The running game never gained traction, the passing attack couldn’t leave the ground and the Tampa Bay defense – on the field for 36 minutes and 25 seconds – watched quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions win the season-opening rematch from last December, 27-20.
Stafford hit receiver Calvin Johnson twice for touchdowns as Detroit out-gained the Buccaneers in total yardage, 431-313. After three quarters, that stat was at 414-128, Detroit was winning the time of possession battle 32:07 to 12:53 and the Lions were ahead by two scores, 27-13.
Quarterback Josh Freeman and the Bucs offense struggled to sustain drives and stay on the field throughout the day. Tampa Bay was unable to convert a first down on three of its first four drives Sunday afternoon and did not push deeper than the Detroit 46 until its last series of the first half.
The anticipated featured match-up between Johnson and Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib finished decidedly in favor of the Lions star dubbed "Megatron." Stafford went Johnson’s way 10 times and completed six passes for 88 yards. Talib was beat on a stop-and-go move during the first touchdown, a 36-yarder on fourth-and-2 with 7:25 left in the second quarter. Johnson’s other scoring grab – a 1-yard fade to the right side of the end zone with 6:23 remaining in the third – caught Talib shading to the middle and he was unable to recover.
“Calvin [Johnson] ran a good route,” Stafford said of the first touchdown hook up. “[Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan] called a great play. It was the perfect play for that situation – we knew they had an aggressive corner over there. Calvin wanted to shut him down all day, and [Talib] wanted to prove himself against a great receiver.”
Johnson’s second touchdown put Detroit ahead 27-13 and concluded an 11-play, 70-yard drive that took 6 minutes 30 seconds off the clock.
Tampa Bay’s offensive stumbling continued throughout that third quarter, but the Bucs managed to remain in the game thanks to a defense forcing punts on the Lions’ last four possessions, including two three-and-outs.
After narrowing Detroit’s lead to 27-20 on Freeman’s 5-yard touchdown to receiver Mike Williams in the back of the end zone with 1:40 showing on the clock, Tampa Bay found itself within a single possession despite the Lions’ statistical dominance. Williams’ catch, which came on fourth down as he skied over a Detroit defensive back and kept his feet together in bounds, was his fourth of the day for a combined 50 yards.
“It was kind of a two-man look where the cornerback played way inside and [Freeman] gave me a signal where I have to go to the inside route,” Williams said of the touchdown. “I knew I couldn’t get in front of him so I went behind him just so I could tell Josh basically to throw it up.”
The Bucs defense – which produced the game’s first touchdown in the first quarter – stuffed Detroit’s next possession on three plays and gave Freeman one final opportunity to tie the game. Tampa Bay took over at its own 20 after Ryan Donahue’s punt bounced into the end zone and the offense was faced with marching 80 yards in just one minute and seven seconds. After two first-down completions and a 5-yard Detroit penalty for having 12 men on the field, the Bucs found themselves at the Lions 42 with 16 seconds remaining. Freeman was able to get two plays off, but the second ended in multiple laterals and a fumble recovered by Detroit safety Louis Delmas.
The loss marked Tampa Bay’s fourth out of its past five in season openers. It’s only win in that span came with last year’s home triumph over Cleveland.
Conditions for Sunday’s opener were listed as 86 degrees and sunny at kickoff and paid attendance was announced as 51,274. The day was also one of remembrance at Raymond James Stadium. Along with the rest of the NFL, the Bucs took time to remember the 10th anniversary of 9/11 before kickoff. Also honored were former Buccaneers great Lee Roy Selmon and Tampa Tribune sports columnist and editor Tom McEwen. Both passed away earlier this year, with Selmon's death occurring just last Sunday.
The game’s defensive starters were as follows: LE Michael Bennett, DT Gerald McCoy, DT Brian Price, RE Adrian Clayborn, WLB Geno Hayes, SLB Quincy Black, LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Ronde Barber, FS Cody Grimm, SS Sean Jones, DB E.J. Biggers.
Tampa lined up offensively with: TE Kellen Winslow, LT Donald Penn, LG Ted Larsen, C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood, TE Luke Stocker, WR Arrelious Benn, WR Mike Williams, RB LeGarrette Blount and QB Josh Freeman.
Inactive for the Bucs were: S Larry Asante, RB Allen Bradford, CB Myron Lewis, CB Anthony Gaitor, T Demar Dotson, T Derek Hardman and TE Zack Pianalto.
