TAMPA – Preseason is supposed to be used to hone a team's skills and prepare it for the regular season. But most NFL observers will tell you to ignore what happens in the preseason because it is a meaningless four games of exhibition play.
Yet what cannot be ignored was that the Bucs’ starting offense looked unimpressive in the 1-3 preseason, including the play of quarterback Chris Simms, who had looked sharp in training camp. It wasn't unimpressive in the 2006 regular season opener, it was downright ugly.
Simms wasn’t sharp on Sunday in Tampa Bay’s 27-0 loss to the visiting Baltimore Ravens. He was downright dull as a butter knife, and showed that a quarterback who only has 13 career starts probably should have had more than just 26 pass attempts in the preseason.
Against the stout defense of the Ravens, Simms looked confused, and was 17-of-29 passing for 133 yards. He had three batted balls at the line of scrimmage, one of which was intercepted by Ravens rookie nose tackle Haloti Ngata and returned 60 yards to set up a Baltimore touchdown. He threw two other interceptions, including one to Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister that was returned for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter to give the Ravens an early 14-0 lead.
Simms’ final pick, which was by Ravens Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, occurred early in the fourth quarter on a poorly thrown ball intended for wide receiver Michael Clayton. That interception set up Baltimore’s final touchdown and gave the Ravens a 3-0 turnover advantage. Baltimore fumbled four times on Sunday, but Tampa Bay wasn’t able to recover a single loose ball.
“It stinks, plain and simple,” Simms said. “They put it to us. Our defense gave us plenty of chances to get back in the game. I made mistakes. We got a little unlucky. Plain and simple, they just whipped our butts.”
After witnessing his team compile just 142 total yards and get shut out at home for the first time since Detroit beat Tampa Bay 27-0 on September 29, 1996, head coach Jon Gruden said: “I can’t say anything offensively when you score zero points. That’s zero. Z-e-r-o. I think that sums it up pretty damn well.”
Gruden tried to defend Simms’ poor outing after the game by spreading the blame around, but it was obvious that the play of the Bucs’ quarterback was the main culprit in Tampa Bay’s opening day defeat. However, Gruden did indicate that he had confidence in Simms as the Bucs head into Atlanta next week to face the 1-0 Falcons, who scored a road upset by beating the Panthers in Carolina on Sunday, 20-6.
“Well, obviously, his statistics aren’t going to show up very good in the newspaper,” Gruden said of Simms. “He did have some balls batted that aren’t all his fault. He did have some people in his face. He did make a couple of decisions that he regrets – one of them late in the game where he is trying desperately to make a play to put us back in the game to give us a chance. He had a ball early that was intercepted and run back for a touchdown that was probably was one decision that he would want back. But he is competing and he is a young guy, and I’m going to stand by my man. Hopefully we play a lot better next week versus the Falcons.”
Baltimore’s defense outperformed Tampa Bay’s blockers on offense, recording three sacks and holding the Bucs to just 26 yards rushing on 13 carries (2.0 avg.). Running back Cadillac Williams had just 22 yards on eight carries and was Tampa Bay’s leading receiver with five catches for 25 yards. But he couldn’t finish the game in the second half due to back spasms, according to Gruden.
Wide receiver Joey Galloway was held without a reception after dropping a catchable ball early in the first half.
After the game, Gruden did point out the fact that the Bucs were playing without their starting guards, Dan Buenning and rookie Davin Joseph, indicating that they made a difference in the game.
“It never helps,” Gruden said. “It was [Sean] Mahan’s first game at left guard and it was [Jeb]Terry’s first game at right guard. It rained out a practice on Thursday. I’m not making any excuses, but it’s a tough, defensive football team that is very sophisticated and very talented. They had two players on defense that were defensive players of the year in Ed Reed, and certainly, Ray Lewis. I’m not going to point fingers at anybody but myself and say that I’m very disappointed and I apologize to our fans.”
If the Bucs had any leftover rust from the preseason, it showed on Sunday. But what was a surprise was how Tampa Bay’s defense got ran over on the first series of the game with a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that helped set the tone for a Baltimore rout. The play of the Bucs’ starting defense had been a bright spot in August.
“That was a big turning point in this football game,” Gruden said. “That was a (14-play) drive that took about (nine minutes). The quarter was basically over and it was 7-0 Baltimore. That’s not how we take pride in starting here certainly. It was a difficult beginning for us.”
Tampa Bay played without starting middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, who is still nursing a sore groin. Second-year player Barrett Ruud replaced Quarles in the starting lineup and recorded eight tackles. Cornerback Ronde Barber and linebacker Derrick Brooks led the Bucs with 11 tackles apiece.
Using a two-tight end set throughout most of its opening drive, Baltimore rammed the ball down Tampa Bay’s throat on a 14-play, 80-yard scoring march that consumed 9:16. Behind Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who outweighd defensive end Simeon Rice by 80 pounds, Jamal Lewis picked up 34 yards on seven carries, including a 4-yard touchdown run that put Baltimore up 7-0 with 5:44 left in the first quarter. Lewis would finish the game with 78 yards on 18 carries (4.3 avg.).
The key plays on the drive were a 15-yard reception by Derrick Mason on third-and-7 at the Bucs 48, and a questionable pass interference penalty by Barber on third-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 16. That proved to be a four-point penalty as Baltimore was awarded a first down at the Tampa Bay 11 instead of settling for a field goal.
Baltimore went up 14-0 on the first play of the second quarter when Simms was intercepted by McAlister, who returned the pick 60 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown. Simms’ pass was intended for tight end Doug Jolley, but was underthrown.
Simms’ second pick occurred with 2:40 left remaining in the second quarter when linebacker Bart Scott tipped Simms’ pass on a blitz, and Ngata caught the deflection and raced 60 yards down to the Tampa Bay 9-yard line. The Bucs defense stiffened at the 1-yard line on third down and forced a 20-yard Matt Stover field goal to allow the Ravens to take a 17-0 lead into halftime.
Things didn’t get any better in the second half for the Bucs, who lost 10 yards on their first possession when Simms was sacked by Scott on third down. That gave the Ravens a short field to work with after a Josh Bidwell punt, and set up a 42-yard field goal by Stover in the third quarter at the conclusion of a seven-play, 13-yard drive. With 10:22 left, Baltimore increased its lead to 20-0.
Tampa Bay mounted its best drive of the day following Baltimore’s score, thanks to a 9-yard catch by Mike Alstott, followed by a 27-yard reception by Clayton and a 19-yard catch by tight end Alex Smith. But after moving the ball 67 yards in eight plays, the Bucs drive stalled at the Baltimore 6 when Simms’ pass in the end zone for Clayton was too high on fourth-and-4.
Baltimore added the game’s final points when former Bucs tight end Daniel Wilcox capped off a nine-play, 61-yard scoring drive with a 4-yard touchdown catch. That gave Baltimore a 27-0 lead with 7:17 remaining in the game. Wilcox finished the game with three catches for 52 yards, including a 35-yarder.
Ravens quarterback Steve McNair finished the contest completing 17-of-27 passes for 181 yards with the touchdown pass to Wilcox, along with a QB rating of 94.8. McNair was sacked once by defensive end Dewayne White after he fumbled the ball, but for the most part, he had time to throw as Tampa Bay’s front four didn’t provide enough pressure and allowed him time to pick apart the Bucs’ zone defense.