TAMPA – Buccaneers rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski didn’t produce a win for his team, but he sure made Tampa Bay’s 13-10 loss rather exciting. Coming off an 11-of-13 outing for 104 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s 16-3 preseason win against the New York Jets, Gradkowski injected life into a stagnant and sometimes self-destructing offense in the second half.
The Bucs were outgained 171-72 yards and trailed 10-3 at halftime. But when Gradkowski entered the game midway through the third quarter after backup quarterback Tim Rattay threw an ugly interception, Tampa Bay’s offense became energized. The Bucs’ sixth-round draft pick was his usual, accurate self, completing 11-of-14 passes for 193 yards against Miami and making two key plays to get the Bucs back in the game.
With 7:44 left in regulation, the Bucs faced a fourth-and-1 at their own 38, and trailing 13-3, head coach Jon Gruden elected to go for it. Gradkowski executed a play-action fake and found wide receiver Paris Warren for a 14-yard gain. On the next play, Gradkowski ran a similar play-action fake that froze Miami rookie defensive back Jason Allen and allowed Bucs receiver Edell Shepherd to blaze by him for a 48-yard touchdown. With 6:57 left in the game, Tampa Bay was behind 13-10.
“Edell was streaking through there,” Gradkowski said. “It was a great call at the time for what the Dolphins were doing and with his speed down the pipe like that, he made a great play. I just threw it out there. I said, ‘Hey, let me just put air on it, let him make a play’ and he made a great play. That kind of sparked us and we have to come back and finish at the end.”
Gradkowski and Shepherd tried their best to rally the Bucs when Tampa Bay got the ball back for its final drive with 3:37 remaining. After hitting Chas Gessner for an 18-yard gain, the rookie hit Shepherd for gains of 17 and 28 yards on back-to-back plays. But with 1:54 left and the Bucs at the Dolphins’ 32-yard line, Gradkowski’s short hitch to Shepherd was thrown inside of the receiver, who got a hand on the ball and unintentionally deflected it in the air.
Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Miami safety Jack Hunt picked off the pass and raced 14 yards before being tackled by Shepherd, who finished the game with three catches for 93 yards (31 avg.) and a score. Miami would run out the clock and hang on to a 13-10 win.
After a good start in the first quarter, Tampa Bay’s offensive line struggled to establish the run, totaling just 67 yards on 20 carries, and surrendering four sacks against a heavy Dolphins pass rush. But against Miami’s starters, Tampa Bay’s first-string offense drove down the field and scored a field goal without the services of center John Wade, running back Cadillac Williams and wide receiver Joey Galloway, who all rested this week.
After head coach Jon Gruden griped last week that his defense didn’t get off the field on third down, Tampa Bay forced a three-and-out on its first possession. The Bucs marched down the field on their first offensive possession and took a 3-0 lead. Chris Simms connected with Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard for gains of 14 and 12 yards, while Mike Alstott picked up 14 yards on two carries. But Tampa Bay’s initial drive stalled once it got inside Miami’s red zone.
On first-and-10 at the 13-yard line, Simms rolled out to his left and misfired on a pass to tight end Anthony Becht in the end zone. Then on third-and-12 at the 15, he overthrew Clayton near the goal line. Matt Bryant kicked a 33-yard field goal with 7:31 remaining in the first quarter to cap off the 11-play, 45-yard drive.
Simms had a shaky night, finishing 2-of-7 for 27 yards and getting sacked twice.
Tampa Bay’s defense registered another three-and-out, thanks to back-to-back sacks by middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who finished with a game-high eight tackles, and under tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland.
Ruud, who also forced a fumble that would be recovered by Miami, would again play a vital role in yet another three-and-out by the Dolphins starting offense by almost sacking Daunte Culpepper again. Instead, intentional grounding was called, and the Dolphins were assessed a 15-yard penalty, setting up a third-and-21 from the Miami 9.
Several Bucs defensive starters did not play against Miami, including free safety Will Allen, middle linebacker Shelton Quarles and defensive end Simeon Rice.
But unlike the starters who did play, Tampa Bay’s second-string defense would have no such luck getting off the field on third down against Miami’s starting offense in the second quarter. The Dolphins marched 70 yards on 14 plays to take a 7-3 lead with 5:18 left before halftime. Miami chewed 9:33 off the clock and converted four first downs on the drive that was capped off by a Sammy Morris 1-yard touchdown on third-and-goal.
Morris and Ronnie Brown averaged over 4.4 yards per carry and Culpepper completed 7-of-9 passes for 86 yards against the Bucs.
Miami added to its lead right before halftime as the Dolphins embarked on a 10-play, 58-yard field goal drive. Backup quarterback Joey Harrington found Fred Gibson for gains of 12 and 21 yards on the drive before Olindo Mare drilled a 41-yard field goal to give Miami a 10-3 lead at intermission.
Miami’s defense forced two turnovers in the third quarter to stymie Tampa Bay drives. Bucs backup quarterback Tim Rattay found a wide-open receiver in Maurice Stovall too late down the middle of the field. He hesitated too long on his throw and was intercepted by safety Deke Cooper.
After the Bucs defense held, rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski entered the game halfway through the third quarter. Gradkowski hit Stovall on a fly pattern for a 36-yard gain down to the Miami 19-yard line. But on the next play, running back Carey Davis fumbled the ball away to the Dolphins. After rushing for 67 yards last week, Davis finished with 13 yards on eight carries (1.6) against Miami.
Harrington marched Miami on a seven-play, 49-yard drive that ended in a 52-yard field goal by Mare that gave the Dolphins a 13-3 lead with 2:54 left in the third quarter. Harrington hit tight end Dave Rader for a gain of 18 yards and Bucs rookie cornerback Alan Zemaitis gave Miami another 16 yards with a questionable pass interference call.
Tampa Bay (1-1) travels to Jacksonville next Saturday night for its third preseason game.
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