Starting to filter in
Blue skies and the field is in great shape. The crowd is starting to filter in for tonight's game. I'm not expecting a big crowd for a game where many of the starters won't play.
I actually got here four hours before the game to work on other articles and avoid the traffic. I saw Ronde Barber running steps in the stands about 4:30 p.m. as part of his warm-up regimen. So I learned that from arriving that early. But that's about it.
More pre-game updates are coming soon.
Worrying about Bruce
The University of Toledo point-shaving investigation is threatening to suck in quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who played there during the time period of the investigation (2003-06).
Gradkowski and his family have refuted the charges. There's really no way to know how this investigation may affect Gradkowski, because his name surface less than a week ago. At this point, it's only something to monintor.
But there's one unsettling detail. Gradkowski did admit to the Toledo Blade last week that he met Ghazi Manni, the grocery store owner charged with conspiring with a Toledo player, Harvey "Scooter" McDougle, to fix Toledo games.
McDougle was the only player named in the probe.
Keep an eye on
Here's a few things to keep an eye on tonight:
Donald Penn — I think he's going to make the team. But I'm curious to see if he'll play right tackle or left tackle — or both. He did so last week, and he's seeking to show his versatility.
Wide receiver — Plenty of choices to choose from for the No. 2 receiver. And since Joey Galloway likely won't play, the candidates will get plenty of work.
Starting at QB
Luke McCown was just introduced as the starting quarterback for tonight's game. So he'll get first crack at finalizing his place on the depth chart.
It wouldn't surprise me to see McCown and Bruce Gradkowski play a quarter each, and then see Chris Simms play the second half, if the Bucs are so inclined.
Bucs on defense
A quick scan of the first-team defense and it looks like the entire starting lineup — except for safeties Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen — are not going to play. Gaines Adams, who may or may not be a starter at right end next week, is also out there.
And backup Sage Rosenfels just burned the secondary with a pass to Jacoby Jones.
The Texans are cutting through this second-team defense like a hot butter knife. This only reinforces my belief that the Bucs will be looking for more talent this weekend, and that there's a huge gap in talent between the first team and second team.
Texans 7, Bucs 0
Rosenfels and Jones connect for the touchdown, which looks, on replay, like it might have been reviewable in the regular season.
Alan Zemaitis was in coverage on the fade route. That was his chance to make a splash play and it passed him by. He needs to do something showy in this contest, or the Bucs are likely to cut him on Thursday. The final two corner spots are up for grabs, and the Bucs are looking for someone to grab that job. Zemiatis missed a chance there.
Bucs on offense
We already know McCown is starting at QB. Who else is sitting?
The entire starting offense, that's who. There isn't a single offensive player considered to be a starter on the field for this one.
As expected, tonight is all about competition.
Texans 14, Bucs 0
McCown is caught from behind, sacked and he loses the football. Jamar Fletcher recovered and took it to the end zone for a touchdown. It's now 14-0.
McCown hadn't committed a turnover this preseason, and this is terribly timed, considering the competition between he and Gradkowski. McCown has time to erase the mistake, but if he can't get much going offensively, and Gradkowski can, you'll likely see Gradkowski as the backup.
What's up with Jones?
Carlos Hendricks returned the kickoff after the Texans' second touchdown, not Mark Jones.
Why? I'm not really sure. I caught Jones walking toward the sideline from the bench and he walked in an odd fashion, prompting me to think about Monty Python's Minister of Silly Walks.
Perhaps he's getting the starter treatment tonight, too. We'll see as the game develops.
Tampa Bay went no huddle on the first and second plays of their second drive of the game. That's something I like to see coaches do from time to time — change the pace of the game.
It seems to be agreeing with the Bucs. McCown just threaded two defenders to hit Jerramy Stevens across the middle, Stevens' second straight catch.
Texans 14, Bucs 7
That drive went a long way toward erasing the fumble on the previous drive. McCown led a crisp, efficient drive, which ended with his TD pass to Paris Warren. Oddly, that's how the preseason started for both.
That could help both of them, moreso Warren, who is in a fight for the final wide receiver spot.
I was also impressed with Stevens on that drive. I think we got a taste of what the Bucs can do with him this season, if he makes the team. I'm trying to decide if the Bucs will keep two or three tight ends. I think Gruden would like to keep three, but there may be needs on this team that leave that beyond Gruden's control.
Defense steps up
The Bucs stopped the Texans on third down and a hockey game broke out.
After the play the Texans and Bucs got together in a group, and they weren't singing Kumbaya. They were scrapping. Who would have thought the Bucs and Texans would get chippy with each other?
