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QUARTERBACKS He might be a rookie, but Bucs quarterback Bruce Gradkowski certainly didn’t look like one in his first professional start. The Bucs offense seemed to open up quite a bit thanks to Gradkowski’s mobility. On a third down play on Tampa Bay’s first offensive series of the game, Gradkowski ran a fake sweep and threw a short pass off of a bootleg to running back Michael Pittman for a 23-yard gain to New Orleans’ 35-yard line. A few plays later, Gradkowski threw a perfect strike in the corner of the end zone to wide receiver Joey Galloway for a 18-yard score, which put the Bucs up 7-0 and capped off a six-play, 61-yard scoring drive. On the next series, Gradkowski hooked up with Galloway again on the left side of the field near the sideline for a 22-yard gain and a first down. Gradkowski used his mobility to move the chains as well. He rushed six times for 19 yards in the first half. One of those runs was a quarterback sneak that picked up a first down on a third-and-1 play. Late in the second quarter, Gradkowski was called for intentional grounding after launching a pass deep downfield with no receivers in sight. Gradkowski completed 5-of-9 passes for 72 yards and tossed one touchdown, and he got the Bucs offense in Saints territory three different times in the first half.
Gradkowski got off to a good start in the second half, completing a slant pass to WR Michael Clayton for a first down on a third down play on the first series of the third quarter. Gradkowski was sacked early in the third quarter when rookie right tackle Jeremy Trueblood allowed Saints defensive end Charles Grant to sack the rookie, which forced him to fumble, allowing the Saints to recover the ball. The Saints took advantage of that turnover, driving 25 yards on four plays for a touchdown, which put them up 17-7 in the third quarter. On the next series, Gradkowski ran a bootleg and hit tight end Alex Smith in the flat for a 14-yard gain. On the same drive, Gradkowski play-action passed to Galloway and hit him in stride for a 52-yard gain down to the Saints’ 4-yard line. Gradkowski did a great job of selling the play-action pass and threw a beautiful strike to Galloway on the play. The Bucs capped off that six-play, 74-yard scoring drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by fullback Mike Alstott. In the fourth quarter, Gradkowski threw a fade to Maurice Stovall for a touchdown, but it was negated by offsetting pass interference penalties. But Gradkowski came back and hit tight end Alex Smith on third-and-4 play for a touchdown, which put the Bucs up 21-17 in the fourth quarter. With the Bucs trailing 24-21, Gradkowski completed key passes to Ike Hilliard and Galloway, but their final drive of the game stalled near midfield. Gradkowski completed 20-of-31 passes for 225 yard and tossed two touchdowns and no interceptions while helping to provide the Bucs offense, which produced 406 yards, with a much-needed spark.
RUNNING BACKS After weeks of being grounded, Tampa Bay’s ground game got going Sunday. Bucs RB Carnell “Cadillac” Williams broke off a 15-yard on a toss sweep play on the first series of the game. That play put the Bucs on the Saints’ 18-yard line. Williams had an 11-yard run toward the end of the second quarter. He also displayed good hands, hauling in a 9-yard pass from Gradkowski in the second quarter. Williams rushed 11 times for 39 yards in the first half. After a short visit to the locker room, Williams broke off a 10-yard run on the second-to-last play of the third quarter. That run picked up a first down for the Bucs. Williams came up huge in the fourth quarter when he broke off a 34-yard run to the Saints’ 4-yard line. The Bucs capped off that drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Gradkowski to Alex Smith. On Tampa Bay’s final drive of the game trailing 24-21. Williams ran with good balance and power, and finished the game with 20 carries for 111 yards (5.6 avg.).
Bucs RB Michael Pittman gained 23 yards off of a fake sweep/bootleg pass from Gradkowski on the first offensive series for the game. Pittman had some hard hits Sunday, including a great block on Williams’ 15-yard run in the first quarter. Pittman had a nice run of his own on a third-and-4 play in the second quarter. He gained 16 yards on the play. He was called for illegal motion on the first series of the third quarter. Pittman did a nice job of picking up blitzes and chip blocking. He finished the game with two runs for 27 yards and two catches for 31 yards.
Fullback Mike Alstott was stuffed for a loss on a third-and-1 run on the third series of the game in the second quarter. Alstott’s 1-yard run got the Bucs a much-needed score near the end of the third quarter, which made the score 17-14 in favor of the Saints. Alstott had a great lead block that sprung Williams for his 34-yard run in the fourth quarter to set the Bucs up with a first-and-goal situation.
Tampa Bay ran the ball 33 times for 187 yards (5.7 avg.) on Sunday.
