WR Michael Clayton absorbed a big hit, but not before he had found the end zone on a second-quarter TD reception
Jeff Garcia's first action of the preseason wasn't flawless, but it ended on a good note Saturday night. Unfortunately for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the same could not be said of the game as a whole.
Despite a second-quarter surge by the starting offense another stingy performance by the starting defense and a spirited comeback at the end of the game, the Bucs fell to the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars, 23-17, at Raymond James Stadium.
Making his 2008 debut after sitting out roughly three weeks of practices and games due to a groin strain, Garcia was intercepted on his second pass and then again in the end zone early in the second quarter, both times by second-year S Reggie Nelson. However, the veteran passer did complete 12 of 19 passes in a little less than two quarters of play, the last one an eight-yard touchdown pass to WR Michael Clayton.
After Jacksonville went up 10-0 in the early going, the Bucs nearly rallied to a tie in the second quarter. The Jaguars pulled away in the second half, however, and Tampa Bay's last-minute threat ended with a two-yard pass on fourth-and-six at the Jaguars' 11.
Though the result of the game won't be terribly important in the long run, there was a sobering moment midway through the fourth quarter. LB Antoine Cash drove his helmet into the side of CB Marcus Hamilton's right leg on an attempted tackle of WR Troy Williamson on an end-around, and both Buc defenders stayed down. Hamilton eventually limped off with help but Cash had to be loaded onto a stretcher as the entire Bucs roster left the sideline and gathered around the cart.
After the game Head Coach Jon Gruden confirmed that Cash had a neck injury but that he was "moving around." "I believe he's got all the movements in his body," said Gruden. "We took all the precautions on the field that we needed to take."
Despite the early miscues, Garcia believed the game had moved him closer to being ready for the regular season.
"It was a tough start; there is a lot of rust I have to shake off," he said. "I am glad Coach Gruden gave me the opportunity to stay in there and continue to compete, and thankfully we put a drive together and finished it off well. I think I made two very poor decisions tonight, which is very unlike me and I think it shows that I haven't practiced a lot and haven't played at all. Those are things I needed to get out of my system tonight and hopefully I can move on from here."
With Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant both in street clothes, the Bucs started Maurice Stovall and Michael Clayton at the receiver spots, and Garcia seemed to find a rapport with that duo. Stovall and Clayton combined for six receptions for 60 yards and a touchdown in the first half, five of them from Garcia.
Still, the first half of the third game of the preseason was easily the sloppiest of the three to this point. After completely avoiding turnovers for the first two games — a remarkable achievement that was unlikely to continue with the constant substituting common to the preseason — the Bucs gave it away three times in the first half. RB Earnest Graham fumbled on his first carry of the game, setting up a Jacksonville field goal. Bucs K Matt Bryant also missed a short field goal just before halftime, and a fourth-quarter interception by former South Florida DB Trae Williams set up another Jacksonville field goal.
"That is real frustrating, an interception and a missed field goal, that [was] the difference in the ball game [at halftime]," said Gruden. "I didn't like the way we started, but I liked the way we picked it up. We have to make plays when we have a chance to make them."
Those giveaways obscured another impressive first-half performance by Tampa Bay's defense. At the intermission, the Bucs had allowed only 75 yards of offense and five first downs, and had limited Jacksonville's powerful rushing attack to just 20 yards on nine carries. Through three games, the Bucs have allowed just 297 first-half yards, or 93 per game. Those performances have the starting defense feeling confident heading into the regular season.
"You â€¦ want to get as ready as you can for that first regular-season game at New Orleans," said cornerback Ronde Barber, who set up the Bucs' first touchdown with a second-quarter interception. "I think we are ready. The veterans on this team have done a good job getting us ready to go, and this last preseason game at Houston will be a good chance to make sure we have who we have."
Barber finished the game with two tackles and two pass breakups to go with his pick. Rookie Aqib Talib relieved the other cornerback starter, Phillip Buchanon, early and made several splash plays, including a pass breakup in the end zone. DT Chris Hovan got constant penetration in the first half, with three tackles, all for losses, one sack and two quarterback hurries. DE Jimmy Wilkerson posted his second sack in three games and added two solo tackles.
Jacksonville's preseason mastery over the Buccaneers continued. The Jaguars have now defeated their downstate rivals in August for five straight years, with an average margin of victory of eight points in those five contests. Jacksonville's rugged defense, ranked fourth in the NFL in 2008 and particularly strong up the middle with DT John Henderson, LB Mike Peterson and Nelson — gave the Bucs' starting offense its stiffest test so far.
Garcia was followed by Brian Griese and then Luke McCown under center. Combined, the Bucs' quarterbacks completed 29 of 48 passes for 254 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions, which was a step down from their shared performances against Miami and New England. The Bucs' team passer rating on Saturday night was 62.3; it was 95.5 coming into the night. They did enjoy relatively good protection, however, as the three passers absorbed just one sack, including only one through the first three quarters.
