The win, the first home victory for the Bucs in the 2002 campaign, as well as the initial home win of the Gruden era, was especially pleasing to the new head honcho. After the debacle of the opener against the New Orleans Saints Gruden felt it was nice to get back on the right track even though he may have been suffering from exhaustion.
"I am really proud of our team," Gruden stated. "That's a big win for us. We beat a very good football team tonight. I'm really proud of our players. They got a lot of help tonight from the twelfth man -- the fans. They were great. It was a very emotional win for us. This is the latest I've been up in my life but it's great. We needed to come out of the chute and play well. To get a victory on Monday night in front of your home fans early in the season, hopefully, is a momentum boost for our football team. It's something we can build off of and, hopefully, we can end this first quarter of the season the right way next week against Cincinnati."
The Bucs came out on their first offensive series as if they were behind 10-0 and had only five minutes left in the game. The Pewter Pirates ran a little no huddle offense and threw the football seven of their first 10 plays. Quarterback Brad Johnson came out hotter than a firecracker completing six-of-seven passes. Johnson felt it was important to start the game with a sense of urgency.
"We really wanted to come out and throw the ball," Johnson stressed. "We were sharp all week. We had a great week of practice. I had great pass protection back there the first half. We dominated up front and I was able to pick some people apart in the secondary. Again, we made three out of four drives in the first half to score points. You never want to come away with field goals but you'll settle for them. They came up big for us in the second half. We converted a lot of our third downs so we were able to move the chains like we did. I think we set the tone right away. With us going down and scoring the field goal and then the Rams came right back to make it 7-3. Then we didn't let up. We made it 7-6 right away. We felt that we could challenge them point for point and drive for drive. We felt like we did that in the first half."
That sense of urgency helped Tampa Bay draw first blood at 9:32 of the opening period. Kicker Martin Gramatica was good from 39 yards out from just inside the left hash mark. The Kansas State University product slid one to the good side of the right upright to put the Buccaneers out in front at 3-0.
The Rams answered immediately at 4:28 of the first quarter. Running back Marshall Faulk took it the final five yards on a sweep to his right. St. Louis did an excellent job of sealing strong safety John Lynch and No. 28 just outran middle linebacker Shelton Quarles to the pylon to put the Sheep up 7-3.
Tampa Bay trimmed the Rams lead to a point five seconds into the second stanza. Gramatica split the uprights from a couple yards inside the right hash to make it 7-6 but the tide was about to turn.
At 10:39 of the second quarter the complexion of the football game changed quickly. On a first-and-10 from St. Louis 47 yard line, Faulk ran a stretch play to the left. He was upended by weak side linebacker Derrick Brooks and landed on the back of his head. Reserve defensive lineman Ellis Wyms proceeded to fall on No. 28 while he was in that awkward position. He had to be helped from the field and went to the locker room with a neck strain for the rest of the quarter. For precautionary reasons he did not return at all and will be evaluated later in the week.
The newest Buccaneer, Ricky Dudley, made his presence felt late in the first half and allowed the Bucs to regain the lead at 13-7. After defensive end Simeon Rice dropped off in a zone blitz and intercepted quarterback Kurt Warner putting the Buccaneers in business at their own 44 yard line. Six plays later, facing a first-and-goal at the Rams nine-yard line, Dudley ran a quick V out from a bunch formation and got lost in the traffic. Johnson lofted the ball easily over cornerback Aeneas Williams to a waiting Dudley on the right side of the end zone just over the goal line.
It seemed like the defensive strategy for the Bucs was to make the Rams throw underneath the coverage. The Tampa Bay safeties, Lynch and free safety Dexter Jackson, were so far back on most plays that they had to buy a ticket to get into the game but the strategy worked perfectly. Gruden felt it was imperative to keep the Rams receivers in front of the Bucs secondary with a steady diet of Cover 2.
"That was a lot of it," Gruden said. "At the same mix in some blitzes to keep the offense honest and get after them with a good four man pass rush. You saw a little bit of that today."
With the early exodus of Faulk, St. Louis became one-dimensional and the Bucs took full advantage of it early in the fourth quarter. On a second-and-8 from the Rams 22 yard line, the Bucs rolled up from the conventional Cover 2 into a man to man coverage. Reserve running back Trung Canidate, lined up as a wide receiver, did not pick up the hot read and instead of running a skinny post ran a go route straight up the numbers. Cornerback Brian Kelly stepped in front of the errant Warner pass at the St. Louis 32 and took it back 31 yards to the one-yard line of the Sheep.
From there running back Mike Alstott did his best impersonation of the old A-Train and rumbled over the right side, and linebacker Tommy Polley, from two yards out. The Bucs were unsuccessful in their try for the two-point conversion and had to settle for a 19-6 lead.
The Rams countered to cut the lead to 19-14 midway through the final period. Reserve running back Lamar Gordon, on a fourth-and-1 from the Bucs 21-yard line, squirted around the left end and then cut back against the grain to go into the end zone standing up.
The Rams launched one last threat after the Bucs went three-and-out. With just over a minute Warner read another blitz and threw the ball in the direction of Gordon. The problem was that Gordon was looking for the pigskin but Brooks was keeping an eye out for flying projectiles. For the second week in a row the perennial Pro Bowler took an interception to the house sealing the win for the Buccaneers 26-14.
Now it's off to Cincinnati for a date with the winless Bengals. The Bucs will try to string three victories in a row in September so they can stay close to the undefeated division leading New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.
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