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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Backs to the wall in the playoff race, the Bucs scored on their first drive Sunday, taking control early and dominating on defense in a 16-3 victory over the visiting Texans


DT Chartric Darby had one of the Bucs' five sacks, helping the team compensate for the absence of Warren Sapp

To finish the season strong, a necessity with the NFC playoff field stacked against them, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers desperately needed to start a game fast. On Sunday – finally – they were able to do just that.

For the first time in 2003, the Buccaneers scored a touchdown on their opening possession, propelling Tampa Bay to a 16-3 victory over the Houston Texans. With their first back-to-back wins of the season, the Bucs improved to 7-7 on the season and continued to hang on in the postseason hunt.

"I'm very proud of our football team," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We're still alive. We'll go home and check out the scores and see where we are."

RB Thomas Jones, starting and excelling for the second straight week, scored on a perfectly-blocked, 18-yard toss-sweep to finish that first drive, the Bucs' longest touchdown run in two years. Jones, a hard-running revelation in recent weeks, fueled Tampa Bay's offensive all day, picking up 134 yards for his second 100-yard game of the season. His 34 carries were the most by a Buccaneer back in any game this season.

"We're trying to figure out just what kind of back this is," said Gruden. "The only way to do that is to give him an opportunity to run the ball."

The Bucs' offense, which out-gained Houston by an enormous, 398-107 margin, also had the advantage of good field position, a relative rarity this season. That was the byproduct of one of Tampa Bay's most dominant defensive games in some time. Playing without DT Warren Sapp for the first time more than four years, Tampa Bay allowed just seven first downs, 42 net passing yards and 41 plays from scrimmage.

The yardage allowed by Tampa Bay's defense was tied for second lowest in team history, matching a 107-yard effort against the New York Giants on September 12, 1999 – a loss! The seven first downs allowed also equaled the third fewest ever surrendered by the Buccaneers, and the 41 plays allowed was the third lowest ever.

About the only thing the Buccaneer defense didn't do was secure a turnover. That broke an NFL-long streak of 54 consecutive games in which Tampa Bay had come up with at least one takeaway. On the flip side, the Buc offense cut the penalties out of its game, as Tampa Bay tied a season low with just three flags for 25 yards. Only one of those penalties came on offense, though that one flag did wipe out a 60-yard completion to RB Michael Pittman.

Of course, the Texans were also a bit short-handed, too, as franchise quarterback David Carr was sidelined for the second straight game with a shoulder injury. Rookie Dave Ragone, a third-round draft pick who started last week's 27-0 loss at Jacksonville, was held to nine completions on 17 attempts.

In truth, the Bucs covered for Sapp's absence very well, even when valuable reserve Ellis Wyms was lost to a knee sprain on the game's second play. DT Anthony McFarland, the usual starter at nose tackle, slid into Sapp's under tackle spot and showed explosiveness at that key position, notching his third sack of the season, along with three tackles and a forced fumble. McFarland also had a sack filling in for Sapp in the second half of last Sunday's game in New Orleans.

And Chartric Darby, taking over at the nose, was outstanding as well, playing with impressive strength and leverage. On one three-and-out by the Texans in the first quarter, Darby made all three plays, twice tackling RB Domanick Davis on runs up the middle then following with a sack of Ragone on third down.

Even first-year defensive tackle Cleveland Pinkney, just signed off the practice squad on Sunday, got into the act with a third-down, drive-killing sack in the fourth quarter. Pressure came from the ends as well, as DE Greg Spires recorded two sacks, giving him three in the last two weeks and the Bucs 12 as a team over that span.

With the Bucs handling rookie of the year candidate Davis fairly well, Ragone was overmatched in his second start. Sacked twice in the first quarter, Ragone finished the first half with just nine passing yards and, thanks to those two sacks, the Texans had negative-three aerial yards at halftime. That was the lowest single-half total ever allowed by the Bucs' defense, better than a five-yard first half against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 14, 1999.

However, the Bucs struggled to get the ball in the end zone after their initial drive and led just 13-0 at the half. K Martin Gramatica hit on field goals of 36 and 23 yards, the latter with 30 seconds left in the half, to at least get six points out of two deep Buc incursions. Another Tampa Bay drive died in Houston territory on a failed fourth-and-one run.

That gave Houston an opening to get back into the game in the third quarter, and the Texans immediately mounted their first sustained drive. On Houston's first possession of the second half, the visitors went 51 yards on eight plays – more yards than the Texans had in the entire first half – and kicked a 38-yard field goal.

