The Tampa Bay Buccaneers played their preseason finale against the Houston Texans without half of their starters on Thursday night. They probably wish they had played without starting left guard Dan Buenning, too.
At the 13:00 mark in the first quarter, Buenning was hurt when he pulled to the right on a pass play and had a Texans defensive lineman fall on his left ankle. He was replaced in the lineup by Jeb Terry and never returned.
The Bucs lost the game, 16-13, and finished with their first losing preseason (1-3) under head coach Jon Gruden, but more importantly, Tampa Bay may have lost its starting left guard for the season opener against Baltimore on September 10.
Among the starters that didn't play for Tampa Bay at Houston were running backs Cadillac Williams and Mike Alstott, wide receivers Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton, right tackle Kenyatta Walker, defensive linemen Anthony McFarland, Chris Hovan, Greg Spires and Simeon Rice, linebackers Shelton Quarles, Derrick Brooks and Ryan Nece and defensive backs Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly, Juran Bolden, Will Allen and Jermaine Phillips.
Indeed, it was a night for backups for Tampa Bay, as several roster spots were up for grabs, including one of the likely six wide receiver spots. With Galloway, Clayton, rookie Maurice Stovall and Ike Hilliard, who did not play against Houston, assured of making the team along with punt returner Mark Jones, Edell Shepherd and David Boston entered the preseason finale were battling for the right to remain a Buccaneer.
After Thursday night, advantage Boston.
Boston shined with a game-high six catches for 77 yards, including a 33-yarder in the second quarter. Shepherd finished with only one catch for 11 yards and had a costly illegal motion penalty that wiped out a first down pass play on fourth-and-12 on Tampa Bay's final drive of the game.
A similar story emerged at the quarterback position as veteran Tim Rattay and rookie Bruce Gradkowski are battling for the right to back up starter Chris Simms, who played just one series at Houston and was 1-of-2 for 6 yards. Rattay, who relieved Simms halfway through the first quarter and played the rest of the first half, completed 9-of-16 passes for 89 yards, but fumbled a snapo one play before throwing an interception.
Gradkowski, who played the entire second half, bounced back from a rough showing in Jacksonville and completed 13-of-17 passes for 90 yards and threw a touchdown pass to rookie tight end Tim Massaquoi. Gradkowski also showed off his 4.58 speed by leading the Bucs in rushing with 47 yards on three carries (15.7 avg.), including a 20-yarder.
Gradkowski's efficient play and playmaking ability may earn him the number two quarterback spot behind Simms.
The Texans scored first at the 4:08 mark in the opening quarter. Houston rushed for 153 yards on 29 carries (5.3 avg.) against Tampa Bay, and running back Antoine Smith picked up a big chunk of that by racing for a 46-yard gain on the first play of the Texans' second offensive possession. On third-and-6 at the Tampa Bay 25, quarterback Sage Rosenfels completed a pass to tight end Owen Daniels for an 11-yard pickup. A 9-yard run by Smith two plays set up Houston with a third-and-1 at the Tampa Bay 2 when Rosenfels found tight end Bennie Joppru for a 2-yard touchdown pass to give the Texans a 7-0 lead.
Tampa Bay's next drive stalled on its own 36-yard line as Earnest Graham failed to pick up a yard as Gruden went for it on fourth-and-1.
With a short field to work with, running back Chris Taylor rushed for 14 yards and caught a 6-yard pass on third-and-8 to set up a 34-yard field goal attempt by Kris Brown on the first play of the second quarter. But rookie defensive end Charles Bennett knifed through and blocked the field goal.
With the aid of a 33-yard completion from Rattay to Boston, the Bucs marched 61 yards on 10 plays and had to settle for a 28-yard field goal from Matt Bryant to make the score 7-3 with 10:33 left in the second quarter.
Rattay's interception came late in the second quarter on the Bucs' next possession and set up Houston with another short field to work with at the Bucs' 28-yard line. But the Texans could only gain 15 yards on five plays and had settle for a 31-yard field goal from Brown to give Houston a 10-3 lead with 1:53 left in the first half.
Houston was able to put together an 8-play, 56-yard drive in 1:02 to take a 13-3 lead at halftime after Brown kicked a 40-yard field goal. Taylor rushed for 28 yards on three carries and quarterback Cody Pickett was 2-of-3 for 24 yards on the drive.
Gradkowski led the Buccaneers on a touchdown drive on his first series and was 4-of-6 for 41 yards, including passes of 11 and 9 yards to tight end Mark Anelli and a 16-yarder to Boston. Gradkowski also added scrambles of 14 and 13 yards before connecting with Massaquoi on a 5-yard touchdown pass to pull Tampa Bay closer, 13-10, with 6:36 left in the third quarter.
Gradkowski and the Bucs were able to tie the score at 13-13 on the first play of the fourth quarter. The rookie quarterback started the seven-play, 46-yard drive with a 20-yard scramble. Earnest Graham added 17 yards on two carries to help set up Tampa Bay in field goal position. After the Bucs' drive stalled at the Texans' 6-yard line, Bryant nailed a 24-yard field goal to tie the game.
Brown would cap off a 15-play, 66-yard drive with a 30-yard field goal to make the final score 16-13.
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