Dexter Jackson sat inside his Veterans Stadium dressing stall late Sunday, shaking his head and pondering the death grip the Eagles have applied to his team's throat. ``I don't know what more we can do,'' Jackson said after Tampa Bay's fourth consecutive loss to the Eagles, this one a 20-10 decision before a crowd of 65,523. ``I guess we just can't let 'em score on us.''
Seemingly, it has come to that. For while the Eagles broke one of the Bucs' most impressive defensive streaks, it was their ability to extend a stunning defensive streak of their own that made them victors. In a game eerily reminiscent of the one that got Tony Dungy fired as Bucs coach in January, the Bucs' offense produced just one field goal and no touchdowns. It now has been 13 quarters since the Bucs (5-2) scored an offensive touchdown in Veterans Stadium, and if it were only the Eagles (4-2) that they were struggling to reach the end zone against, concern might not be so high.
Sunday's performance reduced the offense's points per game average to 16. That's two fewer than the Bucs' offense averaged during the entire Dungy era, and there's little to indicate that a reversal is in sight. In fact, if quarterback Brad Johnson can't recover quickly from the rib injury that forced him from Sunday's game, the Bucs may have to take on the Carolina Panthers with Rob Johnson at the helm. ``Look, I can't put a timetable on when we're going to jell,'' center Jeff Christy said of the offense. ``All I can say is, we're not going to give up.''
Nor should they, after having a five-game winning streak broken. Not with the way their defense is playing. When Todd Pinkston burned Jackson on a 42-yard fly pattern in the second quarter, it was the first time in 13 quarters that Tampa Bay's defense had given up a touchdown. That TD also was the first surrendered by the Bucs defense on the road this year, and gave Philadelphia a 10-7 halftime lead. Derrick Brooks picked up a Donovan McNabb fumble and returned it 11 yards for his fourth touchdown of the year to provide Tampa Bay's only lead. Coming just a few plays after the Eagles turned a Mike Alstott fumble into a 30-yard David Akers field goal, Brooks gave the Bucs a 7-3 lead and plenty of momentum.
The momentum actually increased when Brian Kelly picked off a McNabb pass on the Eagles' next play from scrimmage. But as is so often the case, the Bucs failed to capitalize. Their offense went three- and-out on four of its next five drives and didn't score until Martin Gramatica kicked a 48- yard field goal with 2:39 to play in the third quarter. ``We've been through a whole training camp and seven games, and it's time this offense steps up,'' receiver Keenan McCardell said. ``You've got to earn your money. Everyone on the offensive side feels that way.''
Certainly Keyshawn Johnson has to feel that way. Though he had to make an adjustment in the end zone to do so, Johnson was in position to make a touchdown grab near the end of the drive that resulted in Gramatica's field goal. The ball, however, bounded off his chest. And certainly Alstott must feel that way. After rushing for 126 yards against the Browns last week, he gained just 14 yards on five carries Sunday and allowed Bobby Taylor to strip the ball from him on the second play of the game.
Most of all, the offensive line has to feel that way. Not only did its failure to protect the quarterback result in Brad Johnson being injured, but it failed once again to spark an effective and consistent ground attack. ``They just whupped us,'' Christy said. ``I mean, they made it look at times like we didn't know what we were doing out there.''
The Eagles did that with an array of blitzes, often sending more players after the quarterback than the Bucs had players to protect him. It wasn't just on the blitzes, though, that the Bucs struggled. ``Look, we're not always talking about stopping eight or nine guys,'' Bucs coach Jon Gruden said of his team's inability to stop the pass rush. ``We're still working on trying to stop four and five sometimes.''
Stopping return man Brian Mitchell was a problem for the Bucs as well. Mitchell, who averaged 12.2 yards per punt return and 27.7 yards per kick return, regularly set up the Eagles with good field position. ``Brian Mitchell had as much to do with the Eagles winning as anybody else,'' said Gruden, who had Martin Gramatica miss a 29-yard field goal. ``We've got to do a much better job on special teams.''
Despite Mitchell's success, Philadelphia seldom took full advantage of the opportunities he presented. Though Alstott's fumble gave them the ball at the Tampa Bay 14, the Eagles settled for a field goal. McNabb also was shut down for much of the game. He completed 12 of 25 passes for 127 yards and ran six times for 4 yards. That's why the Bucs still feel good about their chances. ``Last year, we were 3-4 after seven games and looking to pull ourselves out of a hole,'' Brooks said. ``Right now, we're 5-2 and there are a lot of teams that wish they could say that.''
Roy Cummings The Tampa Tribune October 2002