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Offense figures it out

Bucs attack and break through with a couple of long scoring drives.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2003

PHILADELPHIA -- Asked for the reason this season's Bucs could triumph where past teams had failed, Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson did not hesitate. "We've got an offense, first of all," said Johnson, who caught the go-ahead touchdown late in the first half of Tampa Bay's 27-10 win at Veterans Stadium. "I don't think we've had an offense in the past. It just takes a minute for teams to get better and better and figure it out. Championship teams don't just come out of the gate like that."

That minute was a season of slow progress that saw the Bucs offense evolve into a machine that Sunday marched down the field for first-half drives of 96 and 80 yards against one of the league's elite defenses.

"We've really improved drastically as an offense, especially up front," said quarterback Brad Johnson, whose line gave him time to pick apart the Eagles defense for 259 yards, including 179 in the first half. "That improvement has been at the heart and soul of our team."

Against the team that led the NFL in sacks, the Bucs offensive line held the Eagles without one. Against the league's stingiest third-down defense, the Bucs were 4-for-6 in the first half, when they gained 224 of their 306 yards. The offense was balanced, too, getting seven first downs on the ground and eight through the air.

"It wasn't a fluke that we put up 31 points last week on San Francisco," Keyshawn Johnson said. "That wasn't by mistake. Brad's a hell of a quarterback in terms of managing our offense, and Gruden made some great calls down there. We wanted to prove to everyone out there who has the best team in the NFL."

His quarterback spread the ball around, finding eight targets, deftly dumping off screen passes to tight ends and tailbacks and finding open receivers downfield. In its first 17 games, Philadelphia had allowed eight touchdown drives of 70 yards or longer, and the Bucs did it twice in less than a quarter.

It's easier to drive 96 yards for a touchdown with a 71-yard play along the way, and Johnson's pass to receiver Joe Jurevicius -- the second longest in Bucs playoff history -- sparked the offense. Two plays later, Mike Alstott scored from 1 yard out for the Bucs' first offensive touchdown in three playoff games against the Eagles and a 10-7 lead.

Tampa Bay followed the longest drive in the team's postseason history with another long haul two possessions later. The drives would account for more than half the Bucs' yards and enough points to put them in the Super Bowl.

Midway through the second quarter, with the game tied at 10, the Bucs started on their 20 and marched down the field. Brad Johnson found Michael Pittman for a 31-yard gain, then hit Keyshawn Johnson for a 22-yard gain. Pittman rushed for a first down, then Alstott converted on third and 1. On third and goal from the 9, Johnson and Johnson connected on a quick slant that put the Bucs up for good.

And as was the case last week against San Francisco, the Bucs offense clicked enough in the first half that scoring three points on offense in the second half wasn't a problem. The key was the Bucs not beating themselves.

"Every time we've played them, we've really gassed it ourselves," Brad Johnson said. "We had confidence in how far we'd come this year. They had tremendous players, but we were going to attack at all costs, all night long."

Even the oft-maligned running game came through when needed. Tampa Bay had 49 yards on 32 attempts -- and only four yards in the second half -- but the seven first downs on the ground was three more than Philadelphia could muster.

The last secret Brad Johnson would reveal about the passing success was something anyone at Veterans Stadium could appreciate in the 26-degree cold: a pair of gloves, recommended by his coach, who once struggled as a cold-weather passer himself. They helped Johnson control his passes and allowed him to complete 60 percent and throw only one interception against an Eagles secondary with three players who are going to the Pro Bowl.

"When you play in the championship game or the Super Bowl, the balls are brand new ... they're slick," Johnson said. "I tried to throw before the game, but I couldn't throw with my bare hands. So I played with a glove on tonight. Jon's a pretty smart man."

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