TAMPA – If Tampa Bay’s preseason opener is any indication of future success, the Buccaneers’ 2006 draft class is already a big hit. The rookies played huge roles in Tampa Bay’s 16-3 victory over the New York Jets in the 2006 preseason opener for both teams.
“Our draft picks stood out tonight,” Gruden said. “Our rookie class got a chance to play a lot of minutes and we were happy to win the game.”
Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick, Davin Joseph, had an eventful rookie debut in a Bucs uniform. Not only did Joseph log his first start at right guard in the preseason opener, but he also drew a 15-yard facemask penalty on his first offensive series and recovered a Michael Pittman fumble. But aside from his facemask penalty, Joseph played extremely well in pass protection and opened some holes in the running game.
Second-round pick Jeremy Trueblood started at right tackle for Kenyatta Walker and played the first half. Trueblood did not give up any sacks and was formidable in the run game.
“They did a good job,” Gruden said of Tampa Bay’s top two picks. “There were a couple of great plays that those two guys made – some real physical plays at the point of attack and some athleticism on the backside in not giving up a sack tonight.”
Wide receiver Maurice Stovall, the team’s third-round pick, had three catches for 21 yards in the second half and scored a touchdown.
Cornerback Alan Zemaitis, Tampa Bay’s fourth-round pick, was solid in pass coverage and made a real nice pass breakup in the end zone near the end of the first half.
But the real star of the Bucs’ preseason opener was quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who was drafted in the sixth round. The rookie entered the Jets game after a very impressive two weeks at training camp and began to state his case for the backup job behind starter Chris Simms with a stellar performance against New York.
After overcoming a case of the nerves that prompted him to vomit prior to taking the field in the second quarter, Gradkowski completed 11 of 13 passes (84.6 percent) for 104 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and was easily the game’s most valuable player.
“He did some good things tonight,” Gruden said of Gradkowski. “It was a great step in the right direction. You can’t do much better in your debut.”
But while all eyes were on Gradkowski’s performance, the third-string quarterback didn’t earn Gruden’s game ball. Instead, that honor went to unheralded third-string fullback Carey Davis, who was listed as a sleeper at running back in Pewter Report’s Training Camp Issue. With Gruden deciding to hold starting running back Cadillac Williams out of tonight’s action and backup running back Derek Watson sidelined with a sprained ankle, the rushing workload fell on the shoulders of Michael Pittman, Earnest Graham and Davis, who finished the game with 67 yards on 14 carries (4.8 avg.) and two catches for 12 yards.
“How about that?” Gruden said. “Derek Watson had an ankle sprain and we didn’t feel like he should go tonight. Earnest took 16 or 17 carries and we wanted to see him perform like we did last preseason. Carey Davis was pressed into service today as a halfback. He has been playing fullback the entire offseason and training camp. To come in here and carry 15 or 16 times, to pick up blitzes and catch some passes. He gets steak and lobster this week in Orlando. That’s a fact. He’s going to eat steak and lobster. He gets the game ball. I know it’s the preseason, but what a gut check and a great performance by a football player.
“He had no carries. Zero. None. Not one carry until two days ago. That’s a pro football player. That’s what they do. That’s how Jameel Cook was discovered here. This guy made a step in the right direction as a football player.”
The Bucs made a step in the right direction in establishing their ground game with 167 yards rushing. Tampa Bay outgained New York 305-185 yards and converted 69 percent (9-of-13) of its third downs in the win.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Jets were threatening to put the first points on the board until Tampa Bay forced the game’s first turnover. With 12:48 left in the second quarter, and New York was facing a third-and-goal from the Bucs’ 6-yard line, Tampa Bay safety Kalvin Pearson blitzed from the left side and sacked quarterback Chad Pennington, forcing a fumble that was recovered by middle linebacker Barett Ruud, who advanced the ball to the Bucs’ 20-yard line.
Backup quarterback Tim Rattay entered the game after Simms played just one series and engineered the game’s first scoring drive. Rattay did a great job of handing the ball off to Graham, who rushed for 32 yards on six carries on the drive and finished the game with 69 yards on 17 carries, and had a nice improvisational dump off pass to Graham for 26 yards.
But Tampa Bay’s drive bogged down at the Jets’ 7-yard line when Rattay threw two errant passes on second and third down. Matt Bryant came out to end the Bucs’ 15-play, 73-yard drive with a 25-yard field goal that gave the Bucs a 3-0 lead with 9:34 left in the first half.
Tampa Bay’s offense underwhelmed in the first half and generated only 97 yards, including 34 yards through the air on 3-of-7 passing. With the Jets defense forcing a late three-and-out deep in Tampa Bay territory, New York got the ball back at the Bucs’ 48-yard line after a 39-yard Brian Simjanovski punt with 1:50 left in the half. Backup quarterback Kellen Clemens marched the Jets down the field thanks to two big completions to receiver Jericho Cotchery for 19 and 9 yards.
Zemaitis made a great pass breakup in the end zone, knocking the ball from Cotchery’s hands on first-and-goal from the 4-yard line. On the next play, Clemens tried to scramble for a touchdown, but safety Donte Nicholson and linebacker Marquis Cooper saved a touchdown by dragging Clemens down at the Tampa Bay 2.
On third-and-goal from the 2 with six seconds left in the half, Clemens rolled right but had to throw the ball into the ground as no receivers were open. With two seconds left in the second quarter, Jets kicker Mike Nugent’s 20-yard field goal tied the score at 3-3 as the teams went into halftime.
Tampa Bay increased its lead after its first possession in the second half as rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski led the team on a 16-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Graham rushed for 20 yards and Davis added 19 yards on the ground and another four yards through the air. Gradkowski was 4-of-5 for 36 yards on the drive, including an 11-yard touchdown pass to Paris Warren on third-and-6 from the New York 11. This play came after Gradkowski almost threw an interception inside the 5-yard line. With 6:19 left in the third quarter, Tampa Bay led 10-3.
The Jets’ next possession was derailed after they crossed midfield when safety Steve Cargile sacked Clemens for a 6-yard loss that brought up a third-and-21 situation, and ultimately a punting situation, near the end of the third quarter.
On Tampa Bay’s next possession, Gradkowski completed 6-of-7 passes for 61 yards and engineered another 80-yard scoring drive. After completing a pair of 11-yard passes to Warren and Graham on consecutive third downs, Gradkowski’s precision passing continued with a 17-yard connection with backup fullback Jerald Sowell to drive Tampa Bay deep into New York territory.
Stovall’s first NFL catch came in the fourth quarter as he picked up a first down on a 12-yard gain down to the Jets’ 6. Two plays later, Gradkowski threw a lob to Stovall deep into the left corner of the end zone and watched the 6-foot-5 receiver outjumped cornerback Rashaun Reed for a touchdown. After the 13-play drive consumed 7:23 off the clock, the Bucs led 16-3 with 9:03 left in the game. The Bucs missed the extra point when Xavier Beitia’s PAT hit the right upright.
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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: email@example.com