QB Brian Griese had his best game as a Buccaneer, completing 12 of 16 passes and leading two scoring drives
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are to launch another expedition to the Super Bowl, it will once again take off from Houston.
Two years ago, the Bucs boosted their championship run with a 17-13 win over the Houston Texans in the brand-new Reliant Stadium in the preseason finale. On Thursday night, they finished their 2004 preseason with a dominating, 17-9 win in that same venue.
In fact, the Bucs have finished each of their three last three preseasons with a victory against the Texans, including last year's 34-3 decision in Tampa. That encompasses the entire history of the Texans, who started play as the NFL's most recent expansion team in 2002.
The game began with Reliant Stadium's retractable roof open, but the view of the night sky lasted only about five minutes into the game, as rain caused the first in-game closing of the roof in the venue's short history. The night didn't last much longer for the Bucs' offensive and defensive starters, who were mostly out of the game after two series apiece.
The rest of the game was a battleground for various roster-spot competitions, and the Bucs saw plenty of encouraging evidence for the decisions they must make over the weekend. Tampa Bay, like all 32 NFL teams, has to pare its roster to 53 men by Sunday at 4:00 p.m. That means 18 more cuts (RB Michael Pittman, who will begin serving a three-game suspension as of the final cuts, will not count against the roster during his time away).
"We played a lot of guys," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I love what we're doing offensively. We threw the ball very, very well."
Indeed, despite liberal substitutions almost from the first play, the Bucs moved the ball all night, gaining a total of 380 yards under the direction of quarterbacks Brad Johnson, Brian Griese and Chris Simms. As has been the case in all three of the Bucs' preseason victories, the QB play was very impressive, with the three passers combining to complete 22 of 34 passes for 233 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. It was perhaps the best Buccaneer effort yet for Griese, who came in second and connected on 12 of 16 passes for 110 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 114.1 passer rating. The Bucs took a 10-0 lead in the second quarter on consecutive Griese-led drives.
The Tampa Bay passers operated without the team's two starting receivers, as both Joey Galloway and Tim Brown were rested. They were ably replaced by Michael Clayton (four catches for 58 yards) and Bill Schroeder (one for 26). In addition, WR Charles Lee looked good in his first preseason outing after a lengthy battle with a hamstring injury, catching three passes for 55 yards. Eleven different players caught passes for the Buccaneers.
"It was great for some young guys," said Johnson. "Also, Bill Schroeder came on strong. Obviously, Michael Clayton had a couple incredible catches. This guy will be a big part of what we're trying to accomplish here this year. We're going to spread it around to a lot of different guys."
Tampa Bay also had its best rushing night of the preseason, picking up 147 yards on 38 carries. Pittman handled most of the load in the first half and finished with 71 yards on 12 carries (5.9 avg.) With the Bucs trying to run out the clock with a 17-9 lead in the fourth quarter, first-year back Earnest Graham continued his impressive preseason with 17 tough carries for 54 yards.
The Bucs were almost as impressive on defense, holding Houston to 223 yards of total offense, including just 42 on 20 carries (2.1 avg.). After struggling to get off the field on third-and-long in recent weeks, Tampa Bay allowed Houston to convert only three of 11 third down tries, and none of 10 yards or longer. The Texans earned only 12 first downs on offense, as compared to the Bucs' 25.
Perhaps most importantly, the Bucs forced three turnovers while committing only one. Two new Buccaneer defenders combined on the first one, as blitzing LB Ian Gold hit QB Dave Carr on a throw on Houston's first series, causing an off-target pass that CB Mario Edwards intercepted. Edwards played extensively in the game and finished with two tackles, the interception and three passes defensed.
The Bucs later set up a touchdown with Oliver Gibson's fumble recovery, and stopped another drive in Tampa Bay's half of the field with Ronyell Whitaker's diving interception of a tipped ball.
"I think we pulled together out there," said DE Simeon Rice. "It was a good outing for us. We expect a lot out of this year and it was a good showing tonight. We didn't go out and show the dominant performance that we wanted to, the three-and-outs, three-and-outs. But we made the turnover to get off the field. I think we are moving the ship in the right direction."
Tampa Bay scored twice in a two-minute span in the second quarter to take a 10-0 lead. After Houston's defense denied the Bucs on three plays from the two-yard line, Martin Gramatica hit a 20-yard field goal for the game's first score. That capped a 14-play, 79-yard drive that included a 26-yard catch by Schroeder and a 12-yard catch-and-run by Clayton down to the five.
