Despite a strong performance by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense, especially with its back to the end zone, the visiting team needed a last-second touchdown pass from Josh Freeman to Mike Williams to take a 10-10 tie into halftime Sunday at LP Field.
The Tennessee Titans held a 10-3 lead late into the second quarter thanks largely to a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown that featured a handoff between Marc Mariani and Tommie Campbell. The Bucs' lone touchdown of the first half came on a 29-yard drive after CB Ronde Barber forced a fumble by RB Javon Ringer that was recovered in mid-air by S Tanard Jackson.
That was the last of four first-half turnovers in the game, two for each team. Freeman's second-quarter fumble on a sack by DE Dave Ball set up Rob Bironas' 31-yard field goal but Tampa Bay's defense consistently held in its own territory. Each of Tennessee's first four drives reached at least the Bucs' 38, but the Bucs turned three of them back with a forced punt, an interception and a missed field goal.
The Bucs held a slight 143-133 yardage edge at halftime, with Freeman and Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck putting up very similar lines. Freeman completed 10 of 18 passes for 98 yards while Hasselbeck was 10 of 19 for 89, but Freeman had the game's only TD pass and Hasselbeck threw the only interception. LB Geno Hayes' first-quarter pick ended Tennessee's first scoring threat.
RB LeGarrette Blount gained 77 combined rushing and receiving yards, including a 35-yard catch on which he pulled out his signature hurdle move. However, Blount fumbled at the end of his first carry for the first of those four turnovers.
The Titans won the toss but deferred to the second half, so the Bucs lined up for the opening kickoff return. The kick went deep into the end zone for a touchback and Freeman's first pass from the 20 was knocked down by CB Jason McCourty. Blount started the game on a good and bad note, cutting to the left for a gain of eight on second down but fumbling at the end for the game's first turnover.
McCourty recovered for the Titans at Tampa Bay's 38 but the Bucs' defense did an outstanding job of keeping the giveaway from turning into points. Rookie DE Da'Quan Bowers, making his first NFL start, chased Hasselbeck down on a first-down play-action rollout and forced a throwaway. Johnson was stopped for no gain by DT Brian Price on second down, and CB Elbert Mack batted down a pass intended for TE Jared Cook on third down. P Brett Kern popped up a high punt that WR Preston Parker fair caught at Tampa Bay's nine.
The Bucs gave it right back to Blount and he powered up the middle for five yards. On the next play, Freeman faked an end-around to WR Arrelious Benn and threw back to Blount on the right side. Blount tore into the open field and hurdled over McCourty to gain 35 yards to the Tennessee 49. A quick pass over the middle to WR Mike Williams gained eight yards and Blount moved the chains with another five-yard tote. However, his next two runs were good for a total of just one yard, making it third-and-nine at the Titans' 37. Freeman found TE Kellen Winslow releasing right to left on third down and hit him for a gain of 16 and a first down at the 21. A pump-and-go shot to Benn in the end zone was well-covered and incomplete, and a bubble-screen to the same receiver lost three yards. Freeman threw behind Parker on third down, so the Bucs brought out Connor Barth to try a 43-yard field goal. Barth nailed it to put the Bucs up, 3-0, with eight minutes left in the opening quarter.
Unfortunately, the Bucs' lead lasted only a few seconds. The Titans pulled out a trick play on the ensuing kickoff return, with usual return man Mariani taking it out of the end zone but then handing it off to Campbell on a return. Campbell got the right corner on the Bucs' coverage team and outran everyone for what was, in total, a 100-yard scoring return.
The Bucs' own kickoff return was far less successful, as Sammie Stroughter was bottled up at the 14. Blount bashed for seven yards on first down, however, and Freeman's scramble around right end got to the 25 and created a new set of downs. The Bucs' blockers created an open seam outside the left tackle on first down and Blount got another six, with Freeman bringing the offense right back up to the line without a huddle. After a two-yard run by Blount, Freeman took a shotgun, escaped a sack but threw incomplete in Parker's direction. Michael Koenen then uncharacteristically shanked his punt and it went only 26 yards to the Tennessee 41.
Johnson broke free for gains of nine and 12 yards on the next two plays, getting to the Bucs' 38, but was held to three yards on his next run and was also shaken up on the play. Bowers and LB Quincy Black combined to blow up a play-action rollout attempt on the next play and Barber made an impressive open-field tackle of the 250-pound Cook in the open field on third down. The Titans elected to go for it on fourth-and-two, but great pressure from Bowers and DE Adrian Clayborn forced Hasselbeck into a hurried throw and it was intercepted by Hayes at the 28. Hayes got the ball back to the 36 before being tackled.
