Surely the script Buccaneers quarterback Bruce Gradkowski had envisioned for his homecoming in Pittsburgh didn’t include him throwing three interceptions and getting dropped for five sacks. But in a game that was a microcosm of Tampa Bay’s entire season, with dropped passes, breakdowns in the defensive secondary and very little offensive production, the team, as a whole, stayed true to the storyline.
Whether it was running back Cadillac Williams’ fumbling problems or wide receiver Michael Clayton’s continued case of the drops, Tampa Bay could not get out of its own way, losing to the Steelers 20-3 and guaranteeing the team its third losing season in four years.
Winless on the road in its previous five games, the Buccaneers made their first visit to Heinz Field hoping to catch the struggling Super Bowl champions at a good time, but Steelers linebacker Joey Porter boldly stated that his team was not ready to yield yet, chasing down Gradkowski for one of his two first half sacks on the game’s first series.
It was that same pressure that forced Gradkowski into the first of three bad passes, misfiring on a ball intended for wide receiver Joey Galloway. Linebacker Larry Foote stepped in front of the pass, returning it 11 yards to the Tampa Bay 27 and setting up Pittsburgh’s first touchdown, a 2-yard touchdown from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to tight end Jerame Tuman.
Roethlisberger came into the day with problems of his own. He was sacked nine times by Baltimore the week before and would be without his favorite receiver, Hines Ward, who was out with a knee injury.
He overcame his 20th interception of the year, a strike between the numbers of linebacker Derrick Brooks, on his second attempt of the game, to throw for 198 yards and two touchdowns. As a team, Pittsburgh only outgained Tampa in total yards by 13, but the final score would be a more proper indication of the Steelers dominance.
Neither team had much success establishing the run. The Buccaneers failed to get Cadillac Williams any space as he rushed 11 times for 27 yards. Tampa Bay’s defense returned the favor, holding Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker to 68 yards and a 2.8 yards per carry average.
However, they had a more difficult time corralling a very elusive Roethlisberger, who used his scrambling ability to buy time and connect on two key pass plays, including one to Parker for a 25-yard gain that helped to set up a Jeff Reed 50-yard field goal to make it 10-0 before the half.
The Bucs’ season of frustrations was summed up on one series in the third quarter when special teams and defense forced Pittsburgh to punt from its own end zone, giving the offense possession at the Steelers 34-yard line. On the first play from scrimmage, Cadillac Williams was called for a false start. The following play, wide receiver Michael Clayton slipped behind the Steelers secondary, only to drop a perfectly thrown ball by Gradkowski for what was a sure touchdown.
A few plays later, at the Pittsburgh 4-yard line, defensive back Bryant McFadden intercepted a fade pass intended for rookie wide receiver Maurice Stovall in the end zone.
The swing in momentum was tremendous. Pittsburgh took over at its 20 and went 80 yards in five plays, capping a drive with a 16-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger to tight end Heath Miller on a broken play in which cornerback Ronde Barber got spun around.
The 14-point turn around all but ended the Bucs’ hopes for a comeback. Prior to that series, Tampa Bay’s defense had forced Pittsburgh to go three-and-out on its first three possessions. A touchdown would’ve cut the Steelers lead to three.
Unfortunately for Gradkowski, he never found his rhythm, finishing the game completing 20-of-34 passes for 175 yards.
To add insult to injury, Bucs receiver Ike Hilliard dropped a touchdown pass in the final 10 seconds of the game and head coach Jon Gruden elected to send out place kicker Matt Bryant for a 27-yard field goal to avoid the shut out.
The Bucs fall to 3-9 and return home to face Atlanta next week.
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