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QUARTERBACKS:
Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson’s two biggest plays went to wide receiver Michael Clayton, and the rookie receiver deserves more credit for those plays than the veteran signal caller.

Johnson’s first completion to Clayton came in the second quarter when he threw a deep ball down the right seam of the field to the wide open rookie for a 51-yard touchdown. Clayton had to stretch out for the poorly thrown pass, but he hauled it in for a reception and then got off the ground and raced into the end zone before anyone could tackle him. Johnson hooked up with Clayton again in the second quarter after the quarterback’s pass was tipped by a defender and again by the rookie receiver before Clayton made a miraculous, one-handed catch for the 22-yard gain. That completion allowed the Bucs to make a field goal.

Unfortunately for Johnson, he had three pass plays blown by his receivers. His first pass attempt of the game to a wide open tight end Ken Dilger was dropped. Wide receiver Charles Lee hauled in a pass for a 14-yard gain before fumbling the ball away in the first quarter. A fade-like pass play down the left sideline to running back Michael Pittman was called back on a questionable pick penalty on Clayton.

Johnson made some mistakes of his own in the second quarter when he failed to see that he had a wide open receiver in the end zone on two consecutive plays. The Bucs ended up having to kick a field goal on that drive. Overall, Johnson was efficient, but he didn’t make enough plays to win the game. He completed 15-of-23 passes for 162 yards and tossed one touchdown and no interceptions.

*Tampa Bay was just 4-of-11 (36 percent) on third down attempts.

GRADE: C


RUNNING BACKS:
Tampa Bay’s offense definitely benefited from the return of tailback Michael Pittman. Pittman looked like he had fresh legs and a quick burst en route to rushing 15 times for 72 yards (4.8 avg.). His longest run went for a 14-yard gain, and Pittman had a few nice runs in the third quarter that helped put the Bucs’ offense in field goal range. Pittman also had a big reception downfield in the first quarter, but that play was called back on rookie WR Michael Clayton’s questionable pick penalty.

Tailback Jamel White carried the ball four times for 17 yards (4.3 avg.). His longest run of the game came on his first carry. It was a 10-yarder.

Fullback Mike Alstott carried the ball three times for 7 yards (2.3 avg.). He failed to pick up a corner blitz by Willie Middlebrooks on third down in the first quarter. Middlebrooks sacked QB Brad Johnson and the Bucs were forced to punt. The A-Train was stuffed by his former teammate, Broncos safety John Lynch, on a crucial third-and-1 play in the third quarter. He’s also given up three sacks in the Bucs’ first four regular season games.

*Tampa Bay rushed 24 times for 110 yards (4.6 avg.) against Denver.

GRADE: B-


WIDE RECEIVERS:
Rookie wide receiver Michael Clayton, who started at the flanker (Z) position, was Tampa Bay’s biggest playmaker on Sunday. Before making his first catch of the game, Clayton took an end-around from QB Brad Johnson and turned it into a 7-yard gain, which resulted in a first down. Clayton’s first reception of the game came in the second quarter when he stretched out to haul in a poorly thrown deep pass from Johnson. Clayton got himself wide open by putting a great juke move on Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, who fell down on the play. Once he hauled in the pass, Clayton had the presence of mind to realize he had not been touched on the ground, so he got up and sprinted to the end zone without his helmet for a 51-yard touchdown.

Later in the second quarter, Johnson threw a pass to Clayton on a crossing route. That pass was deflected by a defender and tipped again by Clayton, who then made a spectacular one-handed catch for a 22-yard gain. That great play put the Bucs in field goal range. Earlier in the game, Clayton was flagged for a questionable pick, which negated RB Michael Pittman’s big reception down the sideline. He might have even caught his second touchdown of the game if Johnson had seen him wide open in the back of the end zone near the end of the second quarter. Overall, Clayton had an outstanding game and finished the contest with four catches for 91 yards and one touchdown.

Charles Lee started at the split-end (X) position and finished the game with five catches for 47 yards. His first reception came in the first quarter and went for a 14-yard gain, but Lee fumbled the ball, which allowed Denver to recover on Tampa Bay’s 43-yard line. Denver eventually scored a touchdown on that turnover, which put the Broncos up 7-0. On a reception he had later in the game, Lee lost his footing and fell short of what could have been a big gain. Lee’s nicest reception came second quarter when he made a nice adjustment to haul in a pass vs. CB Champ Bailey for a first down.

Tim Brown saw limited playing time and caught one pass for three yards. Although that reception extended his consecutive games with a reception streak to 176, it fell well short of the first down markers on a third down play. The Bucs had to settle for a field goal. Brown also made a half-hearted effort for a pass on the sideline on a big third down play in the second half. Instead of jumping up for the ball, Brown lazily put an arm in the air and let the ball sail out of bounds.

*The Buccaneers outgained the Broncos in total offense, 269-249.

GRADE: B-


TIGHT ENDS:
Bucs tight end Ken Dilger dropped a perfectly thrown pass from QB Brad Johnson on the first offensive play of the game. He finished the game with one catch for 7 yards and did a decent job blocking in the running game.

Second-year TE Will Heller saw plenty of playing time against Denver and did a good job run blocking. He also caught one pass for 5 yards.

The tight ends did a better job of blocking in this game, but they weren’t a big enough factor in the passing game.

