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QUARTERBACKS Tim Rattay made his first start as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer Sunday. He had mixed results in the first half vs. Cleveland. Rattay got off to a pretty good start, engineering a 12-play, 75-yard drive on Tampa Bay’s opening possession. Rattay came up big on the first third down of that series, completing an 18-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Maurice Stovall. On the same series, Rattay and Stovall connected again on third down, this time for a 19-yard gain that put the Bucs on the Browns’ 10-yard line. However, that promising drive stalled out and was capped off by Matt Bryant’s 23-yard field goal, which put the Bucs up 3-0. Two Jermaine Phillips interceptions set the offense up with great field position deep inside Cleveland territory, but the Bucs turned the ball over on downs inside the red zone after the first pick and capped the second drive off with a Bryant field goal, which gave them a 6-0 lead. Rattay really struggled to hit receivers for significant plays until the end of the second quarter when he lofted a pass down the seam sideline to WR Ike Hilliard for a 31-yard gain. On the same drive, Rattay did a great job of hanging in the pocket under pressure and getting off a pass to Hilliard on the left sideline for a first down at Cleveland’s 14-yard line with just over one minute remaining in the half. But when Rattay attempted to get the offense into the end zone for the first time in the game, his pass to WR Joey Galloway on a corner route was severely underthrown and intercepted by Browns defensive back Daven Holly. That turnover killed yet another drive deep in Cleveland territory. The Bucs managed to get the ball inside the Browns’ red zone four times in the first half, yet only came away with six points. Rattay completed 10-of-18 passes for 147 yards and tossed one interception en route to helping the Bucs take a 6-0 lead into halftime vs. the Browns.
Rattay started the third quarter fast, completing 4-of-4 passes, including key passes to tight end Alex Smith and Galloway, who had the biggest play of the drive when he hauled in a 25-yard pass from Rattay. The Bucs capped off that nine-play, 74-yard drive with an 11-yard run by RB Michael Pittman for a touchdown. The Bucs were pitching a 19-0 shutout in the fourth quarter until left tackle Anthony Davis allowed defensive end Kamerion Wimbley to sack Rattay and force him to fumble. The ball was picked up by Holly and returned 40 yards for a touchdown. That play, along with the extra point, made the score 19-7 in favor of the Bucs. Tampa Bay responded by putting together a nine-play, 35-yard drive that ended with a 37-yard field goal by Bryant. Rattay didn’t get much action after the turnover as the Bucs attempted to stick to the running game in an effort to run the clock out. Rattay completed 16-of-26 passes for 212 yards and tossed no touchdowns and one interception while getting sacked three times in Cleveland.
Tampa Bay converted 8-of-17 (47 percent) third down plays into first downs.
RUNNING BACKS With Cadillac Williams getting left behind in the garage back in Tampa to nurse a foot injury, Tampa Bay featured a running-back-by-committee approach vs. Cleveland.
Many fans got their wish as fullback Mike Alstott led the way in the first half, carrying the ball nine times for 34 yards. His longest run of the first half was an 8-yarder, and one of those runs picked up a first down on a third-and-1 play. However, Alstott’s half could have been better. He dropped a pass from Rattay in the flat that could have gone for a touchdown had he hauled it in. Later in the first half with Tampa Bay on Cleveland’s 10-yard line, Alstott was called on to convert a fourth-and-1 play. But the “A-Train” took the handoff from Rattay and was stuffed by three Cleveland defenders for a loss. As a result, the Bucs turned the ball over on downs. Alstott and lead blocker Jerald Sowell didn’t appear to be on the same page as both players went in different directions on the play. On Tampa Bay’s first possession of the third quarter, Alstott picked up a blitz on Rattay’s 25-yard completion to Galloway. On the same drive, Alstott ripped off an 8-yard run to put the Bucs inside the Browns’ red zone. That impressive drive ended with a Pittman touchdown run, which put the Bucs up 12-0. The “A-Train” got plenty of touches in the second half, but he wasn’t really productive. Alstott finished the game with a team- and season-high 22 carries for 56 yards (2.5 avg.). He did not catch any passes vs. the Browns.
Although he wasn’t the primary ballcarrier, RB Michael Pittman was a pleasant surprise Sunday. He carried the ball six times for 22 yards in the first half. He also caught two passes from Rattay for 11 yards. Pittman’s longest run of the first half was a 9-yarder. Tampa Bay’s offense was led by Pittman in the second half. He ran extremely hard and picked up several key first downs while Cleveland stacked the box in anticipation of the Bucs running the ball. On the first drive of the third quarter, Pittman capped off Tampa Bay’s drive with an 11-yard run up the gut of Cleveland’s defense for a touchdown, which turned out to be the offense’s only touchdown of the game. In the middle of the third quarter, Pittman picked up a key first down on a third-and-4 run play. Two plays and carries later, Pittman picked up another first down. Those hard and successful runs helped to keep the clock moving as Tampa Bay protected a two-score lead. Pittman played an integral role in the Bucs’ nine-play, 35-yard drive that was capped off with Bryant’s 37-yard field goal. Pittman carried the ball 16 times for 86 yards (5.4 avg.) and caught four passes for 21 yards while scoring one touchdown Sunday.
