A Giant Relief
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 25 November 2003

As Charles Lee crossed the goal line at the end of his 53-yard game-sealing catch and run Monday night, Bucs personnel director Tim Ruskell got up from his seat in the general manager's box, turned and raised a Styrofoam cup of diet Coke in toast to his boss, Rich McKay. ``I wouldn't read anything into it,'' Ruskell said later. ``It was just a good moment for the team.''

It was a good moment, all right. In fact, when you consider all that went down at One Buc Place during the six days that preceded the Bucs' encounter with the New York Giants at sold out Raymond James Stadium, it was about as good as it gets. As popular as the decision to deactivate wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson was among fans and NFL analysts, there's no denying it was a risky move, one that could have backfired on the Bucs had the likes of Joe Jurevicius and Lee not stepped up and made immediate impacts.

It's no wonder then that the Bucs' hierarchy chose that early moment to celebrate. For not only did Lee's touchdown lend credence to the Bucs' claim that they'll be just fine without Johnson, it also provided them with a pivotal score in what may prove to be the most pivotal game of the season. Though far removed from the leaders in the race for the NFC's two wild-card playoff spots, the Bucs still were dreaming about playing in the postseason prior to Monday's game. A loss, however, would have brought an end to that dream and turned their season into a nightmare.

But in the wake of their 19-13 victory against New York, one that broke a three-game losing streak, the Bucs improved to 5-6 and their hopes and dreams of resuscitating their season gained new life. ``Being 5-6 never felt so good,'' linebacker Derrick Brooks said.

Brooks and the Bucs have not only Lee to thank for that, but the work of a re-energized defensive unit that for the first time in weeks displayed the elite form it showed last year. Given the task of closing out a potential victory three times in the past four games, the Bucs failed each time. Given that duty again Monday, the defense stood strong - not once, not twice but three times.

The first stand ended with Warren Sapp stuffing Giants running back Tiki Barber midway through the fourth and forcing a fumble that Barber recovered on a third-and-one from the Giants 42. John Lynch snuffed out the second Giants comeback attempt, picking off quarterback Kerry Colins at the 50 and returning the ball 18 yards to the New York 32. One unsuccessful Bucs drive later, Sapp finally finished off the Giants' third comeback bid, sacking Collins near his goal-line on a third-and-10 play that started at the Giants 12.

That forced the Giants to take a safety, and when the Bucs recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt with less than a minute to play, the victory was sealed. ``We didn't play on all cylinders, but we played well enough to win,'' Lynch said. ``It felt good to close one out.''

Much like the Bucs, the Giants have often fallen victim to mistakes this year, doing themselves in time and again with an array of penalties, turnovers and poorly executed assignments. That trend continued well into Monday night. After a mistake-free start, the Giants got sloppy during their third defensive series, and the Bucs took advantage. Aided by three penalties, including one that erased a sack on a third-and-three at the New York 3, the Bucs drove 43 yards in 10 plays to take a 7-0 lead with 11:21 to play in the second quarter. Thomas Jones capped the scoring drive with a 1-yard leap into the end zone, becoming the first Bucs running back to score a rushing touchdown since Mike Alstott went down with a season-ending neck injury.

The Giants responded by marching 48 yards and recording a 30-yard Matt Bryant field goal with 8:44 remaining in the half, but the Bucs came back with a more devastating blow. Turning to Lee, who ran the same slant pattern that had become Johnson's signature route, quarterback Brad Johnson and the fourth-year receiver hooked up on what turned out to be a 53-yard scoring strike. ``When's the last time you saw one of our guys go 53 yards with a slant pass?'' Jon Gruden asked afterward, seemingly taking one last jab at his exiled receiver.

Gruden had a point. Lee's reception was longer than all but one of the 298 receptions Keyshawn Johnson had as a Buccaneer, and it gave the Bucs a 14-3 lead they never lost. ``We lost a great player [in Johnson],'' Keenan McCardell said. ``I said all week we all have to step up. Everybody touched the ball; everybody stepped up.''

Armed with the lead that Lee provided, the Bucs defense went to work, and for the first time in weeks it looked like the defense that went into the season hoping to gain acceptance as one of the best ever. During a last-minute scoring attempt by the Giants, Sapp and Simeon Rice each recorded sacks, with Rice's takedown resulting in a fumble that Chartric Darby recovered to end the first half. ``A big part of our success over the years has been creating turnovers,'' cornerback Ronde Barber said. ``We did that again [Monday]. This is a game we can look back on and say, `Yeah, we did what we needed to do.' ''

Barber wasn't the only one who felt that way. As the Bucs filed into their locker room late Monday, each player was greeted with a smile and a handshake from Malcolm Glazer, the team owner who believes his club has found its way again. ``We're back in business,'' Glazer said.