TAMPA - Off to a hot, 5-1 start, one would think that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't want to head into their bye week right now for fear that the time off would slow down the team's momemtum.
But the Bucs have paid a price for equaling their win total from last year, the biggest may have been losing quarterback Brian Griese for a significant period of time with a severe left knee sprain during Sunday's 27-13 win over the visiting Miami Dolphins. With injuries to Griese, free safety Dexter Jackson (hamstring), cornerback Juran Bolden (shoulder) that the Bucs suffered against Miami, and the foot sprain that has kept rookie rusher Carnell "Cadillac" Williams sidelined for the past two weeks, Tampa Bay is not only welcoming the bye week - it is embracing it.
"We're going to see if we can get the two-week bye program going here," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said after Sunday's victory. "We have some injuries that, obviously, we are concerned about. ... Michael Pittman with his shoulder stinger played hurt. Shelton Quarles played hurt. I don't know the status of Juran Bolden. He sprained his shoulder. Dexter Jackson tweaked his hamstring, and I don't know the severity. Brian Griese will be given an evaluation of his knee."
Griese responded well from mounting criticism and started the first half of the Miami game on fire. He led Tampa Bay down for a touchdown on its opening drive and was 12-of-16 for 120 yards with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Joey Galloway to help the Bucs build a 10-3 lead in the first half.
But with 3:43 remaining in the second quarter, Dolphins middle linebacker Zach Thomas came in low on a passing play and drilled Griese's left knee with his helmet after he released the ball.
Griese lay on the ground in pain due to a bad knee sprain, but moments later, he refused to be carted off, and walked gingerly to the sideline instead. Third-year quarterback Chris Simms replaced Griese, who did not return to the game, and with the help of reserve Pittman and the offensive line, he was able to keep Tampa Bay in the lead.
Although Pittman was listed as questionable with a sore shoulder prior to the contest, he keyed the Bucs' running game that was far from questionable in racking up 180 yards on 34 carries (5.3 avg.) as a team. In Williams' absence, Pittman rushed for 127 yards on 15 carries (8.5 avg.) and extended Tampa Bay's lead to 20-6 late in the third quarter on a 57-yard touchdown run on third-and-1 from the Bucs' 43. Earnest Graham also added 50 yards on the ground on a career-high 17 carries.
Tampa Bay's defense was up the challenge of shutting down Miami's potent running game, which featured Ricky Williams, who was coming off an NFL-mandated four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and rookie Ronnie Brown, who was the second overall pick in the 2005 draft. Williams wasn't a factor as he gained just eight yards on five carries (1.6 avg.) and tallied only 22 yards on six receptions. Brown didn't fare much better with 22 yards on nine carries, but he did score Miami's lone touchdown on the day - an inconsequential 8-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Linebackers Shelton Quarles, who missed a couple of series with a bruised back, and Derrick Brooks, who notched a sack against Miami, were dominant in defending the run and posted nine tackles apiece. Strongside linebacker Ryan Nece also chipped in seven stops against the Dolphins.
By containing Miami to just 64 yards on the ground, Tampa Bay's top-rated run defense has held every opponent to less than 100 yards rushing this season.
Without any success on the ground, the Dolphins had to put the game in quarterback Gus Frerotte's hands. The Bucs' defensive ends would make Miami pay for that strategy with Simeon Rice, Greg Spires and Dewayne White each recording a sack. The sacks by Spires and Rice created fumbles that were recovered by Tampa Bay, with the first fumble returned for a 33-yard touchdown by safety Will Allen for a touchdown to extend Tampa Bay's lead to 27-6 at the end of the third quarter.
In his post-game press conference, Gruden was proud of his team's win, but found no real achievement in Tampa Bay's 5-1 record heading into the bye week.
"We realize we're 5-1 and it's been a real hard, hard roll to get to five wins," Gruden said. "It's as many games as we won last year, for crying out loud. We're pleased with where we are and we're very realistic here in terms of how we got here and how we have to perform and work to win our sixth game.
"Winning five games was never my goal. We felt that we were a hell of lot better than five wins last year. We lost some games that will go down on my tombstone as 'How did we lose those games?' Who cares about last year? Who cares about how many games you've won? The bottom line is, what are you going to do for me now? That's American society. What are you going to do for me now? What have you done for me lately?"
Gruden will have to wait until Monday morning to find out the answer to the question of "Who will be Tampa Bay's starting quarterback on October 30 versus the San Francisco 49ers?"
That's when the results of the X-ray and MRI of Griese's left knee will become known. The guess here is that Simms, who finished the Miami game 6-of-10 for 69 yards, won't be going anywhere during the bye week except to One Buccaneer Place to prepare for his first start of the 2005 season at San Francisco.
"I'm really proud of the work Chris Simms did today," Gruden said. "He really made some big plays for us in the third quarter."
