The swirling winds at Giant Stadium don’t cause fumbles and they aren’t responsible for receivers dropping passes.
But on a day when wind and the weather would play a big factor, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski needed his supporting cast to protect the ball and come up with a few big plays.
Unfortunately for him, he got neither.
New York turned good field position and a costly fumble by Cadillac Williams into two first half touchdowns and the Giants defense, despite being without three starters, did enough to protect that lead as the Bucs fell 17-3.
Making just his second road start of the season, the Bucs’ rookie quarterback was forced to throw into gusty wind conditions 48 times thanks to a running attack that produced just 40 yards on the ground. To make matters worse, Gradkowski didn’t get much help from his receivers, who dropped several key passes that would have put the game in a different light. In fact, dropped balls led to him completing less than half of his passes (20). He finished the day with 139 yards and no touchdowns.
With the wind creating havoc early in the game and the Bucs already conservative play calling turned rigid, the offense sputtered to a halt, going three-and-out on its first five possessions. Gradkowski was limited to short routes, connecting on only two of his first eight attempts, netting a total of nine yards.
Compound that with the fact the offensive line failed to establish an early push up front (Williams’ first five carries netted four yards) and the game quickly turned into a battle for field position. A battle the Giants established in their favor, thanks to 19-year veteran punter Jeff Feagles, who pinned the Bucs down deep in their territory most of the day.
Tampa Bay’s offense started the majority of its first half drives inside its own 20-yard line while the Giants’ average field position began at their own 47-yard line.
After its second possession of the game, Tampa Bay gave New York the ball near midfield, despite a 57-yard punt by Josh Bidwell out of his own end zone. Eight plays later, 6-foot-5 wide receiver Plaxico Burress reached over 5-foot-9 cornerback Ronde Barber, snatching an Eli Manning pass out of the air with one hand for a 7-yard touchdown.
Burress, a favorite target of Manning, finished the day with a game-high seven catches for 86 yards and the score. The Bucs leading receiver was not even a wide receiver, but rather running back Michael Pittman, who hauled in the screen passes that have been the Bucs’ signature pass play of late. He had five receptions for 38 yards.
The Giants added to their lead in the second quarter, capitalizing on a dropped pitch on a sweep play to Williams. His first fumble of the season.
Defensive tackle Fred Robbins recovered for New York on the Bucs’ 28-yard line, and on the next play Burress beat Barber, who bit on a Manning pump, for 25 yards, taking the ball inside the Bucs’ 5-yard line. After Ronde’s twin brother, Tiki Barber, failed to get in the end zone from there, Giants Coach Tom Coughlin called on the Giants’ colossal short-yardage back Brandon Jacobs.
The 6-foot-4, 265 pounder was met at the goal line by Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks, with Jacobs getting the best of Brooks and taking it in for the score. The big back bullied Bucs defenders, ending up on the better end of the collision in three separate instances
He stood up defensive tackle Chris Hovan on a short-yardage down. Then he drove Barber at least six yards on another carry and finally he took cornerback Juran Bolden for a ride on his back.
Jacobs finished with seven carries for 41 yards on the day, most of which were delivered in a bruising manner.
Down by two touchdowns, Bucs coach Jon Gruden seemed to open the playbook, taking more chances down field. Gradkowski connected with Williams on a crossing pattern for 14 yards and the team’s initial first down. On the next play, the rookie quarterback went deep, putting the ball over wide receiver Joey Galloway’s shoulder only to have it slip through his hands as he was met by the safety.
That trend of dropping passes would haunt the Bucs for most of the day as the usually sure handed Galloway missed another deep ball, although a more difficult catch, and Michael Clayton mishandled a sure touchdown just before the half.
Clayton’s drop would have cut the lead in half, but instead Tampa Bay had to settle for a 43-yard Matt Bryant field goal, the team’s only points of the day. It wouldn’t be the only mistake for the struggling wide out. On fourth-and-6 on the Giants’ 44, Clayton caught an 8-yard slant for an apparent first down, but linebacker Antonio Pierce stripped him of the ball. Although Gradkowski came up with possession after a crazy scramble, the recovery was spotted short of the first down and control turned over to the Giants.
The Bucs finished the first 30 minutes of football with a humble 10 yards rushing and would have just 40 net yards on the ground for the entire game.
On the defensive side of the ball, Monte Kiffin’s unit played well enough to keep Tampa in the game. They held the league’s No. 2 offense to 143 yards net passing and 3.1 yards per carry on the ground and put significant pressure on Manning, sacking him twice, once by Ellis Wyms and another by Simeon Rice, his second of the year.
The Bucs rush defense also held the NFL’s leading rusher to under 100 yards as Tiki Barber ran for 68 yards on 26 carries.
With a lack of rushing production on both sides, neither team was able to convert on third downs. Tampa was 2-of-16 while New York was 3-of-14.
For the third game in a row, the Bucs were out gained by their opponent in total offense. They also failed to produce a first half touchdown for the third consecutive game and didn’t even get into the Giants red zone. Their deepest penetration was to the New York 21-yard line on the last possession of the game.
The Giants stay atop of the NFC East division at 5-2 while Tampa falls to 2-5 with a home game against NFC South foe New Orleans next weekend