threat. The Bucs, in fact, ended each of the Vikings' first three possessions with takeaways, as DE Dewayne White recovered an unforced Daunte Culpepper fumble and DT Chris Hovan fell on another Culpepper fumble caused by a blindside Simeon Rice sack. All told, Minnesota's offense accounted for 66 yards, four first downs and no points in the first half, as the Bucs took a 17-7 lead. The Bucs' defense eventually finished with five turnovers, as LB Derrick Brooks intercepted QB Daunte Culpepper on the first play after Williams' touchdown.
The Bucs did have penalty problems reminiscent of the preseason, drawing 13 flags for 99 yards. The Vikings may have committed the most damaging infraction, however, when a 35-yard touchdown catch by TE Jermaine Wiggins was erased by a pass-interference call on Wiggins. The Vikings still capitalized on the drive, however, as new Minnesota kicker Paul Edinger nailed a 53-yard field goal to cap a 10-play, 34-yard hike with four minutes left in the third quarter. Another 10-play field goal drive in the fourth quarter made it 17-13 and set up a harrowing last-minute drive by the Vikings.
That drive came about after the Bucs came up about an inch short with five minutes to play. Taking over with six minutes left after Minnesota's last field goal, the visitors needed a few first downs to drain the clock. Instead, they went three-and-out as Griese's third-and-seven pass to Galloway was spotted shy of the first-down marker by the barest of margins.
Good punt coverage and a block-in-the-back penalty forced Minnesota to start from their own 10 with a little over four minutes to play, but that wasn't enough to keep the Vikings out of the end zone. Though Culpepper and his cast of high-powered weapons hadn't scored a touchdown through the game's first 56 minutes, they calmly drove 78 yards, down into the shadow of Tampa Bay's end zone. Along the way, the Bucs missed two more chances to put it away when the Vikings recovered two of their own fumbles.
On the first one RB Moe Williams' fumbled at midfield but the ball ended up in the hands of Viking WR Nate Burleson at the bottom of the pile. Four plays later, after a defensive holding penalty had erased an Ellis Wyms sack back at midfield, TE Jim Kleinsasser caught a pass at the Bucs' 12 but was hit hard by LB Shelton Quarles, coughing up the ball right in front of Brooks. Brooks made the regrettable decision to try to scoop it and run, and when it went through his hands it was recovered by Williams; that probably helps explain why Brooks simply fell to the ground after his game-ending interception a few minutes later.
The Bucs came through on their third attempt at a turnover. Culpepper's short pass to Williams was high and off Williams' hands. Kelly was there for the deflection, which he advanced to the Bucs' 20. Cadillac's three runs iced the game.
Williams' big game was reminiscent of the Bucs' beginning to 1997, when the explosive runs of RB Warrick Dunn helped Tampa Bay to a 5-0 start and its first playoff berth in 15 years. In the third game of that season, at Minnesota, Dunn ran 16 times for 101 yards in a 28-14 Buccaneer victory.
Dunn, however, would share the backfield with Mike Alstott for most of his five seasons in Tampa. Williams appears as if he will be the workhorse, as he had all but four of the Bucs' 31 carries.
Whatever works. Williams' running fueled a 345-yard effort by the Bucs' offense. Other than the one interception, Griese was sharp against a Minnesota defense that has added not only Sharper but such proven veterans as LB Sam Cowart, LB Napoleon Harris, DT Pat Williams and CB Fred Smoot. Griese completed 18 of 29 passes for 213 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The 1-0 Bucs return to Tampa for their home opener next Sunday against Buffalo.
Game Notes: The Bucs and the rest of the NFL played on September 11 for the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. Coincidentally, the Bucs' first game after those attacks was at Minnesota on September 30, after the games of September 16-17 were cancelled and the Bucs had their third-week bye. Minnesota won that game, 20-16. The Vikings, like all home teams around the league on Sunday, took several minutes during the pregame ceremonies to recognize the victims of the 9/11 attack, as well as those of Hurricane Katrina … With today's win, the Bucs are now 13-17 all-time in season openers. The Bucs have started three straight seasons on the road and are 2-1 in those games, also beating Philadelphia in 2003 and losing at Washington in 2004. In 30 seasons, the Bucs have started 17 campaigns on the road, and are now 8-9 in that situation, including four wins in their last five tries. … The Bucs have now opened four of their 30 seasons against the Vikings, tying Minnesota with Philadelphia as Tampa Bay's most common first-week opponent. … The Bucs sent five players out to serve as captains for the opening coin toss. QB Brian Griese and FB Mike Alstott served as offensive captains, CB Ronde Barber and LB Derrick Brooks represented the defense and LB Ryan Nece was the special teams captain. … CB Brian Kelly's interception in the first quarter was the 17th of his career. That moved him into a tie for seventh place on the Bucs' all-time pick list, equaling the career totals of Harry Hamilton, Ricky Reynolds and Mark Cotney. He later got his 18th to take over seventh alone. … DE Simeon Rice's sack of QB Daunte Culpepper in the second quarter marked the fifth time Rice has taken Culpepper down. That made Culpepper the fourth-most common victim for Rice, who has more sacks against only Aaron Brooks, Donovan McNabb and Kerry Collins. … Griese's second-quarter touchdown pass to rookie TE Alex Smith broke a Buccaneer record. It was the 12th straight game in which Griese had thrown at least one scoring pass, snipping what had been a tie with former Buc and current Viking Brad Johnson. Johnson originally set the record at 11 during a stretch in 2003. … P Josh Bidwell built on his extremely strong preseason, booting six punts for 281 yards, averaging 46.8 gross and 37.8 net. He had no touchbacks, one inside the 20 and a long of 52.
Inactives: The Buccaneers designated eight game day inactives 90 minutes before kickoff. They were S Donte Nicholson, FB Rick Razzano, T Chris Colmer, G Matt Stinchcomb, WR Paris Warren, WR J.R. Russell, DT Jon Bradley and designated third quarterback Luke McCown.
The Vikings had only 52 players on their active roster, which meant they had to designate only seven game day inactives. Their inactives were CB Laroni Gallishaw, CB Dovonte Edwards, C Anthony Herrera, TE Jeff Dugan, DT C.J. Mosley, DE Erasmus James and designated third quarterback Shaun Hill.
Injuries: The Buccaneers did not report a single injury from the sideline during Sunday's game.