BUCS 17, FINS 10: With Mike Alstott and Charlie Garner leading the way, Tampa Bay's first team finds its offensive rhythm.
By RICK STROUD
Published August 29, 2004
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
After intercepting Miami's Sage Rosenfels, Bucs reserve linebacker Ryan Nece runs 56 yards for the game-winning touchdown with cornerback Corey Ivy blocking.
[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Mike Alstott lowers his shoulder and drives toward Reggie Howard in one of his bruising carries against Miami on Saturday night.
TAMPA - During the preseason, they have been wobbly at first, unable to balance and dropping to their knees as if the game was played during an earthquake. They also have been slow and plodding, as if running in quicksand.
But in Saturday's 17-10 win over Miami, the Bucs finally found their legs. So did the offense.
They were the churning tree stumps that belong to fullback Mike Alstott, who looked like the runaway A-Train again. They were the darting, explosive legs attached to Charlie Garner, who made a splashy debut in a Bucs uniform against the Dolphins.
Alstott and Garner combined to rush eight times for 45 yards in the first half, and the running game is the best reason to believe the Bucs could go places this season.
"It was great to see our running game get going," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "We had some big runs today and converted on some third downs.
"We've been talking about it. (Garner) made a couple of moves, made the first guy move and miss and he did take a hit. He provides great veteran leadership; the guy knows how to play.
"Mike did a good job pushing those guys back and Mike hits the hole hard. It was great to see the A-Train back in form."
The Bucs broke a 10-10 tie when linebacker Ryan Nece intercepted Dolphins third-string quarterback Sage Rosenfels and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown with 7:17 remaining in the game.
The victory improved the Bucs to 2-1 in the preseason heading into Thursday's game at Houston - a game which few, if any, starters are expected to play.
While Alstott appears fully recovered from surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck, he needed a performance like Saturday.
In the first two preseason games, Alstott never got on track. He found little room to run and couldn't push the pile. He entered Saturday's game with 4 yards on six carries, an un-A-Train-like .66 yards per attempt.
But in the first half, Alstott carried four times for 25 yards (6.3 average), including bursts of 11- and 8-yards, the second of which he lowered his head and plowed into Dolphins cornerback Reggie Howard.
"That's a nice combination," Bucs guard Cosey Coleman said. "Alstott's proven around here. He's proven to this team, to this community, to this city. Everybody knows what Alstott brings to the table. To have a guy like Charlie Garner to mix in there with him ... from an offensive lineman's standpoint, to have that kind of backfield, it's definitely a good thing."
Garner, the free agent signed from the Raiders, was held out of the Bucs' first two preseason games to rest a sore hamstring. But it didn't take him long to shake the rust, rushing four times for 20 yards (5.0 average).
The Bucs, who were 24th in the NFL in rushing offense last season (103 yards average), entered Saturday's game averaging just under 3.5 yards. They didn't have a first down until the third quarter Aug. 20 at Jacksonville.
"From an offensive standpoint, we just wanted to go out and move the ball," Coleman said. "Last week, we came out and were extremely flat. We got stuffed the first two drives against Jacksonville and honestly never really got it going. To bounce back from that and to move the ball the way we did against a pretty good defense, we were satisfied with that performance."
The Bucs and Dolphins moved the ball but failed to produce points, playing to a 3-3 halftime tie. Tampa Bay had drives of 55- and 68 yards in the first half but produced only a 30-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica.
In fact, it was a special-teams gamble by Bucs coach Jon Gruden that provided the Dolphins with a short field and their best scoring chance. Midway through the third quarter with the Bucs in punting formation, Gruden ordered a direct snap to fullback Greg Comella, who was tackled by Dolphins cornerback Jimmy Wyrick at the Tampa Bay 48.
Dolphins quarterback A.J. Feeley made the Bucs pay, completing a 21-yard pass to Chris Chambers - and combined with a roughing penalty on Reinard Wilson, moved the ball to the Tampa Bay 8-yard line. Four plays later, he stretched the ball over the goal line from 1 yard out for a touchdown and a 10-3 lead.
Running back Earnest Graham tied the game with a 2-yard touchdown run, his third of the preseason, with 1:20 remaining in the third quarter. The touchdown was set up by three completions by quarterback Chris Simms for first downs, including a 26-yarder to rookie Michael Clayton to the Dolphins 2.
"They brought a blitz and I just knew I had him one-on-one," said Simms, who finished 11-of-13 passing for 145 yards and no interceptions. "He's a big body and if you put it in a good spot for him, he's going to go and get it."
If there was a downer, it was the shaky performance of Gramatica. He made just 1-of-3 field goal attempts, missing a 43-yarder wide right in the first quarter and having another blocked in the fourth quarter. In three games this preseason, he is 5-for-8 in field goal attempts.
"It doesn't matter if you do it in practice and not in the games," Gramatica said. It was not a welcome sign for Gramatica, who connected on just 61.5 percent (16-of-26) of his field goals in 2003, the second-most missed field goals in the league.
"It's a deflating way to start the game," Gruden said. "You make four or five first downs and put yourself in scoring position and come away with nothing."