Tampa Bay's first-string offense and defense played well through the first quarter and were much improved over last week's efforts against Miami and helped the Bucs race out to a 6-0 lead behind two Martin Gramatica field goals.
The Bucs starting defense was stifling, with defensive end Steve White and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland sacking Tim Couch twice and holding him in check. Couch finished the game 2-of-6 for 4 yards, and the defensive starters held the Browns to just 11 yards rushing in the first half.
Tampa Bay's starting offense benefitted from better pass protection this week and allowed quarterback Brad Johnson to move the ball and establish some drives, but they faltered before the team could reach the red zone and the Bucs had to trot out Gramatica for its points.
But once Kelly Holcomb replaced Couch at quarterback for the Browns, Cleveland began to move the ball in the second quarter and scored enough points to beat the Bucs just before halftime with a short touchdown pass from Holcomb to tight end Aaron Shea. For the second week in a row, the Bucs were done in by a last second play with this one coming right before the end of the first half.
Tampa Bay was outplayed in the second half. The Bucs were outgained by the Browns 209 yards to 148 yards.
This game can be broken down into two segments. The first part would be when the starters from each team were going head to head and that was for about a quarter and a half. The second part of the tilt was when the reserves were battling to prove their worth to their particular football teams. The action was fast and furious, but void of many highlights and the outcome of each segment was at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The visiting Bucs won the battle of the starters in the initial portion of the game and, frankly, it was no contest. In fact, if it was a boxing match, the referee may have stopped if for fear that the Browns could suffer irreparable damage especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's troops completely dismantled the Cleveland offense and left it in shambles. Couch did not complete a pass until early in the second quarter and was suffered two sacks. The Cleveland signal caller also suffered an interception by free safety Dexter Jackson when the ball squirted out of the hands of Browns wide receiver Kevin Johnson in the right flat. Jackson made a great diving grab at the Browns'41-yard line.
This led to the second of two field goals by Gramatica at 14:51 of the second quarter. Gramatica launched a 58-yard bomb from the center of the field that dissected the uprights and capped a four-play, 1-yard drive that consumed 55 seconds.
The offensive starters showed just enough to create the first Gramatica field goal at 2:23 of the opening stanza. The former Kansas State Wildcat was true on a 43-yard effort from the left hash that just sneaked inside the left upright. That culminated a nine-play, 48-yard drive that took 4:02 off the game clock.
Obviously, if this was a regular season game, the major question was not whether the Browns would score but if they could penetrate into Tampa Bay territory. The Bucs, from a standpoint of the starters, were the better team in all three phases of the game. The Bucs would have pitched a shutout and the Tampa Bay offense would have had enough firepower where the final count would have been in the neighborhood of 19-0. Even a blind man would have seen that.
But preseason is more for observing your depth than wearing out your starters and, in that area, the Browns were the definite victors. Tampa Bay did have its chances and were driving to put the game out of reach when defensive back Anthony Henry, a rookie from the University of South Florida, intercepted an underthrown Shaun King aerial that was intended for wide receiver Frank Murphy in the Browns end zone.
Cleveland turned around and pushed across the only touchdown of the game with two seconds left in the first half. On the drive that totaled 13 plays,77 yards and took 4:23 in clock time, the Bucs twice kept the Browns in business.
When the Cleveland offense was unable to convert on third down, the Bucs were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct when special teams coach Joe Marciano ran into an official in the 3-yard demilitarized zone just off the sidelines in front of their bench. To make matters worse, an apparent second interception by Jackson on a pass by Holcomb was nullified by an illegal contact call against strong safety David Gibson.
Finally, or mercifully, Cleveland scored on a 1-yard play action pass from Holcomb, who hit Shea with a floater over Jackson in the back of the end zone. Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson tacked on the winning point and it gave the Browns a 7-6 lead that was the eventual final score.
Cleveland had two other chances to increase its lead but, on both occasions, came up wide right. Back up kicker Francesco Biancamano hooked a field goal from 44 yards out early in the final period, and Dawson followed suit from 42 yards away. The Bucs, though, were not able to capitalize and turned the ball over on downs as both Ryan Leaf and Joe Hamilton were ineffective down the stretch.
Fourth-string Browns quarterback Spergon Wynn kneeled out the clock and the Browns emerged victorious.
The Buccaneers made enough mental mistakes for a season against Cleveland, and the blame could be spread throughout the entire team and even the coaching staff. The plethora of yellow hankies against Tampa Bay totaled eight for 50 yards. It's tough enough to win in the National Football League when you play a penalty-free game but, with almost double-digit infractions against you, it's almost impossible to combat the penalties and emerge victorious.
The major story to come out of the Bucs' first road game was two major injuries. The first was to rookie linebacker and special teams contributor Marq Cerqua. He has a dislocated shoulder and his status will be updated when the team returns to Florida, but the prognosis is not good. The injury could take anywhere from four to eight weeks to heal depending upon the severity of the dislocation.
Marciano will have to replace the effective Cerqua on the coverage teams. Starting center Jeff Christy went down with what is believed to be a sprained MCL knee ligament. This injury could keep him out four weeks, and the Pro-Bowler's status for the regular season opener against the Cowboys at Dallas Stadium is in jeopardy. Backup center Todd Washington has played well this preseason and is expected to step into the starting spot until Christy can return to the line up with third-team center Leon Hires probably moving up to the backup role.
Well, it's back to the drawing board to prepare for the New England Patriots in the final preseason home game. The starters will most likely play well into the third quarter to get their wind and increase their stamina so they are ready to travel to Dallas for the 2001 season opener. If the starting offense continues to improve and the defense remains the dominant force on the field, the Bucs will be moving in the right direction.
Where they must make major improvements is with backups and special teams. The Bucs also must stop committing the stupid penalties. Even the most inept and anemic teams can rise up and bite you when you give them a couple extra sets of downs to work with or you have a long gain negated. That puts "old Mo" (short for momentum) on their side and it's hard to get it back.
Look for the Buccaneers to cut down the penalties and pick up the intensity next week at the RayJay. That's what good football teams do and, no matter what the pre-season record may be, this is a good football team.
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