The Lions took the game’s opening drive 76 yards to the Bucs' 4, but had to settle for a 23-yard Jason Hanson field goal. Tampa Bay linebacker Geno Hayes was in on coverage of Detroit tight end Brandon Pettigrew on third down and eventually tied for the team lead in tackles with eight, along with strong safety Sean Jones and linebacker Quincy Black.
A 78-yard kickoff return by Sammie Stroughter set up a Bucs field goal by Connor Barth, and Tampa Bay tied the score at 3-3. Early during Detroit’s next possession, Talib, covering Lions tight end Will Heller near the left sideline, intercepted a tipped pass that was overthrown by Stafford and returned it 28 yards to the end zone to put the Bucs up 10-3 in the first quarter.
Hanson added a 28-yard field goal on Detroit’s next time with the ball and the first quarter ended with the Bucs ahead, 10-6. Since Tampa Bay’s offense did not produce over seven points in the period – let alone any – the streak of the Bucs not being able to score over that number grew to 55 straight games.
“We’ve been talking about it all offseason,” Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said of the team’s slow offensive starts. “It’s something that we have got to figure out fast. We have 15 more weeks to figure it out. That’s all you’re guaranteed, and it’s up to us as coaches and up to us as players to all go and lock in and start faster.”
Still holding a 10-6 advantage with 10:34 left in the second quarter, Freeman’s interception in the end zone by Detroit’s Chris Houston began a run of Lions successes in which Tampa Bay could not put a stop to. Detroit scored touchdowns on its next three possessions spanning into the second half and were up 27-13 after Stafford’s second connection with Johnson. Sandwiched between Johnson’s two scores was an 11-yard touchdown reception by tight end Tony Scheffler.
Freeman’s 152-yard fourth quarter performance allowed his numbers to bump up into respectability when compared with the competition across the field, but Stafford still won that individual battle. Stafford went 24-of-33 for 305 yards and threw three touchdowns and an interception, while Freeman finished 28-of-43 passing with 257 yards, one touchdown and the interception.
Freeman actually exited the game at one point with just over six minutes left in the third quarter and headed into the locker room to get an I.V. due to cramping. Backup Josh Johnson replaced him for the final play of the drive and ran one more entire Bucs drive, completing 1-of-3 passes for seven yards.
“You talk about rhythm, but in the first quarter I was on the field for maybe five plays,” Freeman said about the offense’s first-half ineptitude. “It’s definitely tough. You have to maximize your potential on first and second down so you’re not in a third and long situation.
“The Detroit offense did a good job of holding the ball for a long time. We’ve got to help our defense out in that manner because being on the field for that long just wears and wears and wears on the defense.”
Freeman returned to start the fourth quarter and led the team's most impressive series. Starting at their own 8-yard line, Freeman went 7-of-10 passing for 75 yards during the 13-play drive and worked Tampa Bay down to the Lions 11. The effort stalled out abruptly, though, when running back Earnest Graham fumbled on a fourth-and-1 run up the middle.
Along with the Johnson-Talib matchup, the Detroit defensive line against the Tampa Bay offensive line was another anticipated contest. While defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was a statistical non-factor – recording one tackle and one quarterback hurry – the Lions defensive front recorded two sacks, three hurries and limited the Bucs to only 56 yards rushing on 16 carries. Running back LeGarrette Blount, after picking up over 1,000 yards last season, was shut down in his 2011 debut for 15 yards on five attempts. The nonexistence of a ground attack carries over a theme from the preseason. Again, a Bucs quarterback – Josh Freeman with 26 yards – represented the team’s leading rusher.
Detroit, on the other hand, was led on the ground by Jahvid Best’s 72 yards on 21 carries and the Lions totaled 126 yards. Tampa Bay’s defense, though on the field for 32:07 of 45:00 total minutes in the first three quarters, had few answers for the Detroit attack. The Bucs’ retooled defensive line, with the addition of rookies Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers, is being tasked with increasing pressure on the quarterback after the unit combined for only 26 sacks last season. That objective was not reached, though, and Stafford rarely had to leave the pocket or rush throws. Tampa Bay recorded no sacks and no official quarterback hurries.
Adding to the Bucs’ defensive line woes Sunday was the hamstring injury to tackle Brian Price in the third quarter. The team did not elaborate on the issue following the game, but Price suffered a season-ending pelvic and hamstring injury in 2010.
The Bucs will attempt to rebound from their Week 1 loss by heading up to Minnesota to take on the also-winless Vikings next Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Minnesota fell to San Diego, 24-17.