RB Cadillac Williams had a season-best 122 rushing yards on 27 carries as the Bucs improved to 9-0 when he gets 21 or more handoffs
Give them this: No matter the stakes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins know how to dial up the end-game drama. Oh, and no meeting between the two can officially end until the replay booth is involved in the closing seconds.
After two critical meetings last season – one that keyed the Buccaneers playoff run and one that eliminated them from the postseason – Tampa Bay and Washington met again at Raymond James Stadium Sunday. The result this time was a 20-17 Buccaneer victory, the third straight game decided by a single score. Last year, FB Mike Alstott's game-winning two-point plunge was confirmed by replay in a 36-35 November victory, as was Edell Shepherd's non-catch at the end of a 17-10 playoff loss in January.
This time, it was Michael Clayton who made the disputed play, leaping high to catch Washington's last-ditch onside kick attempt with 30 seconds to play. Officials took some time to confirm that the Bucs had maintained possession, then even kicked upstairs for a booth review. The call stood and the Bucs kneeled to improve to 3-7. The Redskins' record dipped to an identical 3-7.
"I'm really proud of our players," said Head Coach Jon Gruden after the game. "It was a short week and we played hard, rallied and found a way to win a football game. Obviously, there are a lot of areas like to improve upon, but the effort and the victory are something we're proud of."
Much as the Buccaneers did with Bruce Gradkowski in Week Five, Washington got a solid performance out of a first-year starter at quarterback but couldn't quite translate that into a victory. The Buccaneers blitzed second-year man Jason Campbell relentlessly but only sacked him twice, as the former Auburn star completed 19 of 34 passes for 196 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
As it turned out, it wasn't the Bucs' defense against Campbell that proved to be the central story. Instead, it was a resurgent Tampa Bay rushing attack featuring a former Auburn teammate of Campbell's. RB Cadillac Williams rushed for 122 yards on 27 carries as Tampa Bay improved to 9-0 in games in which the second-year back has carried the ball at least 21 times. In all, Tampa Bay gained 181 yards on a season-high 42 carries.
"He's a great back and we hope he's on schedule to get another 1,000-yard year," said Gruden. "Right now I think he's one of few guys we have who defenses are keying on a little bit and it's not as easy as you think it is [to get yards]. He's got to be mentally tough and realize that two or three yards is a gain. If we can stay in the game and get a lead, you're going to see a lot more carries late in the game."
Indeed, the Bucs leaned heavily on Williams in the second half, particularly on their final scoring drive, after using a variety of backs to good effect in the first half. With FB Mike Alstott contributing 29 yards on four carries, RB Michael Pittman picking up 15 yards on his one tote and WR Michael Clayton running a five-yard end-around, the Bucs had exactly 100 rushing yards at halftime, though the game was tied just 3-3 thanks to two turnovers.
Of course, the flow of the game and the approach of the Redskins defense – they blitzed heavily, too – allowed the Bucs to stick to the run, unlike in many of their previous games. That in turn took some pressure off Gradkowski, who was not sacked and was able to complete 14 of 21 passes for 178 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
"You'd be committed to plays that work, too," said Gruden, taking exception to the thought that the run-heavy game plan was a new idea. "It's hard to run the ball against certain teams that are just as committed to stopping it as you are to running it. We were able to make some plays in the running game [and then] we were able to make some plays in the passing game. We did have some balance today and that's a credit to [Offensive Coordinator] Bill Muir and the game plan he had."
Gradkowski had one of his best outings since that Week Five game at New Orleans, finishing with a passer rating of 104.9. His first touchdown pass was a bit of good fortune – it bounced off WR Joey Galloway and was caught by a diving TE Anthony Becht – but his second one was perfectly executed and perhaps the key play of the game. After S Jermaine Phillips forced a Ladell Betts fumble at the Washington 40 early in the fourth quarter, Gradkowski lobbed a deep touch pass to Galloway over the top of an all-out blitz for a 34-yard touchdown. After the game, Gruden said the call was an audible by the heady rookie.
The Bucs got quite a few good performances from young players, including Williams, Gradkowski, G Davin Joseph, T Jeremy Trueblood, LB Barrett Ruud (six tackles in place of the injured Shelton Quarles) and DE Dewayne White (three tackles and a sack in place of the injured Simeon Rice)
"Every snap they play they're going to get better," said Gruden of the team's younger contributors. "You may not want to see all of those snaps, but they're getting better. We didn't give up a sack today and they brought a lot of blitzes. These guys are giving us everything they had and we beat a good football team, I don't care what their record is."
