The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began the 2010 season with Tanard Jackson and Sean Jones starting in the two safety spots on defense. On Sunday in Cincinnati, they played all but one snap with Cody Grimm and Sabby Piscitelli together as the safeties.
Over the last 22 months, the Buccaneers have turned over 62% of their roster, with only 20 of the 53 players who played the last game of the 2008 season still on the squad. Obviously, that had a lot to do with rejuvenating the roster with youth – the Bucs are now the second-youngest team in the NFL – but attention was also paid to building depth at every position.
Circumstances turned a blazing spotlight on that depth Sunday in Cincinnati, and Grimm and Piscitelli came through in superb fashion. It's difficult to see how the Buccaneers would have left Paul Brown Stadium with their season-changing 24-21 win without the enormous plays turned in by their two safeties.
Grimm, of course, is now a full-time starter at free safety following the suspension levied on Jackson by the NFL. Against the Bengals, he was joined on the field by Piscitelli, a starter in 2009, who entered the game after Sean Jones sustained a back injury on the first play from scrimmage.
Grimm was the first to turn in a game-altering play, as he read a short sideline route by Terrell Owens perfectly and raced over to cut it off, intercepting Carson Palmer's pass at the Cincinnati 11 and running it in for the game-tying score.
"I knew I only had 10 yards to run, which was nice," said Grimm, recalling his first NFL touchdown, which came on his first NFL interception. "I didn't have to worry about getting caught. I saw the ball in the air. I knew I had to make the play."
Just a few minutes earlier, the Buccaneers had fallen behind 7-0 on a long touchdown by Owens. Their own offense had gotten near or across midfield three times but had been unable to sustain any of those drives. The Bengals had the ball back and a crowd that was rapidly growing louder, feeling the momentum. Buccaneers starting quarterback Josh Freeman had been shaken up and forced to leave the game at the end of the first quarter, joining Jones on the sideline.
Two plays into the second quarter, Grimm turned it all around for the visiting Bucs.
"They're a resilient football team," said Head Coach Raheem Morris of his young squad, which features 30 players aged 25 or under. "They're young and they keep getting better and better. That's what I've been talking about all week when I talk about the ascending football players on our team."
After Owens' 43-yard touchdown, the Buccaneers' pass defense (now ranked ninth in the NFL), allowed just 137 more passing yards, helping the Bucs keep it close so they could take a 14-10 lead in the third quarter. Grimm, who finished the game with a team-high nine tackles plus a pass defensed and two stops on special teams, had much to do with that airtight defense.
As did Piscitelli, who added seven tackles and a pass defensed. And when the Buccaneers really needed a big play, he was there.
"It's my job to always be ready," he said. "I'm a professional athlete. I've got to take the highs and the lows that go along with that. When my number is called, I have to help the team win in any aspect. Whatever it is — special teams or defense — whatever they ask me to do, I've got to do it."
Late in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers rallied for a game-tying touchdown following Aqib Talib's third interception of the season. Mike Williams' leaping catch in the end zone knotted the game at 21-21 with 1:21 to play, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis stayed aggressive, trying to use the remaining time to drive into position for a winning field goal.
The Bengals almost succeeded, getting as far as the Bucs' 43 before a pass interference call on Owens moved them back over midfield into their own territory. Facing a first-and-20 at the 47, Palmer tried to hit wide receiver Chad Ochocinco down the right numbers but it was a bit off-target. The ball bounced off Ochocinco's hands and in the direction of Piscitelli, who snatched it cleanly out of the air and took off in the other direction.
With the game clock ticking close to zero, Piscitelli had two things on his mind when he got the ball in his hands: Hold on tight and get as far upfield as possible.
"When I caught it, I was thinking of Roddy White's play [for Atlanta] last week," he said. "I watched Roddy White's play last week when he hit the ball from behind. When I caught the ball, I got as far as I could to get a field goal right there as close as I could to the sideline. Josh did a great job for us."
White saved the Falcons against San Francisco during the Bucs' bye week, chasing down 49ers cornerback Nate Clements after an interception and forcing a fumble before Clements could score the game-clinching score. Piscitelli avoided such a fate, dashing to the sideline as all Buccaneer defenders are taught to do after a takeaway. He found just enough open ground to get 31 yards before running out of bounds at the Cincinnati 34.
From there, the Bucs could have reasonably tried a 52-yard field goal with Connor Barth, who has proved good at long-range kicks in his brief Buccaneer career. With 14 seconds left, though, Freeman tried one sideline route and hit the jackpot when Micheal Spurlock made a sensational toe-dragging catch at the Bengals 13. Barth banged home the 31-yard game-winner moments later.
Barth, Freeman, Spurlock and Williams were among the heroes who helped the Buccaneers post their second come-from-behind victory this year and stay solidly in the division-title hunt with a 3-1 record. All of their heroics, however, probably would have fallen a bit short if not for the big plays turned in by Grimm and Piscitelli.
"We had injuries early in the game," said Grimm. "When somebody goes down, someone has to be out there on special teams and defense. I did that in college, so I'm used to it. The way we won, everyone kept going for the full 60 minutes.
"Last [game], I gave up a touchdown and people were second-guessing me. The coaches put me in the right situations today. They stuck with me and had confidence in me. My teammates had confidence in me. It's a great team vibe. Everyone is enjoying it. I hope we can keep winning."
At the beginning of the season, Grimm and Piscitelli were contributing mostly on special teams as Jackson and Jones handled the work at safety. Grimm, a seventh-round pick out of Virginia Tech, had no idea his chance as a front-line player would come so soon.
"I could have dreamed, but that's all it would have been – dreaming," he said.
For his part, Piscitelli simply continued working, remaining ready for the inevitable day he would be back in the thick of the action on defense.
"I think we have a lot of good players at one position," he said. "I think we all compete and stay on our toes. We push each other. That's [what comes] from having a lot of good players."