TAMPA - "Thank God for instant replay," said Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden after the Buccaneers escaped a desperate comeback attempt by the Detroit Lions, aided by a controversial instant replay call that overturned an apparent Lions touchdown by tight end Marcus Pollard.
On second-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 12, Pollard beat linebacker Derrick Brooks to the right corner of the end zone where he made a sliding touchdown catch with 13 seconds left to put Detroit ahead, 19-17, after a 16-play, 93-yard drive.
But the Bucs wisely called a quick timeout, which gave NFL replay official James Wilson time to signal down to the field that the play was under review before Detroit could kick the extra point. Replay showed that Pollard's knee appeared to be touching the out of bounds line - barely - just as he was hauling in the scoring pass from Joey Harrington, and the call was overturned by referee Gerry Austin.
Tampa Bay's defense, which held Detroit to just 226 yards and did not allow 100 yards rushing for the fourth straight game this year, stiffened for the next two plays - a Mike Williams catch in the left corner of the end zone, which was ruled out of bounds, and an incompletion to Roy Williams on fourth down as time expired - to seal the Bucs' 17-13 victory as the team moved to 4-0 for just the second time since Tampa Bay started the 1997 season 5-0.
"Having been in the NFL for 15 years and having been on some pretty good teams - the 49ers, Green Bay and Oakland - I've never been 4-0 to start the season," said Gruden. "That's a hell of a start for our team. Granted, we have a long way to go. It wasn't pretty at times today, but winning in this league was a great accomplishment because there is a lot of good football teams out there."
After last year's 0-4 start, Gruden and the Bucs certainly welcome the 4-0 beginning to the 2005 season. For the first time this year, Tampa Bay lost the turnover battle (4 to 1) and still won the game. Although Brian Griese threw two key touchdown passes against the Lions, his four turnovers almost lost the game for the Bucs.
According to Gruden, Griese was "knocked woozy" on a 7-yard scramble at the 10:14 mark of the second quarter when he lunged head first into Detroit linebacker Boss Bailey. Although Griese did convert several key third downs in the second and third quarters, and threw touchdown passes of 41 and 80 yards to running back Michael Pittman and wide receiver Joey Galloway, respectively, he also fumbled once and threw three interceptions. A fourth interception was negated by a Detroit penalty.
"Griese was obviously woozy early in the game," Gruden said. "He made some mistakes, but he made some big plays today.
"We had Chris (Simms) ready to go. (Griese) made a couple of uncharacteristic throws to guys he routinely hits. He made some decisions that he routinely, maybe, got away from today. I'm not saying that had anything to do with the injury. I'm proud of him. He got his bell rung on the scramble, if you remember, early in the game. We have to work with him on scrambling."
With rookie running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams limited to just 13 yards rushing on 11 carries, thus snapping his string of three 100-yard rushing games, Tampa Bay needed the passing game to come through against a stout, active Lions defense. With Michael Clayton held to just 11 yards on two receptions, Galloway and Pittman answered the call for the Bucs.
Galloway had seven catches for a career-high 166 yards, highlighted by his 80-yard touchdown that gave the Bucs a 17-10 lead at the start of the third quarter. Pittman, who replaced Williams at halfback after the rookie left the game in the third quarter with a hamstring injury, produced 96 yards receiving on six catches, and churned out 30 yards on the ground with five carries.
"Michael Pittman - his ability as a pass receiver - was a significant, significant part of our victory today," Gruden said.
For the second straight game, Tampa Bay scored on its opening possession. After opening up their initial series with three straight pass plays that included completions of 4 and 32 yards to Galloway and an incompletion, Griese handed off to Williams, who ripped a 12-yard run down to the Lions' 6. After a 1-yard gain by Williams and an incompletion, a pass interference call on Lions safety Terrence Holt, who was covering Ike Hilliard on third-and-goal from the Lions' 5, gave Tampa Bay a first-and-goal from the 1.
But a false start penalty on tight end Alex Smith, a run for no gain by Williams and back-to-back sacks by Kalimba Edwards and Jared DeVries backed the Bucs up to the Lions' 24 where Matt Bryant connected on a 43-yard field goal to give the Bucs a 3-0 lead after their 10-play, 30-yard drive consumed 3:46 in the first quarter.
