Reserves Get Their Chance
The Bucs are trying to find out about Thomas Jones and Charles Lee. What they've found out so far is they should have tried this sooner. Both former reserves were big contributors Sunday as Tampa Bay beat Houston 16-3 and actually won their second in a row. Jones got his second start in place of Michael Pittman and rushed 34 times for 134 yards and a touchdown. With 89 yards a week earlier against New Orleans, Jones has 223 yards in two games, the Bucs' best two-game total of the year. Lee, the former ``street'' free agent who replaced Keyshawn Johnson, caught three passes for 95 yards, including a 72- yarder. That follows his 53- yard touchdown catch last month against the New York Giants.
Sunday's performances came against an injury-riddled defense, but they shouldn't be dismissed. The speed Jones and Lee bring to the field takes the plodding out of ``plodding Bucs offense.'' ``It just goes to show, football's an interesting game,'' Jon Gruden said. ``Thomas came here very obscure, and some criticized us for taking a shot there. Charles Lee is an obscure player. But they are fast, and they are young, and they are improving.''
Jones, of course, was the seventh overall pick of the 2000 draft out of Virginia. He floundered at Arizona, and the Bucs got him for a song named Marquise Walker last summer - partly as insurance because Pittman faced legal problems. Jones had a terrific preseason, but Gruden stayed with Pittman, his Super Bowl starter and a better receiver out of the backfield. Indeed, Pittman showed his ability to run in ``space'' again Sunday, going 50 yards on a pass play that was called back because of holding.
Early-season fumbles also got Jones in trouble. But given the authority with which he has run when given a chance, the Bucs must wonder whether he should have been the starter all along. ``He's carried 54 times in the last two games for well over 200 yards,'' Gruden said. ``Some of our eyebrows are raised a little bit. We're excited. Maybe I should temper my enthusiasm and go elsewhere with the distribution of the ball, but I'm really excited about this guy.''
Lee might still be toiling with the scout offense if not for Johnson's banishment. When he finally got a shot against the Giants on ``Monday Night Football,'' Lee, a UCF product, tallied 91 yards, including the 53-yard touchdown. ``You've got to give Charles a lot of credit,'' said Keenan McCardell. ``He had some big shoes to fill, and he's stepped up and played well.''
Quicker than the players they've replaced, Jones and Lee give the Bucs offense a big- play bite it has often lacked. Both break tackles. Each can turn a short gain into a game- breaking play. Jones took a simple toss sweep 18 yards for a touchdown against Houston. He had runs of 61 and 51 yards against Green Bay last month. By contrast, Pittman's longest run of the season is 18 yards, in October against Washington. Lee already has two plays longer than the high-priced Johnson's longest catch of the year, 39 yards against Washington. ``Charles has been getting a lot of yards after the catch,'' Brad Johnson said. ``Thomas has been getting a lot of yards after the initial contact. He's running hard. When you can run the ball like we did today, it changes the complexion of the game.''