Bucs 16 Texans 3
To finish the season strong, a necessity with the NFC playoff field stacked against them, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers desperately needed to start a game fast. On Sunday – finally – they were able to do just that. For the first time in 2003, the Buccaneers scored a touchdown on their opening possession, propelling Tampa Bay to a 16-3 victory over the Houston Texans. With their first back-to-back wins of the season, the Bucs improved to 7-7 on the season and continued to hang on in the postseason hunt. “I’m very proud of our football team,” said Jon Gruden. “We’re still alive. We’ll go home and check out the scores and see where we are.”

Thomas Jones, starting and excelling for the second straight week, scored on a perfectly-blocked, 18-yard toss-sweep to finish that first drive, the Bucs’ longest touchdown run in two years. Jones, a hard-running revelation in recent weeks, fueled Tampa Bay’s offensive all day, picking up 134 yards for his second 100-yard game of the season. His 34 carries were the most by a Buccaneer back in any game this season. “We’re trying to figure out just what kind of back this is,” said Gruden. “The only way to do that is to give him an opportunity to run the ball.”

The Bucs’ offense, which out-gained Houston by an enormous, 398-107 margin, also had the advantage of good field position, a relative rarity this season. That was the byproduct of one of Tampa Bay’s most dominant defensive games in some time. Playing without DT Warren Sapp for the first time more than four years, Tampa Bay allowed just seven first downs, 42 net passing yards and 41 plays from scrimmage. The yardage allowed by Tampa Bay’s defense was tied for second lowest in team history, matching a 107-yard effort against the New York Giants on September 12, 1999 – a loss! The seven first downs allowed also equaled the third fewest ever surrendered by the Buccaneers, and the 41 plays allowed was the third lowest ever.

About the only thing the Buccaneer defense didn’t do was secure a turnover. That broke an NFL-long streak of 54 consecutive games in which Tampa Bay had come up with at least one takeaway. On the flip side, the Buc offense cut the penalties out of its game, as Tampa Bay tied a season low with just three flags for 25 yards. Only one of those penalties came on offense, though that one flag did wipe out a 50-yard completion to RB Michael Pittman. Of course, the Texans were also a bit short-handed, too, as franchise quarterback David Carr was sidelined for the second straight game with a shoulder injury. Rookie Dave Ragone, a third-round draft pick who started last week’s 27-0 loss at Jacksonville, was held to nine completions on 17 attempts.

In truth, the Bucs covered for Sapp’s absence very well, even when valuable reserve Ellis Wyms was lost to a knee sprain on the game’s second play. DT Anthony McFarland, the usual starter at nose tackle, slid into Sapp’s under tackle spot and showed explosiveness at that key position, notching his third sack of the season, along with three tackles and a forced fumble. McFarland also had a sack filling in for Sapp in the second half of last Sunday’s game in New Orleans. And Chartric Darby, taking over at the nose, was outstanding as well, playing with impressive strength and leverage. On one three-and-out by the Texans in the first quarter, Darby made all three plays, twice tackling RB Domanick Davis on runs up the middle then following with a sack of Ragone on third down. Even first-year defensive tackle Cleveland Pinkney, just signed off the practice squad on Sunday, got into the act with a third-down, drive-killing sack in the fourth quarter. Pressure came from the ends as well, as DE Greg Spires recorded two sacks, giving him three in the last two weeks and the Bucs 12 as a team over that span.

With the Bucs handling rookie of the year candidate Davis fairly well, Ragone was overmatched in his second start. Sacked twice in the first quarter, Ragone finished the first half with just nine passing yards and, thanks to those two sacks, the Texans had negative-three aerial yards at halftime. That was the lowest single-half total ever allowed by the Bucs’ defense, better than a five-yard first half against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 14, 1999. However, the Bucs struggled to get the ball in the end zone after their initial drive and led just 13-0 at the half. K Martin Gramatica hit on field goals of 36 and 23 yards, the latter with 30 seconds left in the half, to at least get six points out of two deep Buc incursions. Another Tampa Bay drive died in Houston territory on a failed fourth-and-one run. That gave Houston an opening to get back into the game in the third quarter, and the Texans immediately mounted their first sustained drive. On Houston’s first possession of the second half, the visitors went 51 yards on eight plays – more yards than the Texans had in the entire first half – and kicked a 38-yard field goal.

That was the first score allowed by Tampa Bay’s defense in six quarters, and it briefly cut the lead back to 10 points. However, QB Brad Johnson hooked up with WR Charles Lee on a 72-yard bomb two plays later and the Bucs quickly put up another field goal. Led by a Greg Spires sack, his second in two weeks, Tampa Bay’s defense then forced another three-and-out and the Bucs quickly drove back into position for a field goal, though this one was blocked by S Eric Brown. The Bucs ran off most of the fourth quarter with a succession of Jones runs and a defense that remained dominant to the end.

On an efficient day highlighted by the one long pass to Lee, Johnson completed 17 of 28 passes for 237 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. On a day when Ragone was running for his life, Johnson was not sacked. Keenan McCardell caught five of Johnson’s passes for 59 yards, in the process surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the fifth time in his 12-year NFL career and his first time as a Buccaneer. Shelton Quarles led the Buccaneer defense with eight tackles, and Pinkney had four stops to go with his first career sack. CB Ronyell Whitaker, who was tested early by Ragone and prized receiver Andre Johnson, held his own with three tackles and a pass defensed, as well as two stops on special teams.