Just when it appeared the Buccaneers couldn’t find a more disheartening way to lose, referee Mike Carey waived off an apparent game-winning touchdown catch by wide receiver Michael Clayton on a fourth down play in the closing seconds of Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
As the second-largest crowd ever to attend a regular season game (65,732) at Raymond James Stadium held its collective breath, Carey tucked his head into the replay booth.
Clayton could only wait. As he has done since December of 2004, the last time he found the end zone.
Then, the cure for all that ails a frustrated receiver and a winless organization arrived via an instant replay reversal. Carey barely had half a sentence out of his mouth when the home crowd erupted in cheers.
The 14-13 Buccaneers victory proved as momentary vindication for Clayton and a team that wasn’t given much of a chance heading into Sunday.
Clayton’s catch was the Buccaneers’ first lead of the game. Until that point, the offense had made a habit of squandering favorable field position afforded to them by a defense playing its most inspired football of the year.
Four times the Buccaneer offense began drives on their 39-yard line or better and all four times they came away with nothing.
But on a day when he was far from playing his best football, Tampa Bay quarterback Bruce Gradkowski still found a way to lead his team down the field on a fourth quarter, game-wining drive.
“The biggest problems that a quarterback faces at the end of the game is that they try to do too much too soon,” Gradkowski said. “That’s one thing Coach Gruden reminded me of at the end of the game. He said, ‘Hey, remember, you were in this position against the Dolphins in the preseason and you got a little excited and threw an interception. So relax and take it one play at a time.’
“That’s what you have to do out there, take it one play at a time. We knew we had four downs. No question about it. We needed four downs. I threw the ball away a couple of times. I was just trying to be smart and make the right decision and fortunately we had enough downs and time to pull it out.”
Gradkowski began the Bucs’ game-winning drive with completions to Cadillac Williams and Michael Clayton, taking the ball to the Bengals 32-yard line. Then on an apparent sack, Tampa Bay received some assistance in the form of a questionable roughing the passer call on Cincinnati defensive end Justin Smith, bringing about a first-and-10 at the 25.
Consecutive completions to Michael Pittman, Williams and Joey Galloway propelled the drive inside the Cincinnati 15, but a third down tripping penalty on guard Sean Mahan put the Bucs in a perilous position at third-and-13.
Pittman got a chunk of that penalty back with a 10-yard catch, setting up fourth-and-3 from the Bengals 8-yard line.
On a play that would decide the outcome of the game, Gradkowski looked off Galloway, his first option, and came back across the middle to Clayton on a slant, Clayton made the reception and stretched out across the goal line for an 8-yard score.
The play was initially ruled incomplete because the ball was dislodged when it hit the ground, but replay would confirm it had first broke the plain of the end zone and was therefore a touchdown.
The pass was Gradkowski’s 44th attempt of the game, the second most by any Bucs QB over the last two seasons. Chris Simms attempted 53 passes at Atlanta in Week two of this season. Gradkowski finished the day 25-of-44 for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
His first scoring throw came in the third quarter when he connected with tight end Alex Smith for a 2-yard touchdown, capping off an eight-play, 80-yard drive and tying the game at 7 apiece.
The score was set up by two keys plays, a 38-yard run by Cadillac Williams and 6-yard yard scramble by Gradkowski on third down. Williams ran through a hole off right guard, opened by keys blocks from Pittman, who sealed the defensive end, and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood who pealed off and occupied the middle linebacker.
The Bucs ground attack was efficient as Cadillac finished the game with 96 yards pacing a ground attack, which out rushed the Bengals 126 to 53.
Gradkowski’s scramble came on a third-and-6 as he was flushed out of the pocket and ran to the marker on the right sideline picking up the first down at the Bengals 15.
That Buccaneers scoring drive responded to an earlier score by Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who hauled in a 33-yard pass from quarterback Carson Palmer in the second quarter.
Under much scrutiny for sloppy tackling over the first quarter of the season, Tampa Bay’s defense rose to the challenge, limiting running back Rudi Johnson and the Bengals’ rushing attack to 3 yards on seven carries in the first half. They also held Cincinnati’s offense to 3-of-14 on third down conversions.
The Bucs defense failed to record a turnover, but did harass quarterback Carson Palmer in key situations. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin rotated defensive linemen perhaps a little more than usual against the Bengals and mixed up the nickel rush package, moving Ellis Wyms to under tackle and replacing Booger McFarland with Dewayne White.
Wyms responded with a two-sack performance.
There were two times in the second half when it appeared as if the Bucs’ “bend but don’t break” defensive strategy might be closer to breaking, but on both occasions Cincinnati drives were snuffed out just prior to getting into the red zone.
In the third quarter, Palmer hooked up with tight end Reggie Kelly for a 27-yard completion, setting up the first of two Shayne Graham field goals.
Then Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson, who was held in check most of the day, got by corner Juran Bolden on a 51-yard fly route. That led to a 41-yard field goal by Graham, which put the Bengals up by six with 10:34 seconds
The key defensive stand, which allowed Tampa Bay to come away with key field position on its last drive, was fueled by stops made by defensive end Simeon Rice, linebacker Shelton Quarles and tackle Ellis Wyms. Their tackles forced the Bengals to punt from their own end zone and helped the Bucs begin the drive from their own 46.
The game-winning drive covered 54 yards in nine plays.
Tampa Bay boots its record to 1-4 while the Bengals lost their second consecutive game to fall to 3-2. The Buccaneers host the 4-2 Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.