Tampa Bay faced 2nd-and-10 at the Houston 44, a play after McCown failed to hit Maurice Stovall on a deep go on first down.
That was the Bucs' first deep route of the night, and it might have helped loosen up the Texans' defense a bit.
McCown is under center with Michael Clayton in motion and Stovall split wide to his right. Earnest Graham is the lone setback, offset to McCown's right. At the snap, Graham immediately goes out for a pass. Clayton and Stovall start upfield. McCown gets good protection, as left tackle Donald Penn keeps end Jason Babin off McCown's back.
McCown unloads to Graham, who is running an interesting route for a running back. It's a quick route up the middle of the Texans' defense, which has been spread out by Stovall and Clayton's routes. How did he get there?
This isn't a route into the flat. Graham takes on a linebacker one-on-one, in this case middle linebacker Charlie Anderson of Houston. Graham gives him one shake to freeze him for a second, then cuts inside like a slant. McCown has no trouble hitting Graham, as if the back is on a fast break. The pass is perfect and Graham fights with three defenders to gain 28 yards, setting up the Bucs in the red zone.
This is important because I think this will be a big year for running backs in the passing game. Michael Pittman could have a banner year as a pass-catching fullback, and Carnell Williams and Graham could contribute more heavily than expected. Plays like this show that the Bucs' backs aren't just going to step into the flat and catch safety valve passes.
Warren had his best moment of the season — and his worst — on his 31-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. The touchdown won the game for Tampa Bay, but it also cost Warren his season as he dislocated his left ankle.
Tampa Bay had just converted a fourth down on a pass to Warren, and the Bucs faced 1st-and-10 on the Texans' 31 with 3:09 left.
Bruce Gradkowski is under center. Kenneth Darby is the lone setback. Warren is in the slot, with receivers split wide on either side. Warren starts in motion to the right, but then comes back to the left slot for the snap. The slot corner is in tight coverage.
That slot corner comes on a blitz, but Penn picks it up. Warren is running a drag route down the middle of the field and easily gets position on the safety that's picking him up. By the time Warren catches the football at the 10, he has two steps on the safety in pursuit.
This play worked because Warren was able to use his speed to overtake the safety in coverage and gain position for the pass. It's a shame, because Warren had all but made the team with his performance in that game.
What didn't work
McCown took a sack in the first quarter of Thursday's game that was a result of a great defensive sequence by Houston.
The Bucs faced 3rd-and-7 at their own 41-yard line on their first possession of the game. The Bucs were already down 7-0 at the time.
Tampa Bay set up with a single setback and three wide receivers, with Warren in the slot to McCown's right. The Texans were in a base front, with cornerback Jamar Fletcher showing blitz. Fletcher breaks off at the snap to cover Warren.
As the play develops, McCown has a pocket to work with. The left side of his offensive line has pushed three defensive linemen to the left. Graham is running out of the backfield and into the flat. Tight end Jerramy Stevens is running a shallow route to McCown's left.
Stevens is wide open, but McCown will never see him. Left tackle Donald Penn and left guard Anthony Davis lose their blocks on the Texans' N.D. Kalu and Jason Babin and are hot on McCown's heels. He has one option at this point and it's Graham. But the back is obscured by Bucs right tackle Dennis Roland, who is losing his block as well. It's a jail break.
McCown's mistake is not protecting the football. He admitted as much after the game. He has two Texans defenders on his heels, and in trying to make a play he doesn't tuck the football. When Kalu wraps up his legs, McCown loses his handle on the football. Loose on the ground, it rolls around six different players before Fletcher — who showed blitz before the snap — scooped it up and scored.
This should have been a sack, then a punt, not a fumble return for a touchdown. McCown must protect the football better.
Tampa Bay's run defense was ranked No. 17 last year. Plays like this one are why.
It's two plays after Jerramy Stevens' fumble to start the third quarter. The Texans are facing 2nd-and-10 at their own 47. The Texans are in an I-formation with two wide receivers to the left of quarterback Jared Zabransky. The Bucs have just four men on the line, with Alan Zemaitis set off to the left of the defensive line as a possible blitzer.
This is a great example of the difference between first- and second-team defenses. This unit, made up of backups and even third-teamers, doesn't get the push it needs against the Texans' front five. The Texans do a great job getting position on the entire defensive line. In doing so, that seals off the linebackers from pursuing the ball carrier, in this case, Wali Lundy. The linebackers in Tampa's version of the Cover 2 need those lanes to make plays.
In sealing off the line and linebackers, the Texans create a perfect lane for Lundy and his lead blocker between the left tackle and left guard. Lundy blows right through for a 24-yard gain. Lundy also gets great blocking downfield from his receivers, including former Buc Keenan McCardell, another key to a big run downfield.
The play puts the Texans deep in Bucs territory and eventually leads to Lundy's 1-yard TD run.
This play illustrates why the defensive push by the front four in the Cover 2 is so important. Without it, linebackers can't make plays and opposing running games can control the football game. The Bucs' ability to get that push up front bears watching against Seattle on Sunday when they face one of the NFL's best backs in Shaun Alexander. He rushed for 92 yards against Tampa Bay in the season finale last year.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.