The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their first exhibition game in the Raheem Morris era at Tennessee, 27-20, but did manage a 12-6 halftime lead against the Titans’ starters. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the stinginess that Tampa Bay’s starting defense played with in holding Tennessee to two field goals and just 96 first half yards, while picking off starting quarterback Kerry Collins twice.
“They flew around and played fast,” said Morris about Tampa Bay’s defense in the first 30 minutes. “As a team, we came out and played physical and played tough. Playing a physical team like Tennessee, you want to come out and play physical with those guys and I thought we did that throughout the first half.”
However, the Buccaneers’ negatives out-weighed their positives in their 2009 debut. Tampa Bay’s quarterback competition didn’t move any closer to resolution on Saturday night. In fact, one could say the situation became even muddier after the loss to the Titans.
Starter Luke McCown was largely ineffective, completing just 4-of-8 passes for 19 yards and was too conservative in the passing game. Some of that was out of necessity as the offensive line did not do a great job of providing pass protection in allowing McCown the time to look downfield for plays.
Byron Leftwich was given a short field to work with on his first series and made the most of it with a 24-yard touchdown throw to Brian Clark to give the Bucs’ their first lead, but he also almost threw an interception and did take a 17-yard sack. Leftwich completed just 42.8 percent of his passes, going 6-of-14 for 61 yards against the Titans.
Josh Freeman, the team’s first-round draft pick, was 5-of-9 for 52 yards, but took a sack and threw a costly interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of his NFL debut. Meanwhile, second-year signal caller Josh Johnson, the man whom everyone is writing off, was 3-of-5 for 15 yards and had a 43-yard touchdown run and a great two-point conversion pass to stand out at the end of the game.
Needless to say, the quarterback quandary continues for at least another week in Tampa Bay. Morris admitted as much after the game, giving the slight nod to Leftwich, who is slated to start next Saturday at Jacksonville, his former team.
“I don’t know that we learned anything tonight,” Morris said about the QB competition. “We learned that Leftwich came in and played a little bit better. He threw a couple good balls. He threw a couple strikes in there and threw the only touchdown of the night. For the most part, they both handled the game well. It didn’t get too big for either of them.”
The Bucs also had to be disappointed with their running game, especially with the starting unit. Tampa Bay mustered 138 yards on 26 carries (5.3 avg.), but 43 of those yards came from Johnson’s scramble, and another 43 yards came from fifth-string rusher Kareem Huggins, who racked up 43 yards on nine carries (4.8 avg.) in the second half.
Starting running back Earnest Graham was held to just one yard on four carries, while Derrick Ward had nine yards on four carries as Tampa Bay’s new zone blocking scheme didn’t create much running room on Saturday night. It wasn’t until Clifton Smith came in and rushed for 27 yards on five carries in the second quarter that the running game showed any signs of life.
There were plenty of lessons learned by the Buccaneers and their rookie head coach in Tennessee on Saturday, but overall, Morris gave himself a passing grade in his head-coaching debut.
“I always try to be highly critical of myself,” Morris said. “I’m going against a great coach in Jeff Fisher – that’s always a great test. You want to come out and you want to make decisions … I did okay. I’ll go back and grade myself on tape as well, but I feel pretty good about it.”
The Bucs went three-and-out on their first series with McCown throwing a pair of incompletions.
Tennessee’s initial drive was longer, but didn’t result in a score, either. After a nice, 21-yard pass from Collins to tight end Bo Scaife moved the Titans down to the Tampa Bay 37, Collins’ pass in the end zone for wide receiver Nate Washington four plays later on second-and-13 from the 28 was picked off by strong safety Sabby Piscitelli. Collins threw into double coverage as cornerback Aqib Talib was also smothering Washington on the play.
