QB Jeff Garcia hooked up in the end zone with WR Joey Galloway for the first of what the Bucs hope will be many touchdowns
Jeff Garcia didn't get to play much Saturday night in Miami, for which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense can take both the credit and the blame.
Garcia played three minutes into the second quarter of the Buccaneers' third preseason game, enough time for just 17 snaps. The last of those 17 snaps, however, was his first-ever touchdown connection with Joey Galloway, a play that tied the game at 14-14 while both team's starters were still on the field.
Meanwhile, Garcia's third reserve, second-year man Bruce Gradkowski, was red hot for the second straight weekend, leading two touchdown drives in the second half to give the Bucs a 31-28 win in a game that saw the lead change hands six times. Covering a two-game span that dated back to last Saturday's 31-19 loss at Jacksonville, Gradkowski produced touchdowns on four straight possessions.
But back to the beginning. Garcia's 26-yard scoring pass to Galloway – what Tampa Bay hopes will be the first in a long series of hookups between their new passer and his primary weapon – tied the game at 14-14 and led to a mass exodus of both team's starters. Garcia finished the game with four completions in 10 attempts for 54 yards, one touchdown and one interception – modest numbers that insufficiently reflect the encouraging nature of his play, brief as it was. Garcia repeatedly scrambled to buy time, and his pass to Galloway was a quick-flip bit of improvisation.
"It was a play that Jeff made a heck of a play on," said Galloway. "The route that we ran they actually covered and I went up field because I knew Jeff would stay alive and he hit me in the back of the end zone."
Also encouraging: Garcia got a lot of help on that touchdown drive from RB Cadillac Williams, who finished the game with 25 yards on just four carries. Williams actually had 30 yards on three totes on that march, as he had lost five yards on his first rush earlier in the game. With RB Earnest Graham adding 34 tough yards at game's end, Tampa Bay's running game finished the game with 133 yards, continuing its strong preseason play. Through three games, the Bucs have averaged 139 yards on the ground per outing.
"When we started to run the football, and get Cadillac the ball, I thought some good things happened in that sense," said Garcia. "There were opportunities that we could have made earlier in the game that unfortunately just didn't happen in the passing game. But, I think we are seeing things well. It's just a matter of making the connections, being on the same page. It's still a work in progress. I'm thankful we were able to make a play, and get Joey in the end zone on the one play, but we need more of those and more consistency."
Tampa Bay's defensive results in the early going were a mixed bag, too, and the main reason Garcia threw only two completions in the first quarter, which was supposed to be the extent of his playing time.
LB Cato June intercepted Trent Green's first pass of the game, intended for RB Ronnie Brown, and returned it two yards for a touchdown in the game's opening minutes, keeping Garcia and the offense on the bench for an extra possession. Unfortunately, Green then gashed the Bucs' defense with a nine-minute, 73-yard, 18-play drive that tied the score and used up most of the first quarter clock.
"I like some of the things we did offensively," said Head Coach Jon Gruden of the first half of action. "Defensively we have to play better. Our performance at the end of the half was not good. All in all, we did some good things in the first half.
"We obviously got a big turnover early on, which was a great way to start the ballgame. But we were pretty sloppy on defense."
Matt Roth deserves some of the blame, too, as he intercepted Garcia's first pass of the ensuing drive. Taking a page from fellow Dolphin defensive end Jason Taylor, Roth sniffed out a swing pass to RB Cadillac Williams and stepped out far enough to pluck Garcia's pass out of the air and rumble down to Tampa Bay's 12.
Three plays later, the Dolphins used a nifty bit of trickery to take the lead, using an old play that gained new national acclaim in last year's Fiesta Bowl. Channeling Jared Zabransky and Ian Johnson of Boise State, Green faked a quick pass to the right and then handed off to RB Jesse Chatman behind his back. Chatman completed the "Statue of Liberty" play by scooting 11 yards between tacklers and dived into the end zone to make it 14-7 with a minute left in the first quarter.
Garcia came out for one more drive, and it proved well worth going a few minutes into the second quarter. Frequently scrambling to buy time, Garcia directed a 76-yard touchdown drive that ended in his 26-yard touchdown pass to Galloway in the back of the end zone. Garcia danced around for several extra seconds before spying Galloway and flicking the ball over the top with a very quick release; Galloway did his part by dragging a second foot inbounds before sprawling out of the back of the end zone.
