The Buccaneers were hoping that the return of wide receiver Joey Galloway and quarterback Jeff Garcia would spark their offense. But instead of fire, this duo only produced a little smoke in a 24-20 opening day loss at NFC South division foe New Orleans.
Galloway, who returned from a groin injury that kept him out the entire preseason, was limited to just six catches for 56 yards (9.3 avg.) as he and Garcia, who only played one half of a preseason game in August due to a calf strain, failed to connect on nearly a half dozen other throws. Last year, Galloway had 11 catches for 294 (26.7 avg.) and two touchdowns in two games against New Orleans.
This year, he had problems getting open against a revamped Saints secondary that featured free agent import Randall Gay and second-round draft pick Tracy Porter. And when Galloway had some separation, Garcia was throwing late or behind him – a clear sign of rust and not enough chemistry between the two Buccaneers.
Garcia, who was sacked twice and was under duress on about half of the times he dropped back to throw, finished the game 24-of-41 (58.5 percent) for 221 yards with one touchdown and a costly interception by linebacker Scott Fujita on fourth-and-6 from the New Orleans 24 with 38 seconds left to end Tampa Bay’s comeback hopes.
The Bucs defense was uncharacteristically shredded for 438 yards by the Saints’ high-powered offense. Tampa Bay gave up six plays of over 25 yards to quarterback Drew Brees, who was 23-of-32 for 343 yards and three touchdowns with one interception, and running back Reggie Bush, who had 163 yards of total offense. Bush had 51 yards rushing on 14 carries and caught eight passes for 112 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown on a screen pass that proved to be the game-winner in the fourth quarter.
The game saw six lead changes and Tampa Bay led 13-10 at the half before New Orleans exploded for 17 points in the second half. The Bucs ran the ball effectively throughout the game, finishing with 146 yards and a healthy 7.3 average. The running game was led by Earnest Graham’s 91 yards on 10 carries, but the Bucs had trouble sustaining drives. Tampa Bay was just 2-of-12 (16 percent) on third downs, and didn’t convert its first third down until the fourth quarter.
Despite Garcia’s obvious rust, he dropped back to throw 43 times while head coach Jon Gruden called just 20 running plays in the loss. That ratio will be closely scrutinized this week by the fans and the media as the 0-1 Buccaneers prepare to face the Atlanta Falcons, who won their season opener against Detroit, 34-21, at Raymond James Stadium next Sunday. The team could be without linebacker Derrick Brooks, who was injured in the contest and missed the fourth quarter.
After the game, Gruden accepted blame for Tampa Bay’s inefficiencies on offense and the loss.
“We just didn’t make the plays and I didn’t call a very good game,” Gruden said.
Tampa Bay won the opening coin toss and deferred to the second half. That would prove to be a costly mistake as Brees shredded the Bucs defense on the initial drive, completing all four of his passes for 67 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown on third-and-3 to wide receiver David Patten. Patten got behind rookie cornerback Aqib Talib, who leapt for the ball too early and missed, for the score. Bush also got involved early with 10 yards on his first carry and catching two passes for 23 yards. With 11:27 left in the first quarter, New Orleans led 7-0.
After the Bucs offense went three-and-out on its first possession, Tampa Bay’s defense tied the score after cornerback Phillip Buchanon picked off Brees at the New Orleans 26 and returned the ball down the left sidelines for a touchdown. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud came free on a blitz and nailed Brees just as he was throwing the ball. That forced an errant throw to Lance Moore that Buchanon stepped in front of to tie the game at 7-7 with 8:13 left in the first quarter.
At the 5:50 mark of the second quarter, Tampa Bay’s defense appeared to have its second touchdown of the game. Cornerback Ronde Barber drilled Bush at the New Orleans 27-yard, forcing a fumble that was recovered and run in for a touchdown by linebacker Cato June. But after a long deliberation, the officials ruled that Bush never had possession of the ball and deemed the pass incomplete. Television replays appeared to confirm the correct call.
