Role Reversal
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 16 October 2006

The tackling was more along the lines of what the Bucs have come to expect. Same goes for the pass rush and run defense. On a postcard-perfect day at Raymond James Stadium, all were better - much better. So was the outcome.

It forever will be remembered as rookie Bruce Gradkowski's first foray into the winner's circle, but the real star of the Bucs' 14-13 victory against the Bengals on Sunday was their defense. After a month of outings so subpar that Jon Gruden felt a need to call players out by name, the defense turned in an outing that left you feeling as if their halcyon days aren't over. "We tackled well and we put pressure on the passer; we were just a team that really got after it today," Ronde Barber said. "It was like the Tampa defense of old."

It was the Tampa offense of old, too. Though they ran the ball well, gaining 126 yards on 25 carries, the Bucs failed repeatedly to capitalize on favorable field position and lost the total yardage battle.

But thanks to what officials said was an overly aggressive sack of Gradkowski, the Bucs were given a chance to squeeze out a victory in the final minute. And given that second chance, Gradkowski seized the opportunity. It took him until fourth down to do it, and even then no one was quite sure he had. But a review eventually confirmed that Michael Clayton had taken a Gradkowski pass and successfully carried it over the goal line. "That's a long wait there," Gruden said of the two-plus minutes it took for referee Mike Carey to render his ruling. "It's like waiting for the jury to come in - you know, guilty, not guilty."

What made this wait so agonizing not only was the fact officials initially ruled the pass incomplete, but also the fact they did so by citing a rule that has cost the Bucs dearly in the past. Last season, at the end of the playoff game against Washington, Edell Shepherd's apparent catch of a Chris Simms pass was deemed incomplete because officials ruled Shepherd lost control of the ball while hitting the ground.

Carey, who also headed up the officiating crew in that game, made the same initial ruling this time. But after the review, he ruled that Clayton had broken the plane of the goal line while possessing the ball. "I was pretty confident about the decision, but the way things have been going for us lately I wasn't too sure," said Gradkowski, who completed 25 of 44 throws for 184 yards. "I thought we deserved that call."

The touchdown pass was Gradkowski's second of the day. His first went to tight end Alex Smith, who has caught a Gradkowski touchdown pass in two consecutive games. Clayton's TD catch was his first from anyone in a while. Before Sunday he had gone 19 games without scoring a touchdown, and he voiced his displeasure with his role in the offense earlier in the week. On Sunday, though, Clayton was featured prominently, and he came through. "It's been a long time waiting for a moment like that," Clayton said. "When I walk off the field I want to feel like I helped this football team, and I felt that way coming off the field [Sunday]."

For the first time in a while, the members of the Bucs' beleaguered defense felt that way, too. Though it surrendered 305 total yards, it only gave up 53 yards rushing, including just 3 in the first half. And while the Bucs were unable to force a turnover and gave up 261 yards passing, they found a way to consistently harass Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer, who was sacked twice and never found his rhythm. "We knew we had to go after Carson Palmer," said pass rush specialist Ellis Wyms, who registered both of the Bucs' sacks. "This defense is about rush and coverage, rush and coverage, and we had that."

The got it by changing things up a bit. Instead of sending their pass rushers directly into the line, they often had them work off stunts in which the linemen loop around each other. They also changed their lineup a bit. Dewayne White, who usually works as an end, often worked from an inside position. Wyms, who usually works inside, often lined up outside.

The Bucs changed up their coverages in the secondary as well. They regularly switched out of their usual zone scheme and utilized a lot of man-to-man coverages, despite the absence of cornerback Brian Kelly (turf toe).

Those changes helped the Bucs apply the pressure they need to apply and get the coverage they need to get. But they wouldn't have made a difference if the tackling hadn't improved. Instead of allowing ball carriers to slip by and gain extra yards after initial contact, the Bucs were far more authoritative with their tackles. "I think we got tired of being called out on it," Barber said of the poor tackling. "I mean, tackling is a matter of want to. It's a matter of sticking your face in there. If you don't want to stick your face in there, you won't make the tackle. But we got in there and got it done. And with the rush and the coverage, the defense worked the way it's supposed to."

Like Clayton's touchdown, it was a long time in coming. The Bucs' defensive slump had reached proportions so great that many wondered if they would ever put a game like this together again. "We kind of made a statement today, but the biggest thing was getting a win and getting that taste of victory back in our mouths," Wyms said. "If we play three in a row like this, then that will be a statement."