On Tampa Bay’s next possession, Morris’ first instant replay challenge came at 8:48 in the first quarter when Clark caught a 5-yard pass on third-and-3, but lost control of the ball when he hit the ground. Cornerback Nick Harper was initially credited with a forced fumble, but instant replay ruled in Morris’ favor and Tampa Bay kept possession.
However, five plays later, Cortland Finnegan forced a fumble when the ball popped out of Graham’s hands from a hard hit after a 1-yard reception from McCown on third-and-13. Linebacker David Thornton recovered the ball and advanced it to the Bucs’ 22 before being tackled by Clark. Tennessee would only muster four yards on the drive as Collins’ pass to Washington on third-and-6 was well covered by cornerback Torrie Cox. The Titans had to settle for a 36-yard field goal from Rob Bironas to take a 3-0 lead with 5:05 left in the first quarter.
The Bucs were almost guilty of yet another fumble as McCown lost the ball when sacked by defensive tackle Tony Brown after he blew by rookie Marc Dile, who was subbing in for Davin Joseph at right guard. Defensive end William Hayes scooped up the fumble and raced into the end zone.
But a personal foul facemask penalty by Brown on McCown negated the Tennessee touchdown and gave the Bucs a first down. However, McCown couldn’t muster more than another first down before new punter Dirk Johnson had to return to duty. Johnson’s 46-yard punt was downed at the Tennessee 9-yard line.
After the Titans picked up a first down and moved the ball out to its own 22-yard line, right defensive end Stylez G. White deflected a Collins pass near the line of scrimmage and recorded an interception while falling backwards, giving the Bucs possession at the Tennessee 24.
It took Leftwich just two plays to get the ball into the end zone. After almost taking a sack and throwing an interception on his first pass, Leftwich came right back with a touchdown strike. Leftwich’s throw was behind Clark, who turned around and made a great catch at the 2-yard line and ran past cornerback DeMarcus Faggins for the touchdown. With 14:38 left in the second quarter, the Bucs took a 7-3 lead.
Tennessee’s next offensive possession was stymied once again by White, who recorded a 10-yard sack on Collins. On third-and-20 from the Titans’ 10, White then dropped running back Chris Johnson for a 5-yard loss back to the 5-yard line.
A holding penalty during Craig Hentrich’s punt on tight end Craig Stevens, who tackled Clark in the end zone on the punt, resulted in a safety for the Buccaneers. With 13:04 left in the second quarter, the Bucs took a 9-3 lead.
Leftwich had a close call on a later possession in the middle of the second quarter as he took a hit to his left knee by former Tampa Bay defensive tackle Jovan Haye, who blew by center Sean Mahan for the shot. Leftwich had to call timeout after that play to walk off the hit and then was sacked by Haye for a 17-yard loss to set up fourth-and-27 from the Buccaneers 33.
Tennessee’s next drive was more successful and started off with Vince Young completing a 38-yard pass to Kenny Britt, the Titans’ first-round pick, down to the Tampa Bay 30. Britt did a great job of holding on to the ball after taking a vicious shot from safety Will Allen.
Britt moved the chains on third-and-2 with a 3-yard gain down to the Tampa Bay 19. But on third-and-11 from the 20, a blitzing Rod Wilson knifed through and sacked Young to set up another field goal. With 3:31 left, Bironas’ 40-yard field goal was good to cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 9-6.
Leftwich was able to create another scoring drive for the Buccaneers right before halftime. With less than two minutes left in the second quarter, Leftwich hit Maurice Stovall for an 8-yard gain down to the Tampa Bay 36. But on third-and-2 from the 36, Leftwich was hit after his pass sailed incomplete by defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, who was flagged 16 yards for unnecessary roughness. That gave the Bucs a first down at the Tennessee 48. Two short passes to running back Kareem Huggins set up a long field goal by new kicker Mike Nugent, whose 51-yard kick as time expired in the first half gave Tampa Bay a 12-6 lead over Tennessee.