With less than two minutes remaining before halftime, Tampa Bay’s offense finally came to life in the hurry-up mode. From the Bucs’ own 20-yard line, Garcia found Galloway for 13 yards. On the next play, Garcia scrambled around and hit Antonio Bryant across the middle for a 26-yard gain down to the New Orleans 41. Ike Hilliard picked up eight yards on a Garcia strike down to the 33, followed by a 7-yard grab down to the 26. Garcia spiked the ball to kill the clock with 14 seconds left. After a 7-yard run by Warrick Dunn, Matt Bryant came out and nailed a 37-yard field goal to give Tampa Bay a 10-7 lead at halftime.
Midway through the third quarter, the Saints offense broke out of its slump with a 26-yard run by Bush and a 26-yard catch by tight end Jeremy Shockey. A 15-yard facemask penalty on Bush at the end of his run only cut the gain to 11 yards, but Shockey’s grab still brought the Saints down to the Tampa Bay 34. Shockey then hauled in a 10-yard pass down to the Tampa Bay 23 on third-and-9. A few plays later on second-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 12, defensive end Greg White sacked Brees for a 6-yard loss. Two plays later, former Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica connected on a 34-yard field goal to tie the game, 10-10, with 2:49 left in the third quarter.
On the second play of Tampa Bay’s next possession, Graham ripped off a 46-yard run down the right sidelines to the New Orleans 20 behind the superior blocks of right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, tight end John Gilmore and Bryant. But Tampa Bay’s drive would stall inside the red zone on third down at the 15-yard line as Saints rookie cornerback Tracy Porter broke up a pass intended for Bryant in the end zone. Bryant’s 33-yard field goal with 33 seconds left in the third quarter gave Tampa Bay a 13-10 lead.
But that lead would be short-lived as wide receiver Devery Henderson beat Barber down the left sidelines for an 84-yard touchdown pass on New Orleans’ first play on the ensuing drive. Barber had fallen down in coverage, and just like that, New Orleans reclaimed the lead, 17-13, with 13 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Buccaneers’ first third down conversion of the game came with 14:47 left in the fourth quarter as Garcia hit Galloway for 13 yards on third-and-9 from the Tampa Bay 28. An 11-yard strike on the next play to Hilliard moved the chains once again. Two plays later, another 11-yard grab by Hilliard picked up another first down and moved Tampa Bay to the New Orleans 37. A 14-yard run by Warrick Dunn drove Tampa Bay down to the New Orleans 23. Graham caught a Garcia pass for 18 yards down to the Saints 5-yard line. Two plays later, Garcia and Hilliard connected for a 2-yard touchdown. With 10:38 left in the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay took a 20-17 lead over New Orleans.
Bush led the charge for the Saints on the next drive, which started off with a 4-yard run, followed by a 26-yard catch on the following play. Two plays later, Bush was tackled for a loss by linebacker Matt McCoy, who replaced Brooks in the lineup. But on the next play on third-and-5, Bush took a screen pass from Brees, eluded McCoy, safety Jermaine Phillips and Buchanon to score from 42 yards out. With 7:38 left in the fourth quarter, New Orleans went back on top, 24-20.
Tampa Bay’s offense sputtered and punted the ball back to New Orleans, and after the Bucs defense forced a three-and-out and a punt, Garcia and his red-and-pewter-clad teammates took the field at their own 49-yard line with 2:24 left in the game and no timeouts.
Bryant came up with a big catch for 14 yards down to the New Orleans 39-yard line at the two-minute warning. On second-and-10 from the 39, tight end Alex Smith hauled in a 10-yard pass down to the 29, stepping out of bounds to stop the clock with 1:48 remaining in regulation. Garcia was sacked back at the New Orleans 35 on the next play by defensive end Bobby McCray, who beat left tackle Donald Penn to corral the quarterback. An 11-yard strike to Galloway set up a third-and-6 at the New Orleans 24. But on fourth-and-6 from the New Orleans 24, Fujita stepped in front of Bryant and picked off Garcia to seal the opening day win for the Saints.
