The Bucs' defense kept Denver out of rhythm for much of the game but couldn't prevent the game-winning scores in the second half
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers solved the Denver Broncos' top-ranked offense for much of the afternoon on Sunday at Invesco Field, but never came up with an answer for Denver's 30th-ranked defense. In a matchup of first-place teams, the Broncos prevailed, 16-13, snapping Tampa Bay's three-game winning streak in the process.
The Broncos' defense had been susceptible to the big play during the season's first month but wouldn't crack on Sunday, as Tampa Bay recorded only one play of more than 20 yards, none in the passing game. Denver also knocked starting QB Brian Griese out of the game in the third quarter, then held off a game rally attempt by substitute QB Jeff Garcia.
The game featured two of the league's top seven offenses but still turned into a slugfest, at least until Denver finally broke through in the third quarter. The game was tied 6-6 at halftime on a pair of field goals each by Matt Bryant and Matt Prater, even though both offenses had moved the ball well in the middle of the field. The Broncos had 156 yards at halftime and the Bucs 148 but neither team had a passing play of longer than 17 yards. Bucs RB Warrick Dunn had the only big play of the first half, a 38-yard run that led to the game's first score late in the opening period.
The Broncos finally cracked the end zone in the third quarter, on a 10-yard touchdown catch by WR Brandon Stokley that gave the home team a 13-6 lead. The play ended a 47-yard drive that came moments after Griese was knocked out of the game and the Bucs were forced to punt out of their own end zone. Denver added a field goal drive on its next possession, which proved to be the game-winning points after Garcia directed a 90-yard touchdown drive just before the two-minute warning. Unfortunately, Tampa Bay's offense never got the ball back.
In his first action since starting a season-opening loss at New Orleans, Garcia completed 13 of 17 passes for 93 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
The Broncos, who were averaging 435.5 yards per game coming into Sunday rarely tried to go downfield, settling for a string of successful mid-range passes. It added up to another fine day for Denver's rising-star quarterback, as Jay Cutler, who completed 23 of 34 passes for 227 yards, one touchdown and no interception, ran for 16 yards and was not sacked. Most importantly, the Bucs' defense was unable to come up with a takeaway after forcing six turnovers in the previous two contests. Tampa Bay's only official takeaway of the game was a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter after an interception by DT Marcus Thomas.
Despite a decent rushing attack, the Bucs' offense was held 54 yards below it's previous average of 361 yards per game. Tampa Bay ran for 139 yards on 22 carries, averaging 6.3 yards per tote, but the passing attack accounted for just 168 net yards, 72 of those on a fourth-quarter, 90-yard touchdown drive. Denver's defensive front brought impressive pressure, sacking Buc quarterbacks three times and forcing mostly underneath throws.
On the ground, Warrick Dunn proved to be more than just a complement to Earnest Graham in the running game on this afternoon, having his biggest day since returning to the Buccaneers' this season. Dunn rushed 11 times for 74 yards to lead the team, and added 13 yards on three receptions. In the process, the 12th-year back moved into the top 20 on the NFL's all-time rushing charts. By pushing his career mark to 10,452 yards, Dunn passed both Tiki Barber and Eddie George to rank among the top 20 backs in league history.
The Bucs deferred after winning the coin toss and made the strategy work when the defense came up with a game-opening three-and-out. Former Buc Michael Pittman tried to convert a third-and-one by running over left tackle but Ruud met Pittman in the hole and stopped him cold just inches from the sticks.
The Bucs came out in a no-huddle attack but handed off twice to Graham, who got a total of four yards. On third-and-six, a dumpoff over the middle to Graham was a yard too short to gain a first down.
The Broncos got the game's initial first down on their next possession, as Cutler hit Marshall for a gain of six on third-and-three. However, Cutler's next third-down pass, intended for Marshall again near midfield, was overthrown and the Broncos punted again.
The Buccaneers got into Denver territory for the first time on the following drive thanks to several long runs. Graham ripped off a 14-yarder on the second play of the drive and, two snaps later Dunn broke free for a season-long 38-yard carry. That got the Bucs down to the Broncos' 21, and though the offense got only six more yards from there – Griese missed a wide-open Stevens on second-and-10 in the end zone – Matt Bryant was able to convert it into points with a 33-yard field goal.
