TAMPA – It’s a safe bet that Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden had a happy 45th birthday on Sunday as his Buccaneers turned in a masterful performance against New England, beating the Patriots 27-10 before a nationally televised audience on NFL Network. Minus quarterback Jeff Garcia (calf strain) and wide receiver Joey Galloway (groin strain) for the second straight week, the Bucs’ starting offense rolled up 234 yards in the first half due to a dominant effort from the offensive line.

Quarterbacks Brian Griese and Luke McCown weren’t sacked in the first half and had plenty of time to combine for 16-of-20 (80 percent) passing for 123 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. By the end of the night, 10 different Tampa Bay ballcarriers combined for 170 yards rushing on 36 carries (4.7 avg.) led by Michael Bennett’s 57 yards on eight carries (7.1 avg.), and 12 different Bucs caught at least one pass.

As Tampa Bay moved to 2-0 in the preseason, the Buccaneers offense did not turn the ball over for a second straight week.

Tampa Bay’s defense was just as ferocious against New England, who was without starting quarterback Tom Brady (foot injury), forcing three turnovers and holding the Patriots to just 174 yards of total offense.

Most of Tampa Bay’s scoring drives last week at Miami were about 17 plays in nature, and the Buccaneers followed suit on their opening drive against New England. Griese got the start at quarterback and led Tampa Bay on a 17-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, completing passes to five different receivers – halfback Warrick Dunn, fullback Byron Storer, tight end Alex Smith and wide receivers Ike Hilliard and Antonio Bryant, who also had a 16-yard reverse to convert a third-and-1 situation. Dunn did the most damage on the drive, rushing for 12 yards on three carries and hauling in three passes for 15 yards. Griese was 8-of-8 for 39 yards on the drive, including a 4-yard pass to Bryant on third-and-goal down to the 1-yard line. That set up Earnest Graham’s 1-yard plunge off right tackle to give Tampa Bay a 7-0 led with 5:22 left in the first quarter.

The Patriots dodged a bullet on their first possession as Matt Cassel’s first pass of the game was almost intercepted by middle linebacker Barrett Ruud. The officials originally that Ruud had picked off the pass near midfield, but head coach Bill Belichick successfully challenged the play and instant replay showed that the ball hit the ground before Ruud brought the ball into his body.

Ruud played a role in stymieing New England’s next drive, too. After Wes Welker picked up 25 yards on three catches, converting two third downs in the process, the Patriots drive ended. On second-and-17 from the Tampa Bay 30, Kevin Faulk was stripped of the ball by Ruud, and the fumble was recovered by defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson at the 25-yard line.

Luke McCown entered the game on Tampa Bay’s next drive and hit Bryant for a 33-yard catch-and-run down to the New England 30. Michael Bennett rushed for 23 yards on four carries, including a 13-yarder to start the drive. The Bucs drive stalled at the New England 16 as McCown’s pass into the end zone to tight end Jerramy Stevens was slightly overthrown on third down. Matt Bryant’s 34-yard field goal capped off a nine-play, 59-yard drive. With 7:25 left in the second quarter, the Bucs led the Patriots 10-0.

A block in the back penalty on safety Tanard Jackson wiped out a decent return by rookie return man Dexter Jackson close to midfield and forced the Bucs to start from their own 14-yard line. But that didn’t make any difference as Tampa Bay’s offense, which consisted of the starting offensive line, continued to dominate New England’s defense.

Bennett ripped off a 23-yard run to start the drive, followed by an 18-yard strike from McCown to Maurice Stovall. An 8-yard run by Bennett took the ball across midfield before he gave way to Kenneth Darby. Darby had a 12-yard run, followed by an 11-yard catch. Bennett returned to the field to catch a 13-yard pass from McCown down to the 1-yard line. On first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, McCown used to play action to freeze the defense before throwing a touchdown pass to a wide-open Storer in the right flat. The Bucs’ drive covered 86 yards in eight plays and spanned 4:26. With 1:13 left in the first half, Tampa Bay took a commanding 17-0 lead.

New England got on the scoreboard at halftime as Stephen Gostkowski drilled a 52-yard field goal as time expired. The Patriots picked up 33 yards in five plays with wide receiver Randy Moss accounting for 25 yards on two catches, including a 15-yarder on third-and-2 from the 50-yard down to the Tampa Bay 35 with two seconds left. At the half, Tampa Bay led 17-3.

The Bucs padded their lead on the first play of the second half as strong safety Sabby Piscitelli darted into the backfield on a run blitz to recover a fumbled shotgun snap at the New England 24. Piscitelli scooped and scored on the play, producing a touchdown that put Tampa Bay up 24-3 with 14:44 left in the third quarter.

Rookie Kevin O’Connell checked in at quarterback on New England’s next possession and didn’t fare any better than Cassel, who finished 6-of-10 for 57 yards. On O’Connell’s first play, rookie cornerback Elbert Mack stepped in front of Marcus Pollard to make the interception deep inside Patriots territory.

