WR Joey Galloway somehow plucked this first-quarter pass away from S Terrence Holt, resulting in a TD and a lead the Bucs never relinquished
Now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can rest easy.
With a 17-10 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, the Bucs snapped a two-game losing streak, regained first place in the NFC South and made it much easier to relax during their upcoming bye week.
"That was a big win for our football team," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It's a big win to be in the race. That's what we're in this business for. It doesn't matter how you win sometimes; it's important that you win. We're happy that we won because we're hanging around."
RB Earnest Graham had another strong day as the Buccaneers' new backfield workhorse, notching his first career 100-yard game and scoring the game-winning points. Graham finished the game with 124 yards and one touchdown on a career-high 34 carries. On an ill-fated marathon drive in the second half that should have put the game away, Graham touched the ball on 10 of the 19 plays.
"We had a great drive to start the game," said Gruden. "They were blitzing and we hurt them. After that, we didn't see a lot of blitzes. We felt at halftime we have got to run the football, and Earnest, you've got to do it. And do it he did. He made some great traffic runs. He's exhausted."
That running success was essential against an Arizona pass rush that brought constant heat on QB Jeff Garcia. Garcia, as usual, handled the pressure well; though he took three sacks, he scrambled away from many more and added 26 rushing yards. He also completed 18 of 28 passes for 196 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, the big strike a 37-yard scoring pass to WR Joey Galloway on the Bucs' first possession. Galloway caught five passes on the day for 84 yards while WR Ike Hilliard added seven grabs for 70 yards.
Garcia's passer rating for the day was 96.7, just a notch above the mark of 95.4 he brought in for the season. In contrast, prolific Arizona QB Kurt Warner finished with a 26.0 passer rating thanks to just 10 completions in 30 attempts for 172 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Tampa Bay's defense came very close to another handful of interceptions, particularly during a shut-down first half. In all, the Bucs' broke up 11 of Warner's 30 passes downfield, a stunningly high rate of getting hands on the ball. Rookie S Tanard Jackson had a remarkable five pass breakups, several of them on perfectly-timed hits as the ball arrived, and one on his second career interception. With Cardinals running the ball only 12 times for 23 yards, no Buccaneer defender was credited with more than four tackles.
The Bucs have enjoyed a run of pre-bye week success under Gruden, winning five of six tries in that situation. Counting his four years in Oakland, Gruden has led his teams to an 8-2 record in the game before a bye week. This year's bye could be particularly useful for the Buccaneers, who have struggled with mounting injuries all season.
The Bucs can enjoy their rest because their defense refused to do so against a loaded Arizona offense. The Cardinals came into the game ranked 11th on offense in the NFL, averaging 337 yards per game, but they were held to just 195 on Sunday, while the Bucs rolled up 350 yards.
Arizona gained 55 yards on its first two plays of the game but just 23 the rest of the first half. At the intermission, Warner had a passer rating of 15.2, James had seven yards on six carries and the Cards had gained all of one first down. Unfortunately, the Bucs had only a one-touchdown lead at that point, leading to an uneasy feeling of missed opportunities. However, a 64-yard drive to open the third quarter, capped by Graham's two-yard touchdown plunge, made it 17-3, a lead the Bucs were able to protect despite some tense moments.
The troubles began when that aforementioned marathon drive – a ridiculous 19-play, 86-yard, 12-minute possession – came up empty. A dropped touchdown pass and a missed chip-shot field goal left the Bucs lead at two touchdowns, and Arizona then mounted their only sustained drive of the game, an 80-yard touchdown march to make it 17-10.
"That's as good a drive as I've ever been associated with, but you've got to make the plays and finish the drives," said Gruden. "That's ridiculous. To be a great team, we're going to have to make all the plays all the time. We've got to play better in all three phases."
The Cardinals' offense, which came into Sunday's game with more fourth-quarter points this season than any team other than the unstoppable New England Patriots, got the ball back two more times but were held to a three-and-out and an interception.
Even the usual end-game sequence of kneel-downs didn't go by easily. On the Bucs' first attempt, the ball shot between Garcia's legs all the way to Galloway, who was the player lined up about 10 yards deep as a safety valve. On the next try, a scuffle broke out that led to a 15-yard penalty and an ejection for T Jeremy Trueblood. Finally, with the ball all the way back at midfield from its original start of the Arizona 26, Garcia successfully kneeled to end it.
"We made it a little interesting," said Gruden. "I really felt there were some plays we needed to make and some we shouldn't have made down the stretch. But I was very pleased with the way our guys stepped up."
The Cardinals struck quickly to open the game, gaining 47 yards on their second snap when CB Ronde Barber made one small misstep that turned into a big play. CB Ronde Barber though Warner was throwing a quick pass down the line to Fitzgerald – essentially the play that Jacksonville CB Aaron Glenn turned into a touchdown against the Bucs last weekend – but instead the receiver was running a fly. Fitzgerald caught the ball on the run and might have gone the distance had he not stepped out of bounds at the Bucs' 33. Tampa Bay's defense held at that point, however, and the Cards had to settle for a Neil Rackers' 47-yard field goal attempt that just slipped over the crossbar for three points.
The Bucs answered with a touchdown on their first possession. The drive might have stalled outside the Arizona 40 if not for a typically gritty play by Garcia. As he moved up and to the right on a third-and-one pass attempt, DE Bertrand Berry leapt on his back from behind. Rather than buckle under Berry's 264 pounds, Garcia staggered forward several steps and thrust the ball over the line for a first down. That proved crucial, because two plays later Garcia hooked up with Galloway on a 37-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field. Garcia somehow threaded the pass between LB Gerald Hayes and S Terrence Holt, and Galloway showed impressive concentration in plucking the pass out of the potential grasp of Holt, who came flying across the field just a fraction too late.
