TAMPA – Tampa Bay won a Thursday night tussle with the visiting Houston Texans, 31-24, but the Bucs paid a huge price in the victory. The game’s hero, wide receiver Paris Warren, scored on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Bruce Gradkowski with 3:00 remaining to allow the Bucs to break a 24-24 tie in the fourth quarter. The score proved to be the game-winner, but at the end of the play, Texans cornerback Dexter McCleon came down on Warren’s left leg, severely dislocating his ankle and ending his season.
Teammates immediately waved over Bucs doctors and called for a cart once they saw Warren’s grotesque injury. Minutes later, the entire team huddled around the popular wide receiver in the end zone as the crowd at Raymond James Stadium chanted, “Let’s go, War-ren!”
Warren finished the game with seven catches for 110 yards, including a 51-yarder, and two touchdowns. He ended the preseason as Tampa Bay’s leading receiver with 15 catches for 191 yards and four touchdowns. After the game, head coach Jon Gruden, who was visibly disgusted with his injury, confirmed Warren was going to make the team prior to his injury.
Tampa Bay ends the preseason with a 3-1 record after winning back-to-back games in thrilling, shoot-out fashion. The Bucs beat the Dolphins, 31-28, last week at Miami with Gradkowski engineering a fourth quarter comeback similar to his performance on Thursday night against Houston.
The Texans opened the scoring by taking the opening kickoff and marching down the field with ease on a seven-play, 71-yard drive to establish a 7-0 lead. Quarterback Sage Rosenfels was 5-of-5 for 63 yards on the drive, finding rookie wide receiver Jacoby Jones on a fade route for a 3-yard touchdown on third-and-goal against cornerback Alan Zemaitis, who was lost in coverage. Jones, who had three catches for 34 yards on the drive, came into the game leading the team with eight catches for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Tampa Bay committed the first turnover of the game on its opening possession and it proved to be costly. On third-and-7 at the Bucs’ 41-yard line, Texans defensive end N.D. Kalu beat left tackle Donald Penn around the corner and sacked quarterback Luke McCown, who fumbled. Cornerback Jamar Fletcher scooped up the loose ball and returned it 36 yards for another Houston touchdown. With 9:27 left in the first quarter, the visiting Texans had a 14-0 lead.
The Bucs came roaring back to cut the score to 14-7 with 4:46 left in the first quarter. McCown engineered an eight-play, 76-yard drive that was capped off with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Warren, his third TD catch of the preseason. McCown was 5-of-5 on the drive for 56 yards. Tight end Jerramy Stevens, who finished the game with seven catches for 100 yards, picked up back-to-back first downs, including a 23-yard catch. Running back Earnest Graham had two runs for 20 yards on the drive.
McCown remained red hot on Tampa Bay’s next possession, completing 5-of-6 passes for 76 yards on the Bucs’ scoring drive, which covered 85 yards in eight plays. The Bucs scored on a 12-yard touchdown catch by fullback B.J. Askew. Askew bounced off a tackle attempt by Texans linebacker Danny Clark at the Tampa Bay 11, kept his balance and tight-roped down the right sidelines for the score. With 14:08 left in the second quarter, the scored was tied 14-14.
Tampa Bay got the ball right back when rookie Jared Zabransky threw an interception to rookie safety Sabby Piscitelli at the Houston 30-yard line. Offensive lineman Jordan Black delivered a cheap shot to the back of Bucs defensive end Gaines Adams, which drew a 15-yard penalty that was tacked on to the end of the return.
But the Bucs couldn’t turn that turnover into a touchdown, wasting a first-and-goal opportunity after a fumbled exchange resulted in McCown getting sacked for 13 yards. On the next play, McCown was sacked for a 9-yard loss. With 11:51 left in the second quarter, Matt Bryant drilled a 41-yard field goal to give Tampa Bay a 17-14 lead.
Tampa Bay took a 24-14 lead with 4:20 remaining in the second quarter after a 10-play, 90-yard touchdown drive. The big play on the drive was a 51-yard reception by Warren, who took a McCown slant pass down to the Houston 33. Running back Lionel Gates had 25 yards on four consecutive runs before hauling in a 5-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal.
With eight seconds left in the first half, Houston capitalized on a McCown interception, turning the turnover into a 39-yard field goal from Kris Brown. That cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 24-17 at the half.
A fumble by Stevens on Tampa Bay’s first possession of the second half set up a Houston touchdown. The Texans took the ball 53 yards in seven plays and the drive was capped off with a 1-yard touchdown run by Wali Lundy on third-and-goal. With 11:25 left in the third quarter, the score was tied 24-24.
The key plays on Tampa Bay’s fourth quarter 10-play, 69-yard touchdown drive were an overturned Gradkowski interception – due to instant replay – and a 4-yard completion to Warren on fourth-and-1 at the Houston 35. On the next play, Gradkowski, who finished the contest 13-of-20 for 141 yards, hooked up with Warren again for the game-winner.
IT WAS OVER WHEN… Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski found wide receiver Paris Warren for a 31-yard touchdown with 3:00 left in the fourth quarter to put Tampa Bay ahead 31-24. Not only was the game over due to Tampa Bay’s touchdown, so was Warren’s 2007 season, unfortunately, as he left the game on a cart after dislocating his left ankle. The Bucs defense came through with a stop on fourth-and-9 at the Tampa Bay 33 after quarterback Jared Zabransky threw three straight incompletions.
