Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson seemed to be in the spirit for giving on Christmas Eve, handing out gifts in the form of four interceptions that helped Tampa Bay end a four-game losing streak by defeating the Browns 22-7.
The Bucs entered the game ranked 31st in takeaways with just 15 all season. Linebacker Derrick Brooks owned two of them, both interceptions. But just days after learning he failed to make the Pro Bowl for the first time in a decade, Brooks found some vindication, returning an interception 21 yards for a touchdown to help the Bucs take 19-point fourth quarter lead. It was his eighth career touchdown and it came on a day in which the Bucs defense looked like Bucs defense of old, pressuring the quarterback, creating turnovers and rushing the football.
Brooks’ interception was a product of a hurried throw from Anderson, who was harassed by defensive end Dewayne White on the play. Tampa Bay’s front four came to life with three sacks on the day, two by defensive end Greg Spires and one by tackle Chris Hovan. Anderson was making just his third career start and struggled noticeably, going 10-for-27 for 123 yards.
The defense held Cleveland to 187 total yards, considerably lower than the 339 yards the unit had been allowing its opponents this year.
Two of Anderson’s miscues came in the first half, both to safety Jermaine Phillips, who hadn’t had an interception all season. Phillips’ second pick, on a ball intended for tight end Kellen Winslow, was returned 29 yards to the Cleveland 33, setting up a 24-yard Matt Bryant field goal.
It was Bryant’s second of the game at that point. He opened the scoring with a 23-yard field goal after quarterback Tim Rattay, making his first start as a Buc, took the team down the field on its opening possession, going 75 yards in 12 plays.
Rattay put together an efficient performance, completing 16-of-26 passes for 212 yards and one interception. He found a rhythm early, connecting with rookie Maurice Stovall on completions of 18 and 27 yards on the opening drive. Rattay’s favorite receiver was Ike Hilliard, who hauled in four catches for 67 yards. Tight end Alex Smith also caught four balls for 45 yards.
With the aid of a solid passing game, Tampa Bay controlled the tempo throughout the first half, outgaining the Browns by 101 yards and piecing together 12 first downs. But on four trips into the red zone, the Bucs could only produce six points. Two drives ended without anything to show. Once, on fourth-and-1 at the Cleveland 9-yard line, fullback Mike Alstott was stopped for no gain, and just before the half, Rattay was intercepted by cornerback Daven Holly on the goal line.
For the first time since October of last year, the Bucs did not have the services of running back Cadillac Williams, who was inactive with a foot injury. Michael Pittman, who started in place of Williams, scored his first touchdown of the year on an 11-yard run. It capped off a nine play, 74-yard drive to open the second half. Pittman led the team with 86 yards on 16 carries while Alstott had season highs in both carries (22) and yards (56). The Bucs outrushed the Browns in total yards, 153 to 91.
With a solid fourth quarter lead and the line opening holes for Pittman and Alstott, the Bucs were able to do something they hadn’t done in a long time, wear down the clock. They came away with a decisive advantage in time of possession, holding the ball for almost 15 minutes longer than the Browns.
The only time Cleveland threatened was after defensive end Kamerion Wimbley sacked Rattay, forcing a fumble. Holly scooped up the football and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown, cutting the lead to 19-7 in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs answered, driving 35 yards on a short field on their ensuing possession and adding Bryant’s third field goal, a 37-yarder, to go up by two scores.
Tampa Bay produced 21 first downs and was penalized just twice. The penalties came on the first two plays of the game, an offside call on the kickoff and then a kick out of bounds on the next play by Bryant.
Improving to 4-11 with the win, the Bucs return home to wrap up the season against Seattle on Sunday. Cleveland drops to 4-11.
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