Two plays into the Texans' next drive, QB Tony Banks botched a handoff to RB Tony Hollings and Gibson recovered for the Buccaneers at Houston's 11. A seven-yard pass to TE Will Heller made it first down at the one, and Griese put the Bucs in the end zone with a play-action pass to TE Rickey Dudley.
Houston cut into the Bucs' lead before halftime. Tampa Bay went for it on fourth-and-one near midfield but Dudley dropped a pass on another play-action by Griese and Houston took over at its own 46. A 14-yard run by Hollings helped Houston get into scoring position, but CB Corey Ivy broke up a pass near the end zone and tackled WR Kendrick Starling on a short third-down pass to force Houston to settle for a 44-yard field goal by Kris Brown.
Ivy, who finished with a team-high eight tackles, made several notable plays, as did a number of Bucs fighting for roster spots or expanded jobs. In a span of four plays in the fourth quarter, Ivy made two tackles in the backfield for a total loss of 13 yards. Whitaker turned in his first pick of the summer, DE Josh Savage recorded his team-leading third sack of the preseason and DT Cleveland Pinkney added a fourth-quarter sack on Houston's last play from scrimmage.
The Buccaneers pulled most of their starters after just a couple series, but even before the first-team units left the field, there were liberal substitutions. Among the reserves who saw action with the first team in the early minutes were RB Jamel White and WRs Danny Farmer and Mark Jones. Before halftime, all but eight players had made it into the game.
Simms took over at quarterback in the second half and immediately led an impressive, 89-yard touchdown drive. The march included a 13-yard completion to Lee on a third-and-10 and Pittman's 27-yard breakaway run. On second-and-goal from the six, Simms faked a handoff, rolled left and hit TE Will Heller for a touchdown. The Texans answered with their second field goal drive of the game, and would add one more three-pointer by K Kris Brown in the fourth quarter. But Tampa Bay held the ball for 10 minutes in the final period, thanks in large part to 12 runs for 50 yards by Graham.
With the win, the Bucs finish the preseason with a 3-1 record. Houston falls to 1-3. Tampa Bay opens its regular season in Washington on Sunday, September 12.
Notes: In addition to the lineup changes the Bucs announced before the game, the team made several more adjustments when the defense came onto the field. Ellis Wyms started in placed of Anthony McFarland at defensive tackle and Mario Edwards took Brian Kelly's spot at left cornerback. Neither McFarland nor Kelly played in the game. … T Kenyatta Walker did not make the trip to Houston with the team. He is suffering from a sore knee and was left in Tampa as a precaution. … The Bucs have now had three winning preseasons in three years under Head Coach Jon Gruden. Tampa Bay went 3-1 in the preseason in 2002 and 4-1 last year. Overall, the Bucs are 10-3 in three preseasons since Gruden's arrival. … LB Derrick Brooks will take his Brooks' Bunch back to Africa, it was announced on Thursday afternoon. It will mark the seventh educational journey for the group of students Brooks annually forms from members of local Boys & Girls Clubs, including the second trip to Africa. A kickoff party for the program will be held next Wednesday, September 8 at the Wilbert Davis Boys & Girls Club. … The Buccaneers are now 4-0 against the Houston Texans, including a 3-0 mark in the preseason. This is the third year in a row the Bucs have concluded their preseason slate with a win over the Texans. The Bucs won the only regular-season meeting between the two teams by a 16-3 margin last December 14. … WR Tim Brown has been notified that he will be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in February. Brown, who hails from Dallas, will join an induction class that also features Mary Lou Retton, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Rayfield Wright. … The Bucs' offense opened up in an unusual formation, with two fullbacks – Mike Alstott and Greg Comella – in the game and lined up behind the line of scrimmage. A third-back, Michael Pittman, was also in the backfield, and he got the carry up the middle, gaining one yard. … Tampa Bay converted 10 of 16 third-down tries, its best performance of the preseason in that category.
Injury Updates: The only in-game injury reported by the Buccaneers was a neck strain sustained by G Kerry Jenkins in the fourth quarter.
Quarter-by-Quarter Reports: During the game, Buccaneers.com provided updates of the action after each quarter. Those reviews of each period are below, providing a closer look at how the game unfolded.
First Quarter Review
The Buccaneers gained more than twice as much yardage as Houston in the first quarter (122-57) but couldn't dent the scoreboard and ended the period in a scoreless tie. However, Tampa Bay was nearing Houston's red zone when the quarter came to an end.