Washington scored first in the second half but the Bucs followed with 17 unanswered points. After Galloway's fourth-quarter score, Matt Bryant added a 31-yard field goal with four minutes remaining. The Redskins drove 80 yards to score on the next possession but used all but 32 seconds to get there.
Held to 63 yards of total offense in the first half, the Redskins exceeded that on their first drive of the second half and took control of the game after neither team seemed willing to do so before halftime. Campbell converted three third downs on the drive, including a third-and-goal from the three on which he rolled right and threw a touchdown pass to TE Chris Cooley just over the goal line. The possession consumed five and a half minutes and covered 74 yards on 12 plays.
However, the Bucs followed with a long touchdown drive of their own, going 85 yards on 14 plays in eight and a half minutes to tie the game. The drive was a study in patience – seven of the first nine plays were good for either five, six or seven yards – and that patience was rewarded when Williams took a little swing pass and split two defenders to gain 21 yards down to the seven. A pass-interference penalty on CB Shawn Springs in the end zone gave the Bucs a first down at the one, but two runs by Alstott were denied. Gradkowski tried to hit Galloway on a quick-step pass in the front of the end zone, but Springs disrupted the play and the ball bounced off the receiver into the air. The victim of some untimely misfortune this season, the Bucs found a rare nugget of good luck at this moment as Becht was able to make a diving catch of the deflection for the game-tying score.
Tampa Bay's defense then made its biggest play of the game, as Phillips forced the Betts fumble on a screen pass and CB Juran Bolden recovered at the Washington 40. Three plays later, Gradkowski looked for Galloway again and this time the two hooked up for the score. Washington brought a big blitz and the Bucs were ready, as Galloway ran a post from the slot and Gradkowski simply lobbed it up over the middle. The 34-yard touchdown gave Tampa Bay a 17-10 lead with nine minutes to play.
Now feeling the crowd, the Bucs' defense immediately came through with a three-and-out, though Bolden was lost to what appeared to be a significant ankle injury when he was accidentally hit by teammate Jovan Haye. A short punt gave the Bucs possession near midfield and they promptly drove 44 yards on seven plays for Bryant's clinching score. All six plays on the drive were Williams runs, starting with a 25-yard burst over left guard.
The Redskins didn't go quietly, however. Against a soft defense designed to drain the clock, the visitors marched 80 yards on 14 plays for a touchdown that made it 20-17 with 32 seconds to play. Campbell converted a fourth-and-10 just past midfield with a pass to Betts, then hooked up with Cooley for a gain of 26 down to the four. Two plays later, Campbell avoided pressure long enough to find former Buccaneer TE Todd Yoder in the back of the end zone. On the previous play, LB Derrick Brooks had nearly intercepted a deflected pass in the end zone.
With 32 seconds left, the Redskins were forced to try the onside kick, with Clayton getting to the ball first. Players for both sides signaled recovery and the referees took some time sorting out the pile. Still, the call went to the Bucs and stayed that way after replays showed no contradictory evidence.
The Bucs were clearly interested in establishing the ground game early, starting the contest with two straightforward Williams totes, simply lining up and running off left guard twice without any pre-snap shifting. Unfortunately, the resulting third-and-five failed when a diving attempt by Clayton was ruled incomplete. The Bucs took a delay-of-game penalty while lined up for a punt, waiting to see a replay and determine whether or not to challenge the play. With no clear evidence, the Bucs punted.
The Redskins, by contrast, let their first-time starter air it out on their first play, with Campbell throwing deep down the left sideline to WR Brandon Lloyd. Campbell's first NFL throw was a good one, too, but CB Ronde Barber lunged over Lloyd at the last moment to get a hand in the way and disrupt the pass. Barber also denied a third-down pass to WR Antwaan Randle El on third and 10 and the Redskins had to punt, too.
The Bucs' offense looked sloppy early. Tampa Bay's second drive started with consecutive dropped passes by Mike Alstott and Alex Smith and a timeout prior to third down thanks to pre-snap confusion. The final result was another three-and-out, though Josh Bidwell's low, hopping punt got down to the Washington 10. The Bucs' defense forced another three-and-out as well, thanks to White's quick rush on third-and-four. White hit Campbell as he threw but the loose ball was ruled an incompletion rather than a fumble.