PEWTERREPORT.COM PLAYER OF THE GAME Tampa Bay cornerback Phillip Buchanon gave up a touchdown pass to wide receiver Terrance Copper the last time the Bucs visited the Superdome. But on Sunday, Buchanon scored a touchdown for the Buccaneers on a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown. That was Buchanon’s fifth career score on an interception in his six years in the NFL. His last pick-six came against Tampa Bay in 2004. Buchanon’s touchdown tied the score at 7-7 in the first quarter after New Orleans took an early lead. While rookie nickel corner Aqib Talib gave up a 39-yard touchdown to David Patten, and Ronde Barber allowed Devery Henderson to rip off an 84-yard score, Buchanon, who also had four tackles and a pass defensed, provided the best coverage of the day and is this week’s PewterReport.com Player of the Game.
IT WAS OVER WHEN… Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia and his teammates had battled to get down to the New Orleans 24-yard line, trailing 24-20, but Saints linebacker Scott Fujita stepped in front of wide receiver Antonio Bryant and picked off the pass on fourth-and-6 to seal the victory for the home team with 38 seconds left.
STATS THAT COUNT Punter Josh Bidwell’s first punt of the season was a 60-yarder that was downed at the New Orleans 9-yard line by Maurice Stovall. Bidwell finished with a 44.1-yard average, a 40.4 net and four punts inside the 20. … The 46-yard run by halfback Earnest Graham was the longest of his NFL career. … Wide receiver Ike Hilliard, a native of New Orleans, caught his 500th career pass in the NFL today, and finished with six catches for 45 yards and one touchdown. That touchdown was the 150th of his career. … Saints quarterback Drew Brees had a QB rating of 124.9 compared to the 71.3 QB rating of Jeff Garcia. … Defensive end Greg White produced the lone sack for the Buccaneers. … Wide receiver Antonio Bryant, center Jeff Faine and right guard Jeremy Zuttah made their first starts as Buccaneers. Bryant finished the game with three catches for 43 yards (14.3 avg.). Zuttah got his first NFL start. … Running back Warrick Dunn rushed for 54 yards on nine carries (6.0 avg.) and had an 11-yard reception. … Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud had a game-high 10 tackles for the Bucs. … Left guard Arron Sears was guilty of two holding penalties and an ineligible man downfield penalty against New Orleans.
SUNDAY’S STARTING LINEUPS The announced Tampa Bay starting lineup for Sunday’s game was as follows:
BUCS STARTING OFFENSE WR Joey Galloway TE Alex Smith LT Donald Penn LG Arron Sears C Jeff Faine RG Jeremy Zuttah RT Jeremy Trueblood WR Antonio Bryant FB B.J. Askew RB Earnest Graham QB Jeff Garcia
BUCS STARTING DEFENSE LE Kevin Carter NT Chris Hovan UT Jovan Haye RE Gaines Adams SLB Cato June MLB Barrett Ruud WLB Derrick Brooks LCB Phillip Buchanon RCB Ronde Barber FS Tanard Jackson SS Jermaine Phillips
MISSING IN ACTION Here is a list of Tampa Bay’s inactives for the Bucs game:
WR Michael Clayton LB Geno Hayes DL Greg Peterson OL James Lee RB Michael Bennett G Davin Joseph QB Josh Johnson QB Luke McCown (emergency quarterback)
PATCH WORK Every member of Sunday’s game had a black patch with the initials “GU” and the number “63” on them to commemorate the life of NFL Hall of Famer and NFL Players Association president Gene Upshaw, who died weeks ago from pancreatic cancer.
The other patch that adorned several Bucs players’ jerseys was a “C” for team captain. Quarterback Jeff Garcia, center Jeff Faine, nose tackle Chris Hovan, linebacker Derrick Brooks, cornerback Ronde Barber and safety Will Allen (special teams) were all named captains prior to the season.
BUCS INJURIES Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks (hamstring) and wide receiver Maurice Stovall were injured. Stovall was injured in the first half and Brooks was injured in the fourth quarter. Neither player returned to the game. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said he could not comment on the injuries until Monday as he did not have an updated report.
KICKOFF CONDITIONS The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Saints game at the Louisiana Superdome was 69,881. The game was played indoors in the Superdome.
UP NEXT The Buccaneers started their 2008 season 0-1 and host the 1-0 Atlanta Falcons next Sunday at the home opener at Raymond James Stadium. Kickoff is set for 4:05 p.m.
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org