Team effort propels Bucs
When Bucs cornerback Leonard Johnson takes an interception to the house, he can actually take it to the house he grew up in, just across Tampa Bay in Clearwater.
The former Largo High quarterback made the biggest play in Sunday's 34-24 victory over San Diego, stepping in front of an ill-advised pass from Philip Rivers and returning it 83 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Cornerback LeQuan Lewis would like to find a home — any home — in the NFL, having spent time with five teams in the past year. He played three games this season with the Cowboys, including their Week 3 win over the Bucs.
But after being promoted from Tampa Bay's practice squad on Tuesday, Lewis registered the first interception of his career on a deep pass by Rivers intended for Danario Alexander with 3:09 remaining, setting up Connor Barth's game-sealing 45-yard field goal.
On a day that will be remembered for the aerial brilliance and brain cramps of Rivers, it was the two undrafted free agents — neither of whom played a significant Bucs role a month ago — who produced the biggest plays for the league's worst pass defense.
Johnson, who said he had not scored a touchdown since high school, received the game ball. "I'm keeping that," said Johnson, a 22-year-old rookie from Iowa State who has three interceptions in his last three games since becoming a starter. "I'm keeping everything I can get my hands on."
The Bucs got two more touchdown passes by quarterback Josh Freeman, to Dallas Clark and Tiquan Underwood. And they scored on a blocked punt by Dekoda Watson that was returned 29 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Adam Hayward.
It was the fourth time in team history the Bucs scored on offense, defense and special teams in the same game. The victory, before an announced 54,813 at Raymond James Stadium, was the Bucs' fourth in their past five games and improved them to 5-4, three games behind the Falcons (8-1) in the NFC South. But when you glance at the stat sheet, you have to wonder: Who won this game anyway?
The Chargers (4-5) held a huge edge in time of possessions (36:41-23:19), first downs (23-12), total yards (426-279) and third-down efficiency (67 percent to 33 percent).
"Our guys played team football," Greg Schiano said. "It's like a pitcher. Maybe he doesn't have his fastball that day, but he works the whole game with different pitches and battles through it. That's what our team did, held each other up."
In his last game two weeks ago, Rivers was 18-of-20 for 220 yards with two touchdowns in a win over Kansas City. On Sunday, he carved up the Bucs for three touchdown passes in the first half.
Johnson, starting in place of Aqib Talib (who was traded to New England on Nov. 1), had a hand in the Chargers' first touchdown — an 80-yard catch and run by Alexander in which Johnson failed to make an easy tackle after 15 yards. "You're going to have a lot of plays you want to forget, and he did," safety Ronde Barber said of Johnson.
In a game with five lead changes, the Bucs kept trying to hold serve. But when you score on a blocked punt and an interception return, it puts the defense right back on the field.
The Chargers did a good job of bottling up running back Doug Martin. Coming off a franchise-record 251 rushing yards and four TDs at Oakland, the rookie from Boise State was held to 68 yards rushing on 19 carries (3.6) but caught three passes for 51 yards.
Freeman, who has thrown 13 touchdowns and one interception in his past five games, connected with Underwood on a 15-yard pass for a 24-21 lead with 4:07 remaining in the third quarter.
That's when Rivers threw the game away. On third and 4 at the Bucs 23, Rivers rolled right and, one step from going out of bounds, tried to throw a pass over the head of Johnson to receiver Eddie Royal. Instead, he hit Johnson between the numbers. "The funny thing is, I heard him say, 'No!' " defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said of Rivers. "I promise you he did. I looked and I thought he was about to run out of bounds. I turned around and said, 'Yeah!' "
Johnson tightroped the sideline, stepping over a tackle attempt by tackle Jeromey Clary and high-stepping the last 15 yards for a touchdown. "The ball just kind of stayed in my hand longer than I wanted, and it took a nosedive right to him," Rivers said. "In hindsight, I wish I had thrown the ball over his head, but I probably just shouldn't have thrown the ball, period."
But he did, and Johnson knew the way home.
|About the writer|
Rick Stroud has been the lead Bucs beat writer for The Tampa Bay Times for many years and his game reports and news updates are a prime source of information for Buccaneer fans in the Bay area. He also often makes guest appearances on the JP Peterson show on 1010 Sports Radio.