Make No Mistake About It
Even during their 4-0 start, you got the feeling the Bucs weren't quite maxing out offensively. They had their moments, of course. There were those fourth quarters dominated by Cadillac Williams and those stretches where no one could seem to cover Joey Galloway. But for a team seemingly on a roll, the fact the Bucs were scoring an average of just one more point per game than they did last year conjured cause for concern.
It was little things -- a penalty here and a turnover there -- that always seemed to derail the Bucs, but you just knew that if they didn't correct those problems they eventually would pay for them. Well, that bill came due Sunday, when five offensive penalties, a momentum-shifting turnover and an aggressive New York Jets defense combined to limit the Bucs to four field goals in a 14-12 loss at the Meadowlands.
The defeat was the first for the Bucs this year, and it came while Williams stood on the sideline in street clothes nursing a left foot sprain that also could keep him out of next week's game. Though Williams said he "should definitely play" next week against Miami, Coach Jon Gruden said Williams remains questionable and won't play until the Bucs "see some significant improvement" in his foot. The Bucs also didn't get much help from receiver Michael Clayton on Sunday. Clayton has been nursing a sore left shoulder and failed to register a catch.
"He's clearly not himself," said Gruden, who was joined by several players in pinning the loss on something other than the Bucs' lack of production from their top two offensive stars. Those penalties [12 for 87 yards] and turnovers -- against a good defense, a very aggressive defense -- they're going to kill you," running back Michael Pittman said. "You're just not going to win when you have things like that. And with the penalties, I mean we've talked about that a lot around here. We've talked a lot about eliminating that from our game, but we didn't do it, and it came up and bit us in the butt."
The Bucs have talked a lot about eliminating turnovers, too. After quarterback Brian Griese committed four turnovers, including three interceptions, last week against Detroit, he and Gruden spoke extensively on the matter. The discussion didn't seem to make much difference. Griese threw the ball into the hands of Jet defenders three times, and while two of those errors were negated by penalties, their impact was extensive.
Whether or not it was caused by concern over Griese, Gruden's play-calling became conservative. At one point, with the Bucs trailing 14-9, he called for a toss sweep on a third-and-12 from the Bucs' 23. One series later, with the score unchanged, the Bucs opened up by throwing twice to Pittman in the flat. It wasn't until midway through the fourth quarter that Gruden began to open things up.
Gruden said his play-calling and his inability to "solve problems" were among the reasons for the loss. A couple of players hinted at the issue, but when asked directly, Galloway simply said, "It's not my call."
When the Bucs finally did start throwing downfield midway through the fourth quarter, they didn't have much choice. Time was beginning to run out, and the impact of the Griese interception that did count was still being felt. Coming with the Bucs in possession of a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter, Ty Law's pick and 43-yard return led two plays later to a 2-yard touchdown run by Curtis Martin. It gave the Jets (2-3) the lead and much-needed momentum. Though the Bucs offense had scored another field goal to regain the halftime lead at 9-7, the defense came out flat in the second half.
"For one reason or another we just didn't hit the field," linebacker Derrick Brooks said in describing an opening drive in which the Jets built their 14-9 edge by going 59 yards in 10 plays. We have to hit the field a lot better than we did there. We missed tackles; we had guys out of their gaps; we just didn't play well that first drive. But after that we played pretty decent football."
The defense played pretty decent football before that, too. The unit gave up a total of just 212 yards, including 62 rushing. The one thing it didn't do was pressure Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Testaverde, the 41-year-old former Buc who came out of retirement last week because of injuries to the Jets' top two quarterbacks, had ample time to find receivers, and he made good use of it, completing 13 of 19 passes for 163 yards. "He got the ball out quick on us a few times," said Brooks, whose defense got to Testaverde for just two sacks and intercepted him once. "But it wasn't all him. They played well as a team."
The Bucs couldn't say the same thing. Not this time. Cornerback Ronde Barber had that pick of Testaverde, but he also committed a personal foul that aided the Jets in their first score. There was also a penalty that forced the Bucs to start a drive at their own 10, a third-down conversion rate of 14 percent and a slow start by the offensive line that seemed to knock Griese and the offense out of rhythm. "They got after us early," Gruden said. "We gave up three sacks in our first six passes, and that will knock just about any quarterback out of rhythm. But we also have to play better around our quarterback. We had four penalties on first-down runs and a couple of dropped passes, and that will kill you against a team like the New York Jets."
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 10 October 2005