Bucs 13 Broncos 16
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 4 October 2004

Some of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ problems in 2004 have been inexplicable, but the team’s 16-13 loss to Denver on Sunday was not. Simply put, you cannot win in the NFL when you commit critical turnovers and ill-timed penalties. The Buccaneers did both early in Sunday’s game, as Charles Lee’s fumble and several drive-sustaining infractions on the Tampa Bay defense led to Patrick Hape’s first-quarter touchdown.

Later, after the Bucs had rallied from 10 down to tie the game at 13-13 in the third quarter, a pass-interference penalty on S Dwight Smith jump-started Denver’s game-winning, 84-yard field goal drive. And, finally, as Denver drove out from its end zone to consume the game’s last seven-and-a-half minutes, an offsides penalty on DT Chartric Darby sustained the march after the Bucs had ostensibly stopped the Broncos on third down just past midfield.

“That’s a tragic penalty because we’re going to get the ball back with time on the clock,” said Jon Gruden of the offside call, the last of nine penalties for 97 yards against Tampa. “The hard count is something you work on every day and you expect in that situation. What can I say? We’ve got to do a better job.”

Meanwhile, a Buccaneer defense that played inspired ball for long periods of time narrowly missed on a string of turnovers, including a 55-yard touchdown return of a fumble by CB Ronde Barber that was challenged and overturned. Those key miscues explain how the Bucs could lose their fourth straight game despite gaining 269 yards to Denver’s 249, rushing for a season-high 111 yards and holding the Broncos to just 3.8 yards per play.

“It was a game of field position,” said Gruden. “Denver did a good job offensively when they had to, getting out of tough situations and converting several key third downs. When you’re in a defensive struggle, as we were, field position is a huge, huge thing.”

The loss kept the Bucs winless after four games and also obscured a star turn by rookie WR Michael Clayton, who was the Bucs’ most dynamic player on the field for most of the day. In fact, Clayton may have introduced himself to the NFL in the best way possible, scoring his first career touchdown with his face unobstructed for the viewing audience. Clayton’s 51-yard touchdown in the second quarter Sunday at Raymond James Stadium ignited a Buccaneer comeback, after the team had fallen down 10-0 in the second quarter. It was a remarkable play in several respects, beginning with a move at the line that caused Pro Bowl CB Champ Bailey to slip to his knees. Thus wide open, Clayton then made a leaping catch of a high pass and, before he could be tagged down by S John Lynch, got his knees off the ground and ran 20 yards into the end zone. Clayton’s hard landing on the turf jarred his helmet loose, so the Raymond James Stadium crowd got a good look at his face as he strolled into the end zone for the first time.

Clayton made another amazing catch later in the same period, providing the biggest play in the Bucs’ 14-play, 62-yard field goal drive. After rookie LB D.J. Williams, taken by Denver two picks after Tampa Bay snapped up Clayton in the first round, deflected Brad Johnson’s pass, Clayton reached behind himself and LB Al Wilson with his left hand to bat the ball back to his body while running in the other direction. Clayton then turned it up the sideline for a gain of 22 yards. The Bucs would get the ball down to the Denver 10 but settle for Martin Gramatica’s 28-yard kick as the first half expired. In all, Clayton caught four passes for a season-high 91 yards and the team’s only touchdown. In four NFL games, he already has 19 catches for 240 yards both team highs. “He’s going to be a great player,” said Gruden. “I’m so excited for him. It’s going to be a fun project to help him develop.”

As some had feared, a former Buccaneer came back to haunt the home team on Sunday, but it wasn’t Lynch, playing his first game in Tampa as a visitor. Hape, who played tight end in Tampa from 1997-00 and has been with the Broncos since, has caught just two passes this season, both for touchdowns. The play occurred on a play-action rollout by QB Jake Plummer, a strategy the Broncos used again and again, to relatively good success. The Bucs handled Plummer relatively well, however. The Bronco passer was held to 13 completions in 31 attempts and 138 passing yards, though he was sacked just once (by DT Anthony McFarland, who has a team-leading three sacks) and was able to scramble five times for 18 yards and a key first down during the game-winning drive.

Denver opened the scoring on Hape’s catch at the end of a 43-yard drive with three minutes left in the first quarter. The Bucs committed two costly penalties on the drive, including CB Brian Kelly’s pass-interference call resulting in a first down at the 16. Hape’s touchdown came on one of the many play-action rollouts QB Jake Plummer executed during the day, a good percentage of them to great effect. The Broncos also scored on their next drive, a 31-yard march comprised almost completely of TE Jeb Putzier’s 28-yard catch of a seam pass on third-and-11. K Jason Elam nailed a 49-yard field goal to give Denver a 10-0 lead, but Clayton quickly got the Bucs back into the game with his touchdown.

Denver followed with another field goal drive, this one covering 39 yards and ending in Elam’s 50-yard blast. Once again the Bucs answered, again with the help of a startling play by Clayton. When Tampa Bay’s defense forced a three-and-out to start the second half and the Bucs followed with another field goal drive, ending in Gramatica’s 30-yard boot, the game was tied with a quarter and a half to play. That third-quarter field goal drive was the product of a resurgent running game, led by RB Michael Pittman in his first action of the season. Just back from a three-game suspension, Pittman took over the starting job previously held by Charlie Garner, who was lost for the season with a knee injury last week. Pittman darted for a pair of 14-yard gains on the 51-yard drive and finished the day with 72 yards on 15 carries. Overall, the Bucs picked up a season-high 110 yards on the ground and averaged 4.6 yards per tote.

Signs of life from the offense and a roaring crowd seemed to get Tampa Bay’s defense fired up, as it completely dominated the third quarter. In fact, Denver gained 10 yards and nary a first down in the third quarter, as the Bucs forced three straight three-and-outs and kept the ball deep in the Broncos’ zone. LBs Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles and CB Brian Kelly all narrowly missed interceptions during the third period. Unfortunately, the momentum swung back to Denver on the first play of the fourth quarter. S Dwight Smith was flagged for pass interference at midfield on a deep pass intended for WR Ashley Lelie, a gain of 37 yards for the Broncos. That was by far the longest ‘play’ on Denver’s 84-yard field goal drive, which gave the visitors a 16-13 lead with nine minutes to play. The Broncos actually kicked two field goals on the drive, as the first one was nullified by a penalty on Brooks. Denver got a new first down at the eight but the Bucs’ defense held again and Elam eventually booted a 24-yarder for the lead.

Jamel White, filling in for Frank Murphy, who was injured on the opening kickoff, returned the ensuing kickoff to the Bucs’ 45, but the offense couldn’t produce a first down and Tampa Bay had to punt. Though Josh Bidwell’s hanging kicked forced a fair catch at the Denver 10 with 7:26 to play, the Broncos were able to drain all but three seconds off the clock with their second straight 14-play possession. Denver converted four third downs on the drive, refusing to give the ball back to the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay ran only three plays in the final period and lost the time-of-possession battle by a five-and-a-half minute margin. Tampa Bay is 0-4 for the first time since 1996 and already four games back after Atlanta’s win in Carolina on Sunday. Denver improves to 3-1 and takes over first place in the AFC West after Oakland’s loss in Houston. The Bucs next game is next Sunday in New Orleans.