WIDE RECEIVERS Bucs WR Joey Galloway was Gradkowski’s favorite weapon Sunday. In the first half, he beat Saints safety Josh Bullock in the corner of the end zone to haul in a perfectly thrown pass from the rookie quarterback for an 18-yard score on the first series of the game. Galloway and Gradkowski hooked up again on the second series of the game when Galloway did a great job of adjusting near the sideline for a pass thrown by Gradkowski for a 22-yard gain. Toward the end of the third quarter, Galloway was on the receiving end of Gradkowski’s play-action pass, which resulted in a 52-yard gain that set up the Bucs’ touchdown two plays later. Galloway dropped a perfect pass from Gradkowski on a slant late in the fourth quarter. It was a huge drop as Galloway might have scored on the play had he caught the ball. However, Galloway came back and caught a pass from Gradkowski for a first down to keep the chains moving later in the drive. Galloway was called for pass interference/pick on a third-and-4 play that had Hilliard catch a deep pass from Gradkowski down to the Saints’ 4-yard line. Galloway’s penalty negated the play and set up third-and-14. The Bucs eventually turned the ball over on downs. Galloway finished the game with four catches for 110 yards and one touchdown.
Bucs WR Michael Clayton’s biggest contribution in the first half came via the running game, where he was on the receiving end of an end around that he took up the left side of the field for a 27-yard gain. Clayton received great blocks on the play from Williams and center John Wade. In the third quarter, Clayton hauled in a short pass from Gradkowski on a slant for a first down. Clayton finished the game with just one catch for 7 yards and one run for 27 yards.
Rookie WR Maurice Stovall was active for the first time this year, and he also saw a bit of playing time. Stovall dropped a short pass from Gradkowski on the second series of the game. In the fourth quarter, Stovall hauled in a pass in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown on a fade from Gradkowski, but pass interference on he and Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie resulted in offsetting penalties and a replay of second-and-goal play. The Bucs eventually scored a touchdown to cap off that drive.
Bucs WR Ike Hilliard hauled in short pass from Gradkowski in third quarter. Hilliard caught a deep pass from Gradkowski down the sideline on third-and-4 play to get the Bucs down to the Saints’ 4-yard line late in the fourth quarter, but Galloway’s penalty negated the play. Hilliard caught four passes for 34 yards on Sunday.
Tampa Bay converted 5-of-13 (38 percent) of its third down plays vs. New Orleans.
TIGHT ENDS Tampa Bay’s tight ends had a quiet game vs. New Orleans in the first half. Alex Smith hauled in a pass that went for a 1-yard gain in the first half. Anthony Becht threw a great block on Williams’ 15-yard run in the first half. But the tight ends got much more involved in the passing game in the second half. Smith hauled in a 14-yard pass in the flat from Gradkowski in the third quarter for a first down. Becht caught a 13-yard pass in the third quarter. Smith came up huge on the same drive on a third-and-4 play in the fourth quarter when he hauled in a pass from Gradkowski for a touchdown, which put the Bucs up 21-17. Smith caught a team-leading five passes for 12 yards and one touchdown. Becht finished the contest with one catch for 13 yards. The tight ends, particularly Becht, played a significant role in opening up holes for Williams and the ground game.
OFFENSIVE LINE Tampa Bay’s offensive line had a different look Sunday. Rookie Jeremy Trueblood started in place of Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker, who was placed on injured reserve earlier in the week due to a knee injury that required season-ending surgery. The Bucs left a tight end and even a chip blocker in to help Trueblood in pass protection and rarely ran the ball behind him. But that didn’t completely protect Trueblood, who allowed Saints DE Charles Grant to beat him around the corner and sack Gradkowski in the third quarter, forcing Gradkowski to fumble and allowing the Saints to recover the ball on the Bucs 30-yard line. New Orleans made Tampa Bay pay for that mistake, driving 25 yards in four plays for a touchdown that put the Saints up 17-7. Most of Tampa Bay’s success via the ground game came on the left side of the line behind left guard Dan Buenning, left tackle Anthony Davis and center John Wade. Buenning had a great block on Williams’ 22-yard run in the first quarter. However, he and the rest of the offensive line failed to open up a hole big enough for Alstott to run through on a third-and-1 play in the second quarter, which forced the Bucs to punt. Tampa Bay’s offense produced 406 yards, yet it only scored 21 points due to some untimely penalties that led to stalled drives. Right guard Sean Mahan had a tough outing. He blew a block on Williams’ run in the second quarter that went for a 4-yard loss. That play put the Bucs in a second-and-14 situation and eventually forced them to punt instead of attempting a field goal. Mahan was called for a false start early in the third quarter. Davis was called for a false start in the third quarter. Shortly after Mahan’s false start penalty, the Bucs benched him and replaced him with rookie guard Davin Joseph, who was sidelined for the first three games of the season with a knee injury. But Mahan was still on the field. The Bucs used him as a blocking fullback on Alstott’s 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Buenning was called for holding on Tampa Bay’s final drive of the game. This unit did a much better job opening holes in the running game, but the pocket collapsed to quickly on several plays.
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