Bucs 24 Rams 3 - The Game Report
The rain came just before halftime. So did the first points in what some had expected to be an offensive shootout.
That's been the modus operandi when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams have gotten together in recent years – the last four games between the two teams have averaged 51 combined points. But this one was a defensive struggle even before the field turned slick, and that was just fine with the home team.
Scoring three second-half rushing touchdowns – two by end zone newcomer Earnest Graham – the Bucs ran away with a 24-3 victory, raising their 2007 record to 2-1. Tampa Bay has won its two home games this season by a combined score of 55-17, after downing division rival New Orleans 31-14 a week ago. The Rams fell to 0-3 for the first time since 2002.
Coincidentally, those '02 Rams were 0-2 coming into a Week Three road game against the 1-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs won that contest, 26-14, as part of a five-game winning streak that helped propel them to the Super Bowl XXXVII title. These Bucs haven't begun to think that far ahead, though Head Coach Jon Gruden said that the team's goal is to win another championship this year. Sunday's win simply provided evidence that this team can finish out games much better than the one that struggled through the 2006 campaign.
"That was a very good victory for us," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It was a gut-check, there were a lot of peaks and valleys in the first half particularly – defensively we gave up some yards between the 20s but we were able to make some big plays in this game to get off the field."
QB Jeff Garcia didn't have a huge statistical day, but his rugged style of play was on display again early Sunday afternoon. On Tampa Bay's first offensive series, he threw a block on DE Leonard Little that allowed Williams to gain a few yards on a reverse-field broken-play run. Garcia had a bloody lip by the end of the Bucs' second series, thanks to having his helmet ripped from his head at the end of a four-yard scramble.
Garcia was sacked just once despite facing a series of complicated Rams blitzes. On many occasions, Garcia side-stepped pressure before delivering the ball, once again avoiding the big negative play. For the third straight game, Garcia was not picked off, and he completed 14 of 22 passes for 151 yards. On the fourth-quarter touchdown drive that made the score 17-3 and essentially put the game out of reach, Garcia completed all three of his pass attempts for 48 yards.
"I couldn't be more pleased," said Gruden. "We were punishing at times offensively, just the way you want to be to finish out a football game. We weren't creative with play-calling. There wasn't a lot of smoke and mirrors. It was more a matter of Garcia handling the running game, putting us in some premier looks."
Really, Tampa Bay's offense survived more on ball control than the big-play moments that marked the win over New Orleans a week ago. The Bucs produced 322 yards of offense, 149 of them coming during an absolutely dominant fourth quarter. For three periods, the Bucs had just enough of a rushing attack to keep the Rams' blitz-happy defense honest, and then in the fourth quarter reserve backs Graham and Michael Pittman repeatedly shoved the ball down the Rams' throats.
It was a particularly heady performance by Graham, an annual preseason standout who, coming into Sunday's game, had 228 rushing yards and no touchdowns in four seasons in three-plus seasons, with a long run of 17 yards. In the fourth quarter of Sundays' win, Graham gained 75 yards on eight carries and scored two touchdowns. His 20-yard run just before his first career TD was briefly his longest career carry, until he tacked on a 28-yard scoring run a few minutes later. With Pittman adding 56 yards on seven carries and Williams getting 46 on 12 totes, the Bucs finished with 183 yards and three touchdowns on 32 totes. It was the team's best single-game rushing performance since a 187-yard effort at New Orleans on October 8, 2006.
"Earnest Graham exploded onto the scene today," said Gruden, who also pointed to a big block Graham made on Mark Jones' 35-yard punt return in the fourth quarter. "The big question is, why hasn't he been playing? I want to tip my hat to him. It's a tribute to a guy who has been a great team guy. We've got to put our minds together and figure out how to get Earnest some more playing time. I'm really happy for him. He's a special guy. I also thought Michael Pittman was stellar today; he made some big runs and catches. And nobody's going to talk about it, but [fullback] B.J. Askew made some great plays today as a lead blocker."
Meanwhile, the Bucs' defense was magnificent, keeping the home team in control of the game despite an offense that lacked the explosive plays of the week before. By holding the Rams to a single field goal, the Bucs allowed three or fewer points for the first time since a 10-3 win over the Saints on December 4, 2005.
