After taking the lead for the first time with 1:18 remaining in the contest when quarterback Joe Hamilton hooked up with running back Aaron Stecker in the right corner of the end zone, the Buccaneers proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. A 43-yard Hail Mary pass from quarterback Mike Quinn to wide receiver Robert Baker as time expired gave the Dolphins a 17-14 come-from-behind victory in front of 65,308 stunned fans at Raymond James Stadium and ESPN's nationally televised audience.
Like most National Football League pre-season games, almost all of the excitement was crammed into the last minutes of the game and this one was no exception. The Bucs started their fireworks on their final possession of the contest. Starting from their own 39-yard line, Hamilton, who completed 6-of-11 passes for 68 yards, connected on four consecutive pass plays, including a big 28-yarder over the middle to tight end Damian Vaughn that put Tampa Bay in scoring position with a first-and-10 at the Miami 21-yard line.
Four plays later, on a third-and-goal from the Dolphins' 7-yard line, Hamilton lofted a perfect pass to Stecker over the outstretched arms of Miami linebacker Tommy Hendricks and cornerback Daryl Porter. Kicker Martin Gramatica's second conversion of the evening gave the Buccaneers a seemingly comfortable 14-10 cushion with 1:09 to go in the fourth quarter.
After a 27-yard kickoff return by Travis Minor put the ball at their own 30-yard line, the Dolphins moved the ball down to the Bucs' 43-yard line in five plays. Facing a second-and-10 with only nine seconds left on the game clock and having no time outs, Quinn lofted a pass toward the end zone. Buccaneers strong safety Eric Vance was in perfect position to make a play on the ball, but it eluded him and fell into the arms of Dolphins wide receiver Robert Baker as he leaped in the end zone with no time remaining in regulation.
Miami kicker Olindo Mare's second PAT of the evening added a meaningless point to the arithmetic, but the final score wasn't a true indicator of how the Bucs played.
The starting offense, with quarterback Brad Johnson playing in his his first game as a Buccaneer, was inconsistent at best. Johnson was a paltry 2-of-4 for 18 yards and was sacked three times for a grand total of 28 yards during his three series in the first quarter. Running back Warrick Dunn had two carries for 11 yards to go along with his two catches for 18 yards and had the best outing of all the offensive starters.
The Miami first team offense did not fare much better, but the Bucs did dodge a big bullet right out of the gate. The Dolphins were able to penetrate the Bucs defense on their initial drive with the help of an quarterback in Jay Fiedler, who was 4-of-6 for 75 yards. Fiedler hit running back Autry Denson (16 carries for 43 yards and two catches for 54 yards) on a screen pass that went for 49 yards and took the football down to the Pewter Pirates' 6-yard line. Cornerback Ronde Barber made the touchdown-saving play. After three plays netted five yards the usually reliable Olindo Mare sailed one wide to the left to keep the score knotted at zero.
After a three-and-out possession by the Bucs on their initial drive, the Dolphins took over on the Tampa Bay 46-yard line. Eight plays and 23 yards later, Mare split the uprights to give Miami a 3-0 lead with 5:37 remaining in the first quarter. The big play in that drive was a 9-yard pass completion from Fiedler to wide receiver Oronde Gadsden on a third-and-4 to keep the chains moving.
But then disaster hit the Bucs at the end of the first quarter. On a first-and-10 situation from their own 22-yard line Johnson was sacked by Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor forcing a fumble. The elusive pigskin was scooped up by Miami defensive tackle Jermaine Haley at the 6-yard line and he lumbered five yards to the 1-yard line where he was dragged down by Bucs left tackle Kenyatta Walker, who appeared to give up the sack.
Three plays later, quarterback Ray Lucas sneaked into the end zone from less than a yard out. A successful conversion kick by Mare built the Miami lead to 10-0 with just eight seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Tampa Bay finally hit paydirt in the second quarter when quarterback Shaun King (9-of-17 for 105 yards and a touchdown) found wide receiver Karl Williams on a hard slant from eight yards out. The 11-play, 75-yard drive was kept alive twice on third down with receptions by Williams, who finished with 3 catches for 25 yards, and a 24-yard gem by wide receiver Reidel Anthony, who took a vicious hit by Miami free safety Trent Gamble near the sideline but still managed to hold on to the ball.
The conversion by Tampa Bay Pro Bowl kicker Martin Gramatica cut the Miami lead to 10-7 with 4:30 left before halftime.
Of the four quarterbacks used by the Bucs, the most effective were King and Hamilton. Johnson and Ryan Leaf, who was 1-of-4 for 4 yards and one interception, were the victims of all four sacks and were under constant pressure while trying to throw the football. Of the running backs, newly acquired Pepe Pearson (14 carries for 50 yards) was the most impressive.
Rookie wide receiver Robert Kilow may have caught the coaches eye with two catches for 17 yards and fielding three punts for 55 return yards. Wide receiver Frank Murphy started his first NFL game opposite Keyshawn Johnson. Murphy, who was lining up as a receiver for the first time in his playing career, hauled in two passes for 30 yards, including a leaping 22-yarder, in place of the injured Jacquez Green.
Walker, the Bucs' first-round draft pick, and new starting right guard Cosey Coleman played well at times with a few breakdowns in pass protection mixed in. Both players played the entire first half while the rest of the offensive line starters checked out in the second quarter. It was obvious to see that Walker has the tools to become a dominant offensive lineman and facing the likes of Taylor will only make him better.
While the game was decided by three points, in hindsight, this game could have gone into overtime as the Bucs elected not to kick a 22-yard field goal and went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Miami 5-yard line due to the fact that this was only a preseason game. King's pass fell incomplete on the fourth down try.
On the defensive side of the ball, outside linebacker Jeff Gooch had an outstanding evening. He led the Bucs with four tackles and caused two fumbles that were recovered by cornerback Brian Kelly and defensive lineman Chartric Darby. Darby and middle linebacker Nate Webster each shared a sack, and rookie free agent linebacker Marq Cerqua had a good performance as well with two tackles and a sack.
In the area of special teams, punters Andrew Bayes and Jason Malecki did a fair job filling in for the injured Mark Royals. Bayes nailed three punts and averaged 40.3 yards. Malecki averaged 36.7 yards on his three opportunities. The special teams coverage units also did an adequate job but there is room for improvement there as well.
All in all, it was pretty much an expected showing in an ever-growing rivalry between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins. Two excellent defenses dominated the proceedings and, this early in the preseason, the defenses are usually way ahead of the offenses. It was good hard-nosed football, yet plenty of mistakes on both sides of the football to keep the Buccaneers coaches on both staffs burning the midnight oil to get them rectified before the team travels to Cleveland to take on the Browns on Saturday, August 18.
Tonight the Dolphins' prayers were answered, but for Bucs fans, better now than in the regular season.
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