After winning the toss, the Bucs sent WR Frank Murphy deep to field the opening kickoff, and Murphy gave the offense a nice starting spot with a 38-yard return to the Bucs' 42.
A first-down run by Pittman picked up a yard, and his second-down run was good for four more. On third-and-five, the Bucs brought in three receivers but didn't get a play off before Houston burned a timeout. After the break, the Houston defense covered Brad Johnson's receivers well and the quarterback had to throw on the run, missing Pittman.
After WR J.J. Moses fair caught Josh Bidwell's 31-yard punt at the Houston 22, RB Domanick Davis made a nice cutback on a run to the left and got eight yards. A false start cost the Texans five yards, but QB David Carr hit WR Andre Johnson on the right side for a gain of 16 and a first down at the Texans' 41.
Two plays later, a short pass to Davis over the middle got the Texans into Buc territory with an 11-yard gain. However, LB Ian Gold blitzed on the next play and hit Carr as he threw, forcing a short wobbler that was easily intercepted by CB Mario Edwards at the Bucs' 16. Edwards got back to the 18 before being tackled.
The Bucs got their initial first-down of the game with three straight touches by Pittman. He carried for four yards and got five on a second-down reception on the right sideline. On third-and-one, the Bucs faked a short play and sent Pittman up the right sideline, where he made a nice catch on a perfect throw from Johnson for a gain of 20.
From the Bucs' 47, RB Jamel White swept right and got four yards. However, the visitors quickly found themselves in a third-and-11 from the 46; Johnson got outstanding protection on the play, giving him time to find rookie WR Michael Clayton on the left sideline. Clayton made a nice, leaping catch over CB Kenny Wright and secured the ball for a 19-yard gain as he fell out of bounds.
Three plays later, on a third-and-four from the Houston 29, a well-timed Texan blitz forced Johnson to throw before he wanted to and the result was an incompletion. Martin Gramatica came on to try a 47-yard field goal but missed it a few yards to the right.
That gave Houston possession at its own 37 as the Bucs brought in their second-team defensive unit. Carr got the ball near midfield with a seven-yard bootleg run around left end for a first down at the Houston 48. Three plays later, on a third-and-two from the Bucs' 44, Carr tried to hit Johnson on a quick slant on the left side, but Edwards stayed tight and knocked the pass away to force a punt. Bucs WR Mark Jones called for and executed a fair catch at the Bucs' 19.
Pittman got another carry, sweeping to the right, and he picked up six yards, with a defensive holding penalty adding five yards for a first down at the Bucs' 30.
Two plays later, on a second-and-eight, new QB Brian Griese threw a beautiful sideline touch pass to WR Bill Schroeder for a 26-yard gain. An out to WR Danny Farmer produced nine more yards and a first down at Houston's 33. Pittman converted the second-and-inches with a five-yard run off right guard.
The Bucs quickly found themselves in a third-and-10, however. From the Texans' 28, Griese found TE Ken Dilger near the right sideline and the big tight end slipped through one tackle to get past the first-down marker and pick up 12 yards. After Pittman tried the middle and lost one yards on first down, the first quarter came to an end.
Second Quarter Review
After a scoreless first quarter, the Bucs took a 10-3 lead in the second period. Tampa Bay scored twice in a two-minute span to take a 10-0 lead, but Houston tacked on a short field goal drive in the final minutes of the half. At the intermission, the Bucs had gained 208 yards, exactly 100 more than Houston, and put up 14 first downs to Houston's six.
The Bucs started the quarter in a second-and-11 from Houston's 17 but immediately got inside the 10 with QB Brian Griese's quick slant pass to WR Michael Clayton. Clayton weaved upfield for additional yardage before going down at the five. The Bucs called a timeout before running the first-and-goal play.
After the break, a rollout play didn't work, but the Bucs got a reprieve with a defensive holding call that made it first-and-goal at the two. RB Earnest Graham then got the ball to the edge of the goal line with a run up the middle, but then lost a yard on second down.
On third-and-goal, Griese hit Clayton at the two, but S Marcus Coleman impressively tied the receiver up, keeping him out of the end zone. Martin Gramatica came on to convert a 20-yard field goal, giving the Bucs a 3-0 lead.
A touchback put Houston at its 20, and the second-team offense came in for the home team. RB Tony Hollings gained two yards on first down as he was tripped up by DT Chartric Darby. However, Hollings and QB Tony Banks botched an exchange on second down and DT Oliver Gibson recovered for Tampa Bay at the Houston 11.