The Dolphins brought in reserve QB Cleo Lemon on the next drive and the Bucs countered with a second-team defense, meaning the team's starters played to a 14-14 tie over a quarter and a third. Obviously, that opening sequence was a mixed bag for the Buccaneers, but there were enough positives to deem the night a success.
June obviously hinted at his big-play ability with his thievery against Brown; he had 10 picks over the last three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. And though the starting defense had difficulty getting off the field on third and fourth down, they did stifle the running game to the tune of 33 yards on 15 carries (2.2 avg.). By the end of the game, the Dolphins had just 69 yards on the ground, averaging 3.3 yards per tote.
The Bucs came out throwing, using shifts and crossing routes to try to connect on some quick-hitting plays on the opening drive. It wasn't an immediate success – a slant to RB Michael Pittman was broken up and a short throw down the line to Clayton gained just a yard. However, Garcia's mobility came to the rescue again as he scrambled for 11 yards on third-and-nine. The drive reached midfield but stalled when seam passes intended for Alex Smith and Pittman fell incomplete. Though the drive didn't produce any points it did allow Josh Bidwell to punt the ball down to Miami's 10.
That, in turn, set up June's first big moment as a Buccaneer. After fellow LB Derrick Brooks smothered Brown for a loss of two yards on Miami's first play, June sniffed out a slow-developing screen to the third-year back and wrestled the ball away from him. From there, it was just a two-yard stumble into the end zone for the game's first score.
"Defensively, we always talk about running to the football, and we've been stressing that all camp," said June. "When you run to the football, good things happen. I was just playing my position, doing what I was supposed to do. They were trying to set up a screen and I was supposed to hold down the backside. It looked like a screen and I saw the ball coming. You always want to attack the ball and I was able to get my hands on it."
Green got the Dolphins moving on their second possession, however. He converted a third-and-six with a nice timing route to speedy rookie Ted Ginn Jr., to the crowd's delight, and, despite that early disaster, repeatedly looked for Brown in the passing game. Brown finished the game with two receptions for 16 yards. The Dolphins kept the drive alive on a successful fourth-and-two conversion from the Bucs' 38, and Green gained another first down at the Bucs' 13 with a sneak up the middle on third-and-one. Brown's tackle-breaking run on the next snap put the ball at Tampa Bay's four, and two plays later Green found TE David Martin in the back of the end zone for a game-tying, one-yard pass.
After the Chatman and Galloway touchdowns made it 14-14 and the starters exited en masse, Lemon drove the Dolphins into Buccaneer territory before the Tampa Bay defense caused its second turnover of the night. Lemon completed a short pass over the middle to RB Patrick Cobbs, but DE Julian Jenkins stripped the ball and CB Sammy Davis fell on it at Tampa Bay's 40 before it could bound out of bounds.
The Bucs capitalized on that turnover, too, on a sharp 52-yard field goal drive directed by second-string QB Luke McCown. A beautifully-run pivot route by WR Michael Clayton produced a 23-yard gain down to Miami's 31, and Bryant finished it with a 26-yard field goal, his third in three tries this preseason.
Miami nearly tied the game just before halftime thanks to a blunder by first-year DE Greg White. Lemon attempted a "Hail Mary" pass from midfield as time expired, and it was knocked down at the one-yard line. However, White was flagged for roughing the passer after the ball was released, giving the Dolphins 15 yards and an untimed down at the Bucs' 36. Jay Feely came on to try a 54-yard field goal, and though he gave it plenty of leg it struck the left upright square and bounced back.
"You can't commit penalties at the end of the first half and win football games in this league," said Gruden. "You have to eliminate that."
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay's defensive reserves continued to struggle. After allowing 31 unanswered points in Jacksonville a week ago, the second and third-teamers coughed up the Bucs' halftime lead on the first drive of the third quarter. The Bucs actually forced a third-and-12 at midfield, but John Beck threw a deep pass to WR P.K. Sam that S Kalvin Pearson attempted to intercept. Somehow the pass made it between two defenders into Sam's hands and he was able to trot the rest of the way to the end zone for a 51-yard score. That gave Miami a 21-17 lead just two minutes into the half.
