All season long, Tampa Bay has been known for winning with backup players stepping into the starting lineup for injured starters. On Sunday, Houston gave the visiting Buccaneers a taste of their own medicine with its corps of backup players starring for the Texans in 28-14 upset win.
Houston has an NFL-leading 17 players on injured reserve (nine on offense and eight on defense), and it was backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who was 27-of-36 for 209 yards and three touchdowns and a QB rating of 116.6, and third-string running back Darius Walker, who had 81 yards of total offense, stepping up in a big way for the victorious Texans.
The home team also got a big contribution from some of its star starters, too. Veterans defensive end Mario Williams and linebacker Morlon Greenwood combined for 19 tackles, three QB hurries, two sacks, two passes defensed and held Tampa Bay to just 3-of-13 on third downs (23 percent)
On offense, wide receiver Andre Johnson came through with 82 yards and a touchdown on nine catches, many of which came on third down and helped Houston convert 10-of-17 third down opportunities (59 percent).
Quarterback Luke McCown started his second straight game for the Buccaneers in place of Jeff Garcia, who was the emergency quarterback once again due to a sore back. McCown was 25-of-38 for 266 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions at Houston, but did have a costly fumble in Tampa Bay territory after a mishandled shotgun snap. That wasn’t the Bucs’ only gaffe. Trailing 14-7 at the half, the Bucs allowed Houston’s Andre` Davis to get to the right sidelines and return the opening kickoff of the third quarter for a 97-yard touchdown.
The loss denied the opportunity for the Buccaneers (8-5) to win their third NFC South division championship on Sunday. However, with Carolina (5-8) losing to Jacksonville on Sunday, Tampa Bay, which has a three-game lead in the division, can still clinch the NFC South with a loss by New Orleans (5-7) in Atlanta on Monday night. Should the Bucs not win the title on Monday night, they can try again next Sunday against the visiting Falcons.
After the Texans game, head coach Jon Gruden said that Garcia is expected to start against the Falcons. The status of wide receiver Ike Hilliard, who left the game in the first half and did not return, for next week's game is unknown.
On Tampa Bay’s first drive, the Buccaneers surrendered the ball to the Texans on downs as Gruden, in shades of last week at New Orleans, opted to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Houston 34. The Texans took advantage of that fourth down stand, grabbed momentum and drove 67 yards in 12 plays to take a 7-0 lead with 3:19 left in the first quarter on Johnson’s 4-yard touchdown catch on third-and-3 from the Tampa Bay 4. Rosenfels, who was subbing for the injured Matt Schaub, was 7-of-9 for 59 yards on the opening drive, with 27 of those yards going to Johnson.
With 12:56 left in the second quarter, Tampa Bay recorded its first turnover on third-and-6 from the Houston 31 when defensive end Greg White came off the right side to beat Ephraim Salaam and sacked Rosenfels, forcing a fumble in the process. Under tackle Jovan Haye fell on the football, his second fumble recovery in two weeks, and gave the Bucs possession at the Houston 25.
Michael Clayton picked up nine yards on first down and Earnest Graham, who finished with 106 total yards of offense (61 rushing, 45 receiving) had 12 yards on two carries before running into the end zone for a 4-yard rushing touchdown behind right guard Davin Joseph to tie the game at 7-7 with 10:57 left in the second quarter.
Tampa Bay had a costly turnover on third-and-7 from its own 16-yard line. Hilliard hauled in a catch from McCown, picked up the first down, but fumbled at the 26-yard line when hit by Houston safety Will Demps, who recovered the ball and advanced it to the Tampa Bay 23 at the 6:04 mark. Hilliard was injured on the play after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Demps. Three plays later, Rosenfels hit Kevin Walter on a slant route for a 9-yard touchdown. With 4:38 left in the second quarter, Houston jumped back on top, 14-7.
The score remained that way at halftime as the Bucs squandered great starting field position at the Houston 47 after a short punt with less than two minutes to go in the second quarter. McCown was sacked and forced to throw the ball away on third down.
However, Houston’s lead swelled to 21-7 on the opening kickoff in the third quarter as Andre` Davis returned Matt Bryant’s kick 97 yards down the right sidelines, eluding Maurice Stovall, Patrick Chukwurah and Jermaine Phillips to score from 91 yards out. With 14:46 left in the third quarter, the Texans had a two-touchdown advantage over the visiting Buccaneers.
Texans tight end Joel Dreesen was flagged for excessive celebration on the kick return, causing Kris Brown to kick off from the 15. Clayton returned the ball to midfield, but a holding penalty on safety Kalvin Pearson brought the return back to the Bucs’ 31. It would take Tampa Bay just over two minutes to drive 69 yards for a touchdown. McCown hit tight end Alex Smith for a 31-yard gain down the middle of the field, followed up by a 7-yard toss to tight end Anthony Becht. A 21-yard cutback run off left tackle by Graham set up his 11-yard touchdown off right end on the next play. With 12:38 left in the third quarter, Houston’s lead was cut to 21-14.
After Houston had marched from its own 15-yard line down to the Tampa Bay 18, Rosenfels dropped back to pass on third-and-3 and was hit from behind by Gaines Adams, who forced a fumble that was recovered by Haye, his second of the game, and returned to the Tampa Bay 34-yard line. But three plays later, center John Wade and McCown would have a fumbled shotgun snap and safety C.C. Brown would recover for Houston and advance it to the Tampa Bay 17. Stovall saved a touchdown.