PEWTERREPORT.COM PLAYER OF THE GAME Luke McCown likely held off a strong preseason charge by Bruce Gradkowski for the right to be the Bucs’ backup quarterback with a sensational first half in which he was 15-of-20 for 203 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Those stats, and the fact that the Bucs overcame a 14-0 deficit to take a 24-17 halftime lead, earned McCown the PewterReport.com Player of the Game honors.
But McCown’s night was not without some gaffes, though. Aside from throwing a pick to cornerback Jamar Fletcher right before halftime when the ball slipped out of his hand, McCown was also sacked three times, and fumbled on his first sack, which was recovered by Fletcher and returned 36 yards for a touchdown. Two of those sacks came from McCown holding on to the ball too long.
Still, McCown’s positives outweighed his negatives on Thursday night and he positioned himself well to become Tampa Bay’s backup behind Jeff Garcia. McCown finished the preseason 36-of-50 (72 percent) for 394 yards and four touchdowns with one interception.
GRUDEN DEFENDS GRADKOWSKI, CRITICIZES ESPN REPORT The FBI is investigating a federal points-shaving scandal at Toledo, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Bruce Gradkowski is a person of interest, according to ESPN.â€¨According to the ESPN report, investigators are looking into Gradkowski’s playing time in certain games where the final scores and gambling patterns raised some questions, especially ones where Gradkowski wasn’t deemed completely healthy for games. Gradkowski played at Toledo from 2002-05.
After Thursday night’s game, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden harshly criticized ESPN’s report regarding Gradkowski: "I don't watch ESPN. I don't believe half the [expletive] people on the channel, personally – no disrespect. But if Bruce Gradkowski is throwing games in Toledo, how in the hell does he lead the NCAA in passing percentages? That is a crock. You know, these reports make me sick – really. I don't believe [there is] any truth to it, and I'll go to my grave believing that. I hope ESPN 3 or 4 has real sources behind this story, because it has nothing to do with the kid. He's a great kid. He wants to be great. This is very uncharacteristic, in my opinion, of 'professional' journalism."
STATS THAT COUNT Fullback B.J. Askew scored his first touchdown in Tampa Bay on a 12-yard reception. … Bucs rookie safety Sabby Piscitelli recorded his first NFL interception when he picked off Jared Zabransky in the second quarter. … Tampa Bay defensive end Greg White got his first sack of the preseason against Houston. … Bucs defensive end Julian Jenkins recorded his initial sack of his career in the first half. He also led the team with six tackles (five solo). … Tampa Bay safety Kalvin Pearson forced and recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter at the Bucs’ 9-yard line. … Running back Lionel Gates led the Bucs in rushing with 26 yards on eight carries. He also scored his first touchdown in Tampa Bay on a 5-yard scoring pass. … Mark Jones had a 33-yard kickoff return in limited action against Houston. … Tampa Bay outgained Houston 390-292 yards and held a 34:00 to 26:00 time of possession advantage. … The Bucs converted 7-of-13 (54 percent) of their third downs against the Texans, while Houston managed only 33 perent (3-of-9) on third down.
THURSDAY’S STARTING LINEUPS With Tampa Bay resting its starters, the announced starting lineup for the Buccaneers offense against Houston included Donald Penn at left tackle, Anthony Davis at left guard, Dan Buenning at center, Matt Lehr at right guard, Dennis Roland at right tackle, Jerramy Stevens at tight end, Maurice Stovall and Michael Clayton, B.J. Askew at fullback, Earnest Graham at halfback and Luke McCown at quarterback.
The starting lineup for the defense was Julian Jenkins at left defensive end, Ryan Sims at nose tackle, Ellis Wyms at under tackle, Gaines Adams at right defensive end, Jamie Winborn at weakside linebacker, Ryan Nece at middle linebacker, Quincy Black at strongside linebacker, Jermaine Phillips at strong safety, Will Allen at free safety and Sammy Davis and Torrie Cox at cornerback.
MISSING IN ACTION Tampa Bay rested most of its starters on Thursday night. The Buccaneers that didn’t play on Thursday night included quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Chris Simms, running backs Michael Pittman and Cadillac Williams, tight ends Alex Smith and Anthony Becht, offensive linemen Luke Petitgout, Davin Joseph, John Wade and Jeremy Trueblood, wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard, defensive linemen Kevin Carter, Greg Spires, Patrick Chukwurah and Chris Hovan, linebackers Derrick Brooks, Barrett Ruud and Cato June and defensive backs Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly and Phillip Buchanon.
BUCS INJURIES Tampa Bay came out of Thursday night’s game with few injuries. The most severe injury, of course, was to wide receiver Paris Warren, who dislocated his left ankle and will be placed on injured reserve. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said that defensive end Gaines Adams had the wind knocked out of him after a cheap shot personal foul by offensive tackle Jordan Black. That play drew Gruden’s ire. Quarterback Chris Simms did not play due to a pre-game hip injury. Gruden did not comment on Simms’ injury and said that the quarterback scratched himself from the game.
KICKOFF CONDITIONS The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Texans game at Raymond James Stadium was 64,321, but the actual attendance appeared to be about 15,000 short of that mark. The temperature at kickoff was 90 degrees with 55 percent humidity.
UP NEXT The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished the preseason with a 3-1 record, while Houston finished the preseason with 2-2 mark. The Buccaneers open the 2007 regular season at Seattle on Sunday, September 9. Kickoff is set for 4:15 p.m.
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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org