Ike Hilliard is doing some fantastic work this season. His 38-yard reception in the first quarter showed what a savvy veteran can do when combined with great play-action passing.
The Buccaneers faced 1st-and-10 at their 45 on the final play of the first quarter. Tampa Bay set up in an I-formation, with Earnest Graham as the deep back. Hilliard was in the right slot, and Joey Galloway was split wide left. The Lions had five men on the line of scrimmage, and two linebackers in the box about four yards behind them.
Tampa Bay ran the football well all day, including the first quarter when Graham rushed for 33 yards. The Lions already had a respect for the run, which is why play-action worked so well on this play.
Garcia faked the handoff to Graham. As he turned around, he had a nice pocket. Left tackle Donald Penn and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood have their ends sealed off. Garcia had plenty of time to survey the field. As Garcia began to wind up, he had six Lions around the line of scrimmage.
Garcia took two steps forward and found Hilliard downfield on the left side with no Lions around him. He racked up about 20 more yards after the catch before being forced out of bounds.
A wider angle showed why the opening was so large. Hilliard ran out of the slot and worked his way across the field on a deep cross. Galloway streaked downfield and took a cornerback and safety with him.
Additionally, because the Buccaneers ran the football well, the two linebackers near the line of scrimmage had to respect Garcia's perfect play fake. Right after the fake, both linebackers sucked in closer to the line of scrimmage as they expected Graham to have the football. As the two linebackers moved forward, the gap Hilliard crossed into grew, leaving him wide open. Plus, the safety on the left side moved up into a run stopping position and the left corner, inexplicably, went deep and took himself out of the play.
In the fourth quarter, Buccaneers fans received a good idea of what new back Michael Bennett can do for this offense.
Tampa Bay faced 1st-and-10 at the Detroit 19 early in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay went to a single-back, trips set. Earnest Graham and Ike Hilliard were the slot receivers, while Joey Galloway and Maurice Stovall were split wide to either side. Bennett was the lone setback. The Lions were in a four-man front. Because the Bucs used four wide receivers, the Lions were stretched thin in the middle of the field.
The Lions, obviously, though pass. Garcia hesitated as he started his drop back, and then handed off to Bennett. The hole developed quickly, as the Bucs offensive line shoved everyone to the left side. By the time Bennett hit what would have been the hole, all four down linemen are to his left and Hilliard was preparing to block a safety. Center John Wade was already upfield taking care of a Lions lineman.
Bennett quickly sped forward. Hilliard tied up his man. Left guard Arron Sears got upfield and tied up a Lions linebacker, sealing a path for Bennett. Graham held onto his man just long enough to create a crease for Bennett. He split the two defenders, but at the 8 ran into trouble. He bounced off one Lions defender but was slowed enough to be gang-tackled at the 1.
The Lions ran a defense that expected a pass, or even a rollout to the left. Detroit never expected a run play, and the Buccaneers used a savvy play-call and solid blocking to their advantage. Given what happened the next play — Garcia's fumble — it's a shame Bennett couldn't have gone the distance.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
No one in the Buccaneers locker room would disagree that the blocked punt in the first quarter of Sunday's game was a turning point in the contest.
The Lions defense forced the Bucs to punt on their opening drive at the Tampa Bay 48. Punt blocking usually isn't a concern for Tampa Bay, which hasn't had a punt blocked in recent memory. But the Lions changed that on this play.
The Bucs were in a formation that included three men set up behind the offensive line. The Bucs have used this formation throughout the season. A gunner — which sets up at wide receiver — is on either side. The Lions had eight on the line of scrimmage.
After the snap, the blocking broke down fast. Corey Smith, the Lion who blocked the punt, came up the middle and found a seam between the right guard and the right tackle. Smith split the pair and made a clean block.
How did this happen? The camera view behind the Lions' defense provided a better view. Smith set up on the right side of the Bucs' blocking scheme. Since Tampa Bay's blocking overloaded to the left, the Lions had four rushers against three Buccaneers blockers. So the Lions already had a mismatch.
The commitment the three right side blockers made on the play didn't help either. The right guard next to long snapper Andrew Economos helped double-team Economos' man. The right tackle, inexplicably, backed up and had a clean shot at Smith. Instead, he kept backpedaling and chose to block a linebacker coming around the far right side. That linebacker wouldn't have come close to making a play on the ball. The tight end blocked the Lions' outside lineman. It appeared that either the right guard or the right tackle on this play blew an assignment, giving Smith an easy path to punter Josh Bidwell.
Similarly, the Bucs were at the mercy of a player making a great play in the fourth quarter. Who? One of the players Gruden coveted in the draft, Calvin Johnson.
The Lions set up at the Tampa Bay 32 with 6:38 left in the game. The Lions were up 16-7. The Bucs were still in the game. The Lions set up in an I-formation running play, with Johnson split to the left. The Bucs were playing a base defense, with four down linemen. Johnson came in motion before the snap, and he took a turn toward the backfield as the ball was snapped. It could have been a fake. Gruden probably wished it was. The Bucs had seven men in the box, plus Ronde Barber shadowed Johnson in motion.
Kitna faked the handoff to running back Kevin Jones and then handed it to Johnson. The Lions offensive line built a nice wall for Johnson to run around. The only Buc in a position to initially make a play was Kevin Carter. But Carter's momentum took him out of the play.
As Johnson hit the outside, Bucs linebacker Cato June was in pursuit and had a decent angle. Before June arrived, Johnson received a nice seal block to ward off cornerback Phillip Buchanon. Then Johnson fought off June, who tried to take the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Johnson on up high instead of taking out the receiver's legs. Upfield, a Lions blocker took safety Jermaine Phillips out of the play at the 20, and middle linebacker Barrett Ruud didn't have enough speed to cut off Johnson.
The Bucs had one more chance, but Johnson slid inside to avoid safety Tanard Jackson's hit and then sped to the end zone. Ruud tried to bring him down, but all he did was push Johnson toward the end zone.
Tampa Bay had more than enough defenders to stop Johnson. But a speedy, physical wide receiver plus a great blocking scheme by the Lions equaled a touchdown. Two rather iffy tackles by June and Ruud didn't help.
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 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.