Cutler got the Broncos moving on their next drive by scrambling for 12 yards on a third-and-11. A 12-yard strike to Royal got the ball into Tampa Bay territory for the first time, as Royal slid to the ground at the Bucs' 40. A holding call on G Ben Hamilton put Denver into a third-and-14 moments later, and Greg White tackled Pittman after a gain of seven on a quick pass. That play ended the first quarter, and after the break Matt Prater blasted a 55-yard field goal to tie the game.
The Bucs' next drive was stalled by a pair of sacks, but Josh Bidwell blasted a 64-yard punt that, combined with the quick coverage of LB Quincy Black, pushed Denver back to its own 12. Cutler took a crack downfield on a deep post to Royal, but Barber had good coverage and the ball went over Royal's head. Cutler almost scrambled for a first down on a long third down again but was stopped a yard short by June. The Broncos challenged the spot but it was upheld. On the ensuing punt, Jackson returned the ball 12 yards to the Bucs' 41.
That drive stalled, too, on consecutive plays involving the officials. First, a holding call on T Jeremy Trueblood erased an 11-yard pass down to the Denver 40. On the ensuing third-and-12, Griese appeared to be sacked by his face mask by DE Elvis Dumervil, but no flag was thrown and the Bucs had to punt. Worse, Royal returned the punt 20 yards to Denver's 36.
Cutler hit TE Daniel Graham for 10 yards and Marshall for another 13 to move back into Buccaneer territory. A screen play to RB Andre Hall worked to perfection, producing an 11-yard gain to the Bucs' 28. A chop block by Hall cost the Broncos 15 yards, and the former USF back was guilty of holding moments later. That produced a second-and-26 back at the Bucs' 44, and the Broncos eventually settled for Prater's 40-yard field goal and a 6-3 lead with 2:25 to play in the half.
An impressive 13-yard run by Dunn got the Bucs off to a good start on the next possession, and Griese once again led a very good two-minute drill. A 17-yard strike to Antonio Bryant earned the Bucs a first down at the 29 and Clayton ran out of bounds with a 12-yarder moments later. After a four-yard run by Dunn, the Bucs let the clock run down to three seconds and brought on Matt Bryant. The Bucs' dialed-in kicker easily nailed a 31-yarder to tie the game at halftime.
The Bucs got the ball first to start the second half and Graham got the offense rolling with a 14-yard scamper around right end. An 11-yard strike to Alex Smith put the ball at Denver's 44, but the drive got no further and Bidwell punted down to the Broncos' three.
That good field position lasted all of one play, as Cutler hit TE Tony Scheffler on a rollout pass and Scheffler rumbled 33 yards to the Denver 37. DE Jimmy Wilkerson knocked down a third-down pass at the line three plays later, however, and the Broncos had to punt. Denver's coverage unit converged on Dexter Jackson at the 10-yard line and dropped him at the 11 after a 45-yard boot by Brett Kern.
The Broncos defense turned up the intensity at that point, stopping Dunn for a loss of one and then knocking Griese out of the game. CB Champ Bailey leveled Griese on a blitz, forcing a wobbly pass that was nearly intercepted. Garcia came on for the third-and-11 and hit Bryant for a gain of two. Royal nearly fumbled the ensuing punt but held on and got down to the Bucs' 47 before being tackled.
DE Kevin Carter sniffed out a screen pass on first down but dropped a potential interception. Pittman converted a third-and-five moments later with a high-stepping 16-yard run up the middle. Two plays later, the Broncos executed a receiver screen to perfection and Stokley ran untouched into the right corner of the end zone for the game's first touchdown.
Garcia remained at the helm for the ensuing drive, which was hamstrung by a pair of false starts. Garcia took a rare crack downfield to Bryant on second-and-16 but the pass was just out of reach.
