Brad Johnson's three TD passes and a stout effort on defense help Tampa Bay fly into first place.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2002
CINCINNATI -- If ever there was a quarterback that mirrored his team, it's the Bucs' Brad Johnson.
He doesn't start fast, his game is more grit than great and even the easy victories are accompanied by pain.
On Sunday, Johnson was sacked three times, knocked down at least a dozen more, personally counted eight throw-aways and was intercepted twice.
Oh yeah. He also threw for three touchdowns to help the Bucs throttle the winless Bengals 35-7.
Like Johnson, the Bucs have gotten off the dirt in the NFC South to win three in a row and force a tie for the division lead at 3-1 with New Orleans and Carolina.
Credit Tampa Bay's defense, which was not scored on again Sunday for the second road victory in a row, and produced a touchdown for the third time in as many games on Shelton Quarles' 25-yard interception return.
But the biggest reason for the Bucs' success so far this season might be Johnson, who sticks in the pocket longer than Scrooge's wallet.
"He's a monster. He's an absolute monster," said Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who led the defense with two sacks and a forced fumble. "He's just what he is. The bull. That's what he does. I mean, there's going to be times when he has to stand in there and take a hit to get us a first down and he delivers every time for us. That's what you like about him. Not like it, you love it."
Johnson paid the price for his touchdown passes against the Bengals. He was flattened by defensive end Justin Smith just before releasing a 65-yard touchdown toss to receiver Keenan McCardell. He also took a shot and barely had time to deliver a 22-yard TD pass to tight end Ken Dilger. Sandwiched between those throws was the only score he didn't view from the ground, a 35-yarder to tight end Rickey Dudley.
"They blitzed everything but the kitchen sink today," Johnson said. "They threw a lot at us, but we handled it well. We came up with some big plays. But we can see that we can play better.
"(Bengals coach) Dick LeBeau, I'll tell you, he messes up offensive coordinator's nights. I probably checked (out of plays) 10 times and probably should've checked 10 more times today to get us out of a bad play."
Perhaps LeBeau could have spent more time worrying about his own quarterback. Akili Smith, making his first start of the season for the Bengals, completed 12 of 33 passes for 117 yards, was sacked three times, intercepted by Quarles for a touchdown and finished with a 34.5 efficiency rating.
"(Sapp) called me every bad name in the dictionary," Smith said. "He's Warren Sapp -- that's all I have to say about that. He's everything that everybody imagines he would be on the field."
The Bucs defense produced one of its most dominant performances in several years, limiting Cincinnati to 168 total yards, 2-of-17 on third down conversions and 2.6 yards per play.
"That's the mark of a good team, to go onto the road and be able to beat teams you're supposed to beat and do it handily," safety John Lynch said. "It didn't start off too great today, but I think we had the killer instinct. The defense, shoot, we pitched a shutout and you've got to be proud of that. The offense made plays when they needed to and put 35 points on the board. It's a nice win."
The Bengals (0-4) led 7-0 when linebacker Brian Simmons stepped in front of a pass intended for Keyshawn Johnson on a slant and returned it 51 yards for a touchdown.
It was the first lead the Bengals had enjoyed all season, having trailed 20-0 in each of their three previous losses. But it was short-lived.
The Bucs tied it on Dudley's second touchdown in as many games and went ahead for good on the long strike to McCardell, who led the Bucs with four catches for 108 yards.
McCardell was wide open, thanks to three defenders who jumped a curl underneath by Keyshawn Johnson, and strutted into the end zone.
"The one (Brad) stood in there and threw the ball to Keenan, there are guys who would not throw that ball," general manager Rich McKay said. "They'd say, 'You know what? That rusher is too free, I'm going to eat it.' He doesn't do that."
At times Johnson got help from the Bucs running game. Tampa Bay finished with 101 yards on 28 carries, the first time the Bucs topped the century mark in a game this season.
A year ago, the Bucs followed a Monday Night Football victory against the Rams by playing at Cincinnati, and needed overtime to win 16-13. Sunday, before they took the field, Tampa Bay knew the Saints (3-1) had lost at Detroit 26-21 and Carolina (3-1) fell at Green Bay 17-14, opening the door for the Bucs to make it a three-way tie in the NFC South.
"When the game is a little bit out of hand like that, you can do some scoreboard watching," Lynch said. "Absolutely, we did. We were very aware of that and last week that was kind of the theme. We figured we had a chance to be on top of our division."
Like their quarterback, the Bucs proved tough to keep down.
"That's the strength of his," coach Jon Gruden said of Johnson. "Here's a guy who will hold the ball and take a hit.
"That is the hardest thing to coach. You can't simulate that on the practice field without hitting the quarterback. He has exemplified a True Grit type of quarterback, a guy who will stand in there and take a lick."