Call it LeGarrette's Leap.
RB LeGarrette Blount vaulted completely over a standing Arizona Cardinals' defender on what would prove to be a game-icing 48-yard run Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, and maybe his Tampa Bay Buccaneers cleared an important hurdle at the same time.
Have the Buccaneers leapt into the thick of the NFC playoff race? At 5-2 and in a tie with Atlanta for first place in the NFC South, the answer is unequivocally yes.
Tampa Bay's wild 38-35 victory over the resilient Arizona Cardinals marked Tampa Bay's fifth straight win away from home, tying a franchise record originally set at the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003. Despite taking a 17-point lead into the final minute of the third quarter, however, this particular win wasn't salted away until Aqib Talib's interception at the Buccaneers' six-yard line and Blount's highlight-reel run one play later.
Blount had scored his second touchdown of the game at the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter, stopping Arizona's run of 21 unanswered points. The rookie back finished the game with 120 yards and two scores on 22 carries, providing the Buccaneers' offense the ground-game thump it had been missing all season. Tampa Bay needed every bit of it in a game that including 803 yards of total offense (407 for the Buccaneers) and six turnovers.
Four of those takeaways belonged to the Buccaneers, who now have a plus-eight turnover ratio on the season, as opposed to Arizona's negative-nine. The Buccaneers took a 24-14 lead in the first half on the strength of two interception returns for touchdowns, one each by Talib and LB Geno Hayes. After a slow start, the Bucs' offense got into gear in the second quarter and scored 10 points on Josh Freeman's 47-yard pass to WR Mike Williams and Connor Barth's 21-yard field goal at the end of a 94-yard two-minute drill.
Blount, Freeman and Williams gave the Buccaneers impressive offensive balance. Freeman was nothing short of magnificent, completing 72% of his passes (18 of 25) for 278 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions and also scrambling for 22 yards. His favorite target, as usual, was the rookie Williams, who caught four passes for 105 yards and the score. It's a good sign when the breakout rookie scores – the Bucs are 4-0 when he finds the end zone. Ten different Buccaneers caught at least one pass, including WR Micheal Spurlock, who had three receptions for 60 yards.
Still, all of that could have been moot if Freeman hadn't come through with his sixth fourth-quarter comeback in just 16 career starts. His 53-yard completion to diving rookie WR Arrelious Benn in crunch time set up Blount's second TD and put the Bucs on top with 5:13 to play. Freeman completed all six of his pass attempts in the final period for 78 yards. Tampa Bay had needed yet another crunch-time performance by their 22-year-old quarterback after allowing the Cardinals to erase a 31-14 lead in a sudden blur of miscues and big plays.
LB Gerald Hayes, just activated off the Cardinals PUP list on Saturday, returned Blount's fumble 21 yards for a touchdown near the end of the third period, just one play from scrimmage after LaRod Stephens-Howling's 30-yard touchdown scamper. Five minutes into the fourth quarter, WR Larry Fitzgerald caught a five-yard scoring pass from QB Derek Anderson, his second of the game, to give the Cardinals their first lead. Even after the Bucs regained the lead on Blount's score, they had to withstand another furious rally by the home team. Anderson, in for rookie QB Max Hall after Hall surrendered the touchdown returns to Hayes and Talib, drove the Cardinals to the Bucs' 20 but tried to fit one in to Fitzgerald near the goal line and was victimized by Talib.
The Bucs actually had a chance to put the game away a few minutes earlier, after LB Barrett Ruud's interception at Arizona's 22-yard line one play after Blount's second score. However, Freeman was sacked for 14 yards by LB Will Davis three plays later and the Bucs elected to try a 53-yard field goal with Barth. It was blocked by S Kerry Rhodes, giving Arizona possession at the their own 43 with 3:16 to play. That marked just the second time Freeman was sacked in the game, despite the fact that the Buccaneers started three reserves on the offensive line due to injury – C Jeremy Zuttah, LG Ted Larsen and RT James Lee, the latter making his first NFL start. The Bucs only sacked Arizona quarterbacks once, but it was a big one – Stylez G. White's takedown of Anderson on the game's last drive essentially ended the Cardinals' hopes of getting into range for a game-tying field goal.
The Bucs' hope for a quick start – something that has eluded them most of the year – faded early again as the Cardinals struck first in the opening quarter. Hall directed a nine-play 61-yard touchdown drive that included two strikes to Fitzgerald, the second a three-yard touchdown pass on a play-action fake to Wells.
The Bucs' second first two offensive drives failed to produce a first down, but the defense still tied the game up before the first quarter was over. On Arizona's third possession, S Sean Jones blitzed and hit Hall as he threw, forcing an errant throw that was intercepted by Hayes in the right flat and returned 41 yards for a touchdown.