Young led the Titans to a touchdown drive to start the second half. He was 4-of-6 for 72 yards and also had a 9-yard scramble on the drive. Young found rookie tight end Jared Cook twice for 23 yards, and completed a 12-yard strike to Lavelle Hawkins on third-and-3 from the Tennessee 40. On third-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 37, Young eluded the pass rush to find Britt open in the end zone for a touchdown as he drifted away from safety Donte Nicholson. After a 10-play, 93-yard drive, Britt’s touchdown gave the Titans a 13-12 lead with 10:17 left in the third quarter.
Freeman’s rookie debut took place in the third quarter and he led the Bucs on a 44-yard drive that was largely aided by the running of Huggins, who rushed for 32 yards on four carries on the series, including a 19-yard jaunt. Freeman was 2-of-4 for 15 yards on his first drive, taking a sack and picking a first down with a 2-yard quarterback sneak on third-and-1. But Nugent’s 50-yard field goal attempt drifted left.
Patrick Ramsey took over for Tennessee on its next possession. A 5-yard pass to Cook was followed up a 4-yard run by Henry. On third-and-1 from the Tennessee 49, Ramsey’s 2-yard pass to tight end Matthew Mulligan moved the chains. Runs by Henry and rookie Javon Ringer set up third-and-4 from the Tampa Bay 43. A 7-yard strike from Ramsey to Britt converted the first down to the Tampa Bay 36.
On the next play, Ringer side-stepped linebacker Adam Hayward in the backfield and dodged tackle attempts from middle linebacker Niko Koutouvides and defensive tackle Chris Bradwell to dash 36 yards for a touchdown. With 40 seconds left in the third quarter, Tennessee’s lead increased to 20-12.
Freeman’s next series ended in disastrous fashion. After an impressive 11-yard strike to Sammie Stroughter to move the chains, wide receiver Mario Urrutia was flagged for a personal foul facemask penalty, setting up a first-and-21 from the Tampa Bay 23. But on his next play, Freeman’s pass to the right flat for Pat Carter was picked off by cornerback Ryan Mouton, who returned the interception 29 yards for a touchdown. With 14:32 left in the fourth quarter, Tennessee began to pull away, increasing its lead to 27-12.
Freeman bounced back on Tampa Bay’s next drive, hitting Stroughter with a 20-yard gain out to the Bucs’ 42-yard line. Freeman’s 6-yard pass to Carter was sandwiched in between runs of four and six yards by Huggins. On third-and-2 from the Tennessee 42, Huggins fumbled, but Tampa Bay recovered when left tackle James Lee fell on the ball. On fourth-and-2, Freeman’s pass to Stroughter was almost picked off by cornerback Tanard Davis and fell incomplete.
Johnson came into the game to relieve Freeman on Tampa Bay’s next drive in the fourth quarter and made an instant impact. On third-and-11 from the 41-yard line, Johnson threw a bullet to Stroughter for 11 yards to pick up the first down. A 5-yard pass to backup tight end Ryan Purvis and an incompletion set up a third-and-5 from the Tennessee 43.
Facing pressure from both defensive ends, Johnson stepped up in the pocket and raced down the left sidelines for a 43-yard touchdown, pulling away from linebacker Rocky Boiman and defensive backs Tuff Harris and Cary Williams on the play. The Bucs went for two points and Johnson’s pass to tight end Ryan Purvis over safety Donnie Nickey for the conversion to cut Tennessee’s lead to 27-20 with 6:20 left in the fourth quarter.
PEWTERREPORT.COM PLAYER OF THE GAME Defensive end Stylez G. White was a one-man-gang in Tennessee, recording an interception to set up Tampa Bay’s first touchdown, and a 10-yard sack and a key 5-yard tackle for loss that helped the Bucs record a safety as Tennessee was flagged for holding in the end zone on a punt.
“Stylez made a bunch of big plays today,” said Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. “That’s what he has to do. He hasn’t been practicing all that great, but he comes out in the game and shows up under the lights. He had a big interception and had a sack on the series after that. He was just real impressive.”
