QB Byron Leftwich led two field goal drives in the first quarter
A flash of light provided a symbolic – and all together too lengthy – division between the efforts of quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown on Thursday night. It remains to be seen if the evening was illuminating enough for Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris to pick a starter between the two.
Miami won the game, which was delayed for 45 minutes in the second quarter by a rash of lightning, by a score of 10-6. However, it's hard to read too much into a game with such erratic matchups of starters and reserves on both sides of the ball. If anything, the Buccaneers came into the game more determined to find a winner in their quarterback battle, which had been sent into "overtime" by the coaching staff earlier in the week. Morris had originally wanted to name a regular-season starter in the days leading up to Thursday's contest but chose to gave Leftwich and McCown one more shared audition.
On paper, Leftwich had the more successful night, completing nine of 17 passes for 100 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions and leading the Bucs on two lengthy first-quarter drives. However, neither drive found the end zone and Leftwich occasionally fired passes over the heads of open men.
Leftwich might have been granted one more drive, but the long delay in the second quarter prompted Morris to switch to McCown. McCown failed to complete any of his first-half passes, but he had one potential long-gainer dropped by TE Jerramy Stevens and he seemed to be flushed out of the pocket far more often than Leftwich, who enjoyed strong protection. McCown played one drive into the second half and finished with five completions in 11 attempts for 38 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. He led the Bucs into Miami territory on that final drive but K Mike Nugent m issed a 51-yard field goal at the end of the march.
Both quarterbacks had impressive moments before giving way to rookie Josh Freeman midway through the third quarter. Freeman completed six of 16 passe sfor 50 yards but the Bucs had difficulty reestablishing the offensive rhythm they had early under Leftwich. Leftwich wasn't flawless in the early going but he consistently bailed himself out with sharp passes to WR Maurice Stovall, who had his best game in some time. Stovall had six catches for 74 yards on those opening two drives before giving way to the Bucs' younger receivers.
"I felt good," said Leftwich. "I missed a few but I hit a few also. Luckily for me on the ones I missed, I made plays on the following play to get those first downs. That is something that I can't do, miss guys, but that is something that I can correct and be ready to roll."
McCown said the Dolphins switched up their defense after the lightning delay and started bringing more pressure. Though he felt the offensive line did a pretty good job of picking up the blitzers, he was sacked twice and was on the move on most plays. McCown blamed himself for one play in the second quarter in which he was called for intentional grounding when the Bucs had the ball near midfield.
McCown didn't know how the night's outcome would affect the quarterback battle, but he was confident that Morris would keep the competitors well informed.
"One thing you've got to love about the way that Raheem is doing things is that he's completely honest and upfront and he tells you exactly what is going on," said McCown. "Competition doesn't bother me. I've been here five years now and I've felt like I've had to compete every year. You always have to prove yourself every day in this league."
Tampa Bay's defense was nothing short of dominant in the first half, allowing a total of 36 yards to Miami's starting offensive unit up to the two-minute warning. The Dolphins' only first down to that point came on an illegal-use-of-the-hands penalty in the second quarter, and the rushing attack produced only 15 yards. DE Jimmy Wilkerson set the tone early with a sack on Miami's first play from scrimmage and later short-circuited the Dolphins' second possession with a hard tackle of RB Ricky Williams for no yards.
"It was a pretty good night," said Wilkerson of the Bucs' defensive effort. "We're starting to come together. You are starting to see what we can do when we play Dallas. All of the guys are flying around, everybody is fast and everybody is fresh. Even though we had two really hard practices dealing with the heat, the guys came out here ready to go. First of all, it was the first home game so we wanted to prove to the crowd we are a good team."
Unfortunately, there was time for one more Dolphins drive before halftime and the Bucs inability to get the ball in the end zone early on came back to haunt them. Miami drove 53 yards for a field goal before halftime, then pulled ahead with a two-yard touchdown catch by TE Anthony Fasano on the opening drive of the second half.
After the relatively sharp beginning, Thursday's game rapidly devolved into the messier type of affair one often encounters in August. Tampa Bay commited 13 penalties on the evening and the two teams combined for just 542 of offense. There were no turnovers until the fourth quarter, however, when rookie DE Kyle Moore made a splash with a tackle for loss and forced fumble against RB Lex Hilliard. First-year DT Chris Bradwell later intercepted a pass for the Bucs near the Tampa Bay end zone.
Tampa Bay's offensive line provided outstanding protection for Leftwich (less so for McCown) and opened holes for a strong running game. That's an encouraging sign for the Buccaneers, who built their offense from the line backward and believe those blockers are one of the team's main strengths. Bucs passers were sacked five times, but the rushing game accounted for 127 yards and 4.9 yards per carry.
It's hard for any running back to get into a groove or pile up impressive statistics in the preseason, with the frequent substitutions. Still, Cadillac Williams' 54 yard s on eight carries was one of the most welcome sights of the evening. In his first game action since suffering a second serious knee injury in the 2008 season finale, Williams looked powerful and quick, particularly on a 19-yard third-down run that set up Tampa Bay's first score of the night.
Williams was confident heading into the game and he appeared to have the same burst and quick cutting ability that made him a sudden star in 2005.
"It just feels great," he said. "It's a blessing. From the strides that I made, I just give praise to the Lord. I'm just so excited to be out here with these guys. I feel so good to be out here this season. The knee is not an issue to me. It's not a problem, I feel great. I'm just loving what I do."
