The Bucs' five-game win streak ends when they fail to score an offensive touchdown for the third consecutive game at the Vet.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 2002
PHILADELPHIA -- You can change coaches, quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.
You can flip the pages of the calendar, move the time of the kickoff or wait for a break in the weather.
But the only thing you cannot change is the manner in which the Bucs lose to the Eagles at Veterans Stadium.
For the third consecutive season, Tampa Bay's offense failed to score a touchdown in Philadelphia, and the Bucs lost 20-10 on Sunday.
"Something about this place gives you this frantic feeling," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "You're behind by three, and you feel like you're behind by 20.
"We obviously thought it would be a little different because our offense has been producing this year. But they feed off the energy of this crowd with their style of coming after you and blitzing."
After their recent trips to the Vet, the Bucs know every nook and cranny of the stadium, which will be torn down after the season. But don't ask the offensive players to describe the end zone.
The defense accounted for the Bucs' only touchdown, an 11-yard fumble return by Derrick Brooks, who scooped up the ball jarred loose during Simeon Rice's sack of Donovan McNabb.
When it mattered, the Bucs made only one mistake on defense, and McNabb made them pay for it with a 42-yard touchdown to Todd Pinkston that gave the Eagles a 10-7 lead they did not relinquish.
Quarterback Brad Johnson bruised his left ribs during the first series and left after doubling over in pain throwing a pass to Keyshawn Johnson during the fourth quarter.
The Eagles sacked Brad Johnson five times, knocked him down 10 times, hit him after he released the ball nine times and intercepted him once.
His status for Sunday's game at Carolina is unknown.
Rob Johnson relieved him, driving the Bucs 50 yards in 11 plays.
Tampa Bay had first and goal at the 6. But a penalty and three incompletions stopped the drive, and Martin Gramatica missed a 29-yard field goal wide left.
"I told Rob after the first series to just kind of stay loose and be ready to go," Brad Johnson said. "That's the way it went."
The only difference between Sunday's loss and the Bucs' wild-card defeats the past two seasons is they have more games left. By snapping a five-game win streak, the Bucs fell to 5-2, one game behind New Orleans in the NFC South.
"They have the upper hand on us," Lynch said. "It was a big game for us because we knew it was against a good opponent. And also New Orleans had won, and we had to win to stay on top of our division. Now ... we've got to go back to work to get on top."
Numbers do not begin to tell the story of how well the Bucs defense played.
Duce Staley rushed 24 times for 152 yards, but 57 came after the game was decided.
McNabb, the NFC's Player of the Month in September, was held to 12-of-25 passing for 127 yards, was sacked twice, intercepted once and held to 4 rushing yards.
But he still ran for a score and threw another.
Tampa Bay safety Dexter Jackson, who was in two deep zone coverage, designed to prevent such plays, saw his side flooded by two receivers going deep. He chose the wrong one to cover and did not recover by the time Pinkston scored. It was the first touchdown allowed by the Bucs in 14 quarters, a span of 151 plays.
"I think we try to seek perfection with everybody, especially when you get in tight ballgames like this one. You try to search for that greatness a little harder," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said.
"These guys found a way to get to us for one big play and that long run on the garbage play at the end of the game. But still, you can't allow those if you want to win this game."
Not all of the fingerprints of the loss belong to the offense.
The special teams allowed Brian Mitchell to gain 144 return yards.
"We gave up far too many return yards," Gruden said. "I think Brian Mitchell had as much to do with their win as anybody. He set the table in terms of field position. We couldn't get a series in the second half that started much past the 25-yard line. And that's not winning football against Philadelphia."
But like the wild-card defeats in 2000 and 2001, the Bucs offense made it easy for the Eagles.
On the second play of the game, fullback Mike Alstott fumbled after catching a pass in the flat. That set up a 30-yard field goal by David Akers to give the Eagles a 3-0 lead.
An interception by cornerback Al Harris of Brad Johnson's pass to Keyshawn Johnson at the Tampa Bay 42 set up McNabb's 1-yard touchdown run with 8:18 left. The Bucs' best scoring opportunity went awry when Keyshawn Johnson did not hang onto a pass in the end zone he lost in the lights when it was thrown over the wrong shoulder.
"I'm running, and I couldn't pick it up like I wanted to," he said.
Though no coaches or coordinators likely will be fired as a result of Sunday's game, the feeling in the Bucs locker room was eerily similar to the past two seasons, Barber said.
"It's the same feeling. The same locker," he said. "I think they need to put me on the other side of the room or something, and maybe we'll get a little better karma."
But Gruden refused to accept the notion the Bucs are psyched out against the Eagles.
"No, hell, I'm not going there," he said. "Philadelphia lost 10 times in a row to the Giants. I've been in rivalries where we just, for some reason, we can't get over the hump against a certain team. But I'm going to be a real shallow guy and tip my hat to the Eagles.
"In some ways, we played good enough to win. We stopped the run until late. We kept McNabb in the pocket, I think, and eliminated a lot of opportunities he's famous for making. What can I say? We've got to score."