Bucs defense bends, but doesn't break

Tampa Bay gave up plenty of yardage between the 20s on Sunday against St. Louis. But when it came to the really crucial moments on Sunday, the Buccaneers won every single battle. Plus, notes on Sunday's game.

TAMPA — The St. Louis Rams were once called the "Greatest Show on Turf." These days, they're still an explosive and talented offensive team.

And between the 20s on Sunday against Tampa Bay that was definitely true. But each time the Rams (0-3) entertained the thought of turning the game to their favor, the Buccaneers defense made a play that stopped them.

"We gave up some yards between the 20s, but we were able to make some big plays in this game to get off the field," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden.

The turning points were easy to spot:

Second quarter, 13:30 left, at the Tampa Bay 35: Rams quarterback Marc Bulger threw a costly interception to Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips.

Second quarter, 2:08 left at the Tampa Bay 24: Bulger threw two incompletions — including a corner route to a tightly-covered Torry Holt. Kicker Jeff Wilkins missed a 44-yard field goal.

Third quarter, 5:54 left at the Tampa Bay 10: After two ill-timed penalties by Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber set the Rams up at the Bucs 10, Bucs corner Phillip Buchanon picked off Bulger's pass to Drew Bennett.

Third quarter, 1:30 left at the Tampa Bay 25: Bucs linebacker Cato June tackled Rams running back Steven Jackson for a 3-yard loss, setting the Rams back to 2nd-and-13. Wilkins later misses a field goal.

Fourth quarter, 11:36 left at the Tampa Bay 7: The Rams settled for a field goal after reaching the Bucs 11. Defensive end Greg Spires and June combined for a 2-yard stop of Jackson, while defensive end Kevin Carter followed with a 2-yard stop of Jackson. Bulger then threw an incompletion.

The Rams wasted Jackson's best game this season, a 115-yard effort.

"The score doesn't indicate it, but we were right there," Rams head coach Scott Linehan said. "Missed opportunities again."

The Rams mistakes were magnified by Bulger's poor performance. He threw for only 116 yards and three interceptions. The Rams called short pass plays in an effort to maximize their protection of Bulger, who played behind a makeshift offensive line made thinner by the injury to left guard Mark Setterstrom in the third quarter.

Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud, who picked off Bulger late in the contest, said Sunday's performance was an example of the defense's philosophy with their backs to the end zone — bend, but don't break.

"That's Monte's (Bucs defensive coordinator Kiffin) philosophy — keep everything in front of you and tackle," Ruud said, who led the Bucs with 11 tackles. "They drove down the field because they have great players. But we can't let them have success in the red zone, and we only allowed three points today."

The Rams were 0-for-2 in red zone efficiency and 0-for-1 in goal-to-go efficiency. The Rams finished with 245 net yards, only one yard more than the Bucs allowed defensively last week against the Saints.

But Gruden said afterward that while Sunday's performance was good, it wasn't good enough.

"Obviously giving up three points is a tremendous feat in pro football, but we're expecting a lot more from them," Gruden said. "The effort's good, but it's not great, collectively."

KELLY, HILLIARD STARTED: Both CB Brian Kelly and WR Ike Hilliard started on Sunday. Both were questionable entering the game, Kelly with a groin injury and Hilliard with an ankle injury.

Kelly had one tackle, while Hilliard caught two passes for 32 yards. He did drop one pass.

GRUDEN HAS FAITH IN CLAYTON: RB Cadillac Williams wasn't the only one benched on Sunday. Wide receiver Michael Clayton took a seat, too.

His mistakes came in the second quarter. First, Clayton dropped a wide-open pass from Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia at the Rams 42.

Two plays later Clayton made the catch, but put the ball on the ground and tight end Alex Smith recovered.

The Bucs eventually kicked a field goal, but Clayton played little after that. He rushed once in the fourth quarter. He had one catch for 12 yards.

"I'm sure he's mad at me for taking him out of the football game," Gruden said. "I'm sure Carnell Williams is mad at me for taking him out of the game, too. For us to be the offensive team we're going to be here, by God, we do not turn the ball over and we handle the ball better than everybody in the league. Michael had a chance to really make an impact play, wide open in the middle of the field, but you have to secure the catch first.

"I don't think he's going through anything other than he struggled today with a couple of opportunities that are normally routine for him. We're going to need him."

BUC SHOTS: The last two times the Buccaneers started 2-0 at Raymond James Stadium (1998, 2005), the Buccaneers finished the season 6-2 at home. … The Bucs had not held an opponent to three points since beating New Orleans 10-3 on Dec. 4, 2005. … RB Carnell Williams' touchdown run in the third quarter was the 10th of his career. The score tied him for ninth in team history with Michael Pittman. … Returner Mark Jones established career highs in punt returns (35 yards) and kickoff returns (36) on Sunday. … Bucs S Jermaine Phillips picked off the fifth pass of his career in the first half. … Bucs DE Kevin Carter split a sack with rookie DT Greg Peterson in the fourth quarter. For Carter, it gave him 98 sacks for his career. For Peterson, he now has half-a-sack for his career.

INJURY UPDATE, INACTIVES: Bucs S Sabby Piscitelli (foot) left the game in the first quarter. He left the stadium on crutches. The Bucs did not update his condition. Rams WR Isaac Bruce (head) left the game after taking a big hit in the second quarter. He returned in the second half. Rams left guard Mark Setterstrom injured his knee in the third quarter and did not return.

The inactives for Sunday's game were:

Rams: WR Marques Hagens (third quarterback), CB Tye Hill, RB Antonio Pittman, LB Pisa Tinoisamoa, G Richie Incognito, DT Louis Leonard, T Brandon Gorin, TE Aaron Walker.

Bucs: QB Chris Simms, QB Luke McCown (third quarterback), S Will Allen, LB Jeremiah Trotter, DE/LB Patrick Chukwurah, G/T Anthony Davis, G Dan Buenning, DT Ryan Sims.

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.

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