All week leading up to Sunday’s game at Tennessee, the mindset inside One Buccaneer Place was that it’s playoff football time from here on out. At 4-6, another loss would close the door on any realistic hopes of postseason qualification.
Tampa Bay ultimately failed to build on momentum gained during last week’s improved effort in Green Bay, though, and watched a winnable game swing Tennessee’s way, 23-17.
The teams combined for 10 turnovers (six by the Bucs) on a wet and slippery day in Nashville and Tampa Bay’s porous run defense was once again exploited for 202 yards. Running back Chris Johnson, reemerging after a slow start, posted the biggest game of his season after racking up 190 yards on 23 touches.
Aided by costly late-game Bucs turnovers and penalties, the Titans (6-5) outscored their visitors 13-0 in the fourth quarter to come away with a victory that Tampa Bay suddenly lost control of.
The Bucs were marching downfield behind the powerful running of LeGarrette Blount to try and build on their 17-13 lead midway through the final period before a season-long nemesis struck at an inopportune time. Blount’s 8-yard gain on first down should have set the Bucs up at the Tennessee 26, but tight end Kellen Winslow was whistled for a holding penalty that pushed Tampa Bay back to the 44. Before another ball could be snapped, left guard Jeremy Zuttah’s false start made it first-and-25 from the Titans 49. Quarterback Josh Freeman and the Bucs recover, punted, and Tennessee took advantage.
Another of the Bucs’ persistent deficiencies, the ability to convert on third down, haunted Tampa Bay’s offense throughout Sunday’s game. The Bucs failed to move the chains on eight of their 10 opportunities and also missed on their lone fourth-down attempt. The Titans converted 41 percent of their money downs (7 of 17) and were 1-for-2 on fourth downs.
After Tampa Bay’s penalty-induced punt, Johnson and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck quickly moved Tennessee into the red zone. The Titans entered Sunday owning the league’s top-rated scoring offense when inside the 20. Bucs cornerback E.J. Biggers’ open-field tackle of Johnson forced a fourth-and-goal situation from the 2, but Tennessee
head coach Mike Munchak’s decision to go for six paid off. Hasselbeck backpedaled to his right to buy time, directed traffic and found wide receiver Damian Williams wide open sliding across the back of the end zone.
Down 20-17 and trailing for the first time since 10-3 in the second quarter, Tampa Bay gave possession right back two plays later. Freeman’s poorly thrown second-down pass over the middle to Winslow was picked off by linebacker Colin McCarthy at the Bucs 47.
The interception increased Freeman’s season-long total to 16. He finished his day with 199 yards on 18 of 33 passing, one touchdown and the interception. Freeman was sacked twice and he rushed only three times for 10 yards.
The Tampa Bay defense limited Tennessee to a 38-yard Rob Bironas field goal after the interception, but the Bucs were forced to burn all three timeouts and found themselves behind 23-17 with less 2 minutes remaining.
Two 23-yard passes to wide receiver Mike Williams took Tampa Bay from its 20 to the Tennessee 34. Rather than get to the line and immediately run a play with 1:14 left, Freeman spiked the ball on first down to stop the clock. Second down resulted in an incompletion to wide receiver Arrelious Benn and a dump pass to Kareem Lumpkin came up just shy of the first-down marker. The Bucs hurried to the line on fourth-and-inches to attempt a quarterback sneak, but Freeman couldn’t handle the snap and got wrapped up behind the line to end Tampa Bay’s comeback chances.
Blount said afterward that the Bucs were requesting a measurement following Lumpkin’s third-down reception, but it wasn’t granted. “They didn’t give us the measurement. We asked for it and they didn’t give it to us.”
The second-year running back was again a bright spot in another Bucs losing effort, although it wasn’t flawless. Blount rushed for 103 yards on 20 carries and caught all three passes thrown his way for another 56. Tarnishing his day were two lost fumbles.
In total, Tampa Bay put five balls on the ground and Tennessee pounced on four. Blount gave away his two and Freeman and Williams each lost one. The fifth turnover was Freeman’s fourth-quarter interception and the sixth came when Tampa Bay gave away possession on its final play by failing to convert on fourth-and-short.
The Bucs defense responded well when called on for damage control. Following turnovers, Tampa Bay limited Tennessee to two Bironas field goals, forced two punts and put six points on the board with cornerback Aqib Talib’s 27-yard interception return for a touchdown. That splash play put Tampa Bay ahead 17-10 early in the third quarter.