McCown took the second sack, but also recorded a 29-yard scramble and a three-yard scoring pass to WR Chad Lucas on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive. McCown also moved the Bucs down to the Jaguars' red zone at the end of the game but the drive failed in part due to some questionable clock-management decisions.
The stellar protection came without the services of O-line stalwart Davin Joseph, who suffered a foot fracture the previous week against the Patriots. Rookie Jeremy Zuttah started in Joseph's place at right guard and played most of the game. If Zuttah has to maintain that spot into the regular season, he believes he's ready.
"It's a good experience," said the third-round pick out of Rutgers. "Any time you get out there and go with the 'ones' it's valuable. I was able to get a lot of good playing reps out there. The coaches have been telling me since day one just to be ready. No matter what happens, just prepare like you're going to go in there on every play. That's what I did and I was ready to play."
Some other parts of the game-within-the-game were successful for the Buccaneers. Gruden followed through on his pregame plan to insert a group of reserve linebackers with the first-team defense, bringing in the trio of Geno Hayes, Matt McCoy and Quincy Black on the third defensive possession. The defense recorded a quick three-and-out on that drive, with Black involved on a critical second-down pass breakup. The Bucs scored off the short field provided by that stop, and the mixed defense then forced another quick three-and-out on Jacksonville's next possession.
The Bucs' impressive, two-game no-turnover streak lasted all of three plays into the first drive on Saturday night. A third-and-one run by Graham was well-blocked and appeared to be a success until DE Reggie Hayward stripped the ball and LB Daryl Smith recovered at the Bucs' 23.
A rough nine-yard tackle-breaking run by Fred Taylor got the ball down to the Bucs' 10, but the defense held their and Jacksonville settled for Josh Scobee's 23-yard icebreaker five minutes into the game. Hovan tackled RB Maurice Jones-Drew for a loss of four yards on second-and-goal to thwart the Jaguars' hopes for a touchdown.
The Bucs' next turnover-free streak was much shorter: zero plays. On the first play of their next drive, Garcia tried to hit Stovall on the right sideline and was easily intercepted by Nelson, who read it all the way. The second-year safety got the ball down to the Bucs' eight but a personal foul moved it back to the 27.
This time, the Jaguars turned the takeaway into seven points. On third-and-goal from the eight, the Buccaneers faked a blitz but Barber couldn't quite get back into the throwing line to prevent Garrard from hitting Northcutt for the score.
The Bucs got a couple first downs on their next possession but still had to punt. S Sabby Piscitelli stopped WR Dennis Northcutt dead in his tracks at the Jacksonville 21, and the Jags hurt themselves with a holding penalty on the next play. The Bucs' defense forced a three-and-out thanks in part to Wilkerson's second sack of the preseason.
Dexter Jackson's 13-yard return of Adam Podlesh's 43-yard punt got the Bucs into Jacksonville territory for the first time, and a nice catch-and-stretch by Alex Smith earned a first down at the 35 as the first quarter came to an end. A Clayton end-around converted another third-and-one at the Jacksonville 12, but Garcia was picked off again before the drive could result in points. Garcia tried to hit Clayton on a seam route into the back of the end zone but Nelson leaped high to bat it up and haul in the deflection for a touchback.
The Bucs' defense got the ball back four plays later. Talib provided pressure off the right corner with an impressive blitz, and fellow Barber intercepted Garrard's pass on the other side of the field. Garrard tried to hit WR Mike Walker 15 yards downfield but Barber read the comeback route and got between Walker and the ball at the Jacksonville 43.
Clayton made an impressive catch of a pass thrown behind him on a third-and-five crossing route, gaining 11 yards down to the 26. Garcia went to his favorite third-down target, Ike Hilliard, on third-and-six from the 22 and found him for an eight-yard gain and a first down at the 14. Three plays later, Garcia and Clayton hooked up again on third down, this one from the 10-yard line, as Clayton ran a quick seam route to the goal line and Garcia hit him in stride for a touchdown.
The Bucs forced another quick three-and-out, thanks in part to Hovan's second tackle for a loss, and the resulting punt set the Bucs up just in front of the midfield stripe. Griese came in to lead the next possession and, on the first play, handed off to Bennett for a slashing, 12-yard run. After just missing on a deep ball to Stovall, the Bucs converted a third-and-one and called their second timeout of the half at the Jacksonville 27 with 1:07 to play.
After the break, Griese enjoyed a long-lasting pocket and easily hit Stovall over the middle for a gain of 17. However, the drive stalled at the five and the Bucs settled for Matt Bryant's attempt at a 23-yard game-tying field goal. Unfortunately, Bryant pushed it a few feet to the left and the Jaguars took a 10-7 lead into halftime.
The Jaguars needed only three minutes in the second half to extend their lead to 10 points. A 21-yard reception by Northcutt had a 15-yard personal-foul tacked on the end, taking the ball down to the Bucs' 33, and Matt Jones' 28-yard catch-and-run brought it down to the Bucs' four. The Bucs stopped first and second down but Garrard found TE Marcedes Lewis just over the goal line on third-and-goal to make it 17-7, Jaguars.
