For the second consecutive week, the Buccaneers defense far more resembled the unit that perennially ranked in the NFL’s top 10, instead of the one that limped around the field throughout the 2006 season, in a 24-3 shellacking of the allegedly vaunted St Louis Rams offense.
Marc Bulger was intercepted three times and threw for a meager 116 yards, Stephen Jackson, although statistically having a good day (30 carries for 115 yards); was not a factor, and eventually sustained a groin injury that will leave him out of next week’s game for the Rams.
The once so-called “Greatest Show on Turf” ended up buried somewhere deep in the waters off of Florida’s gulf coast.
The Rams limp into Dallas at 0-3, whereas the Bucs have upped their record 2-1. The Bucs will head to Carolina next week with hopes of gaining first place in the NFC South.
On offense, Jeff Garcia’s numbers, albeit not gaudy, were efficient (14 of 22 for 152 yards, 0 TDs and 0 INTs). More importantly, he had impeccable timing. After a missed field goal by the Rams late in the first half, Garcia once again jumped into the hurry up offense and in less than 2 minutes, took the Bucs 59 yards in 12 plays, setting up a short Matt Bryant field goal.
In fact, if Michael Clayton remembered that he’s supposed to actually CATCH THE BALL and not let the ball catch him, the Bucs might have found the end zone on that possession (For those who missed it, Garcia hit Clayton wide open over the middle on a simple slant-in, and Michael had about 15 yards of real estate in front of him).
Nonetheless, it was a big three points to grab a 3-0 lead in a back and forth game in which both teams had been able to move the ball up until that point, but neither scratched the scoreboard.
In the second half, it was the Buccaneer running game, anchored by great offensive line play, which helped salt away the victory for the home team. Set up by a great kickoff return by Mark Jones, who is still searching for that elusive one to the house, the Bucs quickly drove 59 yards in seven plays, capped off by Cadillac Williams’s 7-yard run around right end.
After the two teams played to a draw for the rest of the third, St. Louis finally got on the scoreboard early in the fourth, as Jeff Wilkins connected on a 25-yard field goal, set up by a Cadillac Williams fumble. Wilkins had missed his previous two kicks, the latter hitting off the left upright.
After that, Garcia’s timely completions and the Bucs running game quickly answered. As Garcia hit Ike Hilliard and Michael Pittman for consecutive first downs; before Earnest Graham, the ex-Florida Gator, dubbed by most Buc fans as “Mr August” for his always exquisite preseason play and then annual disappearing act in the regular season, took a simple play off right guard for 20 yards down to the eight, and then took it in from eight yards out to put Tampa up by two scores.
But the former Gator wasn’t done. Following a three-and-out by St. Louis and a 35-yard punt return by Jones, Graham again busted loose, taking it in from 28 yards out.
The only hope the Rams had of stopping him? Perhaps if the Rams’ Leonard Little had a vehicle to run Earnest over (Note to those who forgot: Little plead guilty to involuntary vehicular manslaughter in 1998 and served a measly 90 days in jail, some community service and a few years probation).
After that, Barrett Ruud put the stamp on the win by intercepting Bulger with a little over four minutes left, and the Bucs proceeded to just run out the clock from there.
Ruud, coming off winning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors in week two, had another stellar game. Ruud is one of the new lynchpins in the resurgence of the Tampa Bay defense, along with a much improved Jermaine Phillips, rookie Tanard Jackson, newly signed Cato June and cornerback Philip Buchanon, complementing the remaining veterans leftover from the glory days.
So what’s next for the Bucs? A road game in Charlotte against their perennial nemesis, the Carolina Panthers; whom the Bucs have beaten just once in their last nine tries.
While it’s much too early to say a game in week three will decide the division, with the Saints and Falcons both sitting at 0-3, this battle will go a long way in determining the ultimate divisional foe.
Here’s one stat that bodes well for the Bucs: since the NFL realigned in 2002, the last place team from the NFC South has gone on to win the division in the ensuing season each and every year.