The Bucs intercept Kurt Warner four times for their third consecutive prime-time win against the Rams.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2002
TAMPA -- By now you have seen the picture of Brian Kelly getting beat for the winning touchdown in the NFC Championship Game three years ago.
It is a snapshot of a play that elevated one of the league's most delicious rivalries.
It is a frame of failure for the Bucs, frozen in time, that represents how close they came to playing in a Super Bowl.
It is a photo finished.
On Monday Night Football, Kelly erased that memory and created one for himself by intercepting quarterback Kurt Warner and returning it to the 1-yard line to set up Mike Alstott's fourth-quarter touchdown run in the Bucs' 26-14 win against the Rams.
The Bucs intercepted Warner four times, but one of the biggest was the one early in the fourth quarter by Kelly, who had not had a pick in his past 22 games.
Then, as they had in two previous wins in prime time against the Rams, the Bucs used an interception to preserve the victory. With his team clinging to a 19-14 lead, linebacker Derrick Brooks stepped in front of a pass intended for rookie Lamar Gordon and returned it 39 yards for the put-away touchdown with 59 seconds remaining.
It was a team-leading third interception by Brooks this season, and the second in as many games he cashed in for a touchdown.
"Our defense dominated, especially in the second half," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "They got two or three turnovers and we got touchdowns out of two of them. One that got us down to the 1-yard line and the second that sealed the game for us."
The victory, aided by a neck strain that kept Marshall Faulk sidelined for most of the game, improved the Bucs to 2-1, one game behind unbeaten New Orleans and Carolina in the NFC South.
It also was the third win in a row on Monday Night Football against the Rams by the Bucs, who have not lost to St.Louis since the NFC Championship Game.
The Rams, who fell to 0-3, made it interesting.
Gordon scored on a 20-yard run on fourth and 1 to cut the Bucs lead to 19-14 with 4:21 remaining. Then the Bucs offense was unable to gain a first down to milk the clock.
But Brooks, who missed nearly the entire fourth quarter with a left hamstring pull, sneaked back into the game in the nick of time.
"He did. He has that ability, that authority," coach Jon Gruden said. "When he's ready to go, by god, you let him play."
Warner finished 30-for-45 for 301 yards. But he must count ceiling tiles the night before playing Tampa Bay.
In four games against Warner, the Bucs have intercepted the Pro Bowl quarterback 12 times.
On Monday, they also made him uncomfortable in the pocket, sacking him five times.
"We had relentless pressure," Gruden said. "We challenged them to a degree to apply pressure. I thought Kurt had a hard time setting his feet, really seeing his throws and striding through them. When he does, it's lights out."
Defensive end Simeon Rice got the interception parade started, collecting the second of his career to set up the Bucs' first touchdown.
"It was a zone blitz, it was a good call," Gruden said. "Simeon Rice is a legitimate pass rusher, but when we do ask him to drop into a zone, he's got real good ball skills. As a matter of fact, I thought about using him as a tight end after that catch and run. He looked pretty impressive."
Tampa Bay took a 13-7 lead into the locker room at halftime, thanks to a patient offense and a big play by the defense.
Trailing 7-6 and seemingly stuck in reverse against Warner and the Rams offense, Rice intercepted a pass at the Tampa Bay 14 and returned it 30 yards.
The Bucs overcame two penalties to go 56 yards for their third offensive touchdown of the season.
Facing third and 14 at the Tampa Bay 40, Keyshawn Johnson made a sliding, fingernail catch for 21 yards and a first down. Three plays later, the Bucs were in the end zone and ahead on the scoreboard.
Brad Johnson hit tight end Todd Yoder for 16 yards and Michael Pittman carried for 14 more. On first and goal from the 9-yard line, Johnson floated a touchdown pass to open tight end Rickey Dudley.
It was a remarkable debut for Dudley, a free agent from Cleveland who played for Gruden at Oakland and was signed Tuesday.
It was the sixth catch of the game from the Bucs' tight end position, which proved to be Johnson's favorite target in the first half.
The Bucs entered the game hoping to establish a running game. But Johnson outgunned Warner in the first half, going 16-for-21 for 161 yards.
If there was a concern for the Bucs, it was that they allowed the Rams to convert five of their first six third downs, a trend that began in the opener against New Orleans.
It makes you wonder what the Rams might have done had Faulk not left the game early in the second quarter after a hit by Brooks.
Tampa Bay received bad news at halftime. Left guard Kerry Jenkins was lost for the season when he broke his left fibula late in the first half.
The Rams threatened late in the half, getting the ball when Brad Johnson's pass to Keenan McCardell for an apparent first down was wrestled away by Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams at the Tampa Bay 40.
That's when the Bucs defense did an escape to make Houdini proud.
Linebacker Shelton Quarles was penalized for unnecessary roughness when he speared Rams receiver Yo Murphy, giving St. Louis a first down at the Tampa Bay 35.
But Rice, who played despite a left shoulder strain, sacked Warner for an 8-yard loss on second down and the Rams quarterback fired incomplete to prompt a punt.