Johnson gets little help as Buccaneers fall to Eagles
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 12 October 2009

Pity poor Josh Johnson, who had a tough day at the office Sunday against the Eagles. At times, it was hard to complete a pass. It often seemed like there were 12 defenders on the field. And many throws were getting batted down. And that's just what Johnson's own receivers did to him.

Michael Clayton dropped three (arguably four) passes, and Antonio Bryant butter­fingered away two more in a 33-14 loss to the Eagles. The defeat dropped the Bucs to 0-5, their worst start since Tony Dungy's inaugural season in 1996. Raheem Morris believed his second-year quarterback was sabotaged by his teammates, and the Bucs' coach didn't mind saying so.

"There's no doubt about that. The guys around him have got to step up for him," Morris said. "The positive side of that is Kellen Winslow (nine catches, 102 yards, two touchdowns) did step up for him. We need everybody. When you talk about playing a young quarterback like Josh, having to go into a hostile environment like Philly, playing against the relentless blitzes you get from Philly, somebody has got to step up and make a play for him. When he puts the ball on you, you've got to make somebody miss and go score. Period."

Clayton, who had an NFC-leading four drops entering Sunday, was unable to haul in a deep pass on the first play of the game. He also dropped a slant pass on fourth and 2 at the Eagles 26 in the first quarter and later muffed two other perfectly thrown footballs. One week after complaining about his lack of opportunities, Clayton had 12 passes thrown in his direction and got his hands on eight.

He caught three for 25 yards. "To have a young quarterback and know that I have the ability and power to make his job a little bit easier and to not come up with some grabs that could be key, it hurts," Clayton said. "It hurts a lot."

Making only his second NFL start — this one against a blitz-happy defense that entered ranked No. 3 in the league — Johnson passed for 240 yards and two touchdowns. But he was intercepted three times. Not that the Bucs receivers were the only ones undermining their 23-year-old quarterback.

Excluding Johnson's positive scrambles (five for 40 yards) and Derrick Ward's 28-yard run in the second quarter, the Bucs had 17 yards on 16 carries. And in one instance, the Bucs had trouble getting out of their own end zone, let alone into the Eagles'. With 58 seconds left in the game, running back Cadillac Williams was tackled for a safety.

The offensive line blew assignments and failed, at times, to execute the right protections, causing Johnson to be sacked three times for 22 yards. "The running game is a product of the (offensive) line. Those guys have got to step up," Morris said. "Somebody has got to give this guy a hand."

The defense did its part, too, to make Johnson's job harder. Three of the Eagles' four touchdown "drives" took only two plays. Quarterback Donovan McNabb proved he was fine after missing two games with broken ribs, passing for 264 yards and three touchdowns.

Rookie Jeremy Maclin had 142 yards receiving and two touchdowns. He beat cornerback Elbert Mack for a 51-yarder on the Eagles' second play of the game and burned safety Will Allen on a 40-yarder with 1:34 left in the first half.

The Bucs have given up eight passes of more than 40 yards this season, seven for scores. Johnson, who fumbled a snap on fourth and inches and threw an interception in the end zone at the end of the first half, accepted some blame. "For those guys, I know they're frustrated, but it's all a team game," Johnson said. "They had their mess-ups, and I had my mess-ups. I had three turnovers. So we all played a part in this."

One of Johnson's most sure-handed receivers turned out to be his 320-pound tackle Donald Penn, who snatched a deflected pass and rumbled 15 yards for a first down. "I, personally, had two big drops," Bryant said. "If I would've caught (them), we probably win the game. So I'll take the blame for that."

Clayton, who had gone two games without a reception, made himself an easy target for fan abuse. He signed a five-year, $26 million contract ($10 million guaranteed) in the offseason and is trying to erase a stigma that he is a better blocker than pass catcher.

"It hurts," Clayton said. "But as a man, you deal with it and come back and fight. You continue to fight. That's what we have to do."