The Browns arrived in Florida convinced they had little chance of moving the football against the red-hot Buccaneers defense, and they did everything in their power to prove themselves right.
"The game went an awful lot like we thought it might," Browns coach Butch Davis admitted. "We knew coming down here we were going to have to play extremely well defensively and try to keep it a defensive struggle."
The Browns' defense did manage to keep the score low. Unfortunately, so did their offense.
The only score the Browns could muster was a 50-yard, fourth-quarter field goal by Phil Dawson, and that came on the offense's deepest penetration of the game - a drive that ended at the Buccaneers 33-yard line.
The offensive execution was dismal and the play-calling made the Browns look afraid to challenge a defense that had not surrendered a touchdown in the last three weeks and had scored four touchdowns off of forced turnovers in four consecutive games.
"Tampa Bay's defense is clearly one of the league's very best," said Davis. "A recipe to beat their defense is not coming out there and trying to go 13 plays and 85 yards. It just doesn't happen."
They made sure it didn't happen with a stubborn, conservative gameplan that featured two and three-tight end sets, continually ran Jamel White (9 carries 38 yards) and William Green (8 carries, 22 yards) right at All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp and the heart of the Buccaneers defense, and led to the Browns spinning their wheels on offense for three full quarters.
By the start of the fourth quarter, the Browns had managed just 93 net yards and five first downs. By the final gun, thir offensive totals had swelled to a still-unimpressive 194 yards and 11 first downs, but even those final numbers were deceiving. When they finally opened up the offense a bit and allowed Tim Couch (20-of-40, 151 yards, 1 interception) to throw the ball downfield in the fourth quarter, the Browns still never challenged the Buccaneers defense.
According to Couch, the hope of the gameplan was to "run the ball well to make them bring another safety up in the box so you can get (single-coverage) on the outside."
It never had a chance of working. Tampa's starting safeties John Lynch and Dexter Jackson sat back in a two-deep zone, daring the Browns to throw as Sapp (6 tackles, 2 sacks), linebackers Shelton Quarles (8 tackles) and Derrick Brooks (8 tackles), and the rest of the Buccaneers front seven controlled the line of scrimmage.
"You don't get many opportunities for a big play (against the Buccaneers' zone)," said Davis. "You look for them all day long, and I know that Tim looked, and looked and looked ... We probably got man coverage where they were isolated one-on-one on the receivers no more than seven or eight times the whole ballgame. We took our shots when we got them."
When they did take their shots, the Browns came up empty. Tampa cornerback down Brian Kelly recoverd to bat down a deep pass to Kevin Johnson after he was beaten down the right sideline early in the fourth quarter. A few minutes later, Dennis Northcutt dropped another deep pass from Couch after outrunning man-to-man coverage on a spring down the left sideline.
"The ball was thrown long enough," said Northcutt, who led the Browns with 74 yards on four catches. "It hit my hands and I should have caught it. It was one of those things I just couldn't hold onto."
For most of the afternoon, the Buccaneers offense was just as unproductive. If not for a missed tackle by cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, the Browns would have gone into halftime trailing 3-0 on a 33-yard Martin Gramatica field goal.
McCutcheon's inability to bring down running back Michael Pittman early in the first quarter turned what should have been a 2-yard screen pass into a 64-yard pass play. It set up a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Mike Alstott to cap the Buccaneers' opening possession.
Gramatica and the Buccaneers' special teams helped the Browns keep the game close with a pair of botched field goals in the third quarter - a 45-yarder that was blocked by Anthony Henry and a 33-yarder that sailed wide left.
The Buccaneers' offense didn't get going until the fourth quarter when Alstott took advantage of an exhausted Browns' defense. After carrying the ball just twice for 5 yards in the first half, Alstott finished with 126 yards on 17 carries, including a game-clinching 17-yard touchdown rumble in the fourth quarter.
"That's been Tampa's M.O., they get a lead and then grind and pound it right at you," said Davis. "On Alstott's three biggest runs, he was actually hit in the backfield. Guys were getting worn out and tired."
That should have come as no surprise, considering the 85-degree heat, the 74-percent humidity and the fact that the Browns offense was on the field for a little more than two minutes and six total plays in the entire third quarter.
Just two weeks ago, the Browns (2-4) had a chance to take a two game lead in the AFC North Division. Now, after three straight losses, they find themselves in third place, trailing the Baltimore Ravens (2-3) and Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3) and in danger of watching what was supposed to be a promising season go down the drain.
"Hopefully, this football team is a team that has a future in front of it," said Davis. "As long as you maintain hope, there is always going to be promise ... I hate losing. It makes my stomach sick, but I believe in these guys. I believe they give us everything they've got. As a football team, we are clearly not where we want to be, record wise or performance wise. But I'm not going to give up on these guys and I don't think they will give up on themselves."