The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense got six consecutive big stops on Sunday at LP Field, where they were fighting for their playoff lives. They needed seven.
Instead, they took their seventh loss of the season, a 23-17 decision in which they had had taken a 17-10 lead into the fourth quarter. At 4-7 with five games to play, the Bucs will have to run the table to finish with a winning record, and even that might not get them into the playoffs in a crowded field of NFC contenders.
Facing a steady rain, a hostile crowd and repeatedly bad field position caused by five offensive turnovers, the Tampa Bay defense limited the Tennessee Titans to two field goals on six drives that started in or reached Bucs territory between the first and fourth quarters. However, with three minutes remaining in the game, Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck completed the seventh such march with a two-yard touchdown pass to WR Damian Williams on fourth-and-goal.
Tampa Bay's defense was definitely opportunistic, forcing four turnovers of their own and converting two of them into touchdowns. One of those was a 27-yard interception return by CB Aqib Talib that gave the Bucs a 17-10 lead in the third quarter. The Bucs held Hasselbeck to 160 yards and 56% passing and picked him off twice, but running back Chris Johnson kept the Tennessee offense alive with a season-best 190 yards on 23 carries.
Unfortunately, the sloppy conditions caused by a rain that fell for roughly three quarters of the game obviously hurt the Bucs' attack as well. Coming off a career-best 342-yard performance in Green Bay a week earlier, Freeman completed 18 of 33 passes for just 199 yards. He was picked off only once, but that one came late in the fourth quarter just after the Titans had scored the go-ahead points. Tennessee tacked on Rob Bironas' third field goal after that final takeaway, though the Bucs' defense still only allowed six points off those five turnovers.
The Bucs still could have left Nashville with a win if Freeman had been able to engineer of one of his patented late-game drives. And he did indeed drive his team deep into Tennessee territory in the final two minutes. Consecutive completions of 23 yards each to WR Mike Williams gave the Bucs' a serious scoring threat, but a third-and-10 pass to RB Kregg Lumpkin was marked a few inches short as time ran down inside one minute. Without a timeout, the Bucs hurried up to try a quarterback sneak but the play resulted in another loose ball on the wet turf and Freeman never got the necessary yardage.
The Bucs came into the game with three lost fumbles through 10 games but gave it away in that fashion four times on Sunday, once each by Freeman and Williams and two by RB LeGarrette Blount. Those were the only negative marks on the day for Blount, who was masterful on the ground and through the air. Breaking the 100-yard rushing mark for the second straight game, the second-year back and former Titan ran 20 times for 103 yards and caught three passes for 56 more.
Williams also had a second straight good outing, catching a team-high six passes for 84 yards and a touchdown. His three-yard catch on a slant into the end zone just before halftime tied the game at 10-10.
Talib's big play gave the Bucs' a seven-point lead three minutes into the second half, and it looked as if the defense might make that stand. With nine minutes left in the game, the Bucs drove to the Tennessee 34 and got eight yards on a Blount run, with a chance to tack on at least a field goal and widen their lead to two scores. Instead, that play was erased by a holding penalty, a false start and a failed screen followed and the Bucs found themselves punting from midfield. Hasselbeck followed that with an 80-yard drive that included a 34-yard run by Johnson and a big third-down catch by Lavelle Hawkins in the red zone.
Tennessee's only other touchdown came courtesy of special teams. After Connor Barth's 43-yard field goal gave the visitors an early lead, the Titans ran a trick play on the ensuing kickoff and got a 100-yard scoring return on a reserve between Marc Mariani and Tommie Campbell. Special teams have often give the Bucs an edge this season, but on Sunday the Bucs struggled in that area. Punter Michael Koenen averaged just 38.8 yards per kick and had one of his attempts deflected after a high snap.
Quite a few players contributed big plays to what was an inspired defensive effort for much of the afternoon. DE Adrian Clayborn had one of the team's two sacks; DE Tim Crowder made several tackles of Johnson behind the line of scrimmage, as did DT Albert Haynesworth; CB Ronde Barber had seven tackles and a critical forced fumble to set up Williams' touchdown; Ss Tanard Jackson and Sean Jones each recovered fumbles; and CB E.J. Biggers broke up three third-down passes that were thrown into the end zone during the course of the day.
The Bucs' offense looked strong in the early going, but didn't find the end zone until just before halftime. Blount bashed for eight yards on his very first carry but fumbled at the end of the play, with Tennessee's Jason McCourty recovering at the Bucs' 38. An inspired defensive stand highlighted by Elbert Mack's third-down pass break-up forced a punt, however, and the Bucs' offense embarked on a long drive from its own nine.