Tampa Bay RB Earnest Graham, who had seen most of his playing time on special teams until Sunday, was involved in the offensive game plan vs. the Browns. He carried the ball four times for 12 yards in the first half. However, Graham carried the ball just one time for no yards in the second half.
The Bucs rushed the ball 44 times for 153 yards (3.5 avg.) and one touchdown vs. the Browns.
WIDE RECEIVERS Although he didn’t get the start vs. Cleveland, Bucs WR Ike Hilliard was Rattay’s favorite target in the first half. After a false start penalty in the first quarter, Hilliard came up with three catches for 54 yards in the first two quarters. Hilliard did a nice job of catching a pass and sprinting for the first down marker inside Cleveland’s red zone, but he dove for the ground instead of the maker, which brought up a fourth-and-1 play. The Bucs wound up turning the ball over on downs on the next play. However, Hilliard helped to make up for that mistake near the end of the second quarter when he hauled in a 31-yard pass from Rattay. Hilliard did a great job of getting behind the defense on the play. On the second drive of the third quarter, Rattay and Hilliard connected again on third down for a first down. Hilliard caught four passes for 67 yards (16.8 avg.) vs. Cleveland.
Rookie WR Maurice Stovall got the start vs. the Browns. He came up big on the first series by hauling in passes for gains of 18 and 27 yards, respectively. Stovall did an excellent job of finding the soft spots in zone coverage. Those were his only two catches of the game. However, in the third quarter, Stovall made a great block to help open a huge running lane for Pittman on the 11-yard touchdown run. Stovall finished the game with two catches for 45 yards (22.5 avg.).
Rattay attempted to get the ball to WR Joey Galloway on several occasions in the first half, but to no avail for the most part. However, on the first drive of the third quarter, Galloway did a great job of finding the spot in zone coverage and hauling in a 25-yard pass from Rattay to Cleveland’s 30-yard line. Galloway ended the contest with two catches for 34 yards.
The Bucs offense produced 355 yards vs. the Browns on Christmas Eve.
TIGHT ENDS Tampa Bay’s offense featured plenty of two-tight end sets vs. Cleveland’s version of the 3-4 defense Sunday. The tight ends, particularly Alex Smith, managed to take advantage of the blitz-happy defensive scheme by moving the ball via the passing game. After taking quite a shot from defensive back Ralph Brown across the middle of the field on a pass play that went incomplete in the first quarter, Smith rebounded quite well. He did a great job of adjusting to a poorly thrown ball by Rattay to haul it in for a 20-yard gain, which set the offense up in a first-and-goal situation. On the first series of the third quarter, Smith caught another pass across the middle of the field for a first down on a third down play. Smith and TE Anthony Becht did a nice job of picking up blitzing defenders and holding off blockers, especially in the second half. Smith caught four passes for 45 yards on Sunday. Although he didn’t catch a pass, Becht brought some much-needed energy and blocking to the Bucs running game.
OFFENSIVE LINE Tampa Bay’s offensive line struggled to open up running lanes vs. Cleveland’s defense in the first half. This unit managed to allow three Cleveland defenders to penetrate the offensive backfield and stuff Alstott for a loss on a fourth-and-1 run play in the second quarter. It also had some breakdowns in pass protection, especially when things got confusing when the Browns sent blitzes. But the offensive line started to get a good feel for the Browns’ 3-4 scheme in the second half. It started opening up decent holes for the running game, and that success allowed the Bucs to keep the Browns defense off balance, which benefited the passing game. Rookie guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood had excellent blocks on Pittman’s 11-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Bucs center John Wade did a nice job of recognizing blitzes and making adjustments at the line of scrimmage, and left guard Sean Mahan arguably had one of his better outings as a Buccaneer. This unit was far from flawless, though. Rattay was sacked three times, and with the Bucs leading 19-0 in the fourth quarter, left tackle Anthony Davis allowed defensive end Kamerion Wimbley to blow by him and sack Rattay, who fumbled the football. The loose ball was picked up by Daven Holly and returned 40 yards for a touchdown, which made the score 19-7. Still, Tampa Bay’s offensive line paved the way for Pittman and Co. and the Bucs attempted to run out the clock and protect a lead. Any time you rush for 153 yards in a game you’re doing something right.
Tampa Bay dominated the time of possession vs. Cleveland, 37:16 to 22:44.
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