And BTW, Jones didn't return that last punt. It was Paris Warren. I think Jones is done for the night, one way or the other.
McCown is close to making his fumble a memory. Earnest Graham is his usual self, tearing up second-team defenses in the preseason. Stevens had produced some good catches tonight. So has Paris Warren. Defensively, this second team still leaves much to be desired, even though they forced a three-and-out. The depth on this team is going to be an issue all year.
Bucs 14, Texans 14
Fullback B.J. Askew — who isn't known for rushing or receiving — made a nice catch in the flat, broke a tackle and scored to tie the game early in the second quarter.
This certainly helps McCown's case. Coaches love to see a quarterback bounce back from a mistake — whether it was their fault or not — and lead the team to something positive. The fact that he's led the Bucs to two straight touchdowns after his fumble keeps him on solid footing in the race to be Garcia's backup.
I would say we'll see Gradkowski pretty soon. Perhaps McCown will get one more possession.
Sabby picks one off
Second-string safety Sabby Piscitelli set off the crowd with an interception. Then Texans lineman Jordan Black set them off again with a cheap shot to Gaines Adams.
I don't use that word "cheap" often, but this was. Adams was watching the play after it ended and Black just came from behind and delivered a blow from behind, sending Adams to the field. This came well after Piscitelli was on the ground.
He walked off under his own power and trainers are looking at him right now.
That's a big pick for Piscitelli and for the Bucs, who have run off 14 points since spotting the Texans 14 points in the first quarter. This second-team defense is proving that it's at least a resilient bunch.
Gap is closing a bit
Just when I thought McCown was creating some real distance between himself and Gradkowski, he fumbles a snap at the Texans 1, then takes a sack on 2nd and goal from the 14. Then, on third down, he throws an incompletion on the run.
The Bucs still get three points out of it to take a 17-14 lead. But McCown missed a big chance to lead the Bucs to a third straight touchdown and really leave the coaching staff with an overwhelmingly positive night.
Still, 17 unanswered points isn't bad.
Adams did not play in the defensive possession after he was knocked to the turf by Black. He was, however, standing on the sideline after trainers examined him. Raymond James officials have not given us an update on him yet.
If Adams is not hurt, you'll likely not see him again. Gruden is going to rest his meal ticket after that hit.
Welcome to the party
McCown hit Paris Warren on a simple slant and Warren turned it into a 51-yard completion.
Warren is putting together a nice night when he really needs it. He has two catches for 60 yards and a touchdown. He's even returned a couple of punts. He's giving the coaching staff something to think about, which is all you can ask to do when you're on the bubble this time of the preseason.
BTW, McCown is 11-for-15 for 183 yards and two touchdowns. Eliminate the fumble and the bad snap and it's a monster night for the fourth-year pro.
Bucs 24, Texans 14
McCown just hit Gates over the middle for a touchdown pass to give the Bucs a 10-point lead.
If you're keeping up that's touchdown, touchdown, field goal and touchdown since the fumble on the first possession. And at least three of those drives have gone for 60 yards or more. This one was 90 yards.
McCown is 13-of-17 for 191 yards and three touchdowns through five drives.
Do you think McCown is sending Gradkowski a message right now?
Certainly a mixed bag for the fourth-year QB. His numbers for the first half are gaudy — more than 200 yards passing, 3 touchdowns and an interception. But he also made some mistakes. His first fumble led to a Texans TD, his second took the Bucs out of touchdown range and his pass to Paris Warren on the final drive of the half slipped from his hands and was interception.
By and large, I think the good outweighs the bad. And the Bucs will certainly take into account how McCown rallied the Bucs from 14 points down to get a 24-17 halftime lead.
The Texans' Kris Brown just kicked a field goal to make it a one-score game.
Bruce Gradkowski is in the game now to take his shot at No. 2. His first pass was a designed rollout to Stevens, who caught it and apparently fumbled. Texans ball.
Not a good start. It was a nice play by the defender from behind. Stevens has to protect that ball better.
Jackson clobbers him
Tanard Jackson closed up the open ground on that deep pass on the Texans' first play of the second half. Unfortunately Carlos Hendricks committed an illegal contact penalty. At this point in the game, every mistake is magnified.
We have a Keenan sighting
Former Buc receiver Keenan McCardell is now on the field for the Texans. He caught a pass on the opening drive of the second half for Houston.
Jared Zabransky just ran in a touchdown to make it 24-23. I wonder if the Bucs might challenge this. The refs are discussing and they're reversing the original call. The ball is at the 1-yard line, first and goal.