The exchange of punts did give the Bucs' offense good starting position near midfield, which set up a 49-yard field goal drive for the game's first points. The Bucs opened the drive with a little trickery, running Clayton on a reverse that gained five yards, though Clayton was fortunate that his fumble bounced out of bounds. The crowd actually preferred the next two plays, a pair of strong runs by fan-favorite Alstott. The second carry, on third-and-one, went for a season-long 16 yards after Alstott simply powered through a helpless Springs. Alstott tacked on another five-yard run and WR Ike Hilliard made a nice, spinning catch on third-and-four to get the ball to the Washington 14. Bryant finished the drive with a 26-yard field goal.
Bryant followed with a less positive moment, hitting return man Rock Cartwright out of bounds on the ensuing kickoff to draw a roughing penalty. Washington thus started at their own 46 and drove 27 yards for the game-tying score. The key play was a 15-yard completion to WR James Thrash on which Phillips came in unblocked on a blitz but failed to wrap up Campbell, who escaped to make the throw down to the Bucs' 25. Another blitz, this one led by Barber, was more successful, as Barber and DE Greg Spires combined on a five-yard sack and the Redskins had to settle for Nick Novak's 45-yard field goal.
The Bucs got Williams into gear on the next drive and rode his 13-yard reception into scoring range. However, two penalties on Becht erased a pair of potential first downs and the drive ended on a fumble when C John Wade apparently snapped the ball early. The Redskins got the ball at their own 35 and drove down to the Bucs' 33 before several more Buc blitzes forced a punt.
The Redskins did manage to kick it down to the Buccaneer five, but Tampa Bay's offense once again marched into Washington territory. Unfortunately, it also once again squandered a scoring opportunity. Pittman caught a 25-yard pass on a seam pass up the left hash marks and Gradkowski hit Galloway over the middle for 16 more to get the ball down to the Washington 25. On third-and-eight from the Washington 10, Gradkowski tried to hit Galloway again on a slant but Springs intercepted the pass and fell to the ground at the seven. Washington kneeled once and took a 3-3 tie into halftime.
The Bucs are now two-thirds of the way through their stretch of three games in 11 days. They will travel to Dallas midweek for a Thanksgiving Day game against the Cowboys. The Bucs have also played three of their four NFC East games, beating Philadelphia and Washington and losing to the New York Giants.
Game Notes: LB Derrick Brooks made the 183rd start of his Buccaneer career on Sunday, moving into a tie for first place on the team's all-time list. T Paul Gruber also started 183 games as a Buccaneer. … Tampa Bay evened its all-time series with Washington by defeating the Redskins on Sunday. The two teams have split their 14 regular-season meetings, as well as two postseason contests. … FB Mike Alstott's eight-yard reception in the first quarter was the 300th of his career. He joins James Wilder and Mark Carrier as the only players in Buc history to reach the 300-catch plateau. … RB Cadillac Williams' 20-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter was the longest reception of his career. … The Buccaneers' third-quarter touchdown drive, which ended in Anthony Becht's two-yard reception, was the team's longest of the season by every metric – plays, yards and time consumed. The march went 85 yards on 14 carries in eight minutes and 36 seconds. The previous longs this season were 82, 11 and 5:48. … That catch was also the first touchdown reception for Becht in his two seasons as a Buccaneer.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: CB Alan Zemaitis, LB Shelton Quarles, T Donald Penn, G Jeb Terry, WR Paris Warren, DT Ellis Wyms, DE Simeon Rice and designated third quarterback Luke McCown. Quarles, Wyms and Rice were all out due to injuries.
The Redskins named the following eight players inactive: CB Mike Rumph, S Reed Doughty, OL Taylor Whitley, DL Ryan Boschetti, WR David Patten, WR Santana Moss, DT Anthony Montgomery and designated third QB Mark Brunell. Moss and Patten were out due to injury.
Injuries: TE Alex Smith sustained a right ankle sprain in the second quarter and did not return. CB Juran Bolden suffered a left ankle injury in the fourth quarter, was taken off by cart and did not return.
For the Redskins, CB Troy Vincent sustained a hamstring injury in the second quarter and did not return.