RB Jamel White went up the middle on first down and got three yards to the eight. Griese then faked a handoff, rolled right and found TE Will Heller wide open for a gain of seven and a first down at the one. The Texans were also flagged for roughing Griese, but that only added a few inches onto the gain. On first-and-goal, the Bucs ran a play-action fake and Griese found TE Rickey Dudley wide open near the back of the end zone for a one-yard touchdown pass and a 10-0 Bucs lead.
The Texans started at their own 29 and tried an end-around to WR Kendrick Starling. However, CB Corey Ivy sniffed it out and tripped Starling up for a loss of nine. The Texans got most of the yardage back on second down with a screen pass to Hollings for a gain of 18. On third-and-one, Banks threw to WR Derick Armstrong for another pickup of 19 yards and a first down at the Bucs' 43.
Ivy made another tackle in the backfield on the next snap, dropping Hollings for a loss of four, after which DE Josh Savage sacked Banks for a six-yard loss on second down. After an offside penalty got Houston five yards back, Banks tried to hit WR Sloan Thomas over the middle. Thomas tried to make a diving grab but the ball deflected off his ands and into those of CB Ronyell Whitaker. Whitaker made a diving interception at the 33 to give the ball back to the offense.
White swept right on first down and got around the end for a gain of eight. Graham got four more yards around right end for a first down at the Bucs' 45. Griese then hit WR Charles Lee on the left side for a gain of nine, but Graham was stopped for no gain on second down. Graham got the third-down carry as well and appeared to have a hole to hit, but DT Junior Ioane impressively closed the gap and stopped the runner for no gain.
Tampa Bay elected to go for it on fourth-and-one from the Houston 46, and Griese executed a nice play-action, rollout, throwing to an open Dudley on the right side. However, Dudley failed to hold onto the ball as he hit the ground, and the incompletion turned the ball over to the Texans.
On Houston's second play, on second-and-seven, Hollings sliced over right guard and found a seam for a gain of 14 to the Bucs' 37. Banks hooked up with Armstrong again on a quick stop on the left side for a gain of 11.
After the two-minute warning, RB Adam Matthews got two yards off right guard. Banks' second-down pass to Armstrong was well-covered by Ivy and incomplete near the goal line. On third-and-eight, Ivy tackled Starling after a quick pass to the left sideline, leading to fourth-and-six from the Bucs' 22. Kris Brown came on to try a 40-yard field goal and hit it, but an illegal formation erased the kick. Brown then tried a 44-yarder and hit that one too, cutting the Bucs' lead to 10-3.
Tampa Bay started on its own 30 with exactly one minute left, and got two yards on a quick pass to Dudley, who got out of bounds. After an incompletion made it third-and-eight, the Bucs ran a draw to Michael Pittman and the back dove over the first-down line for a new set of downs at the 30.
A rollout incompletion took the clock down to 23 seconds, a short pass to FB Greg Comella got five yards but ran out most of the time. Griese just got a snap off with a second to go and hit WR Clayton, alone on the right sideline. Clayton got 27 yards but the quarter came to an end as he went out of bounds at the Houston 28.
Third Quarter Review
The two teams traded single scores in the third quarter, but the Bucs found the end zone while Houston had to settle for a field goal. That left the score at 17-6 in the visitors' favor heading into the fourth quarter. Through three periods, Tampa Bay's offense had gained 330 yards to Houston's 166.
Houston's second half got off to a good start when WR J.J. Moses returned the opening kickoff 41 yards to Tampa Bay's 47. However, a two-yard loss by RB Adam Matthews and a holding penalty pushed the ball to Houston's 41. Two plays later, on third-and-18, LB Ryan Nece stopped FB Jarrod Baxter at the Bucs' 48, 11 yards short of a first down.
A holding penalty on the ensuing punt forced Tampa Bay to start at its own 11. QB Chris Simms came in to lead the offense, but handed off to RB Michael Pittman on first down for a gain of five up the middle. Simms threw his first pass on third-and-five and hit WR Marcus Knight near the left sideline for seven yards and a first down at the 23.
After his next pass was batted down at the line, Simms threw just out of TE Dave Moore's reach on second-and-10. Simms converted the third down with a laser-like pass to WR Charles Lee on the left sideline, picking up 13 yards and a first down at the Bucs' 36.
An end-around by WR Mark Jones was good for eight yards, and Pittman moved the sticks with a six-yard dance over left guard. Simms then rolled left and lobbed a short pass to RB Jamel White for eight more yards on first down. Pittman converted again, taking a toss sweep left and picking up six yards again for a first down at Houston's 36.