Still, Tampa Bay's offense struggled until after the Cardinals had retaken the lead, thanks to a relatively rare Buccaneer turnover. This one belonged to WR Sammie Stroughter, who fumbled a second-quarter punt and gave Arizona the ball at the Bucs' 16. The Cardinals pounded up the middle from there, eventually getting in on Beanie Wells' one-yard run.
That's when Freeman turned to Mike Williams and the results were immediate. An 80-yard TD drive took just three plays, the first a 31-yard rollout strike to the rookie receiver and the third a 47-yard scoring pass down the middle. Freeman faked a handoff to Blount on the play and had time for Williams to get behind the defense on a deep post, putting the ball in the perfect spot for the receiver to catch it in stride inside the five.
Talib's interception return for a score put the Bucs ahead just three minutes later, but a flag on the ensuing celebration allowed Arizona to start near midfield, and a spectacular sideline catch by Breaston got the Cardinals right down to the Bucs' 11. However, Tampa Bay's defense held, forcing a fourth-and-two at the three. The Cardinals elected to go for it, but Anderson's pass deflected off one of his lineman's helmets and was too wobbly for Breaston to haul in at the back of the end zone.
A bruising seven-yard run on third-and-six by Blount kept the drive alive and prompted the Bucs to try to make the most of the game's last two minutes. That they did, driving 94 yards for a field goal as the second quarter expired. Spurlock caught passes of 20 and 29 yards to get the ball into Cardinal territory, and Cadillac Williams' 17-yard catch-and-run took it down to the three. The Bucs took one crack at the end zone with nine seconds left but then settled for Barth's 21-yarder.
Click here for a detailed report of the game's first half.
With a 10-point lead, the Bucs started the first half by pounding with Blount, and his first three carries produced 12 yards and a first down. However, a false start penalty on James Lee cost the Bucs five yards and they were unable to get another first down. Robert Malone's 55-yard punt pushed Arizona back to their 18, but Anderson's 37-yard pass to Breaston got the ball into Buccaneer territory. The Bucs forced a third-and-10 at their 45 and Sean Jones picked off Anderson's next pass, but offsetting holding penalties erased the play. White's fine stop on a screen pass ended the drive, however, and the ensuing punt went into the end zone.
TE Ryan Purvis' five-yard catch made it third-and-five at the Bucs' 25 and a crossing route to Spurlock moved the chains. Freeman scrambled to his right and threw on the run to Mike Williams for a 23-yard gain on the sideline. From the Arizona 42, a pair of three-yard Blount runs made it third-and-four, and Freeman's heady scramble of 21 yards made it first down at the 15. Blount's 15-yard touchdown run followed, as he bashed up the gut and bounced off several tacklers on his way to the end zone.
The Cardinals, now down 17, moved quickly back into Bucs territory on Early Doucet's 25-yard catch. Anderson took a shot at Breaston in the end zone on second-and-one from the 30 but just missed. However, on third down the Cardinals called a draw play to Stephens-Howling and he scampered to the left sideline and in for the score.
Things got worse in a hurry. On the next play from scrimmage, Blount fumbled on a run up the middle and the ball was scooped and returned 21 yards for a touchdown by Hayes. The Bucs challenged the play and it was upheld, and Freeman was flagged for a horse-collar tackle on the return for good measure.
The Cardinals thus kicked off from their own 45 but hit it into the end zone for a touchback. A run for no yards by Williams ended the third quarter, but after the break a rollout pass to TE John Gilmore moved the chains. A false start by James Lee cost the Bucs five yards and a sack on a blitz by Joey Porter made it third-and-24 back at the 17. Worse, Tampa Bay then used its final timeout of the half before getting the play off and came back with a three-yard completion to Cadillac Williams.
The Cardinals started on the Bucs' side of the field after the punt and Anderson immediately hit Breaston on a 36-yard fly down the right sideline to put the ball at the Bucs' 12. Three plays later, on third-and-three from the Bucs' five, Anderson hit Fitzgerald on an underneath route and the big receiver was able to work his way into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
From their own 26, the Bucs started their next drive with Blount's powerful 10-yard blast over right tackle. A pass over the middle to Blount was good for seven yards but his next carry gained nothing, making it third-and-three. A quick pass over the middle to WR Maurice Stovall required a measurement and it was judged just inches short. The Bucs elected to go for it and Freeman's sneak over left guard was good enough for a new set of downs. On the next play, Freeman moved in the pocket to his right and threw it about as far as he could. Rookie WR Arrelious Benn adjusted well to the ball and made a diving catch near the goal line. He was ruled down at the one and the Bucs, out of timeouts, couldn't challenge the spot. No matter – Blount powered it in on the next play for a 38-34 lead.