That was the first score allowed by Tampa Bay's defense in six quarters, and it briefly cut the lead back to 10 points. However, QB Brad Johnson hooked up with WR Charles Lee on a 72-yard bomb two plays later and the Bucs quickly put up another field goal. Led by a Greg Spires sack, his second in two weeks, Tampa Bay's defense then forced another three-and-out and the Bucs quickly drove back into position for a field goal, though this one was blocked by S Eric Brown.

The Bucs ran off most of the fourth quarter with a succession of Jones runs and a defense that remained dominant to the end.

On an efficient day highlighted by the one long pass to Lee, Johnson completed 17 of 28 passes for 237 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. On a day when Ragone was running for his life, Johnson was not sacked.

WR Keenan McCardell caught five of Johnson's passes for 59 yards, in the process surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the fifth time in his 12-year NFL career and his first time as a Buccaneer.

LB Shelton Quarles led the Buccaneer defense with eight tackles, and Pinkney had four stops to go with his first career sack. CB Ronyell Whitaker, who was tested early by Ragone and prized receiver Andre Johnson, held his own with three tackles and a pass defensed, as well as two stops on special teams.

Notes: Inactive due to a foot sprain, DT Warren Sapp missed his first game since 1999. Sapp had played in 73 consecutive games and started 56 straight before missing today's contest. TE Ken Dilger also missed the game, breaking his own streaks of 67 consecutive games played and 28 starts. … With his third tackle of the game, Ronde Barber became the first Buccaneer cornerback in 25 years to post a 100-tackle season. The only other Buc CB to reach triple digits in that category was Jeris White, who had 103 in 1978. … WR Keenan McCardell has now led the Buccaneers or tied for the team lead in receptions in six straight games. McCardell, who came into the weekend tied for fourth in the NFC with 72 catches, has 42 grabs over that six-game span. … Tampa Bay's defense has been very stingy on third downs of late, particularly in the second half. Over the last four games, the Bucs have allowed their opponents to convert just four of 21 third down tries … The Bucs' win over Houston was their first victory against an AFC team this season. Tampa Bay had previously lost to Indianapolis and Jacksonville and has one AFC game remaining, at Tennessee in the season finale. … The victory was also the Bucs' first against a team from what is now the NFC South since 1997. The Buccaneers defeated the Indianapolis Colts midway through '97 but have since lost to Jacksonville twice, Tennessee twice and Indianapolis once. The Bucs had never before played the Texans in a regular-season game. … RB Thomas Jones' 18-yard score in the first quarter was the Bucs' longest touchdown run of the season. The previous long was a five-yarder by Jones two weeks ago in Jacksonville. In fact, it was the longest touchdown run of the last two seasons, surpassing a 17-yarder by Mike Alstott against Cleveland last October 13. … WR Charles Lee's 72-yard reception was the Bucs' third completion of 70 or more yards this year and the longest of Lee's career.

Injury Updates: DE Ellis Wyms sustained a right knee sprain on the second play of the game and was unable to return. FB Darian Barnes sustained a shoulder sprain in the first quarter.

Quarter Reports: During Sunday's game, provided game updates at the end of each quarter. Those updates follow to offer a closer look at the game's key plays.

First Quarter Update

For the first time all season, the Buccaneers scored a touchdown on their initial possession of the game, and the result was a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Tampa Bay dominated the period, out-gaining Houston 84 yards to 13 and sacking QB Dave Ragone twice. The Bucs went for it on two fourth downs on their two drives, one time preserving a touchdown march but the second time failing to pick up the necessary yard.

Houston won the toss and elected to receive. Martin Gramatica's low kick fortunately bounced down to the two, though return man J.J. Moses was able to get back to the 17.

The Titans opened in a three-wide formation but ran a delay to RB Domanick Davis, who got three yards up the middle. Ragone dropped the snap under center on second down and had to fall on it for no gain, bringing up third-and-seven. However, Ragone found TE Billy Miller running a short out to the right and hit him for a gain of 11.

A screen pass to Davis was covered quickly by LB Derrick Brooks, and Davis lost a yard. DT Anthony McFarland stopped Davis' run up the middle after a gain of just two, and S John Lynch dove to break up a pass over the middle intended for Miller. On the ensuing punt, a short one by Chad Stanley, WR Reggie Barlow slid around two tacklers to pick up 17 yards on his return, out to the Bucs' 47.

