LB Derrick Brooks' sudden stop of RB Clinton Portis on fourth-and-one was one of many big plays on a tiring day for the Bucs' defense
They were, quite simply, exhausted.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' proud defense, which had led the team to a 19-3 first-half lead with four fumble recoveries, was on its heels, trying desperately to stave off an inexorable rally by the visiting Washington Redskins. In the end, those Buccaneer defenders came up just big enough, stopping two long Redskin drives with interceptions to preserve a 19-13 victory.
Cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly came up with the picks, fitting for two of the most accomplished defensive players in team history. Barber's was first, a heady play on a shallow out to WR Santana Moss that ended a frightening Washington drive in Buccaneer territory with 3:40 to play. Kelly then sealed the victory with a leaping pick in front of Moss in the end zone, stopping a drive that had moved all the way from Washington's seven to the Bucs' 16.
The Bucs' 16-point lead at the break was built exclusively on short drives after takeaways, about all the offense could manage with QB Jeff Garcia out of the game. Garcia, clearly the team's most important offensive player, left the game after three plays, the result of a hard helmet hit that left him with a bruised lower back. He didn't return until 10 minutes were left in the fourth quarter, and by then the Washington defense had completely clamped down.
"He's tough as hell," said Head Coach Jon Gruden of Garcia. "He wanted to go back in and play several times. He just didn't have the mobility, didn't look right on the sidelines. He kept loosening up and felt like he could go in and finish the football game. Garcia gives us the best chance to win. There was no way he could further injure himself. He performed a lot of things on the sideline and proved to us he could go in there. We tried to get him a completion or two to see where he was, but Washington wasn't in the mood for that."
That's an understatement. The Bucs' offense didn't produce a single first down in five second-half possessions, gaining just 15 total yards. Meanwhile, QB Jason Campbell and the Washington offense followed a 96-point first half with 316 yards after the break. Tampa Bay only kept the Redskins rally from being complete by grabbing their fifth and sixth turnovers and by excelling in the kicking game. Matt Bryant tied a career high with four field goals, all in the first half, and punter Josh Bidwell was magnificent, averaging 50.4 yards gross and 42.0 yards net on seven punts. In the second half, Bidwell dropped three punts inside the Redskins' 20.
"I'm really proud of our players," said Gruden. "Our kickers were outstanding today. Our defense made a lot of plays. Certainly the Washington Redskins, coming in here down 19-3, deserve a lot of credit."
The Bucs' defense was as dominant in the first half as it was tired in the second. Before the intermission, it was a collection of younger Bucs who came up with the takeaways that led to the big lead.
DE Greg White's two forced fumbles and one recovery and S Tanard Jackson's two on-the-run fumble pick-ups in the first half helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers forge a 16-0 lead. The Buccaneers stretched their regular-season winning streak to three games over the Redskins, who have now lost November games in Raymond James Stadium for three straight seasons.
Graham opened the scoring with a one-yard touchdown run after Jackson's first takeaway, opening what would be a 21-carry, 75-yard day. Graham's powerful running was particularly crucial to the Buccaneers after Garcia was lost, and he carried on all three plays of that 19-yard opening touchdown drive.
Jackson's nose for the football also saved the Buccaneers from a turnover in their own, still in the first quarter. Jackson recovered a muffed punt by WR Ike Hilliard at the Bucs' 15, which not only averted a red zone giveaway but also allowed the offense to move the ball back to midfield before punting.
The scenario the Buccaneers feared the most stared them in the face after the game's first snap. Garcia faked a handoff, found no one open and eventually scrambled up the middle. He was tackled hard by 311-pound DT Cornelius Griffin and got to his feet shakily. Though Garcia stayed in the game for the next two snaps – one handoff and one incompletion on which he was again knocked to the ground – he then walked slowly to the sideline and was replaced by second-year man Bruce Gradkowski.
Garcia was taken into the locker room moments later. He returned to the sideline a few minutes later and was reportedly 'probable' to return to the game, but he didn't take another snap until the fourth quarter. Gruden expressed optimism that Garcia would be ready for next weekend's game in New Orleans. He also lauded Gradkowski for his work in some tough situations; still, Gradkowski was good on just nine of 19 attempts for 106 yards as the Bucs were held to 192 total yards on the day.
The Bucs scored the game's first points shortly after Garcia left the game, thanks to a Washington turnover and Graham's timely running. Moss caught a short pass near the right sideline on the Redskins' first play from scrimmage but had the ball poked out of his hands by CB Phillip Buchanon as he tried to fight for more yardage. Jackson recovered at the Washington 28 and returned it to the 19 before being run out of bounds.
Graham did the rest, gaining all 19 yards on a three-play drive. Graham went right all three times, bursting for 12 yards down on first down, then six more to get the ball to the one. Following a clear-out block by RG Davin Joseph and a lead by FB B.J. Askew, Graham went in standing up for his team-leading sixth touchdown of the season.
White forced fumbles on two of the Redskins' next three possessions, one on a hustling tackle from behind on Portis and one on a swat at Campbell's arm. Both resulted only in field goals, however, as the Bucs' offense struggled in the red zone and had to settle for a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Amazingly, White was involved in yet another turnover on Washington's very next drive. S Jermaine Phillips forced another Portis fumble with a crushing blow to the back and White recovered at the 32. Gradkowski looked shaky again on a three-and-out but Bryant bailed the offense out with a 48-yard field goal to make it 16-0.