Blount's 35-yard gain on a short pass to the right, which included perhaps his most impressive hurdling of a player yet, picked up a big chunk of the 67-yard drive. McCourty was almost upright when Blount leaped clean over him, landing in full stride on the other side. However, the drive resulted in only three points as the Bucs had to settle for Barth's 43-yarder. On the ensuing kickoff, Campbell took a reverse handoff from Mariani, found the right sideline and ran untouched for the final 84 yards of a 100-yard TD return.
Hayes' interception near the end of the first quarter killed another Titans possession that had reached Buccaneer territory. However, Tampa Bay's offense went three-and-out after the turnover and Hasselbeck got Tennessee back over midfield with an impressive left-handed throw to FB Ahmard Hall. CB E.J. Biggers broke up a third-down pass to WR Damian Williams at the goal line to force the Titans to try a field goal, and K Rob Bironas 42-yard try was wide right and well short.
The Bucs gave Tennessee yet another drive in their half of the field later in the second quarter, however. DE Dave Ball managed to swat the ball out of Freeman's hand as he was bringing it up to throw, and Ball fell on it at the Bucs' 38 for a second Titans takeaway. Hasselbeck also lost the football a few plays later but was able to pick it up and avoid the turnover. Furthermore, he converted a third-and-17 on the next play with a screen pass to Williams, and a leaping 13-yard catch by Cook made it first down at the Bucs' 12. However, the Bucs' defense held once again and Biggers once again broke up an attempted pass into the end zone on third down, forcing the Titans to settle for Bironas' 31-yard field goal.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Sunday's game.)
Tampa Bay's defense started the second half with another timely turnover. Johnson ran the ball three straight times for a total of 38 yards to start the opening drive, but on the third one he had the ball stripped by Talib, with Jones recovering for Tampa Bay at the Bucs' 38. However, Williams fumbled the ball back moments later after catching an 18-yard pass on third-and-nine. The end result was Tennessee's football at its own 37.
A holding penalty immediately backed the Titans up 10 yards, and on the next play Talib cut underneath a crossing route by WR Nate Washington and caught the ball cleanly on the run. He then turned upfield, cut towards the middle and scored untouched on a 27-yard return, giving the Bucs a 17-10 lead.
The Titans were penalized on the ensuing kickoff return, as well, and had to start at their own 11. DE Tim Crowder fought through a block at the line on first down and dropped Johnson for a loss of three. However, two plays later on third-and-eight, Hasselbeck lobbed a pass down the middle and Cook made an outstanding leaping grab for a gain of 20. Johnson cut back for a 15-yard gain on the next play but the Bucs forced another third down when LB Quincy Black dropped Ringer in the backfield on second down. Hasselbeck checked down to Ringer on third-and-four but the Bucs were all over the play and it lost two yards. Brett Kern did manage to drop his punt down at the Bucs' seven.
Blount slipped trying to get around right end on a first-down carry, but he took a short pass on third down and broke a half-dozen tackles to get 15 yards and a first down. On the next play, however, Blount caught another pass and, after gaining six yards, had the ball pulled out of his grasp by Jurrell Casey for the game's eighth turnover.
Tennessee thus took over at the Bucs' 23 but the rookie duo of Mason Foster and Adrian Clayborn came up with consecutive big plays to push them back eight yards. Foster stopped Johnson for a loss of three trying to sweep left, and Clayborn sacked Hasselbeck five yards deep. On third down, Hasselbeck fired deep to Hawkins down the left side but, for the third time, Biggers broke up a pass in the end zone. Kern's 18-yard punt was fair caught alertly by Parker at the Bucs' 19.
After that inspired stop by the Bucs' defense, Blount immediately blasted for 14 yards around right end, then pushed up the middle for six more to the Bucs' 39. His second-down run to the right got just two yards to make it third-and-two, and Freeman's third-down pass over the middle to Winslow as overthrown. Koenen had to pull down a very high snap on the ensuing punt and the Titans' Anthony Smith got a hand on the kick. The ball still went forward, however, and it rolled 30 yards to the Tennessee 29.
On the second play of the drive, and the final play of the quarter, Johnson found a seam around right tackle and burst through it for a gain of 25 to the Bucs' 44. On the first play of the fourth quarter, DT Albert Haynesworth broke right through the line and dropped Ringer for a loss of four right after he got the handoff. Two plays later, on third-and-seven from the 41, Hasselbeck found Washington open over the middle and dumped it off to him for a 12-yard gain. Crowder got his second tackle-for-loss of the half on the next play, corralling Johnson for a loss of five as he tried to hit the left end. A blitzing Foster deflected Hasselbeck's second-down pass and LB Dekoda Watson's hit on the quarterback forced an errant third-down throw. However, Bironas drove his 52-yarder through the pipes to cut the Bucs' lead to 17-13 with 12 minutes remaining.