RB Thomas Jones, making his second consecutive start, got the Bucs to midfield on first down with a run right up the middle. On second down, Jones got the handoff again and cut back from right to left to gain eight yards up the middle, down to Houston's 42. Another Jones run was good for four yards thanks to a nimble step over a diving tackle.

QB Brad Johnson's first pass of the game was a dart to TE Rickey Dudley on the left sideline, which Dudley held onto for a five-yard gain despite having his helmet ripped off by CB Marcus Coleman. Needing a yard on third down, the Bucs ran Jones off right guard and he came up inches short. The Bucs chose to go for it on fourth down, with Johnson sneaking it himself right up the middle. Though the Texans made a very good push, Johnson was able to get the ball just over the line.

A quick slant to McCardell from the slot worked perfectly, resulting in a 14-yard gain down to the 18 and another first down. Jones took it in from there, taking a toss to the right and following several key blocks, including one by pulling G Kerry Jenkins to weave his way to the end zone.

The Texans' second drive began at their own 28, and Davis got just one yard on first down thanks to a hard tackle by DT Chartric Darby. Davis found no more room to run on second down, as Darby was there again to hold the gain to one yard. Darby finished off the trifecta with a five-yard sack on third down, his second of the season. Houston had to punt again and Barlow called for a fair catch at the Bucs' 33.

The Bucs started with Jones again and he immediately ripped off an eight-yard run up the middle. Another carry up the gut picked up four yards and a first down at the 45. RB Michael Pittman replaced Jones in the backfield on the next play and immediately caught a short pass in the left flat, turning it into a gain of eight. Pittman took it up the middle on the next snap and fell for three more and a first down six yards into Texan territory.

Johnson's next pass to McCardell on the right side, was dropped, with CB Kenny Wright delivering a quick hit. On second down, DT Steve Martin got a hand up to knock Johnson's pass down at the line. Another pass to Pittman, followed by two good cuts by the back, picked up nine yards. For the second time, the Bucs decided to go for it on fourth down. This time, however, Jones was stopped for no gain and the Bucs turned the ball over to the Texans at the Houston 34.

Texas tried to go deep on first down, but Ragone's pass down the right sideline to rookie WR Andre Johnson was just out of reach. Davis then ripped off an eight-yard run up the middle. However, on third-and-two, Ragone took a shotgun snap and still didn't have time to get off a throw before he was sacked for a loss of seven by McFarland. A Stanley punt and a Barlow return put the Buccaneers right back at their own 33.

Second Quarter Update

The Bucs continued their dominance into the second quarter and reached halftime with a 13-0 lead. An inability to finish drives in the end zone kept the Bucs from opening a wide margin, but Tampa Bay's defense was nearly impenetrable throughout the first 30 minutes. At the break, the Bucs held a 210-46 advantage in total yards.

The second quarter opened at the beginning of the Bucs' third drive of the game, starting from their own 33. RB Thomas Jones, who had 45 yards in the first quarter, immediately ripped off a nine-yard run over left tackle. An offside penalty on the Texans gave the Bucs a first down at their own 47, and two more Jones runs, for seven and three yards, moved the sticks again.

From the Texans' 43, QB Brad Johnson fired a pass to FB Jameel Cook on the left sideline and Cook spun out of a tackle to gain extra yardage, for a total of 19 down to the 24. RB Aaron Stecker got his first carry on the next play, taking a pitch left and picking his way for a gain of seven. Jones was hit immediately by LB Jamie Sharper on second down, losing a yard up the middle. On third-and-four from the 18, good coverage forced Johnson to throw quickly to the right side and the pass sailed well over WR Keenan McCardell's head. The Bucs elected to go for the field goal and Martin Gramatica nailed a 36-yarder to give Tampa Bay a 10-0 lead.

The Texans went deep to WR Andre Johnson for the second time in two quarters, but failed again when Johnson dropped a pass running wide open over the middle. A false start then made it second-and-15, but RB Domanick Davis picked up 14 yards up the middle on a tackle-breaking run, then moved the chains with a four-yard carry.

From the Texans' 31, Davis picked up six more on a cut-back run, and the Texans once again went deep to Johnson. This time the play failed thanks to tight coverage and a perfectly-timed bat-down by CB Ronyell Whitaker. A hard slant to WR Corey Bradford on the left side was too hot to handle and the Texans had to punt again. This one, Reggie Barlow called for a fair catch at the Bucs' 24.