On Arizona's next play from scrimmage, Anderson tried to hit Stephens-Howling over the middle but the back was hit hard by Hayes causing the ball to fly up in the air. Ruud came flying in to scoop it up just before it hit the ground, making it an interception at the Arizona 22. Two runs by Blount were swarmed by the Cardinals, making it third-and-10, and Freeman was sacked for a loss of 14 by Davis on the next play. That put Barth back at the 43 for a 53-yard field goal try, and it was blocked by Rhodes.
The Cards thus took over at that spot and came out in a spread formation, drawing a quick pass-interference penalty on E.J. Biggers at the 48, and the next pass was nearly intercepted by Ruud, who would have had a clear path to the end zone. Doucet's eight-yard catch made it third-and-two at the Bucs' 40 and Breaston's next catch was good for 14 yards. A defensive holding call on the Bucs put the Cardinals at the Bucs' 20, but Talib saved the day on the next play, cutting in front of Fitzgerald for his second pick of the game with 2:10 left.
That's when Blount pulled off his high-flying run, getting all the way to the Cardinals' 46 at the two-minute warning. Blount's next two runs were short but they forced Arizona to use their last two timeouts as the clock hit 1:49. His next carry wasn't enough to move the chains but it did allow the Bucs to punt with 1:02 left on the clock. The kick was fair caught at the Arizona 13.
Two plays later, rookie CB Myron Lewis broke up a deep pass attempt to Fitzgerald. On the next play, DE Stylez G. White sacked Anderson and forced a fumble that was recovered midair by T Levi Brown at the Arizona 13. The Cardinals completed two more passes but that used the rest of the clock.
Game Notes: CB Ronde Barber played in the 200th game of his career on Sunday, joining former LB Derrick Brooks as the only players in franchise history to appear in that many games as a Buccaneer. Barber also extended his NFL-record (for cornerbacks) streak of starts to 174 and finished the game with two tackles and a pass defensed. … Sunday's win gave the Buccaneers the all-time series edge over Arizona, 9-8. … LB Geno Hayes' 41-yard interception return for a touchdown was the Bucs' 34th defensive score since the beginning of the 2000 season, and Aqib Talib's 45-yarder was their 35th. That ranks fourth in the NFL over that span. … RB LeGarrette Blount recorded his first NFL catch in the second quarter, a two-yard completion over the middle. Blount finished with two catches for nine yards. Later TE Ryan Purvis also had his first NFL grab, a five-yarder in the third quarter. … Mike Williams' 47-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter was the longest reception of his young career and the Bucs' longest completion to that point in 2010. Fellow rookie WR Arrelious Benn topped that later in the game with a 53-yard reception. … The Buccaneers' final drive of the first half, which produced Connor Barth's 21-yard field goal, is the longest field goal drive in team history. The previous long was a 93-yarder against the Chicago Bears on October 24, 2004. … CB Aqib Talib's interception in the first half was his fourth of the year, and he now has at least four picks in each of his three NFL seasons. The last Buccaneer to have four or more picks in three consecutive seasons was Donnie Abraham from 1999-2001. … Williams' 105 yards of receiving and Blount's 120 yards on the Graham marked the first time since 12/2/07 at New Orleans that the Buccaneers had a 100-yard receiver and 100-yard rusher in the same game. On that day, Earnest Graham ran for 106 yards and Joey Galloway had 159 receiving yards. … Since 2001, the Buccaneers are 22-6 in games in which their defense scores a touchdown. Sunday's game also marked the first time since October 22, 2006, that the Bucs scored twice on defense in the same game. Barber had two interception returns for touchdowns in that game, a 23-21 victory over Philadelphia.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: RB Kregg Lumpkin, CB Elbert Mack, C Jeff Faine, T Jeremy Trueblood, WR Preston Parker, DT Brian Price, DE Alex Magee and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. Faine, Trueblood, Parker and Price were out due to injury.
The Cardinals deactivated these eight players: LB Clark Haggans, WR Max Komar, CB A.J. Jefferson, S Hamza Abdullah, LB Reggie Walker, C Ben Claxton, DT Gabe Watson and designated third quarterback John Skelton. Haggans was out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, S Sabby Piscitelli had to be helped off the field in the first quarter but was only suffering from cramps and was able to return. WR Mike Williams sustained an ankle injury in the second quarter but was able to return, as well. Later in the second quarter, DT Ryan Sims went out with a knee ailment but returned later in the game. DE Stylez G. White suffered cramps a few plays later but was able to return.
For the Cardinals, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling suffered a rib injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.