The Broncos offense stayed in its newfound rhythm, driving back into Buccaneers territory on the strength of four more short passes to Stokley. A steady rain began to fall as the fourth quarter began, with Tampa Bay's defense backed up to its own 25. The drive stalled at the Bucs' nine but Prater gave the Broncos a 10-point lead with a 27-yard field goal with just under 13 minutes left to play.
Garcia was intercepted by the 305-pound Thomas moments later, but Thomas fumbled during his return and the ball was recovered by Garcia back at the Bucs' 12. That was technically two changes of possession, so the Bucs' offense was afforded a first down, but they still had to punt after a sweep by Dunn failed to gain the necessary yardage on third-and-two.
Tampa Bay's defense got the stop it needed after the punt and the Bucs got the ball back with seven and a half minutes to play. Unfortunately, Kern's punt bounced past Jackson and pinned the Bucs back all the way at their own nine. Bryant made an impressive one-handed catch on third-and-three from the Bucs' 37, then stretched the ball over the first-down line. Bryant's 14-yard slant on the next play moved the ball over midfield, and WR Maurice Stovall fell out of bounds with a nine-yard catch for a first down at the Denver 30 with 3:09 to play.
Hilliard's 11-yard catch led to a first-and-goal at the Broncos' seven, and Garcia found Hilliard near the left front pylon for a touchdown on the next play. That trimmed Denver's lead to 16-13 but left just 2:02 on the clock.
The Bucs' kickoff unit tried a pooch kick over an onside-kick defense look from the Broncos. Denver got to the ball first, but not before it had rolled down to the 14-yard line. The Broncos offense then recorded a pair of first downs, all they needed to run out the rest of the clock.
The Buccaneers dropped to 3-2 with the loss but will return home for a pair of home games against Carolina and Seattle. The Panthers took over sole possession of first place in the NFC South on Sunday by defeating Kansas City and moving to 4-1.
The Broncos improved to 4-1 and will stay at home next weekend to play the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Game Notes: Third-year offensive lineman Davin Joseph made his first appearance of the season, starting at right guard after missing the first four games with a foot injury. Joseph was part of an offensive line that blocked for a 139-yard rushing output … The Buccaneers are now 2-5 all-time against the Broncos, with a 1-3 mark in Denver. Sunday's game was the Bucs' first at Invesco Field at Mile High, which opened in 2001. Tampa Bay's last visit to Denver had been in 1996, when the Buccaneers lost a 27-23 decision to the home field at Mile High Stadium. Tampa Bay was the last team in the NFL to visit Invesco. … RB Michael Bennett saw some action in the Bucs' offense for the first time this season. Bennett caught a pass for two yards in the first quarter. … K Matt Bryant provided the Bucs' only points until the fourth quarter with two first-half field goals. He has now made all 10 of his attempts in 2008. … Broncos LB D.J. Williams was credited with a sack in the second quarter when Griese scrambled out of bounds for no gain. That ended a streak of 101 consecutive pass attempts in which Griese was not sacked, covering the entirety of the team's victories over Chicago and Green Bay as well as the first four drop-backs of Sunday's game in Denver. Griese was sacked two plays later by Ebenezer Ekuban. … The Buccaneers' fourth-quarter touchdown drive, which ended in WR Ike Hilliard's seven-yard catch, covered 90 yards and is the team's longest touchdown drive of the year.
Inactives: The Buccaneers named the following eight players inactive before Sunday's game: QB Josh Johnson, S Sabby Piscitelli, FB B.J. Askew, T Anthony Davis, T James Lee, WR Joey Galloway, DT Ryan Sims and designated third quarterback Luke McCown. Piscitelli, Askew and Galloway were out due to injury.
The Broncos named the following eight players inactive: FB Peyton Hillis, RB Ryan Torian, T Erik Pears, G Dylan Gandy, WR Darrell Jackson, DE Jarvis Moss, DT Josh Shaw and DE Tim Crowder. Hillis, Torain, Jackson and Shaw were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, QB Brian Griese sustained a shoulder injury midway through the third quarter and did not return. LB Barrett Ruud sustained a knee injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.
For the Broncos, WR Eddie Royal sustained a left ankle sprain in the third quarter and did not return.