Bucs 21 Rams 28
Buccaneers. Rams. Prime time. Must-see TV, again. Monday night’s game in St. Louis, a bitterly-contested, 28-21 Rams victory, lived up to its advance billing, but it certainly didn’t follow the established storyline. After a first-half shootout in which Tampa Bay’s resurgent offense matched the Rams’ explosive attack yard for yard, the game turned in the second half on a defensive score. The plot twist: It was the Rams’ defense that came up with the big play, on three separate occasions in the second half.

Adam Archuleta’s 93-yard fumble return midway through the third quarter propelled St. Louis to victory. The Bucs’ tied the game a few minutes after Archuleta’s score, but the Rams dented the scoreboard last on a 36-yard touchdown pass from QB Marc Bulger to WR Torry Holt. That was another departure from the series’ usual results: Tampa Bay had won its last three games against St. Louis, all on Monday night.

Both teams scored once in each of the first three quarters, but the Bucs couldn’t match the Rams’ final score, despite winning the total-yardage edge, 332-324. The Bucs got inside the St. Louis 30 two more times but turned it over on both occasions. The last of four Tampa Bay turnovers was a Tim Brown fumble at the 15-yard line after a 21-yard catch in the final minute. Thus, the Bucs wasted their finest air attack of the season, as the passing game was exceedingly sharp behind new starter Brian Griese.

He is new to the Bucs-Rams rivalry but certainly not to the Monday night spotlight. Griese, who coincidentally made his first start with both Denver and Miami on Monday Night Football, followed up his outstanding relief performance in New Orleans with a strong first start as a Buccaneer. Completing his first nine passes of the game and leading the Bucs to a first-possession touchdown for the first time in 2004, Griese got off to a hot start and never cooled down, though he made one questionable decision on the Bucs’ second-to-last scoring threat. Scrambling to his right on third-and-18 from the Rams’ 29, Griese tried to hit WR Michael Clayton in the end zone but couldn’t get enough on the pass to get it over CB Jerametrius Butler. Butler’s interception was the first of the night by Griese, though the Bucs also lost three fumbles, including Michael Pittman’s drop that led to Archuleta’s score.

The third Tampa Bay starting quarterback in as many games, Griese finished with 286 yards and two touchdowns of 27-of-40 passing. In his previous two Monday night debuts, he completed 44 of 69 passes for 462 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. The notion that yet another elemental battle between the Rams’ offense and the Bucs’ defense was on tap began to evaporate just 2:20 into the game. That’s when St. Louis finished a game-opening, 71-yard touchdown drive with a 52-yard scoring pass from Marc Bulger to Isaac Bruce. Bruce ran a deep post, cutting inside S Jermaine Phillips and running into the end zone untouched.

Instead, it looked as if the two teams might be in for a shootout on the order of their famous Monday Night Football game of 2000, a 38-35 Buccaneer win in Tampa. The Bucs answered St. Louis’s opening drive with a touchdown of their own, reaching the end zone on their opening possession for the first time in 2004. The drive got off to a great start when CB Torrie Cox returned the Rams’ kickoff 59 yards to the St. Louis 43. It was the sixth-longest kickoff return in Buccaneer history and it continued the good work done by the second-year defensive back, who had a critical 42-yard return near the end of the Bucs’ victory in New Orleans. Cox returned four kickoffs for a total of 152 yards on the day.

The Bucs needed just six plays to get the ball into the end zone after Cox’s first long return, as FB Mike Alstott powered over left tackle for the score on third-and-one. That marked the first time Tampa Bay had turned a first-and-goal situation into a touchdown in 2004, and it was also the first score of the year for Alstott, who is the franchise’s all-time leader in that category, with 60. Clayton’s breakout rookie season continued as he recorded his first career 100-yard receiving game. The longest gain among his eight catches for 142 yards was a 44-yarder on the first play of the second quarter, a play that set up the Bucs’ second touchdown of the game. Three plays after Clayton got down to the five on a deep pass down the right seam, Griese fired a sidearm pass to Pittman as he was being hit, connecting for a five-yard touchdown. Clayton came into the weekend as the leading pass-catcher among all NFL rookies, including the six other receivers who were drafted in the first round in April. In six NFL games he now has 31 catches for 343 yards and one touchdown.

The Rams tied the score at 14-all just before halftime, however, thanks to the game’s first turnover. A fumbled snap by C John Wade gave St. Louis a first down at the five and they were able to punch it in for the score, if just barely. The Bucs held on three runs, but the Rams went for it on fourth-and-goal and veteran RB Marshall Faulk was able to just extend the ball over the goal line. Game officials actually dug into the pile to find Faulk before signaling the touchdown. The two teams thus went into halftime tied at 14-14, thanks in part to two missed field goals by Bucs K Martin Gramatica. Gramatica missed from 35 yards when his shot over the upright was ruled to have just gone wide of the post, but his 48-yard try was hooked quite a bit worse. Rams K Jeff Wilkins also came up short on a 56-yard try as the first half expired.

The two teams traded touchdowns again in the third quarter. After Archuleta’s score and a Buccaneer three-and-out, DE Greg Spires sacked Bulger and forced a fumble, which DT Anthony McFarland recovered at the St. Louis 20. The Bucs turned that into a six-play scoring drive, with Griese running a perfect play-action and throwing a one-yard touchdown pass to TE Will Heller on third-and-goal. The Rams answered immediately with the winning score at the beginning of the fourth quarter, driving 77 yards on eight plays. On third-and-four, St. Louis went up top, with Bulger hitting Holt on a post-corner route as the receiver crossed the goal line.

The Bucs threatened again on the next drive, thanks to two Clayton catches for 30 yards, but Griese’s interception gave the ball back to St. Louis and the Rams’ gambling offense ran five of the last six minutes off the clock before Wilkins pushed a 44-yard field goal try to the right. That gave Tampa Bay one more chance with 1:09 to play, and the drive was preserved when Griese hit Clayton for 25 yards on fourth-and-five. Two plays later, however, Brown fumbled at the end of his 21-yard catch-and-run, a fact upheld by a replay review.

The Rams’ fourth-ranked offense was held to 324 total yards, about 60 fewer than its average through the first five weeks. The Bucs’ defense gave up more big plays than usual, but also turned up its pass rush after consecutive sack-free games. Spires, who finished with five tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a tackle for a loss led a four-sack performance that also contributed to two turnovers. In addition to his forced fumble, Spires hurried Bulger on a third-quarter pass, resulting in LB Ian Gold’s interception.

Archuleta’s score occurred on the very next play. Both teams relied more on the pass, with Bulger completing 18 of 30 passes for 264 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His favorite target was Holt, who caught six passes for 124 yards and two scores. The Bucs ran for just 55 yards and 2.8 per carry while the Rams gained 94 yards on the ground and 3.1 per carry.