Sunday’s four forced turnovers represented the Bucs’ best defensive output in terms of flipping field position. Linebacker Geno Hayes intercepted Hasselbeck in the first quarter, cornerbacks Talib and Ronde Barber each forced a fumble and safeties Tanard Jackson and Sean Jones recorded one fumble recovery apiece.
Tampa Bay managed to score 14 of its 17 total points off of turnovers. Barber’s forced fumble came late in the first half when he punched the ball out of Ringer’s grasp from behind and it flew straight into the arms of Jackson. The Bucs took over with under a minute remaining before the break and scored in six plays. On second-and-goal from the 3, Williams got underneath Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner on a quick post from the left side and Freeman accurately hit him for six to tie the game at 10-all. The other touchdown was Talib’s pick-six.
Williams finished his day catching six of the 11 balls thrown his way for 84 yards and the touchdown. Winslow was Freeman’s second leading receiver with five receptions and 52 yards.
Though deficient against the run, the Bucs defense picked up some slack by harassing Hasselbeck. The veteran quarterback threw the two picks, was sacked twice, got hit four times and finished with a passer rating of 53.6 (19 of 34 passing for 160 yards and a touchdown). Rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn was credited for his team-leading fifth sack of the year in the third quarter. Official scorekeepers credited the second takedown as a team sack.
Tampa Bay’s only other points came on the game’s first score midway through the opening quarter. The Bucs started from their own 9 and put together an 11-play, 67-yard drive that ended on Connor Barth’s field goal from 43 yards out. That drive was sparked by another highlight reel play produced by Blount. After opening the series with a 5-yard run up the middle, Freeman dumped off a short pass to Blount that turned into a 35-yard gain. Along the way, and the second-year back completely hurdled cornerback Jason McCourty, who was standing almost upright.
Any momentum gained from the big play and early lead was quickly ripped away, though. Titans return man Marc Mariani fielded Michael Koenen’s ensuing kickoff at the goal line, advanced 16 yards and handed the ball off to Tommie Campbell outside of the left hash. Campbell, who received the exchange with a full head of steam, zoomed around a wall of blockers and took off toward the end zone.
Tennessee extended its lead to 10-3 in the second quarter following Freeman’s fumble at the Bucs 38. The Titans entered the red zone but had to settle for Bironas’ 31-yard field goal. Bucs cornerback E.J. Biggers, again targeted often, stepped up near the end zone for a second time in the game up to that point. His close coverage on tight end Jared Cook forced Hasselbeck to throw high and the pass sailed incomplete.
Beyond the six passes Bucs secondary defenders broke up, the unit was all-too-frequently called upon to stop big Johnson runs. Tampa Bay’s top four tacklers on Sunday were all corners and safeties. Barber led the way with seven and Biggers, Jackson and Jones each had five.
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, playing against his former team, had four total tackles, two for a loss and a sack.
Tennessee’s victory kept the franchise perfect at home against Tampa Bay, improving to 7-0. The last three came in Nashville and the first four were when the team was the Houston Oilers.
The Bucs now drop to 4-7 overall with five games left on the schedule. They will return home next Sunday to play Carolina for the first of two games against the Panthers in four weeks. Tampa Bay has lost five in a row and six of its past seven.
Sunday’s announced crowd at Tennessee’s LP Field was 69,143. The game-time temperature was listed at 47 degrees and there was a strong, 20 mile-per-hour wind out of the northwest. The wind chill was a reported 42 degrees and rain fell throughout the day.
Starting on defense for Tampa Bay was: LE Da’Quan Bowers, DT Brian Price, DT Albert Haynesworth, RE Adrian Clayborn, SLB Quincy Black, MLB Mason Foster, WLB Geno Hayes, LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Ronde Barber, SS Sean Jones and FS Tanard Jackson.
The Bucs lined up offensively with: WR Mike Williams, LT Donald Penn, LG Jeremy Zuttah, C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood, TE Kellen Winslow, WR Arrelious Benn, RB LeGarrette Blount, FB Erik Lorig and QB Josh Freeman.
Seven Buccaneers were listed as inactive. They were LB Zac Diles, CB Anthony Gaitor, WR Michael Spurlock, OT James Lee, DE Michael Bennett, DE Derek Hardman and DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim.