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Rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski made his return to Pittsburgh Sunday, but Tampa Bay’s offensive woes continued there. He hit wide receiver Michael Clayton across the middle of the field for a 21-yard gain on the third offensive series of the game, but his next throw was off the mark for WR Joey Galloway and intercepted by linebacker Larry Foote. The Steelers offense capitalized on that turnover, driving 27 yards on five plays for a touchdown, which put Pittsburgh up 7-0. At the beginning of the second quarter, Gradkowski took coverage sack when LB Joey Porter dropped him for the second time in the game, this time for a 12-yard loss. Gradkowski got the offense going on Tampa Bay’s fourth series of the game in second quarter. He completed three straight passes to Galloway, Clayton and Cadillac Williams, respectively. The Bucs got all the way down to Pittsburgh’s 35-yard line before Gradkowski took another coverage sack on third down, which forced them to punt the ball back to the Steelers. The rookie signal caller completed 7-of-10 passes for 68 yards while tossing one interception, but the variety of blitzes Pittsburgh’s defense threw his way and the four sacks clearly rattled him as the Bucs offense was held scoreless in the first half.
Gradkowski got off to a decent start in the second half with two straight completions on dump offs to Williams and fullback Mike Alstott, respectively. On a third-and-5 play on the same series, Gradkowski took matters into his own hands and scrambled down the right sideline for a first down near midfield. One of Gradkowski’s better throws came in the third quarter when he got off a perfect strike to Clayton for a 16-yard gain and a first down while getting drilled as a Pittsburgh defender bulled over Williams. After starting a drive on Pittsburgh’s 35-yard line, Gradkowski got the Bucs offense moving in the right direction. His best throw of the game came on that drive when he threw a perfect strike to Clayton down the right sideline for what should have been a touchdown. But Clayton lost his concentration and dropped the pass. After a couple of nice throws to Galloway and Clayton, Gradkowski had the offense knocking on the door at Pittsburgh’s 5-yard line, but his fade pass to Maurice Stovall sailed over the rookie receiver’s head and was intercepted. From there, Tampa Bay’s offense ran out of the little gas it brought to Pittsburgh. Gradkowski threw short to a receiver on a fourth down play, which resulted in a turnover on downs. On the next drive, Gradkowski’s pass for WR Ike Hilliard was intercepted by No. 57. With less than one minute remaining in the game and the Bucs attempting to avoid the shutout, Gradkowski’s throw in the back of the end zone to Hilliard was dropped, which prompted the Bucs to kick a field goal as time expired.
Gradkowski completed 20-of-34 passes for 175 yards and tossed three interceptions while being sacked five times. He also rushed six times for 26 yards. The rookie quarterback was clearly rattled by the plethora of pressure applied by Pittsburgh’s defense. He was also victimized by dropped touchdown passes by Clayton and Hilliard.
Tampa Bay converted 7-of-14 (50 percent) of its third down attempts, but produced just 254 yards and three points on Sunday.
Bucs RB Carnell “Cadillac” Williams got off to a shaky start Sunday and never recovered. He dropped a third down pass from Gradkowski that would have picked up a first down on Tampa Bay’s second series of the game. That drop forced the Bucs to punt. On the fourth series of the game, Williams successfully caught a short screen pass from Gradkowski and picked up a first down before fumbling the football after getting tackled by Foote. However, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden challenged the play, and replay showed that Williams’ elbow hit the ground just before the ball came loose, which allowed the Bucs to retain possession. On the next play from scrimmage, Williams was called for a false start, which penalized the offense 5 yards. He carried the ball seven times for 22 yards and caught one pass for 9 yards in the first half, but Williams’ mistakes clearly outweighed the few plays he was able to make in the first half. On the first series of the third quarter, Williams took a short dump off from Gradkowski and gained 12 yards for a first down. However, he still had trouble securing the football. On the same drive, Williams caught a short pass from Gradkowski and ran hard for extra yardage before having the ball popped out by CB Bryant McFadden. The Steelers recovered the ball on their own 44-yard line. On the next drive, Williams had yet another mental breakdown, getting called for another false start penalty. Williams carried the ball 11 times for 27 yards (2.5 avg.) and caught four passes for 30 yards. He clearly wasn’t mentally prepared to play up to the level he needed to in this game, evidenced by his dropped pass, fumble and two false start penalties.
Tampa Bay RB Michael Pittman didn’t see much action, but like Williams, he struggled. Pittman allowed Porter to sack Gradkowski on a third down play on the first series of the game, which resulted in a 7-yard loss and forced the Bucs to punt. Toward the end of the first half, Pittman mishandled a handoff from Gradkowski and fumbled the ball. Luckily for Pittman, he managed to recover the ball. Pittman finished the game with one carry for minus-1 yard and one catch for 7 yards. He was a willing, but sub-par blocker in the offensive backfield.
Bucs fullback Mike Alstott picked up a first down with a short run on a third down run in the middle of the second quarter. He carried the ball three times for 11 yards in the first half. The “A-Train” carried the ball a total of six times for 13 yards and caught one pass for 6 yards.
Backup RB Earnest Graham saw some action toward the end of the game. He carried the ball four times for 35 yards, including a 17-yard run. He did not catch a pass.
Tampa Bay rushed for 110 yards (3.7 avg.) vs. Pittsburgh.
Bucs WR Michael Clayton seemed to play inspired football in the first half. He got himself open across the middle of the field on the third series of the game and hauled in a 21-yard pass from Gradkowski. But Clayton didn’t catch his second pass of the game until the fourth series of the contest. He picked up a first down on that short pass play. On the same series on a third-and-1 play, Clayton took a toss sweep from Gradkowski and picked up 3 yards for a first down. Unfortunately for the Bucs, that promising drive stalled a few plays later. In the third quarter, Clayton came up with a 16-yard reception and a first down on a third down play. Late in the third quarter, Clayton got himself open down the right sideline after Galloway drew double coverage. Gradkowski threw a perfect strike for what appeared to be an easy touchdown, but Clayton dropped it. That drop proved to be a very costly mistake. Clayton came back a few plays later and made a catch for a first down down to Pittsburgh’s 2-yard line, but injured his knee in the process. That promising drive ended up dying when Gradkowski’s fade pass to Stovall was intercepted in the corner of the end zone. Clayton caught four passes for 57 yards on Sunday.
Joey Galloway had a somewhat quiet game. He picked up 7 yards on a reverse from Gradkowski in the second quarter. Galloway dropped a 7-yard pass on the sideline from Gradkowski on the fourth series of the game. Two plays after Clayton’s costly touchdown drop, Galloway came up huge by hauling in a pass across the middle of the field for a first down and a 24-yard gain on a third down play. That catch put the Bucs offense inside the red zone for the first time in the game. Galloway caught three passes for 37 yards vs. the Steelers.
Bucs WR Ike Hilliard joined the drop party with less than one minute remaining in the fourth quarter when he dropped a touchdown pass from Gradkowski in the back of the end zone. The Bucs ended up kicking a field goal to avoid the shutout. Hilliard caught two passes for 13 yards.
Although he couldn’t come up with the touchdown grab on the pass that got intercepted in the corner of the end zone, Stovall caught one pass for 11 yards.
Tampa Bay had a total of 16 first downs in Sunday’s game.
Tampa Bay featured a lot of two-tight end sets, but Pittsburgh still managed to sack Gradkowski four times (five times total) in the first half and pressure him on several others. Bucs TE Anthony Becht caught one pass for 9 yards. Fellow TE Alex Smith got himself open on a few occasions, but Gradkowski failed to find him as he was running for his life in an effort to elude the relentless pass rush. Smith caught two passes for just 4 yards.
Although Tampa Bay was facing the 3-4 defense for the second straight week, the Bucs’ offensive line struggled mightily vs. Pittsburgh’s version of the blitz-happy style of defense. While Gradkowski took a couple of coverage sacks, the rookie signal caller still went down a total of five times, and the offensive line’s inability to account for the blitzes definitely played a part in Gradkowski getting rattled and pressured often. Bucs left guard Sean Mahan started at left guard in place of Dan Buenning (injured reserve – knee). Bucs center John Wade was called for a false start in the first quarter, and rookies Jeremy Trueblood and Davin Joseph didn’t have their best performances, which was somewhat understandable. Tampa Bay’s offensive line had a terrible time accounting for Porter, who recorded two sacks and three tackles while raising havoc in the Bucs’ offensive backfield early and often. Had it not been for Gradkowski’s mobility, Pittsburgh might have doubled its sack total in this contest. It got to the point where Gradkowski took the snap from center and didn’t even bother looking downfield for an open receiver, instead looking for places to run with the football to avoid oncoming defenders.
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