After dropping three games in a row, Tampa Bay went into Sunday’s game against Washington wanting, or much rather needing, to shed a feeling of loss.
And they accomplished that goal by finding a few things along the way.
They found their missing running game and they found forgotten fullback Mike Alstott and tight end Anthony Becht. But more importantly, they found a team in Washington with more issues, and one that was more inept on offense than their own, and that led them to the most important find, their way back into the win column, defeating the Redskins 20-17.
In a wrinkle Bucs fans have been craving, Alstott found his way back into the game offensive game plan, with three consecutive first quarter carries for 25 yards. But it wasn’t a matter of how much he gained, but more so how he gained them—with typical Alstott-style points.
The “A-Train: put his stamp on Redskins defender Shawn Springs with a 16-yard bull rush that left the cornerback belly up, looking at the sky. The run led to the game’s first points, a 26-yard field goal by Matt Bryant, but more importantly it made a statement that the team carried with it throughout the day.
“They did a god job,” Springs said of the Bucs ground attack. “They lined up in the tank personnel and they were able to bust a couple of good runs on us.”
Tampa Bay running back Cadillac Williams turned in his most productive effort of the season, carrying the ball 27 times for 122 yards. As a team, the Bucs accomplished their second-best rushing performance to date, with Alstott and backup running back Michael Pittman contributing to a 181-yard total.
“Just from watching the film, we knew we were going to be able to attack them with the running game,” Williams said.
“The guys up front, they wanted to run the ball, and you know me, of course, I want the ball.”
“Anytime you establish the running game its key and you’re going to win a lot of games,” Tampa Bay quarterback Bruce Gradkowski said.”
Gradkowski improved his starting record to 3-1 at Raymond James Stadium, completing 14-of-21 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. He might have thrown for a third had Springs not stepped in front of a pass intended for wide receiver Michael Clayton at the Washington 10-yard line just before the half.
Other than Alstott’s pancake run, fans might have been better suited to take a nap during the first two quarters as the teams took a 3-3 tie into the break.
Washington came into the game expecting it might struggle some, with Ladell Betts stepping in for four-time 1,300-yard rusher Clinton Portis, who was put on injured reserve earlier this week, and quarterback Jason Campbell making his first NFL start in place of ineffective veteran Mark Brunell.
And indeed they did in the first two quarters, sputtering to gain four first downs and 63 yards of total offense. However Campbell and Co. came out of the locker room a different team, putting together a 12-play, 74-yard scoring drive punctuated by tight end Chris Cooley’s 3-yard touchdown reception, the first of Campbell’s career.
The Bucs answered that drive with one equally as impressive. Gradkowski hit five different receivers, taking the team 85 yards in 14 plays, including a pass interference call on Springs in the end zone.
At one point, close to the goal line, the home crowd demanded Alstott, but when he failed to get it in twice from close range, the Bucs called for a pass and a little luck.
Normally used as a blocking tight end, Anthony Becht’s first touchdown reception in a Bucs uniform practically fell into his lap. On third-and-goal from the Redskins 2-yard line, Gradkowski’s pass ricocheted off the hands of Joey Galloway and into Becht’s waiting arms.
“The ball deflected in the air, kind of like slow motion. I’m just glad no defenders were there to bump me or knock it out. It was pretty sweet,” Becht said.
It was Gradkowski’s eighth touchdown pass of the season, breaking the franchise mark for a rookie quarterback and tying the score at 10 apiece.
The teams exchanged punts to separate the third and fourth quarter before Tampa Bay was given a gift by Betts in the form of a fumble. Safety Jermaine Phillips applied the hit and cornerback Juran Bolden’s subsequent recovery gave the Bucs the ball at the Washington 40.
Three plays later, Gradkowski found a streaking Galloway down the middle of the field for a 34-yard touchdown to put the Bucs up 17-10. The duo had been under some scrutiny as of late for failing to hook up on the deep ball in recent games but the pitch-and-catch combination found itself on the same page this time.
Galloway led all Tampa Bay receivers with four catches for 64 yards and the score.
“We had two plays in one and they gave me the all out blitz and I went to the other play and Galloway did a great job on winning and he was open. I had to hit him this time,” said Gradkowski.
The touchdown put the Bucs offense in rare territory. Leads are a thing they just haven’t experienced much of lately. And the defense turned in one of its better performances of late as well, holding Washington to 252 net yards, far below the 340 yards per game the unit had been relinquishing.
But the Redskins wouldn’t go away quietly. Rallying down 20-10 with less than five minutes to play, Washington converted twice on fourth down and capped a 14-play drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Campbell to former Buc tight end Todd Yoder with 32 seconds remaining in the game.
However Michael Clayton managed to field kicker Derrick Frost’s onside kick, sealing the Bucs’ third win of the season.
Lost in the victory were tight end Alex Smith, who left the game with a high ankle sprain, and cornerback Juran Bolden, who was carted off the field, also with a leg injury, following a collision with teammate Jovan Haye.
Washington fell to 3-7 on the season. Tampa Bay turns around to play at Dallas in four days on Thanksgiving Day.
“It makes me feel better and helps me realize that I took a step today,” Gradkowski said of his performance. “And it feels good to get the win with it. I’m excited to go to Dallas for Thanksgiving.
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