Tampa Bay's offense had difficulty finishing its early drives, settling for two field goals in the game's first 15:05, but almost everything else went the home team's way. Even a deflected punt by Miami RB Patrick Cobbs worked in the Bucs' favor, essentially extending the game-opening drive for the Bucs to net a field goal off of it. Tampa Bay's next possession also moved into the fringe of the Miami red zone but ended in another Nugent field goal.
The Dolphins got the ball first to start the second half, with their first-team offense facing a crew of Buccaneer reserves. Three plays in, Pennington executed a perfect fake, rolled right and hit Hartline on the run for a 54-yard gain to the Bucs' six. CB Torrie Cox was beaten on the route but did make a diving, touchdown-saving tackle. Actually, that stop only delayed Miami's score; Cox's holding penalty resulted in a first down at the two moments later, and Pennington impressively reversed field in front of a strogn Bucs pass rush to find Fasano wide open on the right edge of the end zone. The game's first TD gave Miami a 10-6 lead three minutes into the second half.
Williams got another turn in the backfield and quickly ripped off an eight-yard run that produced a first down at the Bucs' 42. A holding penalty erased a good scramble by McCown, but the passer then hit WR Cortez Hankton for 13 yards and WR Kelly Campbell for 10 more. Another strike to Campbell on a quick slant moved the sticks again, down to the Miami 32, but an attempted fly into the end zone two plays later just eluded the speedy receiver. McCown was cahsed into an incompletion on third-and-seven and Morris sent out the field goal unit to try a 46-yarder. Unfortunately, a false-start erased what appeared to be a successful kick and Nugent missed the ensuing 51-yard try.
Chad Henne came in to quarterback the Dolphins as they took over at their own 41 but Tampa Bay's defense forced a three-and-out. The Bucs brought in Freeman after Miami's punt and he fired a 13-yard pass to WR Mario Urrutia on his second attempt. Three snaps later, on third-and-11 from the Bucs' 35, Freeman scrambled up the middle but was tackled four yards short of a first down.
The Bucs' defense forced another quick punt, thanks to LB Niko Koutouvides stop on Hilliard on third-and-one. The Bucs got nothing on the ensuing drive but appeared to force a punt by the Dolphins from midfield. Unfortunately, an offsides penalty on the kick resulted in a first down and a second-effort run by Lousaka Polite on third-and-one from the 38 produced another set of downs.
On the next play, however, Moore forced a fumble by Hilliard that was recovered by S Steve Cargile at the Bucs' 35. An unnecessary roughness penalty on Miami's Reggie Torbor moved the ball three yards into Miami territory but two incompletions made it third-and-10 from there. Freeman was trying to scramble for time on third down when he was sacked from behind by LB Erik Walden.
The Dolphins got into Buccaneer territory minutes later when WR Greg Camarillo caught a short out, then squirmed away from CB E.J. Biggers and hustled downfield for a 52-yard gain. Henne got the ball down to the Bucs' 10 but Bradwell thwarted the scoring attempt by making a leaping interception at the six and returning it 19 yards to the Bucs' 25.
That's where Freeman took over with 6:43 left in the game. Unfortunately, that drive gained just three yards and the Bucs had to punt again. Needing another defensive stop, the Bucs' reserves got it with three consecutive impressive plays, including sacks by Biggers and DE Louis Holmes. Starting again at their own 24, the Bucs got 11 quick yards on a reception by TE Ryan Purvis.
Two more completions, both to WR Patrick Carter, moved the ball over midfield to the Miami 47, and Freeman then found WR Brian Clark for six more to the Miami 41 but a false start penalty helped push the ball back to a third-and-10 at the 47. Freeman underthrew Clark near the left sideline, forcing the Bucs to go for it on fourth down. Freeman tried to find WR Marcus Maxwell down the same sideline but it was broken up by CB Vontae Davis as the two-minute warning arrived.
The defense got the quick stop it needed, though the team's final two timeouts had to be burned. The offense got the ball back at the 23 with 55 seconds left. Freeman had one nice scramble but the ball never got past the 31-yard line.
Game Notes: Thursday's game marked the second straight year in which the FOX national crew ran into a lightning delay. During the 2008 preseason, a nationally-televised contest between Philadelphia and Carolina was suspended for some time due to dangerous weather. … Miami now leads the all-time preseason series with the Buccaneers, 15-9, with a 9-4 mark in games played in Tampa. The Dolphin win snaps a string of two straight victories by the Buccaneers. … QB Byron Leftwich was interviewed by FOX sidelien reporter Pam Oliver during the long weather delay. When asked why he chose to sign with the Buccaneers, he said he was intrigued by what would be his supporting cast if he won the job. "You look at the weapons they have on this team on offense, you're not going to find that a lot of places," said Leftwich. " This was my opportunity to come in and lead an offense, lead a team." … The Buccaneers have protected the ball well this preseason, despite the large number of substitutions and young player s in each game. With no giveaways on Thursday night, the Bucs have committed just two turnovers in three games. … DE Louis Holmes recorded his third sack of the preseason in the fourth quarter of Thursday's game. He leads the team in that category.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during the offseason. However, the Buccaneers revealed eight players prior to the game who would definitely not participate: K Matt Bryant, WR Dexter Jackson, S Will Allen, RB Kareem Huggins, S Donte Nicholson, WR Michael Clayton, TE John Gilmore and WR Antonio Bryant.
The Dolphins did not announce any players who would be held out of the game.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, LB Adam Hayward sustained an ankle injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.
The Dolphins did not report any injuries from the sideline during the game.