Quarterback Chris Simms entered the game for Tampa Bay on the ensuing possession, which started at the New England 29 and led yet another scoring drive for the home team. Simms hit Paris Warren for 10 yards to convert a third-and-10 situation before connecting with tight end Daniel Fells on a 15-yard pass down to the New England 1. But a holding penalty on tight end John Gilmore pushed the Bucs back to the 11-yard line. On third-and-goal from the 5, Simms’ pass was batted down at the line, forcing Matt Bryant to trot out for a 23-yard field goal with 7:38 left in the third quarter. The nine-play, 24-yard drive consumed 4:08 and resulted in a 27-3 lead for the Buccaneers. Simms finished the game 2-of-4 for 24 yards with one scramble for 10 yards. He was sacked twice by the Patriots.

O’Connell rebounded in the fourth quarter and engineered the first touchdown drive Tampa Bay’s defense has surrendered in the 2008 preseason. O’Connell found wide receiver C.J. Jones for gains of 14 and 17 yards on the drive and also scrambled five yards to convert a fourth-and-1 situation at the Tampa Bay 35. Jones’ 17-yard catch drove the Patriots down to the Tampa Bay 1, and on first-and-goal, fullback Heath Evans powered over left tackle to cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 27-10 with 10:20 remaining in regulation.

Rookie quarterback Josh Johnson entered the game for Tampa Bay on the next possession and finished the game 1-of-1 for six yards with two carries for minus-1 yard in addition to being sacked once.

PEWTERREPORT.COM PLAYER OF THE GAME
Tampa Bay’s starting offensive line deserves credit for a command performance in the first half. The starting five up front played the entire first half and allowed the Bucs to out-gain the Patriots 234-87 yards, including 120 yards on the ground. Michael Bennett rushed for 57 yards on eight carries to lead all rushers. Quarterback Brian Griese went untouched and was able to complete 9-of-10 passes for 44 yards, while backup Luke McCown completed 6-of-7 passes for 76 yards and one touchdown. Tackles Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood, guards Arron Sears and Davin Joseph and center Jeff Faine had as much to do with the Bucs’ preseason victory over New England as any other group.

IT WAS OVER WHEN…
Tampa Bay was clearly the superior team on Sunday night as it took a big 17-3 lead over New England at halftime, but strong safety Sabby Piscitelli’s 24-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown really put the game out of reach after the first play of the second half. With the Bucs up 24-3 at that point, the fact that Tampa Bay was going to win the game and move to 2-0 on the preseason was never in doubt.

STATS THAT COUNT
After having zero penalties last week at Miami, the Bucs did have an acceptable three penalties for 35 yards against New England. … The Bucs out-gained the Patriots 295-174, but only mustered 61 yards of offense in the second half. … Tampa Bay wide receiver Ike Hilliard, running back Warrick Dunn and fullback Byron Storer led the Bucs with three catches apiece. Receiver Antonio Bryant compiled the most yardage with 37 yards on two catches. … Bucs rookie cornerback Elbert Mack picked off his first NFL pass on Sunday. … Tampa Bay did not record a sack versus New England. … Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud led the Bucs with four tackles and also had a pass breakup and a forced fumble. … Rookie running back Clifton Smith led the Bucs with two special teams tackles.

SUNDAY’S STARTING LINEUPS
With Tampa Bay resting some of its starters, the announced starting lineup for the Miami game was as follows:

BUCS STARTING OFFENSE
WR Ike Hilliard
LT Donald Penn
LG Arron Sears
C Jeff Faine
RG Davin Joseph
RT Jeremy Trueblood
TE Alex Smith
WR Antonio Bryant
FB Byron Storer
RB Earnest Graham
QB Brian Griese

BUCS STARTING DEFENSE
LE Kevin Carter
NT Chris Hovan
UT Ryan Sims
RE Gaines Adams
SLB Cato June
MLB Barrett Ruud
WLB Derrick Brooks
LCB Phillip Buchanon
RCB Ronde Barber
FS Tanard Jackson
SS Jermaine Phillips

MISSING IN ACTION
Tampa Bay rested several of its starters on Sunday night. Quarterback Jeff Garcia (calf strain), under tackle Jovan Haye (groin strain), fullback B.J. Askew (ankle sprain), safety Donte Nicholson (soreness), running back Cadillac Williams (knee) and wide receiver Joey Galloway (groin strain) did not play. Galloway did dress for Sunday’s game, but did not participate.

BUCS INJURIES
Tampa Bay came out of Sunday night’s game with no injuries.

KICKOFF CONDITIONS
The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Patriots game at Raymond James Stadium was 63,365, but the stadium appeared to be about three-quarters full. The temperature was 84 degrees at kickoff with 74 percent humidity.

UP NEXT
The Buccaneers will take their 2-0 record back to Raymond James Stadium next Saturday night to face the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-1). The kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

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: sr@pewterreport.com
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