TAMPA – On second thought, maybe it was a good thing that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ home preseason opener Friday night was blacked out locally.
There was precious little for Buc fans at Raymond James Stadium to cheer about in their first in-person look at their new team in action.
For that matter, there weren’t many fans in the stands – a paltry crowd of 45,633 – to witness a dreary 30-7 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the second exhibition game of the Greg Schiano era.
One week after a hopeful first step in Miami, culminating in a decisive 20-7 victory over the Dolphins, the Bucs looked much more like the young team in transition that they are.
Perhaps the best thing about this one was that it didn’t count, giving them a chance regroup and try again next Friday when the defending AFC champion New England Patriots come to town.
“It’s preseason – we still have 90 guys on the roster,” said quarterback Josh Freeman. “It’s definitely a chance to go out and get some game type experience and learn from it. Point blank, that’s what the preseason’s about. It’s a tune-up game, a chance for the coaches to go out and evaluate guys on the roster who aren’t necessarily starters. I thought that a number of guys stepped up tonight, but at the same time we have to go back and watch the film.”
Freeman had a hand in one of the few Buc highlights, a one-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Williams to help give his team an early 7-0 lead. And it resulted from one of the other positive moments for Tampa Bay, a 29-yard interception return by backup free safety Ahmad Black.
As it turned out, one of the best plays of the night was one that didn’t count – a juking, shifty 16-yard scamper by rookie tailback Doug Martin in the first quarter.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, the play was negated by a holding call on center Jeremy Zuttah. But the nice moves perhaps signaled good things to come from Tampa Bay’s first-rounder from Boise State, who wound up gaining 23 yards on seven carries with a long of nine in his first-half duty.
There was a potentially scary moment for Buc tailback LeGarrette Blount, who appeared to have a knee bent back while being tackled late in the first half. Blount lay on the field for several minutes. But he eventually walked off the field with assistance with what was later characterized as a groin injury. Though it doesn’t appear serious, more will be known in the coming days.
Blount finished with eight carries and 11 yards, while rookie Michael Smith led Buc ball carriers with 31 yards on seven carries.
“We didn’t do good enough up front for (the running backs) to really show their talent,” said offensive guard Davin Joseph. “They had some tough yards and fought hard and really made something out of nothing.”
But all in all, the Titans controlled the line of scrimmage and the pace of the game – just as the Bucs had done a week ago at Dolphins Stadium. Granted, many starters on both teams played little more than the first quarter. But on this night, the Bucs looked outmatched by any measure. By the end of the first half, Tennessee held the lead in total yards (141-41), first downs (9-3) and on the scoreboard, 20-7.
Somehow, the home team trailed only 23-7 after the third quarter, even though the Titans held the lead in total yardage 269-39 (yes, the Bucs lost two yards in the quarter). When it was all over, Tennessee had outgained the Bucs 341-81, with 216 yards coming on the ground.
Tennessee star tailback Chris Johnson basically ran at will against the Buc defense, with a pair of 14-yard touchdown runs and 46 yards on 10 first-half carries. And when he headed for the sidelines, third-team tailback Darius Reynaud did an impressive CJ imitation by leaving Buc defenders in the dust on a 39-yard burst before the half.
“It really was a half of missed opportunity,” said head coach Greg Schiano. “We had some chances to make some plays that weren’t tough plays and we didn’t make them.”
“We always like to play in front of the home crowd but we didn’t come out and give them the best show,” said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. “But it’s a lot of stuff that can be easily fixed. We’ve just got to go back to the tape. A lot of it was stuff we didn’t do that we’ve been working on – we’ve just got to make sure we don’t allow it to keep happening. We can fix it.”
The Bucs got on the board first thanks to an errant third-down toss by quarterback Jake Locker, making his first start, from Tennessee’s 9. The ball sailed high over the middle and wound up in the hands of Black. He darted down the right side of the field and gave the Bucs a first and goal at the 2.
“Basically, the quarterback rolled out and tried to throw the ball back across the field,” Black said. “I just rolled up and stepped in front of it.”
After a Blount bulled for a yard, Freeman found wide receiver Williams in the left side of the end zone. Williams shook off a cornerback Alterraun Verner and held on, in spite of defensive pass interference. And Connor Barth’s extra point made it 7-0 with 5:25 left in the first quarter.
“Our defense did a good job of getting a turnover and putting us in a prime position,” Freeman said. “And really, Mike made a hell of a play. It was really a one-on-one matchup. You have to trust your receiver and Mike is a guy I trust a lot. He makes a lot of plays like that and it was awesome to see him make that catch.”
Tennessee struck back before the end of the quarter, with Locker directing a five-play, 71-yard scoring drive. They Titans got a helping hand from the same player who had helped put them in an early hole, Black, who was flagged for a late hit on Ringer.
The personal foul gave Tennessee a first down at Tampa Bay’s 45. And following a 10-yard gain by Johnson, Locker scrambled 21 yards to Tampa Bay’s 14. On the next play, he pitched to Johnson, who scampered down the right sideline for an easy touchdown. Rob Bironas added the PAT to tie the score 7-7 with 3:51 to play.
Backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky replaced Freeman early in the second quarter, with the Bucs starting out with a first and 10 from their 12. Martin produced a first down on carries of 7, 2 and 3 yards. But that’s when the things turned south for Tampa Bay. On the next play, Orlovsky was sacked by defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks for a 12-yard loss – one of his four sacks on the night – and coughed up the ball in the process.
The Titans recovered at the Buc 10 but wound up settling for a 24-yard Bironas field goal to make it 10-7 with 8:20 remaining before intermission. From there, Tampa Bay’s evening only got worse.
One drive later, on a second 13 from his 17, Orlovsky tried to find tight end Drake Dunsmore on a short pass to the right side. But the attempt was picked off by cornerback Chris Hawkins, who raced 10 yards to the Buc 14 – and would have scored if not for a nice tackle by wide receiver Tiquan Underwood.
But that only delayed the inevitable as Johnson took the handoff on second down, cut across the grain to the left and scored easily. With 7:16 left in the half, the Tennessee suddenly had 16 unanswered points and a 17-7 lead.
Johnson’s replacement didn’t miss a beat showing off his own nifty moves. Reynaud busted free for a 39-yard sprint to Tampa Bay’s 25, leading to a 48-yard field goal by Bironas for a 20-7 lead with 3:14 still on the first-half clock.
Bironas’ third field goal, a 23-yarder with 1:50 remaining in the third quarter, made it 23-7. And third-string quarterback Rusty Smith hit tight end Cameron Graham on a 15-yard touchdown pass with 7:00 left to play to close out the scoring.
“You can’t give up 30 points, but the guys are working hard and you just have to make a correction,” said linebacker Mason Foster. “You keep progressing and try not to make the same mistakes twice. You learn something from every game, good or bad. Preseason is about getting better. We’ve got a great coaching staff, and we’re going to come in here tomorrow and knock this stuff out and be better for next week.”