A short kickoff following that score gave Washington a drive start of their own 40, and the Redskins took advantage with their first scoring drive of the game. Cooley's 20-yard catch-and-run down the left sideline put K Shaun Suisham in position for a 43-yard field goal. The Bucs answered just before halftime on Bryant's fourth field goal, this one a 39-yarder capping a six-play, 29-yard two-minute drill.
Considering the Bucs' first-half domination, the 16-point halftime lead looked tenuous, even more so after Washington took the opening possession of the second half for a touchdown. Campbell drove the Redskins 73 yards on nine plays, ending it with a 39-yard TD pass to Cooley over busted coverage after the Washington line picked up a blitz.
Even worse, Washington forced a quick three-and-out and a Josh Bidwell punt that gave the ball back to the Redskins at their 30. Campbell proceeded to convert consecutive third-and-longs with passes to former Buccaneer Keenan McCardell, driving Washington back into Buccaneer territory. The defense forced a fourth-and-inches try at the four-yard line, and Washington eschewed the easy three points to go for it. The Bucs' defense came up with one of its most impressive stops of the season, as LB Derrick Brooks shook off a block and shot into the gap that Portis was headed into. Brooks' one-on-one hit immediately knocked the back off his feet at the four.
The Bucs' defense had little time to rest, as Gradkowski and the offense could gain only one yard on three plays. Bidwell did buy the Bucs some breathing room with a booming 56-yard punt, with WR Maurice Stovall making an immediate tackle of McCardell, the return man at the Washington 44.
The 'Skins were back in Tampa Bay territory by the time the third quarter came to an end. The Redskins went for it on fourth-and-short for the third time, and this time Portis found a big seam around left tackle for a gain of eight to the Bucs' 39. The defense finally held just inside the red zone, as DE Kevin Carter dropped Campbell for a seven-yard sack on third-and-seven from the 13. Still, Washington pulled to within one score on Suisham's 38-yard field goal with 11:19 to play.
Garcia came back into the game for the ensuing drive but was sacked hard by LB Marcus Washington and couldn't produce a first down. Bidwell and Stovall teamed up again to put Washington back inside its 10, with the punter blasting a 61-yarder and Stovall dropping McCardell at the nine.
Unfortunately, another McCardell third-down catch and a 16-yard run by backup runner Ladell Betts got the ball out to midfield with six minutes left in the game. The drive continued, seemingly unstoppably, to the Bucs' 32 before Barber's big play brought it to an end. Barber sniffed out a shallow out to Moss and cut underneath the play, making a leaping interception at the 31.
Garcia and the offense re-inherited the ball with 3:40 left in the game but couldn't drain that time, going three-and-out. Garcia nearly hit Galloway deep down the middle with a lob over the top, but it was just out of the receiver's reach. Bidwell came up big again, blasting a 52-yarder that pushed the ball back to Washington's seven thanks to a block-in-the-back penalty.
Still, Washington's offense came. Throwing mostly underneath, Campbell brought the Redskins down to Tampa Bay's 16. On second-and-10, he finally took a crack at the end zone, and Kelly made him pay, leaping in front of Moss to secure the last, and most crucial of the day's six turnovers.
The Buccaneers improved to 7-4 with the win and maintained their two-game lead over the New Orleans Saints, who beat Carolina handily to go to 5-6. The Buccaneers travel to New Orleans next weekend for a critical intra-division showdown.
Game Notes: LB Derrick Brooks made his 200th career NFL start on Sunday against Washington. He has played in 203 games and is the Bucs' all-time leader in both categories. … DE Greg White's two forced fumbles matched his feat from a week ago in Atlanta, where he also knocked two balls loose. With the back-to-back efforts, White became the first player in Buccaneers franchise history to force at least two fumbles in two consecutive games. … K Matt Bryant tied his career highs in both field goals made and field goals attempted, with four of each. He had previously nailed four field goals on the road against the New York Jets on Oct. 9, 2005. He had attempted four field goals on three previous occasions, most recently that Jets game. … DE Kevin Carter's fourth-quarter sack of QB Jason Campbell put Carter into rare territory. The takedown gave him 100.5 in his 13-year NFL career. … CB Brian Kelly's fourth-quarter interception was his first of the season and the 21st of his career. He ranks seventh in team history in that category.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: RB Michael Pittman, CB Keiwan Ratliff, LB Jeremiah Trotter, G Dan Buenning, TE Keith Heinrich, DE Greg Spires, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Luke McCown. Pittman and Spires were out due to injury.
The Redskins declared the following eight players inactive: S Sean Taylor, CB David Macklin, FB Mike Sellers, T Todd Wade, DT Ryan Boschetti, G Randy Thomas, WR James Thrash and designated third QB Mark Brunell. Taylor, Sellers, Wade, Thomas and Thrash were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Bucs, QB Jeff Garcia sustained a back injury on the game's first offensive snap and did not return until the fourth quarter.
The Redskins did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.