Texans tie it up
The Bucs stood up the Texans for two plays at the 1-yard line, but Wali Lundy finally broke through on third down to tie the game. Alan Zemaitis, who earlier stopped Lundy at the 1, wasn't able to stop him this time.
For a preseason game, this one's actually pretty exciting — if you conveniently forget that you're watching backups in a meaningnless game.
The pace of the game
It's as if the pace of this game fell into quicksand. It's going nowhere for the Bucs in the second half.
That certainly doesn't help Gradkowski, who's trying to put a little more greatness on film before this weekend.
He does have something in his favor. It's a close game, which means Gruden will attempt to put him into plays that will help the Bucs win the game. That seems to be Gradkowski's strong point — late rallies.
Well, at least it is in the preseason.
The inevitable Chris Simms question
Gradkowski is now in the midst of his third possession of the second half. Since McCown started the game and played the entire first half, one would think that to be fair Gradkowski should play the entire second half.
So that brings up a logical question. What about Chris Simms?
Gruden said he wanted to get Simms more playing time in this game, but it appears as if it's going to be tough if you're hoping to properly evaluate Gradkowski tonight.
There's still almost a quarter of football, so we'll see. Oh, by the way, Gradkowski completed a nice pass in the flat to Kenneth Darby, then saw another nice pass to Maurice Stovall dropped.
He had a nice one going
Gradkowski had a nice drive going there until the intentional grounding call.
Right now he's 5-of-7 for 63 yards. Those are serviceable numbers, but they're a long way from McCown's first-half production. Like I said earlier, I don't think the pace of the third quarter benefited him that much.
On to the fourth quarter.
The Bucs defense is giving Gradkowski a chance to put a touchdown on the board here, after Kalvin Pearson recovered a fumble by the Texans with 10:31 left.
I'm inclined at this point to lean toward McCown as the No. 2 quarterback, unless Gradkowski can put something together here.
I'm also inclined to believe that we won't see Chris Simms tonight.
What's the only thing worse than preseason football?
Preseason football that goes to overtime. We're about seven minutes away.
Somebody — anybody ¬— score!
Warren on bubble no more?
I think we have to consider that now. Warren has had a nice night as a receiver. In addition, he's added punt returner to his resume, and that's key. Right now Mark Jones is the only pure return man on the roster. What if he gets hurt? Well, you have Joey Galloway, but you definitely don't want to use him. Ike Hillard can return punts, too. So can cornerback Phillip Buchanon.
Warren's ability to return punts can make him more attractive than, say, a Michael Clayton, who can't. Now I don't know if that puts Warren over Clayton, but I just watched Warren return a punt 17 yards in tight quarters.
It's something I'll consider as I'm putting together my 53-man roster tomorrow. And Warren just caught another pass.
Gruden will love these questions
As it appears more and more likely Simms won't play in regulation, don't you just wonder what Gruden will say when the inevitable question is asked about why he didn't play? I do. That's why I'm hoping to be there, except that I need to speak to McCown and Warren after the game.
This just lends more fuel to the argument that the Bucs have no plans to keep Simms. I think they should — that's well-documented — but they won't, unless a new injury pops up and they can put him either on IR or regular-season PUP.
Maybe Simms can stub a toe on his way to the locker room tonight.
Gradkowski is intercepted
Gradkowski just threw an interception trying to hit Chas Gessner on a deep route. It's the third time he's tried to hit that timing route deep. The first two were overthrown.
It appears that Gruden is going to challenge. A preseason challenge? C'mon, guys, I have a deadline.
BTW, WFLA is interviewing GM Bruce Allen on the air. Can't wait to hear those softballs Chris Myers is lobbing to Allen when I get home and re-watch the game.
What do you know? The interception is overturned. Tampa Bay has the football again.
Bucs take lead, Warren pays price
Paris Warren's big night just took a big turn for the worse.
Warren just caught his second TD pass of the night — this one from Gradkowski — to give the Bucs a 31-24 lead with less than three minutes left.
But he's injured. He's been down on the field for several minutes, and it appears they're putting him on a backboard as they prepare to cart him off. There's speculation in the press box that it's his ankle, but we don't know for sure.
This is a horrible ending to what has been a great night for Warren, who caught the Bucs' first touchdown pass of the night and appeared to be putting himself in position to challenge for a roster spot.
The entire Tampa Bay team is out on the field and urging the crowd to cheer for Warren as he's carted off the field.
Warren had seven catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns — a terrific night and an absolutely depressing ending for the third-year pro.
We'll update you as quickly as we can on his condition.
White, you da man
He'll be cut this weekend, but Greg White is my hero for breaking up that fourth down pass and preserving what should be a Bucs victory.
Gradkowski is kneeling it now. We're done.