The cornerback, sidelined for most of last season, makes the most of his preseason playing time.
By JOANNE KORTH
Published August 21, 2004
JACKSONVILLE - Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly spent most of last season on injured reserve, wishing he could lend a helping hand to the struggling secondary.
Friday, he sure came in handy.
Kelly made two touchdown-saving plays in the first quarter of a 14-6 preseason loss to the Jaguars, reminding the Bucs just how much they missed him in 2003.
"It was good to get some action out there and get a little dirt on the uniform," said Kelly, who missed 11 games with a torn pectoral muscle. "Every preseason game I have to take advantage of being out on the field and continue to get better, so when the regular season comes, I'll be back."
Kelly did not appear rusty against the Jaguars. Without him, the Bucs might have been victims of a lopsided loss. Soundly outplayed in the first half, Tampa Bay benefited from two impact plays by Kelly that helped keep Jacksonville off the scoreboard early.
The Bucs defense made its first appearance earlier than expected Friday after the Jaguars intercepted quarterback Brad Johnson on the first play from scrimmage.
On second and goal at the Bucs 5, Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich tried to thread a pass to Troy Edwards in the end zone. From behind Edwards, Kelly punched at the ball and popped it in the air. Linebacker Keith Burns intercepted at the 8.
"One thing we have to focus on as a defense is whenever we step on the field, our job is to stop them from scoring," Kelly said. "There was a situation where there was a turnover and we came out and shut them down. We're just doing our job and have to continue to do our job, no matter what position we're in."
Two possessions later, Kelly was again on the spot against Pro Bowl receiver Jimmy Smith. On second and 4 at the Jaguars 31, Kelly broke up a deep pass intended for Smith. Later in the drive, Kelly was involved in the game's most controversial play.
On first down at the Bucs 34, Leftwich threw a perfect ball to the back corner of the end zone that Smith appeared to catch for a touchdown. Kelly stayed with the play and made contact with Smith, hoping to jar the ball loose.
"I knew I was beat. He made a good play and beat me, and I just had to fight for the ball to come out," Kelly said. "I didn't know until I watched the replay and saw it coming out at the end."
Officials ruled Smith did not have control, a call that was upheld after Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio challenged the play. The drive stalled when Josh Scobee missed a 45-yard field goal, one of three that Jaguars kickers missed in the half.
The first-team defense did not play beyond the third series.
Kelly had a breakout season in 2002, his first as a starter. His eight interceptions tied for the league lead, and he also established career highs for passes defended (23) and tackles (78) for the league's top-ranked defense and Super Bowl champion.
He looked forward to bettering those totals in 2003, but tore a pectoral muscle against the Colts in Week 5. He tried to play with the injury, but was barely able to lift his left arm. He was put on injured reserve on Oct. 21 and had surgery to repair the muscle.
"He's Pro Bowl caliber to me," safety Dwight Smith said. "Anytime you lose somebody like that, it's going to hurt your secondary. Hopefully we can keep everybody healthy this year and people will see what our defense is about."
Though Friday was a rough night for the Bucs, the starting secondary of corners Kelly and Ronde Barber and safeties Smith and Jermaine Phillips is off to a strong start.
"We're getting more games under our belts together," Kelly said. "We're starting to play more as a unit. We're getting attacked by offenses trying to throw the ball downfield, so we have to respond to that."