About the only thing the Bucs' defense failed to do was exploit a Rams offensive line that has been thinned by injuries. Without Pro Bowler Orlando Pace, the Rams started their third O-line combination in as many weeks, with Adam Goldberg getting his first start at right tackle. Still, the Rams were able to run for 136 yards and 4.0 yards per carry and Bulger was sacked only once
Pro Bowl RB Steven Jackson, who had been unusually quiet during the Rams' 0-2 start, woke up with a 115-yard rushing performance against the Bucs, running straight up the middle on almost every handoff. But Bulger found little room to throw the ball and had no answer to the Bucs' defense when the Rams simply had to put it in the air in the fourth quarter. Bulger finished the game with 17 completions in 26 attempts for 116 yards and three interceptions.
The interceptions belonged to S Jermaine Phillips, CB Phillip Buchanon and LB Barrett Ruud. Phillips' pick was the only takeaway for the first half for either team, and Buchanon's ended the Rams' best scoring threat of the day. After a pair of surprising penalties on Buccaneer veterans – a late hit by LB Derrick Brooks and a taunt by CB Ronde Barber – and a fumble that produced a first down out of an unsuccessful third-down play put the ball at the Bucs' 10, Bulger tried to hit WR Drew Bennett with a fade into the end zone. Buchanon's coverage was perfect and he easily snatched the ball away from Bennett.
Ruud, who had 28 tackles through the Bucs' first two games, notched 11 more stops against the Rams to go with his first career interception. Buchanon continued to excel as the Bucs' third cornerback, contributing four tackles an interception and a pass defensed.
The Bucs also won the special teams battle convincingly. While Rams K Jeff Wilkins missed 42 and 43-yard field goal attempts, the Bucs set up two touchdown drives with long returns by WR Mark Jones. Jones' 36-yard kickoff return to start the second half and his 35-yard punt return in the fourth quarter were both career longs. In addition, P Josh Bidwell finished the game with a 49.3-yard gross punting average and a stellar 46.0-yard net. Dangerous return man Dante Hall was held to 47 yards on three kickoff returns and 10 yards on one punt return.
The Rams' offense looked sharp on the game's opening drive, quickly gaining a pair of first downs as Jackson ran four times for 13 yards. However, supersub linemen Greg White and Greg Peterson combined to stop Jackson on a third-and-four run near midfield and the Rams had to punt. Donnie Jones' kick sailed well into the end zone for a touchback.
The Bucs came out in a no-huddle attack, at least for the first few plays, and Garcia quickly got the ball in the hands of a his favorite target. Successive catches of 10 and 14 yards by Galloway put the ball near midfield, and a 12-yard run on a delay by Pittman got it to the Rams' 39. However, the Rams' defense stiffened and the Bucs sent K Matt Bryant out for a 54-yard field goal try. Bryant's kick came up short and Hall chose to run the kick out of the back of the end zone. Fortunately, C/G Matt Lehr was paying attention and the Bucs were able to stop Hall at the 33, 11 yards worse than the Rams would have had simply by letting the kick fall.
The Rams continued to get three and four-yard pushes from Jackson on almost every handoff, but they failed again on a third-and-four from the Bucs' 43 when DE Gaines Adams pressured Bulger into an errant throw. However, Jones' next punt landed at the Bucs' one-yard line and skipped sideways out of bounds.
The Bucs couldn't get a first down from there, and though Bidwell punted back to the Rams' 46, St. Louis moved into Buccaneer territory on Jackson's 13-yard run up the middle, the last play of the first quarter. Once again, however, the Bucs' defense came up big on third-and-short, this time recording the game's first takeaway. Bulger rolled right on third-and-three from the Bucs' 35 but found every potential target covered. He tried to hit WR Isaac Bruce on the right sideline anyway, and Phillips made him pay with a leaping interception and an acrobatic two-foot drag.
The Bucs' offense failed to move the ball again following Phillips' pick, but field position was successfully reversed when Bidwell's punt rolled down to the St. Louis 11. That set up one of the game's turning points, a big play by the Bucs' defense overturned by an unrelated penalty. Phillips forced Bruce to fumble with a monstrous hit on a catch over the middle, and Buchanon picked up the loose ball and returned it 30 yards for a score. However, the points were nullified by an offsides call against DE Kevin Carter.
The Rams took advantage, repeatedly pounding Jackson and FB Brian Leonard up the middle to get inside the Bucs' 30. The drive had to survive a fourth-and-inches play from the Bucs' 27, which it did on a one-yard run by Leonard that was nearly snuffed by Ruud. The Bucs did stop the drive before the Rams could get any closer, however, thanks to Kelly's tight coverage on a sideline pass to Holt near the goal line. Wilkins then hooked his 42-yard field goal attempt to the left, as the Rams came up empty on a 16-play drive.