Pittman turned in the Bucs' first big play of the game on Tampa Bay's initial drive when he burst through the line and stiff-armed Dolphins safety Lance Shulters for a 33-yard gain down to the Miami 25. On third-and-5 from the 20, Griese tried to hit Galloway on a slant pass in the end zone, but he was tackled before the ball could get there by Shulters. However, instead of a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, a Kenyatta Walker holding penalty offset the foul. On a replay of the down, Griese found Galloway for a 10-yard gain down to the Miami 10.
Two plays later, on third-and-goal from the 7-yard line, Griese once again hit Galloway, who beat rookie cornerback Travis Daniels for the score. The Bucs' 10-play, 78-yard drive consumed 5:55 and Tampa Bay led Miami 7-0 with 9:05 remaining in the first quarter.
On the Dolphins first play on offense, Quarles injured his back while tackling Williams after a minimal gain. Rookie Barrett Ruud replaced him in the lineup and wound up making three tackles on defense, but Quarles returned a few plays later.
Four plays later, Miami receiver Chris Chambers outraced Nece and cornerback Brian Kelly for 33 yards on a reverse to the right. Two plays later, Chambers took the handoff from Brown on a double reverse and scored a touchdown from 34 yards out, but the play was nullified due to a holding call on center Seth McKinney.
After two plays failed to pick up a first down, Olindo Mare got the Dolphins on the scoreboard with a 47-yard field goal. With 5:16 left in the first quarter, Tampa Bay led Miami, 7-3.
The Bucs would answer Miam's score on their next possession. On third-and-5 from their own 25, Galloway, who finished the game with nine catches for 97 yards, beat Shulters, who slipped and fell, for a 21-yard gain. On the next play, Griese found Mike Alstott wide open out in the left flat for a quick pass that he turned into a 23-yard gain after the 6-foot, 250-pound fullback barreled through an attempted tackle by Shulters. On first-and-10 from the Miami 31, Earnest Graham rambled for 16 yards down to the Miami 15.
Two snaps later, on third-and-8 from the 13, rookie tight end Alex Smith was flagged for a false start, which set up a third-and-13 from the 18. After Griese's pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage on third down, Matt Bryant nailed a 36-yard field goal to give Tampa Bay a 10-3 lead with 1:14 left in the first quarter.
Miami started off the second quarter with a scoring drive. On first-and-15 from the Dolphins' 33, Frerotte hit Chambers with a 31-yard gain down to the Bucs' 36. Jackson injured his right hamstring on the play and was replaced by reserve safety Kalvin Pearson. After the next three plays netted just two yards, Mare's 53-yard field goal cut the Bucs' lead to 10-6 with 11:46 left in the third quarter.
Simms showed great poise in engineering a 14-play, 66-yard scoring drive on Tampa Bay's first possession in the second half. After an 11-yard completion to Pittman, Simms hit rookie tight end Alex Smith for a 31-yard gain, but Smith was called for pushing off and the play was negated.
On first-and-20 from the Bucs' 24, Simms found tight end Anthony Becht for a 13-yard gain. On third-and-8 from the Bucs' 36, Simms scrambled and hit Ike Hilliard in stride for a 10-yard pass that kept the drive going.
Two plays later on third-and-5 from the 50, Michael Clayton hauled in a 22-yard pass down the right sidelines. But Tampa Bay's drive stalled at the Miami 14, and with 4:32 remaining in the third quarter, Bryant's 32-yard field goal extended the Bucs' lead to 13-6.
Tampa Bay would score again on its next offensive series after the Bucs defense forced Miami into a three-and-out. On third-and-1 at the Bucs' 43, Pittman took a flip pitch from Simms to the left and juked Miami defensive end Jason Taylor in the backfield to pick up the first down.
But Pittman didn't stop there. He ducked past linebacker Channing Crowder, picked up a great block from Clayton downfield and outraced a pursuing Taylor into the end zone for a 57-yard touchdown, which was his first rushing score of the season. The 66-yard drive took three plays and the touchdown gave Tampa Bay a commanding 20-6 lead with 1:32 remaining in the third quarter.
Tampa Bay put the game away on Miami's next possession. With seconds left in the third quarter, Bucs defensive end Greg Spires broke through the line of scrimmage and sacked Frerotte, forcing him to fumble. Allen scoped up the loose ball and raced 33 yards for a touchdown to put Tampa Bay up 27-6 with six seconds left in the third quarter. The score was Allen's first in the NFL.
On Miami's next possession, it faced a fourth-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 5. After a timeout, head coach Nick Saban lined Williams up at quarterback and he took the snap from center and ran up the middle. However, the Bucs defense stopped him short of the first down and took possession of the ball with 10:55 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But two plays later, Graham coughed up the ball on the Tampa Bay 8 after a hit by Thomas, who forced the fumble. Crowder recovered the ball for Miami.
On the Dolphins' first play, Brown raced up the middle for an 8-yard touchdown. With 9:56 left in the game, Miami trailed Tampa Bay, 27-13, which would prove to be the final score after sacks by White and Rice and a fumble recovery by Anthony McFarland stymied any Dolphins comeback attempt.
Due to their win over Miami on Sunday, the 5-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers holds a one-game lead in the NFC South over the 4-2 Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers both of whom were also victorious on Sunday.
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