With 1:01 left in the third quarter, Houston had great field position and sealed the win when Rosenfels threw his third touchdown of the day, this time to tight end Owen Daniels with 14:56 remaining in regulation. The fourth quarter was most of the same with Tampa Bay failing to convert on third down on offense and failing to stop Houston on third down on defense.
IT WAS OVER WHEN… It might seem a bit premature to say that the ballgame was over after Houston’s Andre` Davis returned the second half opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to put the Texans up 21-7, especially when the Bucs quickly answered to make the game 21-14, but Tampa Bay never had the lead in this game thanks to losing the battle on third downs and couldn’t tie the game after it was knotted at 7-7 in the second quarter. Houston put this game away by recovering Luke McCown’s fumbled snap late in the third quarter and added a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to go back up by two TDs.
PEWTERREPORT.COM’S PEWTER PLAYER OF THE GAME Defensive end Greg White continues to play amazing football for Tampa Bay, posting a career-high three sacks against Houston, while forcing two fumbles in the process. Sunday’s game marked the third time this season that White has forced two fumbles in a game (at Atlanta and vs. Washington). White may have one of those sacks taken away by the NFL as it looked like defensive end Gaines Adams beat him to Sage Rosenfels and forced a fumble in the process.
But as of Sunday night, White led the Bucs with 8.5 sacks and has a team-high six forced fumbles. Those are Simeon Rice-type numbers with three games to go. For his strong performance against Houston, White is this week’s PewterReport.com Pewter Player of the Game.
RECORDS, MILESTONES AND NOTES • Bucs running back Earnest Graham has scored a rushing touchdown in five straight games and has eight on the season, including a career-high two at Houston. Graham’s eight rushing touchdowns in 2007 are two shy of the total that Cadillac Williams has put up in three seasons in the NFL, and the most by a running back in one season since Mike Alstott scored 10 in 2001.
• Tampa Bay return man Michael Spurlock had a 45-yard kick return in the first quarter out to the Houston 47 with cornerback Jamar Fletcher saving the touchdown. Spurlock’s 45-yard return was the longest of the season for Tampa Bay. The previous long this season was a 36-yard return by Mark Jones.
• Bucs quarterback Luke McCown was perfect in the first quarter again, going 3-of-3 at Houston after going 15-of-15 last week at New Orleans. Through two games, McCown is a combined 18-of-18 for 242 yards in the first quarter.
• For the second straight week, Tampa Bay trailed at the half. The Bucs fell behind at New Orleans last week 14-13, but rallied to win 27-23. On Sunday, Houston led Tampa Bay 14-7 and outscored the Bucs 14-7 in the second half.
• Tampa Bay's four-game winning streak was snapped with the 28-14 loss at Houston. The Bucs had never won more than five games in a row in any season as a franchise.
STATS THAT COUNT Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton got his first start of the season in place of Ike Hilliard on Sunday. He finished with four catches for 39 yards. … Joey Galloway led Tampa Bay with six catches for 87 and has 978 on the season, needed just 22 yards to reach 1,000 yards receiving for the third straight year, which would be a Buccaneers record. … Tampa Bay running back Earnest Graham had 61 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries (4.1 avg.) to lead all rushers. Graham has 798 yards on the season and needs 202 yards rushing over the last three games to reach 1,000 yards. … Bucs defensive tackle Jovan Haye had a career-high two fumble recoveries against Houston and now has a team-leading three on the season. … Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber led the team with 10 tackles. … Tampa Bay outgained Houston 305-257 yards.
BUCS’ STARTING LINEUPS VS. THE TEXANS Starting offense: WR Joey Galloway LT Donald Penn LG Arron Sears C John Wade RG Davin Joseph RT Jeremy Trueblood TE Alex Smith WR Michael Clayton FB B.J. Askew RB Earnest Graham
Starting defense: LE Kevin Carter UT Jovan Haye NT Chris Hovan RE Gaines Adams WLB Derrick Brooks MLB Barrett Ruud SLB Cato June LCB Phillip Buchanon FS Tanard Jackson SS Jermaine Phillips RCB Ronde Barber
Starting specialists: K Matt Bryant P Josh Bidwell LS Andrew Economos
BUCS-TEXANS INACTIVES Bucs Inactives: RB Michael Pittman, RB Lionel Gates, DE Greg Spires, MLB Jeremiah Trotter, DL Greg Peterson, TE Keith Heinrich, OL Dan Buenning and QB Jeff Garcia (emergency quarterback).
Texans Inactives:â€¨ RB Ahman Green, LB Danny Clark, LB William Kershaw, OT Jordan Black, OT Brandon Frye, WR David Anderson, CB Dexter Wynn, QB Matt Shaub (emergency quarterback).
BUCS INJURIES Bucs defensive end Greg Spires (calf strain), running back Michael Pittman (ankle sprain) and quarterback Jeff Garcia (back) were the only players who did not play due to injury. Wide receiver Ike Hilliard was injured at the 6:04 mark of the second quarter after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Will Demps. Hilliard walked off the field, but was taken to the locker room for further evaluation. He did not return.
KICKOFF CONDITIONS The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Texans game at Reliant Stadium was 70,237. The kickoff temperature was 72 degrees inside the domed stadium. The temperature outside the stadium was 77 degrees with 88 percent humidity.
UP NEXT The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) return from a two-game road trip to host the Atlanta Falcons (3-10, Atlanta plays New Orleans on Monday Night Football) next week at Raymond James Stadium on December 16. Kickoff is set for 1:00 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