The Bucs got nearly two midfield on two quick passes to WR Charles Lee. The first, over the middle, picked up 14 yards and a first down and the second, on a quick slant from the left, was good for nine. However, it was third-and-three after a Jones run to the right lost two yards. A pass to RB Michael Pittman worked marvelously, apparently getting the ball down inside the five, but the play came back due to a holding call on guard Cosey Coleman. That made it third-and-13, but the Bucs converted with a middle screen to Jones that was good for 17 yards.

A facemask penalty against the Texans pushed the ball down to Houston's 43, but Jones' next run got just one yard. A play-action pass to Rickey Dudley worked for nine yards thanks to a fine catch and a good spin move by the big tight end. Johnson then fired a quick slant to McCardell on the left side and the receiver got 11 yards despite tight coverage by CB Marcus Coleman.

From the Texans' 22, Johnson tried to hit Pittman on a pump-and-go but the coverage was good and the pass was too deep for Pittman to run under. CB Kenny Wright read a pitch right to Jones perfectly and dropped Jones in the backfield for a loss of two. That brought on the two-minute warning with the Bucs facing a third-and-12. After the break, Johnson converted the third down with a curl out to McCardell right at the marker.

A false start cost the Bucs five yards, but a pitch play similar to the Bucs' touchdown run of the first quarter picked up nine yards to the left. Tampa Bay used its first timeout with 52 seconds left in the half. After the break, Pittman was open on a quick slant that could have scored, but DT Steve Martin knocked the pass down at the line for the second time in the half. Johnson eventually hit Pittman after a long scramble on third down, but a very hard hit by LB Jay Foreman knocked off Pittman's helmet and stopped him two yards short. Tampa Bay settled for Gramatica's second field goal, a 23-yarder, and a 13-0 lead.

On the ensuing kickoff, S Jermaine Phillips leveled return man J.J. Moses at the Texans' 23, with 26 seconds left in the half. A first-down carry by Davis gained three yards and was followed by a Houston timeout with 19 seconds left. RB Tony Hollings got seven yards and a first down before another timeout. Another Hollings run picked up two yards and the Texans used their last timeout with five seconds left. A short out to TE Billy Miller lost a yard and ended the half.

Third Quarter Update

Each team tacked on a field goal in the third quarter, which gave Tampa Bay a 16-3 lead heading into the final period. Though Houston did put up its first sustained drive of the day, the Bucs still entered the fourth quarter with an overwhelming, 328-88 advantage in total yards.

The Bucs got the ball first in the second half, starting at their own 20. Thomas Jones picked up four yards on a quick-hitter up the middle, and a quick pass to Michael Pittman on the right side was good for four more. On third-and-two, however, Jones slipped going right and was taken down for no gain.

Tom Tupa blasted a 56-yard punt to put Houston at its own 29. However, CB Dwight Smith was called for tripping on a short first-down pass, leading to a first down at the 42. Another quick pass down the line of scrimmage to Johnson was good for nine yards, and RB Domanick Davis broke several tackles to gain 15 yards on the next play.

A holding penalty on the next snap backed the Texans up 10 yards, but the Texans got all of it back on a deep slant to WR Corey Bradford that gained 24 yards down to the Bucs' 20. After a Houston timeout, DE Simeon Rice nearly sacked QB Dave Ragone, but the passer just got off a throw in TE Billy Miller's direction as he fell backward. A run over left tackle by Davis failed to gain a yard, with Rice making the stop. On third-and-10, the Bucs brought an enormous blitz and Ragone immediately threw a fade to WR Andre Johnson on the left side, but Johnson caught it out of bounds.

Brown's kickoff sailed deep into the end zone for a touchback. A first-down screen to RB Aaron Stecker was incomplete, but the Bucs ate up most of the field on the next play. QB Brad Johnson, finding no one open, rolled left away from pressure and spied WR Charles Lee alone deep down the left numbers. Johnson hit Lee with a high floater just over midfield, and the receiver managed to keep his feet after initially stumbling, running to the right and all the way down to Houston's eight.

However, Jones got nothing on a first-down sweep and Johnson had to throw the ball away on second down. On third down, Johnson tried to hit WR Keenan McCardell on a curl at the goal line but S Marlon McCree cut in front of the play and nearly intercepted it. Once again, the Bucs had to settle for a field goal, this one a 26-yarder by Martin Gramatica.

