Bucs blow late lead - fall to Titans
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 28 November 2011

Buccaneers players and coaches left LP Field on Sunday still screaming for a measurement, but you don't need to stretch the yardsticks to know why they came up short. In a game played on a cold and rainy day under a bruised sky, the Bucs committed five turnovers fumbling five times and losing four to fall 23-17 to the Titans.

Appropriately, the game ended with quarterback Josh Freeman dropping yet another wet football on the soggy turf. Facing fourth and inches, he fumbled the snap and was stopped short of the first down. The Bucs' fifth consecutive loss and sixth in seven games dropped them to 4-7.

The Titans' Chris Johnson rushed for a season-high 190 yards (144 more than his season average going in). His 34-yard run helped set up Damian Williams' 2-yard winning touchdown catch on fourth down with 3:01 left. The Titans' only other touchdown came on an 84-yard kickoff return by Tommie Campbell, who took a handoff from Marc Mariani on a reverse at the 16.

"It's a shame," said Freeman, who also threw an interception. "What did we have, five turnovers? It makes it hard to win. "We feel like we're a better team than our record portrays. We've got to stop doing things that have been killing us all year. There's nobody in that locker room that doesn't feel sick every time we lose."

What sickened the Bucs on Sunday was how their final drive played out. With 1:08 left, no timeouts, and facing third and 10 from the Titans 34, Freeman hit running back Kregg Lumpkin with a pass. Freeman, believing Lumpkin had gained enough for the first down, ran to the line of scrimmage intending to spike the ball and stop the clock.

But referee Bill Leavy signaled fourth down. Instead, Freeman, trying a sneak, dropped the snap, picked up the ball and tried to hand it to receiver Arrelious Benn.

"I thought it was a first down," Freeman said. "I looked over, and the officials appeared to be on the other side of the first-down marker. So I'm yelling, 'Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!' to save some time. Then it was, 'Okay, it's fourth and inches.' So I'm like, 'Shouldn't they be measuring this?'

"I turn and look, and (Bucs center Jeff Faine) is trying to get a measurement. The ref was like, 'Play it.' I tried to call a sneak. Enough time had already run off the clock just trying to get a first down, and they didn't have a chance to dry the ball off or anything. So it was just a mess."

Officials are not required to measure for a first down if asked. Faine said he knew immediately Freeman did not get the snap.

"I felt the ball hit the ground," he said. "I'm kind of standing up because I know it's below me somewhere. You know when it's not right, and I felt the ball hit my foot. I was trying to locate the ball. It wasn't a situation we handled right."

Neither team did a good job handling the weather conditions. The Titans fumbled three times, losing two. And Matt Hasselbeck was intercepted twice, including one Aqib Talib returned 27 yards for a score to give the Bucs a 17-10 lead 2:56 into the third quarter.

In fact, the Bucs' only offensive touchdown a 3-yard pass from Freeman to Mike Williams with 13 seconds left in the first half was set up when cornerback Ronde Barber punched the ball from running back Javon Ringer and safety Tanard Jackson returned the fumble to the Titans 29.

The Bucs' LeGarrette Blount rushed for 103 yards on 20 carries and had 56 yards receiving, but he also lost two fumbles. "Obviously, it was slippery," Blount said. "There was nothing anybody could do except hold onto the ball tighter."

Freeman had two chances over the final three minutes to bring the Bucs back. Trailing by a field goal with all three timeouts remaining, he tried to force a pass to tight end Kellen Winslow that was intercepted by rookie linebacker Colin McCarthy. The former Miami and Clearwater Central Catholic standout started for injured former Buc Barrett Ruud.

The Bucs forced the Titans to settle for a 38-yard field goal by Rob Bironas with 1:44 remaining. But they burned all of their timeouts in the process. Freeman completed two 23-yard passes to Williams to get to the Titans 34 with 1:14 remaining then spiked the ball. After an incompletion to Benn, he connected with Lumpkin for what he believed was a first down. Then the chaos ensued.

"It seems like we don't ever get a call to go our way," Donald Penn said. "I hope (commissioner Roger Goodell) sends us a letter explaining why we didn't get that measurement down there at the end. You know that is the story of our season so far, penalties, turnovers. And you don't blame it on the refs, but they have a big part."