White, who did all of his damage at right defensive end, totally upstaged starter Gaines Adams, who did little against the rush or the pass. White finished with three tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, one pass defensed and one interception in limited reps during the second quarter. Meanwhile, Adams did not register any statistics on Saturday night.
IT WAS OVER WHEN… With Tennessee leading, 27-20, late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs had a great chance to get the ball back on the Titans’ final series, but rookie safety C.J. Byrd bailed out Tennessee with a 30-yard pass interference call on receiver Dominique Edison on third-and-19 from the Tennessee 11. The Titans went on to pick up two more first downs, including a fourth-and-1 play that quarterback Patrick Ramsey picked up on a 2-yard scramble, and ran out the clock to spoil Tampa Bay’s preseason opener.
STATS THAT COUNT Kareem Huggins’ 43 yards on nine carries was tied with Josh Johnson’s 43-yard scramble for the most rushing output by Tampa Bay. … None of Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks completed more than 60 percent of their passes against Tennessee. … Rookie receiver Sammie Stroughter led the Bucs in receiving with three catches for 42 yards. Stroughter also led Tampa Bay in kick returns with 81 yards on three opportunities (27 avg.) with a long of 30 yards. … Wide receiver Maurice Stovall suffered three dropped passes and had only one catch for eight yards. … New punter Dirk Johnson punted five times for a 41.4-yard average and a 39-yard net. … Tampa Bay converted just 5-of-15 (33 percent) third downs on offense and allowed Tennessee to convert 7-of-15 (47 percent) of its third down opportunities. … Tampa Bay was out-gained 278-256 by Tennessee. … The Titans were held to 92 yards rushing on 31 carries (3.0 avg.). … Linebacker Adam Hayward and safety Marshall McDuffie led the Bucs in tackles with six apiece.
SATURDAY’S STARTING LINEUPS The announced Tampa Bay starting lineup for Saturday’s game at Tennessee was as follows:
BUCS STARTING OFFENSE WR Brian Clark TE Kellen Winslow LT Donald Penn LG Jeremy Zuttah C Sean Mahan RG Davin Joseph RT Jeremy Trueblood TE Jeremy Stevens WR Maurice Stovall RB Earnest Graham QB Luke McCown
BUCS STARTING DEFENSE LE Jimmy Wilkerson DT Ryan Sims DT Chris Hovan RE Gaines Adams WLB Jermaine Phillips MLB Barrett Ruud SLB Quincy Black LCB Aqib Talib RCB Ronde Barber FS Tanard Jackson SS Sabby Piscitelli
MISSING IN ACTION Here is a list of Tampa Bay players sitting out the Bucs’ preseason opener:
RB Cadillac Williams (coach’s decision) WR Antonio Bryant (knee surgery) WR Michael Clayton (hamstring) WR Kelly Campbell (quad) WR Joel Filani (hamstring) C Jeff Faine (groin) G Ryan Schmidt (coach’s decision) LB Angelo Crowell (hamstring) P Josh Bidwell (hip) K Matt Bryant (hamstring) TE Jason Pociask (coach’s decision)
BUCS IN-GAME INJURIES The Bucs came out of Saturday night’s game relatively unscathed. Free safety Will Allen suffered a shoulder stinger in second half and was held out for the rest of the game as a precaution. Guard Marc Dile suffered a minor leg injury in the third quarter and was also held out for precautionary reasons. Wide receiver Dexter Jackson trotted off with a left ankle injury after a second-half kick return and did not return. Linebacker Matt McCoy limped off with a leg injury late in the fourth quarter.
KICKOFF CONDITIONS The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Titans game at LP Field was 69,143. The kickoff temperature was 89 degrees under cloudy skies.
UP NEXT The Buccaneers (0-1) travel to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars (0-0) at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Saturday, August 22. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com