Houston's next drive started at its own 21 but lost four yards on first down when DT Anthony McFarland got immediate penetration up the middle and dropped Davis for a loss. DE Greg Spires then shot right around T Greg Randall to sack Ragone for a loss of five. Steep pressure on third down forced Ragone to throw a swing pass at Davis' feet and the Texans had to punt. Fortunately for the visitors, Chad Stanley boomed a high, 53-yard punt and Reggie Barlow was able to get back just to the Bucs' 35.

Jones got three yard son first down and the Bucs gained a new set of downs when Houston committed a hands-to-the-face penalty. After a two-yard run by Jones, Johnson faked another handoff and found McCardell in a tight zone at the 45. An end-around to Lee gained six yards down to the 39, thanks in part to a hard block by McCardell as Lee rounded the left corner. Johnson missed McCardell on the left sideline on the next play, and the Bucs called a timeout before running the next play. After discussing the situation with Head Coach Jon Gruden on the sideline, Johnson threw a pass intentionally behind McCardell on a fade stop and the receiver turned just in time to make a falling grab at the Texans' 27.

Two more runs by Jones picked up a total of five yards, leaving the Bucs in a third-and-five at the 22. Johnson tried to hit Pittman on the way to the end zone on the next snap but the pass was thrown out of bounds. Martin Gramatica's 41-yard field goal try was then blocked by S Eric Brown.

Houston thus took over at its own 31, but Davis gained nothing on a first-down run up the gut. That play brought the third quarter to an end.

Fourth Quarter Update

Tampa Bay finished off its dominant win over the Houston Texans with a scoreless fourth quarter, preserving its 16-3 advantage. The win pushed the Bucs' record to 7-7 and gave them back-to-back victories for the first time this season. The Bucs' dominance was reflected in the two teams' total yardage: 398 for the Buccaneers and 107 for Houston.

The fourth quarter began with Houston facing a second-and-10 at its own 37. QB Dave Ragone fired a short pass to WR Andre Johnson for a gain of six, but DT Cleveland Pinkney dropped Ragone for a one-yard sack on the next play and the Texans had to punt. WR Reggie Barlow caught the resulting punt at the Bucs' 21 and was tackled immediately.

The Bucs gained a first down on the next play, a 12-yard run by RB Thomas Jones. Jones followed with carries of four and five yards, but QB Brad Johnson's short pass on third down was deflected at the line of scrimmage, forcing a punt. Tom Tupa's booming, 51-yard punt angled down to the right corner at the Texans' seven, but return man J.J. Moses made a nice move to get the ball back to the 18.

CB Ronde Barber's run-blitz on first down helped drop RB Domanick Davis for a gain of just one on first down. The same up-the-middle tactic on second down was good for just two yards, but WR Andre Johnson made a fine, spinning catch on third-and-seven to move the chains. Ragone dropped back again from the 31 but was sacked by DE Greg Spires for a loss of four. Davis' run right picked up just two yards, setting up third-and-12. Good coverage on the next snap eventually forced Ragone to throw underneath to Davis for just three yards. Barlow got the punt back to the Bucs' 33 with 7:10 remaining.

Two runs into the teeth of the defense by Jones picked up just four yards, but the Bucs got a new set of downs when CB Demarcus Faggins was called for illegal contact on a third-down pass that he intercepted. The clock ran under five minutes as Jones ran up the middle two more times, pushing the pile for a total of six yards. On third down, Johnson rolled right and found RB Michael Pittman for a gain of nine yards and a first down at the Texans' 43.

Jones then shot up the middle for a gain of 13 yards to the 30. His next two runs, against a loaded middle, picked up two yards each and brought on the two-minute warning. After the break, Jones took a pitch left and picked his way for three yards, with the Texans calling a timeout after the run at 1:52. Tampa Bay brought its field goal unit onto the field to try a 41-yard field goal, but Martin Gramatica pushed it wide left. However, a 'leaping' penalty on the Texans gave Tampa Bay 12 yards and a new set of downs at the 11.

Aaron Stecker came on to take the last few carries, and he got three yards around left tackle on first down. Stecker's second-down run lost two yards but did take the game clock well under a minute. Another run right might have finished the game if not for a penalty on the Bucs. It was declined, and the Bucs had to use their own timeout before their final snap, from the Texans' eight. After the short break, Stecker ran around right end and got down to the one, where the game came to an end.

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