DE Gaines Adams was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play, as well, meaning Jacksonville got to kick off from their own 45-yard line. The resulting drive started at the Bucs' 15 and went nowhere, thanks in part to a rare false-start call on Griese, apparently guilty of a head bob.
The Bucs got the ball back at midfield, however, when the defense came up with big stops of jumbo RB Greg Jones on third-and-two and fourth-and-one. Wilkerson got the first stop, rookie Dre Moore the second and the Bucs took over at their own 49. Griese then found WR Brian Clark on the next two plays, a pair of completions that took the ball down to Jacksonville's 21. Clark also had a helpful block on Bennett's nine-yard run on the next snap.
Michael Bennett's next run appeared to end in a fumble, but the veteran back excitedly called for the red flag. The coaches threw it on faith, and were rewarded when replay overturned the call. The Bucs kept the ball but were unable to punch it in; this time, Bryant converted the opportunity with a 27-yard field goal. That trimmed the lead to 17-10 with 5:30 left in the third quarter.
An apparent interception of a deflected pass by Piscitelli moments later was erased by a pass interference penalty on rookie CB Elbert Mack, who had made the deflection on a quick slant. The Jaguars were able to sustain the drive into Buccaneers territory, setting up Scobee for a 45-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
A false start, a sack by DE Jimmy Kennedy and a 15-yard punt return by Brian Witherspoon put Jacksonville back at the Bucs' 40 less than two minutes later. The Bucs' defense held and forced a punt that Clifton Smith fair caught at the 18. However, McCown, in for his second drive, was intercepted by Williams on the next snap. WR Micheal Spurlock tried to haul in a pass thrown behind him with one arm but unfortunately left it hanging in the air for Williams, who plucked it and got back to the Bucs' nine.
Cash and Hamilton were hurt two plays later. On the following third-and-goal, LB Ryan Nece flew past his blockers to trap RB Chauncey Washington for a loss of four. Scobee used fourth down to increase Jacksonville's lead to 23-10 with a 25-yard field goal.
McCown used his feet to turn in the longest play of the night on the ensuing drive, scrambling around right end and then weaving up the right sideline for a gain of 29 yards to the Jacksonville 21. Smith turned McCown's next pass into a 16-yard gain by taking a short dumpoff down to the five. Three plays later, on third-and-goal, McCown found WR Chad Lucas for a three-yard touchdown pass, cutting Jacksonville's lead to six points with 3:43 to play.
The Bucs' defensive reserves held on the ensuing drive, forcing a punt that gave the ball back to Tampa Bay at its own 35 with 2:17 to play. McCown hit Spurlock at midfield, bringing the game down to the two-minute warning. Three plays later, McCown converted a third-and-1 with an 18-yard seam pass to TE Jerramy Stevens; he found Lucas over the middle for six yards on the next snap. Smith turned a short pass into a long gain on the next play with a couple nifty spins, but the play was erased by a holding call on Anthony Davis.
Smith did it again moments later to convert a third-and-14, though he made a small mistake by spinning inside rather than going out of bounds after passing the sticks. McCown spiked the ball at the Jacksonville 15 with 29 seconds to play. An ill-advised dumpoff to Smith forced McCown to spike it again with 13 seconds to play, making it fourth-and-seven with 13 seconds to play. A short pass to Lucas ended the threat.
The loss dropped Tampa Bay to 2-1 on the preseason; they finish their preseason slate on Thursday at Houston. The Jaguars improved to 2-1 and will finish at Washington on Thursday.
Game Notes: Jacksonville now leads the all-time preseason series with Tampa Bay, 5-2. The Jaguars are 2-1 at Raymond James Stadium in August. â€¦ TE John Gilmore started for the Buccaneers, who opened in a two-tight end set. Gilmore started along with TE Alex Smith, with RB Warrick Dunn working in a single-back backfield. â€¦ QB Jeff Garcia made a heads-up play early in the second quarter. Seeing that his hard count had pulled DE Kenny Pettway offsides, Garcia called for an early snap and simply ran up the middle, ensuring that the Jaguars would be penalized before Pettway could get back into position. â€¦ K Matt Bryant was nearly flawless during three weeks of training camp but has been a bit off line during the preseason so far. Bryant has missed three field goals through three games, including a 23-yarder on Saturday night. He has made four other attempts, including a 25-yarder against Jacksonville.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during the preseason. However, the Bucs were without G Davin Joseph, FB B.J. Askew, WR Antonio Bryant and WR Joey Galloway.
The Jaguars played without WRs Reggie Williams and Jerry Porter and C Brad Meester.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, LB Antoine Cash and CB Marcus Hamilton left the game in the fourth quarter after Cash collided into Hamilton on an attempted tackle. Neither player returned.
For the Jaguars, RB Maurice Jones-Drew suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter and did not return. LB Brian Iwuh sustained a sprained ankle in the second half and also did not return.