With 13:44 left in the second quarter, Edwards and DeVries beat left tackle Anthony Davis and Dan Buenning to sack Griese, force a fumble and recover it at the Bucs' 33. However, Tampa Bay's defense stiffened and only allowed a field goal. After three plays netted just seven yards for Detroit, Jason Hanson's 44-yard field goal tied the score at 3-3 with 11:30 remaining in the second quarter.
With 5:46 left in the first half, Lions linebacker Teddy Lehman stepped in front of Hilliard, picked off a Griese pass at the 25-yard line and returned it to the Tampa Bay 8. Two plays later, running back Kevin Jones ran over Bucs strong safety Jermaine Phillips at the 3-yard line en route to an 8-yard touchdown. That score was the first rushing touchdown Tampa Bay had given up all season. With 4:58 left in the second quarter, Detroit led 10-3 with all 10 points coming off of Tampa Bay turnovers.
On Tampa Bay's next possession, Griese converted a third-and-10 from the Bucs' 10-yard line by hitting Pittman with a 16-yard pass. An interception by Lions cornerback Andre Goodman was negated due to his holding penalty on Hillard, which gave the Bucs another first down at their own 33. Tampa Bay converted yet another third down when a scrambling Griese found Galloway for a 20-yard gain to the Detroit 48.
Three plays later on third-and-3, Pittman sprinted out of the backfield on a rail route and outraced Lehman down the right sidelines to haul in a 41-yard touchdown pass from Griese. Pittman beat Detroit safety Kenoy Kennedy to the end zone to tie the game 10-10 with 1:12 remaining. The Bucs' 10-play, 90-yard scoring march was the team's longest of the year, and Tampa Bay was three-of-three on third down conversions on the drive.
Tampa Bay got the ball back a few plays later when Lions tight end Marcus Pollard caught a 7-yard pass before a hit by cornerback Brian Kelly forced a fumble that Ellis Wyms recovered at the Tampa Bay 38 with 49 seconds left before halftime. But the Bucs couldn't capitalize on the turnover as Griese's pass intended for Galloway was picked off by Lions cornerback R.W. McQuarters at the Detroit 38 to end the half.
Tampa Bay left tackle Anthony Davis was injured chasing down McQuarters and did not return for the second half. Todd Steussie replaced Davis at left tackle in the second half and did a better job of keeping Lions defenders out of Griese's face.
The Bucs' third down magic continued in the second half as Joey Galloway hauled in an 80-yard scoring strike from Griese on third-and-10. Griese's perfect pass hit Galloway on a post pattern between Goodman and safety Terrence Holt. The touchdown was Galloway's ninth in nine games. With 14:05 left in the third quarter, Tampa Bay led 17-10.
"We converted some long yardage third downs today, unlike maybe previous weeks where many of our conversions were third-and-1 to 3," Gruden said. "We converted some third-and-10s today - I think that will show up as significant plays as significant plays in our victory."
Tampa Bay's next possession ended when kicker Matt Bryant missed a 46-yard field goal wide right with 4:38 left in the third quarter.
Detroit got on the scoreboard again with 7:33 left in the game. An encroachment penalty on Lions linebacker Donte Curry on fouth-and-3 on the Bucs' 47 gave Tampa Bay a first down, but on the next play, Griese was intercepted by Holt, who stepped in front of Alex Smith at the Detroit 26 and returned the pick to the Tampa Bay 23. Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker made a touchdown-saving tackle, his second of the game.
Seven plays later, Hanson converted a 23-yard field goal to cut into the Bucs' 17-13 lead.
Unlike last week in their 17-16 win over Green Bay, the Bucs couldn't run out the clock on offense. After Pittman picked up seven yards on a run up the middle, back-to-back 5-yard penalties on rookie left guard Dan Buenning and Walker forced the Bucs into a second-and-13 from their own 37-yard line. Two plays, Tampa Bay was forced to punt the ball back to Detroit with 5:14 remaining in regulation.
After playing so well throughout most of the game, Tampa Bay's defense allowed Detroit to pick up five first downs and march 75 yards down the field to the Bucs' 12-yard line on 17 plays, setting up the game's dramatic finish.
Tampa Bay (4-0) joins Indianapolis (4-0), Cincinnati (4-0) and Washington (3-0) as the league's only defeated teams. The Bucs travel to play the New York Jets (1-3) next Sunday.
If you liked this story, be sure to get the inside scoop and more detailed information on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason plans regarding roster changes, free agency and the NFL Draft with a Pewter Insider premium subscription. uccaneers merchandise in the world.