Bucs 20 Saints 17
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got number one Sunday, but may have lost #2. When the Bucs elevated QB Chris Simms into the starting lineup for Sunday’s game at New Orleans, they insisted the move was made to pursue victories, not to prepare Simms for next year. Well, the Bucs got the win, their first of the season, but Simms, who wears jersey number 2, may have to wait some time for his next start. The second-year passer is a serious question mark after sustaining an injury to his left (throwing) shoulder late in the first quarter.
That news dampened the team’s excitement somewhat over a 20-17 victory, its first of the season after four opening losses. Even the Buccaneers, who had been almost numbed by an endless string of significant injuries, were surely deflated by Simms’s misfortune. A great deal of excitement had built up over the young passer’s first start, and he looked quite sharp before the sack by rookie DE Will Smith that sent him to the locker room. However, the Bucs also had to be encouraged by the remarkable relief performance turned in by QB Brian Griese. Griese played three quarters and completed 16 of 19 passes for 194 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. His passer rating was 126.8.
Before he was hurt, Simms led the team on an impressive, 70-yard field goal drive on its first possession. He rolled out twice for first-down passes and eventually completed five of eight attempts for 68 yards. The Bucs got a little tricky with the running game on that opening drive, too, as WR Michael Clayton picked up 15 yards on a misdirection run. Simms faked a pitch back, then handed off underneath to Clayton, who had lined up in the left slot off the tight end then cut in front of Simms at the snap. The rookie shot around the right side down to the 11.
Simms and Clayton nearly got the offense into the end zone on a third-down fade to the left corner, but Clayton couldn’t maintain possession of his leaping catch as he hit the ground. The Bucs challenged the ruling but lost; however, the drive would have ended early had another challenge not gone in the visiting team’s favor. The Bucs’ first replay erased a Michael Pittman fumble when it was ruled that his knee was down. The drive ended in Martin Gramatica’s 23-yard field goal. The upshot: Three points but no challenges left eight minutes into the game. And, a few minutes later, possibly one less quarterback-of-the-future for the foreseeable future.
Griese, however, is another relatively young passer who may fit into the Bucs’ future plans. He was exceedingly sharp in his first regular-season action as a Buccaneer, firing hard passes into tight spots all afternoon and showing enough mobility to occasionally escape New Orleans’ difficult pass rush. Griese’s best three passes may have been his last three, as he completed consecutive throws to Ken Dilger, Michael Pittman and Pittman again to get the Bucs out of a first-and-20 hole on their final possession. The first down gained on Pittman’s last catch allowed the Bucs to drain the last three minutes off the clock after New Orleans had closed the lead to three points in the fourth quarter. Pittman’s efforts were also instrumental to the drive; his 10-yard run on third-and-five after the two-minute warning killed the Saints’ last hopes.
Pittman, in his second game back after a three-game suspension, looked sharp again, rushing for 51 yards on 15 carries and adding five receptions for 29 yards. The Bucs, who scored twice in the final two minutes before the half to win last year’s game at New Orleans, 14-7, used a similar run to take Sunday’s contest and win on the road for the first time since that last trip to the Big Easy in December. Ten points in 18 seconds gave the Bucs a 13-7 lead with five minutes to play in the first half, as Martin Gramatica’s 53-yard field goal was followed immediately by Ronde Barber’s 18-yard scoring return of a Deuce McAllister fumble.
Barber, amazingly, is the Buccaneers’ leading touchdown-producer this season. He scored on another fumble return at Washington in the season opener and now has eight touchdowns on his career, including the playoffs. Barber, in fact, is the most prolific defensive scorer in franchise history with those eight scores, seven in the regular season. He moved out of a tie with teammate Derrick Brooks who has seven touchdowns, six in the regular season.
Gramatica’s long kick also recalled past glory for a proven Buc producer. It was his longest three-pointer in almost two years, following another 53-yarder at Carolina on Oct. 27, 2002. Gramatica has looked sharp to begin the season, making nine of his 11 tries through the first five games. He did miss from 41 yards out on Sunday, however, on a third-quarter try that would have given the Bucs some much-needed breathing room.
Tampa Bay’s offense did find the end zone to start the second half, as Griese led a six-play, 71-yard touchdown drive that culminated in Dilger’s 45-yard touchdown catch. Dilger got wide open down the right hash marks and Griese hit him in the clear at the 20 after a great blitz pickup by Pittman. That increased Tampa Bay’s lead to 20-7 early in the third quarter. The Saints answered with a touchdown late in the third quarter when the Bucs’ penalty problem reared its head again. Tampa Bay, which committed 11 penalties on the day for 65 yards, put up an impressive goal-line stand after the Saints earned a first down at the two. However, when the Saints chose to kick a field goal, the Bucs gave them a second chance when DE Dewayne White was flagged for leaping onto the offensive line’s back and then leaping up from there. With a new first down at the three, the Saints scored two plays later on Aaron Brooks’s quick slant to WR Joe Horn.
New Orleans cut Tampa Bay’s lead to three points in the fourth quarter when John Carney nailed a 47-yard field goal with 3:43 left in regulation. The Saints then kicked deep, hoping to use their defense and three timeouts to get the ball back with time to score. However, CB Torrie Cox, playing in just his second NFL game, made a remarkable return to get the ball all the way out to the Bucs’ 45. Despite a holding call on the next play, the Bucs were able to complete their clock-killing drive behind Griese’s crisp passing.
Clayton’s first-quarter run was just part of an enjoyable homecoming for the former LSU star, who went to the Bucs with the 15th overall pick in last April’s draft. Clayton started at flanker and caught four passes for 61 yards while also running twice for 24 yards. One of his highlights was a sliding, 16-yard catch on third-and-12 early in the third quarter, the first third down of more than 10 yards that the Bucs had converted in 2004. On that same drive, Clayton gained nine yards on an end around one play before Griese hit Dilger on the long touchdown.
Tampa Bay’s defense held an explosive Saints team to just 251 yards of total offense, despite the return of Pro Bowl RB Deuce McAllister after a two-week absence. Showing no ill effects of his ankle sprain, McAllister ran for 102 yards on 21 tough carries, often breaking the initial tackle. Brooks, however, was allowed only 11 completions in 23 attempts for 106 yards. CB Brian Kelly’s interception in the fourth quarter ended a promising Saints drive with the Bucs still up by six. WRs Joe Horn and Donte’ Stallworth, who have troubled the Bucs in the past, combined for just five catches and 67 yards. LB Jeff Gooch, who relieved an injured Shelton Quarles in the early going, led the Bucs defense with nine solo tackles, including a big stop of McAllister at the goal line. Barber added seven tackles and a pass defensed to his touchdown return. S Dwight Smith had seven tackles and a forced fumble.