There were positives among the reserves, however. Rookie DE Gaines Adams continued to show up, recording his second sack of the preseason just before halftime and his second pass defensed early in the third quarter. Adams' fellow 2007 draftee, DT Greg Peterson, recorded his first sack on an eight-yard takedown of rookie QB John Beck in the third period, keeping Miami from capitalizing on a drive that began at midfield. Peterson would get to Beck for a second sack in the game's final moments.
Fifth-year QB Chris Simms saw his first action of the preseason, following McCown into the game midway through the third quarter. Simms played just one series, handing off four times and throwing one incompletion. He was replaced on the next drive by second-year QB Bruce Gradkowski.
Gradkowski, who had led two touchdown drives on his only possessions a week ago in Jacksonville, immediately marched the Bucs 62 yards for a touchdown. Gradkowski was five for eight for 54 yards on the drive, finishing it with a six-yard scoring pass over the middle to RB Earnest Graham. Graham caught the pass at the two and broke a tackle to lunge backward into the end zone.
The Bucs didn't hold the lead for long, as Beck engineered a 76-yard touchdown drive to put Miami up 28-24. First-year RB Ray Perkins - there's a familiar name for Buccaneer fans – kept the drive alive with a five-yard run on fourth-and-three at the Bucs' 41, and Beck finished it moments later with a 31-yard touchdown pass to WR Derek Hagan.
The red-hot Gradkowski pushed right back. Converting a third-and-six and a fourth-and-six with perfect strikes to WR Chas Gessner, he quickly got the Bucs into Miami's red zone. Gradkowski's 12-yard scramble set up a third-and-one at the Miami nine, and RB Lionel Gates squirted through a seam on third down to get down to the one-yard line. Gradkowski ran a play-action pass on first-and-goal and, after a lengthy pause in the pocket, lobbed a pass over several defenders to the back of the end zone, where it was caught by a leaping Paris Warren. Warren, who would finish the game with three receptions for 27 yards, danced both set of toes just inside the back line for the winning score.
Miami's offense did get two more possessions before the clock ran out, but this time Tampa Bay's reserves stood strong. LB Adam Hayward's big hit on RB Lorenzo Booker helped produce one four-and-out turnover on downs. Minutes later, in the game's waning seconds, Peterson's sack of Beck at the Miami three-yard line would essentially end the Dolphins' last hopes.
With the win, the Bucs improve to 2-1 on the preseason. They will finish their August slate at home next Thursday against the visiting Houston Texans.
Game Notes: With Saturday's victory, the Bucs closed Miami's all-time lead in the preseason series to 14-8. The Bucs are now 3-6 all-time in road preseason games against the Dolphins. … LB Cato June's first-quarter pick of a pass intended for RB Ronnie Brown was Tampa Bay's first interception of the season. In fact, it was the first interception for either team in the Bucs' three preseason games. Buccaneer quarterbacks didn't throw their first preseason pick until Matt Roth's first-quarter interception of QB Jeff Garcia. … Former Dolphin Kevin Carter started the game at right defensive end for the Bucs. Carter has started all three games this preseason, shuttling between both ends. He started Game One against New England on the right side, then Game Two at Jacksonville on the left. Carter saw reps at under tackle during Saturday's game, too. … T Donald Penn came in to play right tackle on the Bucs' second offensive series, replacing starter Jeremy Trueblood, who was removed as part of the team's rotation plans. Penn actually had to make a tackle on his first play, after Roth's interceptions. … Several of Tampa Bay's starting offensive linemen played into the third quarter, including RG Davin Joseph, C John Wade and LG Anthony Davis. That was partially due to the Bucs being without guards Arron Sears and Jeb Terry. … The Bucs' 31 points were the most they had scored in a preseason game since the 2005 finale, a 38-14 win over Houston at Raymond James Stadium. It was the team's most points in a road preseason game since a 31-21 win at New England on Aug. 20, 2000.
Inactives: There are no official inactives during the preseason. However, the Bucs were without rookie guard Arron Sears, who did not make the trip with the team due to a sprained ankle. The Dolphins scratched CB André Goodman, LB Joey Porter and T Joe Toledo.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, TE Alex Smith suffered a left ankle sprain in the second quarter and did not return.
For the Dolphins, DT Paul Soliai sustained a knee injury in the first quarter and did not return.