A touchback followed, but Blount dashed around right tackle on first down and ran for 16 yards to the 36. On the next play, he weaved around the middle of the field long enough to gain another 14, and Freeman then buried a slant into Williams' gut on first down from the midfield stripe. The play gained nine, and Blount then went over right guard for seven more and a first down at the 34. Winslow was flagged for holding on the next play, erasing an eight-yard Blount jaunt and making it first-and-20 back at the 44. A false start cost the Bucs five more and Freeman threw too low for Benn over the middle on first-and-25. A screen to Lumpkin failed to fool the Titans and he lost two yards back into Tampa Bay territory. After a draw play came up well short, Koenen's punt bounced into the end zone for a touchback with 7:15 left.
Hasselbeck started the drive with an 11-yard strike to Damian Williams, and Johnson worked his way up the middle on the next play for 10 more to the Tennessee 41. Johnson found an even bigger seam on the next play and dashed through it for 34 more to the Bucs' 25. Ringer got it into the red zone with a seven-yard run, but Hawkins slipped near the sideline on Hasselbeck's attempted short pass to him on second down. Hasselbeck converted the third-and-three with a clear-out underneath pass to Hawkins down to the seven. Jones tripped Ringer up for a gain of just two on first-and-goal and Jackson read a goal-line pass to Cook instantly and nearly picked it off. On third-and-goal, Hasselbeck threw short to Johnson but the Bucs rushed up to drop him at the two. The Titans went for it on fourth-and-goal and Hasselbeck rolled right before finding Williams alone in the back of the end zone for the touchdown.
Stroughter gave the Bucs a little boost for the ensuing drive, returning the kickoff 35 yards to the 33, but the next two plays didn't go well. A draw play to Blount was stopped for no gain and Freeman's second-down pass down the middle was intercepted near midfield by LB Colin McCarthy.
Two plays later, Johnson ripped off a 24-yard run down to the Bucs' 21 at the 2:06 mark. The Bucs held their but Bironas still added a 38-yard field goal with 1:44 left to make it a six-point lead.
After a touchback, Freeman found Williams down the left sideline for a gain of 23, stopping the clock at the 1:37 mark. Two plays later, the two hooked up again in a spot deep in the middle of the zone for a second 23-yard gain. The offense rushed up and Freeman spiked the football at the 34-yard line to stop the clock at the 1:14 mark. An incompletion made it third down, and Freeman threw underneath to Lumpkin on third down. The ball was marked just short of the first-down sticks, and when the offense lined up quickly for a fourth-down sneak the play went awry. Jeff Faine's snap slipped through Freeman's grasp and landed behind him, and though he picked it up in time to extend the play he couldn't get it to WR Arrelious Benn before his progress was ruled to be stopped. The Titans took over on downs and kneeled once to seal the win.
Game Notes: Tennessee now leads the all-time series with Tampa Bay, 8-2, having won all six home games in the series. Four of those six took place in Houston before the franchise moved to Tennessee. Tampa Bay had won the previous meeting between the two teams, 13-10, in 2007 at Raymond James Stadium. … DE Da'Quan Bowers made his first career regular-season start on Sunday, opening the game at left defensive end in place of the injured Michael Bennett. Bowers contributed one tackle and one quarterback pressure. … CB Aqib Talib's third-quarter interception was the 17th of his four-year career, moving him into a tie for eighth place in team history in that category. Harry Hamilton, Mark Cotney and Ricky Reynolds all finished their Buc careers with 17 picks. Talib returned his interception 27 yards for a touchdown, giving him his second 'pick-six' of the season. He also scored against Detroit in the season opener on a 28-yard return.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: CB Anthony Gaitor, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, LB Zac Diles, DE Michael Bennett, G Derek Hardman, T James Lee and WR Michael Spurlock. Bennett was out due to injury.
The Titans declared these seven inactives: QB Rusty Smith, RB Jamie Harper, LB Barrett Ruud, C Kevin Matthews, DT Zach Clayton, T David Stewart and WR Donnie Avery. Ruud and Stewart were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DT Brian Price sustained a right ankle injury in the second quarter and did not return.
The Titans did not report any injuries from the sideline during the game.