Pittman's next carry was exciting, as he bounced off several tacklers in the middle and broke away for a 27-yard run down to the nine. After White got three yards on a run, Simms rolled left and hit TE Will Heller at the two. Heller dove over a Houston tackler to score on a six-yard pass. Tampa Bay thus took a 17-3 lead with six minutes left in the third quarter.
From their own 33, the Texans made a quick foray into Buccaneer territory with Tony Banks' 14 and 12-yard passes to Kendrick Starling and Jarrod Baxter, respectively. Three plays later, on third-and-two from the Bucs' 33, WR Derick Armstrong made a fine diving catch of a quick slant to pick up a first down at the 24.
Houston faced another third down from the 25 three plays later but this time Banks' throw on the run to Starling was too hot to handle. Kris Brown came on to nail a 43-yard field goal, cutting the Bucs' lead to 17-6.
Houston got the ball right back with a little special teams trickery, as an onside kick worked to perfection. S Glenn Earl recovered for Houston at the Houston 43.
Matthews tried to get around right end on first down but LB Keith Burns beat the blockers to drop him at the 42 for a loss of a yard. Matthews sliced off right tackle for eight yards to midfield, setting up a third-and-three. Banks found TE Matt Murphy open on the left side but Murphy couldn't handle the throw and the Texans had to punt. The kick went into the end zone for a touchback.
The Bucs had time for one play from the 20 before the end of the quarter, and made the most of it. Simms floated a long pass down the right sideline for Lee and the receiver made an impressive, falling catch for 33 yards to Houston's 47.
Fourth Quarter Review
The Bucs finished off a 17-9 victory over the Texans by controlling the ball for much of the fourth quarter with lengthy drives. Houston had the only score of the period, its third field goal of the game, but Tampa Bay effectively ran the ball to drain the clock. The Bucs finished with big edges in total yards (380-223), first downs (25-12) and rushing yards (147-42). Tampa Bay concludes its preseason record with a 3-1 record, while Houston falls to 1-3.
The Bucs had a first down at the Houston 47 as the quarter began and got six yards on Earnest Graham's first-down carry over left tackle. Two plays later, on third-and-one, Graham powered over the left side on third-and-one for a gain of three and a first down at Houston's 35.
On the next play, Simms tried to throw downfield to WR Charles Lee, but CB Demarcus Faggins made an impressive, leaping interception. Faggins got up and returned the ball to Houston's 31.
With Dave Ragone in as the Texans' quarterback, the home team got a quick 11 yards when Ragone rolled left and threw to TE Matt Murphy in the left flat. Ragone threw a long, high pass on the right side on the next play and WR Kendrick Starling hauled it in between two Buc defenders for a first down at Tampa Bay's 26.
Three plays later, Houston faced a third-and-six at Tampa Bay's 22 and chose to run the ball with Adam Matthews. Rookie LB Marquis Cooper stood Matthews up at the 20, but Houston chose to go for it on fourth-and-four. Following a Houston timeout, the Texans changed their mind and Kris Brown came in to make his third field goal of the game, a 38-yarder. That trimmed Tampa Bay's lead to 17-9.
The Bucs got the ball back at their own 20 with about nine minutes to play. Graham got eight yards on a first-down run around left end and one more yard on second down. On third-and-one, Simms threw a crossing route pass to TE Will Heller for a gain of six and a first down at the Bucs' 35.
Three more runs by Graham picked up 11 yards and a first down at the 46. The Bucs kept giving it to the first-year back in a clock-draining effort and Graham tacked on four and three yards to bring up third-and-three from the Houston 47 with 3:39 to play. After a timeout, Simms tried to go deep to RB Jamel White but the pass was incomplete and the Bucs had to punt.
A fair catch put the ball at Houston's nine, and a first-down pass by Ragone was incomplete and nearly intercepted. A slant to WR Derick Armstrong picked up nine yards, and Ragone converted the third down with a six-yard strike to FB Ed Stansbury.
Three plays later, Houston faced a third-and-10 from its own 24. DT Cleveland Pinkney chased Ragone down as he scrambled forward, recording a two-yard sack and forcing Houston to punt.
Tampa Bay took over at its won 42 with 1:53 to play. Graham effectively ended Houston's last hope of getting the ball back by turning in consecutive runs of six and five yards. Houston did call one more timeout after Simms' first kneel-down, but two more kneels finished the game.