The Bucs' defense forced a quick three-and-out on the ensuing possession and the offense, set up at its own 34, got right back in motion, moving quickly to midfield. However, a holding call on John Wade and a very uncharacteristic drop of a third-down pass by Hilliard killed the drive. Still, the Bucs gained a field-position edge when Josh Bidwell's bouncing punt was downed by Maurice Stovall at the Arizona three.
Two plays later, Jackson sliced in front of TE Leonard Pope to intercept a pass at the 32-yard line. Pope slung Jackson to the ground by his facemask, tacking on 15 yards to the Arizona 17. Unfortunately, the offense couldn't overcome the back-to-back false starts that followed the pick and had to settle for Bryant's 32-yard field goal and a seven-point lead two minutes into the second period.
Neither team scored again in the first half. The Bucs' defense forced four straight three-and-outs following Jackson's interception. Arizona's defense was almost as good, pressuring Garcia relentlessly and keeping three straight drives that began at the Bucs' 35 or better from reaching midfield. Tampa Bay did get in position to let Bryant try a 58-yard field goal as the first half expired, but the low-percentage kick fell a few yards short and off to the left.
Perhaps because Garcia had been hurried on virtually every throw in the second quarter, the Bucs started the second half by pounding the ball. Three straight Graham runs got the ball to midfield, and a third-down strike to Galloway on a crossing route gained 28 yards to the Arizona 17. A facemask penalty against LB Calvin Pace on Stovall put the ball at the four and Graham used a pair of two-yard runs up the middle to get it into the end zone.
The Cardinals gained just their second and third first downs of the game on the ensuing possession. The Bucs' defense still held just past midfield, but the Cardinals were able to punt it down to Tampa Bay's six-yard line. All that did was give the Bucs plenty of room to launch what had to be the most impressive non-scoring drive in team history…a bittersweet note, to be sure.
There was 8:46 left in the third quarter when the march began. Along the way, Garcia converted five straight third downs, the last on a weaving 14-yard scramble down to the Arizona 15. Unfortunately, the sixth third down ended up as a lost opportunity, as Garcia bootlegged right and hit TE Alex Smith in the end zone, only to have Smith lose the ball as he hit the ground and rolled over. Even worse, Bryant shockingly missed the 26-yard field goal that followed, hooking it to the left.
There was a noticeable momentum shift after Bryant's kick sailed wide. Warner immediately drove the Cardinals over midfield, then hit WR Anquan Boldin down the middle of the field for a gain of 25 down to the Bucs' 16. Warner then converted a third-and-15 from the 22 with a pinpoint sideline strike to Fitzgerald between zones in the Bucs' defense. Three plays later, James ran it in from three yards out on third-and-goal to cut Tampa Bay's lead to 10 points.
The Bucs started again at their own 20 with 7:30 left in the game and quickly got a big play when Garcia hit Hilliard for a gain of 18 on third-and-five. Unfortunately, a holding call at the 4:30 mark killed the drive and the Bucs punted with 3:46 left. Warner had 3:31 to work with when he started again at the Arizona 25. However, Tampa Bay's defense returned to its stingy ways on this possession, forcing three straight incompletions and a punt.
Arizona did get the ball back almost immediately, though a crushing hit by Stovall on punt returner Steve Breaston forced them to start at their own 16 Phillips then intercepted Warner's next pass at the Cardinals' 46.
The Bucs improved to 5-4 on the season, a half-game better than the Panthers, who were 4-4 after losing to Tennessee on Sunday. The New Orleans Saints, winners of four in a row, are also now 4-4. After their bye week, the Bucs return to action with a November 18 game at Atlanta.
Game Notes: CB Ronde Barber made his 145th start as a Buccaneer on Sunday. That moves him into a tie with former C Tony Mayberry for third place on the franchise's all-time starts list. The only players in team history with more starts are Derrick Brooks (198, including Sunday's game) and Paul Gruber (183). … WR Joey Galloway's first-quarter touchdown reception was the 76th of his career and his 27th as a Buccaneer. That moves him into a tie with Mark Carrier for third place on the team's all-time receiving TD list. Overall, Galloway has 28 touchdowns as a Buccaneer (including one on a punt return), which gives him sole possession of fifth place on that franchise list. And, finally, that touchdown increased his scoring total as a Buccaneer to 168 points, moving him past Carrier and K Steve Christie into 10th place on the franchise's career scoring list. … DE Gaines Adams made his first NFL start on Sunday. The Bucs' 2007 first-round draft pick opened the game at right defensive end with Greg Spires out. Kevin Carter slid over from the right side to the left to take Spires' usual spot and open a place for Adams. Adams finished the game with one tackle, one pass defensed and two quarterback hurries and nearly picked off a Kurt Warner pass in the second quarter.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: RB Michael Pittman, LB Jeremiah Trotter, DE Patrick Chukwurah, LB Quincy Black, G Dan Buenning, WR Michael Clayton, DE Greg Spires and designated third quarterback Luke McCown. Pittman Chukwurah, Black Clayton and Spires were out due to injuries.
The Cardinals declared the following eight players inactive: S Oliver Celestin, FB Tim Castille, LB Karlos Dansby, DE Joe Tafoya, G Keydrick Vincent, TE Ben Patrick, DT Ross Kolodziej and designated third quarterback Tim Hasselbeck. Dansby was out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Bucs, T Jeremy Trueblood sustained a shoulder injury in the third quarter but was able to return. TE Alex Smith was slow to leave the field in the third quarter after re-injuring his ankle. He, too, was able to return..
For the Cardinals, S Aaron Francisco sustained a right knee strain in the second quarter and did not return.