GRADE: C


OFFENSIVE LINE:
Tampa Bay’s offensive line had its best outing of the 2004 season against Denver. This unit did a nice job of moving the pile and opening holes for RB Michael Pittman and Co. on the perimeter. Even its pass blocking was improved. Bucs QB Brad Johnson had time to locate receivers but didn’t always make the most of those opportunities. Left tackle Derrick Deese was flagged for holding in the first quarter. Kenyatta Walker replaced Todd Steussie at right tackle on a few series. The one area this unit did struggle in was in third-and-short situations.

GRADE: C


DEFENSIVE LINE:
Tampa Bay’s defense did a nice job of containing Denver tailback Quentin Griffin (21 carries for 66 yards), but its defensive line failed to get enough pressure on Denver QB Jake Plummer and had three offsides penalties on Sunday.

Nose tackle Chartric Darby accounted for two of those infractions, and his last one proved to be the costliest. Late in the fourth quarter in a third-and-4 situation and the Bucs trailing by three points, the defense forced Plummer to throw an incompletion, but Darby was called for being offside, which automatically gave the Broncos a first down and basically put the final nail in the Bucs’ coffin. Darby recorded four tackles on Sunday.

Left defensive end Greg Spires, who was all over the field against the Broncos, accounted for the other offsides penalty. He finished the game with six tackles.

Right DE Simeon Rice failed to win one-on-one matchups and had another quiet game. He was also baited into overpursuing on several of Plummer’s bootlegs and play-action rollouts. He notched two tackles against the Broncos.

Under tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland recorded two tackles and forced Plummer to fumble on a scramble in the second half, but the Broncos recovered the ball.

Backup DT Damian Gregory received some playing time and came up with two big tackles. Backup DT Ellis Wyms also played and notched four tackles.

The Bucs failed to record a sack on Sunday.

*Denver rushed 35 times for 111 yards (3.2 avg.) against Tampa Bay.

GRADE: D


LINEBACKERS:
Tampa Bay’s linebackers also overpursued on several of Denver QB Jake Plummer’s well executed bootlegs and play-action rollouts.

Weakside LB Derrick Brooks and middle LB Shelton Quarles each had chances to intercept Plummer in Denver territory in the second half, but neither one of these players could come up with the much-needed turnover. Brooks was flagged for holding in the fourth quarter on a field goal attempt, which gave Denver an automatic first down. The Bucs managed to hold the Broncos to a field goal, though. Brooks finished the game with 10 tackles. Quarles led all Bucs defenders with 11 takedowns.

Strongside LB Ian Gold quietly recorded six tackles on Sunday.

*Denver converted 8-of-17 (47 percent) third down attempts against Tampa Bay.

GRADE: C


SECONDARY:
Tampa Bay’s secondary had some costly penalties, some of which were questionable.

Bucs strong safety Dwight Smith’s questionable pass interference penalty down the right sideline against Broncos WR Ashley Lelie in the fourth quarter put the Broncos on the 50-yard line. Smith was caught out of position and made a play on the ball about a half of a second before it actually got to Lelie. The Broncos would drive into field goal range from there and won the game with Jason Elam’s 23-yard kick. Smith had some hard hits on Broncos receivers, but he got ran over by Broncos RB Reuben Droughns on a crucial third-and-1 play late in the fourth quarter. He recorded five tackles on the day.

Cornerbacks Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber were each called for penalties. Barber, who notched eight tackles, was called for illegal hands to the face on a third down play in the first quarter, which gave the Broncos a first down. Kelly’s pass interference penalty in the first quarter put the Broncos on the Bucs’ 10-yard line. Denver went on to score a touchdown after that penalty. Kelly had one tackle, but he also added three impressive passes defensed.

Strong safety Jermaine Phillips recorded four tackles and had two nice passes defensed. He also did a nice job of defending the run near the line of scrimmage.

Nickel CB Mario Edwards played a little too far off his receiver and allowed a first down late in the fourth quarter on a third-and-5 play. That play proved to be costly as the Broncos went on to record three more first downs before giving the ball back to the Bucs offense with just seconds remaining in the game. He finished the game with two tackles.

*Broncos QB Jake Plummer completed 13-of-31 (41.9 percent) passes for 138 yards and one touchdown. Tampa Bay’s secondary played well, but those two pass interference penalties were very costly.

GRADE: C-


SPECIAL TEAMS:
Tampa Bay lost kick returner Frank Murphy to an ankle injury in the first quarter. He’s out for the year. Tailback Jamel White took his place and returned four kicks for 99 yards. His longest return was a 44-yarder and came in the fourth quarter. Despite the fact that that return put the Bucs’ 45-yard line, the offense failed to do anything positive with the ball.

Bucs rookie WR Michael Clayton fielded two punts, but he fumbled his second attempt. Although he recovered that fumble, Clayton was replaced by Tim Brown. The Bucs averaged just two yards per return.

Punter Josh Bidwell averaged 44.2 yards on five attempts.

Kicker Martin Gramatica made field goal attempts from 28 and 30 yards out.

GRADE: B-


COACHING:
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden’s game plan was a good one, but his players didn’t execute it well enough to win Sunday. His offense doesn’t have enough playmakers, and when a wide receiver fumbles the ball that eventually leads to a touchdown for the opposition, the result will usually be like the one we saw on Sunday — a loss. Speaking of a lack of playmakers, why wasn’t Bill Schroeder, who was coming off of a four-catch, 126-yard effort against Oakland, the team’s number three receiver instead of Tim Brown?

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has got to find a way to get his front four after the quarterback. The Bucs failed to record a sack or a turnover against the Broncos. Tampa Bay allowed Denver to convert four third downs into first downs on the Broncos’ final drive of the game.

The Bucs were penalized nine times for 97 yards on Sunday.

GRADE: C+
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