That brought the first half down to the two-minute warning, and the Bucs got their hurry-up drive moving with Pittman's 16-yard run. Garcia converted a third-and-10 with a scrambling, 15-yard strike to WR Ike Hilliard, but WR Michael Clayton dropped a sure big-gainer on the next snap and the Bucs were soon in another third-and-10 hole. Garcia moved the chains once again, fitting a laser through coverage to Clayton for a gain of 12. Clayton actually fumbled trying to evade tackler Will Witherspoon, but TE Alex Smith alertly recovered for the Bucs at the St. Louis 30 with 45 seconds left in the half.
A slant to Galloway gained eight and the Bucs used their second timeout with 27 seconds in the half. A false start by T Jeremy Trueblood cost the Bucs five yards, but Garcia hit Smith for a first down at the 17 just as a heavy downpour swept over the stadium. A Pittman run put the ball at the nine to set up Bryant's waterlogged 27-yard attempt. Bidwell deftly pulled down a high hold and Bryant knocked it through for the only points of the first half.
Jones got Tampa Bay off to a good start after the break, returning the opening kickoff 36 yards almost to midfield. Even better, the Bucs finally got Williams rolling on the drive, as his runs of seven and four yards moved the ball into Rams territory. A perfectly-blocked pitch right set Williams up for a 13-yard run down to the St. Louis seven, and the same play on the next snap produced the game's first touchdown. The play was so well-blocked, again, that Williams strolled in untouched.
The Rams answered by moving quickly into Buccaneers territory on the ensuing drive, though they needed a little luck to get there. Brooks stopped Jackson short of the sticks on a third-down swing pass, but he also forced a fumble that took a fortuitous (for the Rams) hop into the arms of WR Torry Holt, past the first-down marker. Two plays later, Brooks was flagged for a late hit on TE Randy McMichael, putting the ball at the Bucs' 22. Two plays later, another great defensive play turned sour, when Barber was called for taunting after LB Barrett Ruud made an outstanding tackle on Hall.
Fortunately, the Bucs had one more great play in their arsenal. After the Barber penalty made it first-and-goal at the 10, Bulger tried to hit WR Drew Bennett with a fade in the end zone, but Buchanon easily shadowed Bennett and made a leaping interception in front of the receiver. Buchanon chose to run the ball out of the end zone and got back to the 13.
The Rams' only sack of the day, by Trevor Johnson for a loss of 11, forced the Bucs to punt from their own seven. Bidwell's 57-yard blast helped the Bucs trap Hall at the St. Louis 46. Still riding Jackson, the Rams moved back into scoring range, though they had to settle for a field goal try after LB Cato June dropped Jackson in the backfield with a perfectly-timed run blitz. Even better, Wilkins missed again, this time hitting his 43-yard try off the right upright.
Unfortunately, the Bucs gave the ball back one play later. Williams fumbled on a first-down carry with S Oshiomogho Atogwe recovering for St. Louis at the Bucs' 33. Gruden threw the challenge flag to have the officials determine if Williams' knee was down before the ball was ripped out by DT Clifton Ryan, but the call was upheld.
This opportunity finally produced a Rams score, though the Bucs once again held with their backs against the goal line. Wilkins' 25-yarder made it 10-3 with 12 minutes to play.
Though the clock was now their biggest enemy, the Bucs stayed aggressive on offense. Completions of 17 yards to Hilliard and 16 yards to Pittman got the ball to midfield, and a broken-play flip to Pittman got 15 more down to the Rams' 28. Graham followed with an impressive, tackle-breaking run down to the eight, then took a pitch into the end zone on the next play.
The Rams had to start throwing the ball on their next drive, down by two touchdowns, and Bulger was sacked by Peterson and Carter on third-and-five to kill that drive. Donnie Jones blasted a 59-yard punt but Jones weaved through the Rams coverage for a 35-yard return to the Rams' 40. Three plays later, Graham was in the end zone again, this time on a 28-yard rumble through the Rams' secondary. That made the score 24-3, and a facemask penalty on the touchdown run allowed the Bucs to kick off from their own 45. Three plays later, Ruud made a diving interception of an off-target Bulger pass at the Rams' 37. The Bucs simply ran out the clock from there.