Good protection on first down gave Freeman time to find Benn 20 yards down the right seam but the receiver couldn't hold on. DT Karl Klug batted down Freeman's second-down pass, and the quarterback's scramble on third down was impressive but not enough to move the chains. The Bucs lined up to punt from their 42 and Koenen's kick as fair caught at the Tennessee 19.
A quick pass to WR Lavelle Hawkins got seven yards on first down but Johnson's second-down carry was bottled up quickly, making it third-and-one. The Titans really only needed about a foot for the first down, and on the first play of the second quarter FB Ahmard Hall powered up the middle to the 30 for a first down. A leaping Hayes nearly intercepted Hasselbeck's next pass but Johnson's cut-back run got nine. Hustling S Tanard Jackson kept Johnson from breaking that play wide open, but Hasselbeck managed to get off a left-handed desperation throw to Hall on third down. Hasselbeck hit the ground hard under Clayborn after throwing the ball, but Hall caught it with room to run and made it to the Tennessee 49. Hawkins caught a short pass on a pivot route on third down, then spun away from CB E.J. Biggers and got down to Tampa Bay's 26. Johnson got three yards on the next play but RB Javon Ringer ran into a big blitz on second down and lost a yard. Hasselbeck looked down the right seam to WR Damian Williams but Biggers had good coverage and was able to knock it out of the receiver's hands at the goal line. Bironas came on to try a 42-yard field goal but left it both short and wide right.
The Bucs thus got the ball back at their own 32 with 10 minutes left in the half. A one-yard run by Blount started the drive but Josh Johnson came in to run the Wildcat on second down and got around left end for a gain of six. Winslow made a fine toe-dragging catch on the left sideline on third down to get 13 yards, put the ball just over midfield and bring on a new first down. The play was challenged by Tennessee but upheld. However, a short run and a holding call on G Jeremy Zuttah pushed the Bucs back across midfield and Tennessee's defense followed with its second takeaway of the game. Freeman started to throw a screen to the left but then pulled the ball back down, and as he tried to bring it back up it was slapped from his hand by DE Dave Ball. Ball fell on the football at the Bucs' 38 to give the Titans another prime scoring opportunity.
Johnson got eight yards on first down by starting right and then cutting hard upfield. However, the Titans lost 10 yards on a holding call on the next snap, and Hasselbeck had the ball slip out of his hand on a second-down dropback. He managed to recover, however, and on third-and-17 a screen to Williams on the left side was blocked perfectly, leading to a gain of 20 and a first down at the Bucs' 25. Cook caught a pass in traffic over the middle on the next play to get 13 yards and a first down at the 12, but the Bucs quickly forced a third-and-10. Biggers once again defended an end zone throw on third down, this time to Cook, and Bironas came back out to try a 31-yarder. This time his aim was true and the Titans improved their lead to 10-3.
Stroughter got his next return out to the Bucs' 23 but Freeman's first-down pass to Williams was incomplete. After a four-yard Blount run, Freeman was sacked by Ball for a loss of six when he couldn't find an open man downfield. A holding call on Koenen's bouncing 51-yard punt forced Tennessee back to its own 21 but an offsides call on the Bucs erased an incompletion caused by a hard hit from Aqib Talib downfield. A nine-yard catch-and-run by Hawkins took it out to the 35 as the two-minute warning arrived. After the pause, Cook failed to haul in a lob down the right sideline and the Bucs' defense swarmed all over Ringer for a loss of one on a short catch on the next play. On third-and-11, the Titans set up a screen to Ringer well but Barber pursued the play from behind, punched it out of the back's hands and saw it fly directly into Jackson's grip. Jackson caught it moving forward at the Titans' 42, slipped but kept his footing and got 13 yards to the 29.
Freeman threw over the middle to Winslow on first down and got nine yards, followed by a swing pass to Kregg Lumpkin that picked up three and a first down. A sharp out to Winslow got seven more to make it second-and-three at the 10, and Winslow followed with an impressive grab at the three-yard line to make it first-and-goal. Freeman threw a fade to Williams to the right, and while it didn't work it did serve to stop the clock with 17 seconds left. On the next play, Williams moved over to the left side and ran a quick slant just across the line. Freeman put the football in his stomach and he caught it as he hit the ground for the game-tying touchdown with 13 seconds left in the half.