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The defense again rescues the offense in Tampa Bay's season opener.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 10, 2001


IRVING, Texas -- If you're looking for a play that changed the game, and maybe the season, it came on the Bucs' first series on defense against the Cowboys on Sunday at Texas Stadium.

On third and goal from the Tampa Bay 1-yard line, all that stood between future Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and the end zone was Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly.

In most cases, this is known as a sure thing.

Bet the sun to rise in the east, the toast to hit the floor jelly-side down and the NFL's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns to change the scoreboard.

But like the Bucs defense Sunday, Kelly hung on until help arrived, in the nick of time.

What started with a goal-line stand ended with free-agent quarterback Brad Johnson capping a fourth-quarter touchdown drive with a 1-yard sneak, giving Tampa Bay an unnerving 10-6 comeback win against the rebuilding Cowboys.

The Bucs dominated the season opener everywhere but on the scoreboard, holding Cowboys rookie quarterback Quincy Carter to 34 yards passing, intercepting him twice and sacking him once.

Despite being 9-point favorites, the Bucs didn't seal the victory until safety John Lynch intercepted Carter's fourth-down heave at the Tampa Bay 14 with 1:15 remaining.

"Brian Kelly's play is the biggest play we've had around here in a long time," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "Grab hold, daddy, and wait for the posse. Hold on tight and wait for us, we're coming.

"Right then, it was ours to win. They had to get it in the end zone to beat us. It wasn't going to happen. Not today."

The Bucs trailed 6-3 until Johnson completed 5 of 6 passes to drive the Bucs 77 yards for the lone touchdown in 13 plays, two of the completions on third downs to receiver Jacquez Green.

Playing his first regular-season game for Tampa Bay, Johnson hit his first nine attempts and finished 26-of-35 for 195 yards. But despite a large edge in first downs (19-8), total yards (263-127) and time of possession (36:32-23:28), the Bucs' failure to finish drives nearly cost them the game.

The Bucs settled for a 39-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica to end a 13-play drive to start the game. Another 15-play, 68-yard march ended with a fumble by Warrick Dunn.

But there was a different feeling for the offense with Brad Johnson at the helm and coordinator Clyde Christensen calling plays.

"I felt confident enough to know that we were going to finally score. I really did," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said.

Asked if he would have felt that way a year ago, Keyshawn Johnson responded, "Oh, (expletive) no."

Playing on one healthy leg for most of the game, Keyshawn Johnson caught seven passes for 71 yards and Green had eight for 75 in a revamped passing offense.

Johnson sustained a deep thigh bruise when he was hit by defensive back George Teague after a 19-yard reception on the fifth play of the game. But he only missed a few plays and limped through the rest of the game.

"I think the effort Keyshawn gave us was amazing after getting that leg hurt early," Christensen said. "What we asked him to do was just block on the edge and play all the downs.

"I think he had to do it on blood and guts. I don't think he felt good. His leg wasn't 100 percent. He made some key catches and did a lot of things that won't go onto the stat sheet."

There were a few stats the Bucs likely would just as soon forget.

Start with the 77-yard kickoff return by the Cowboys' Reggie Swinson after Gramatica's field goal. The Bucs also failed to recover an onside kick, allowed 131 kickoff return yards, committed two turnovers and were penalized six times for 61 yards.

But Tampa Bay's ability to dominate time of possession kept its defense fresh and made life miserable for Carter.

"Our offense did a great job," Sapp said. "Seventy plays from our offense. We've got to finish off some drives and get some more points. But just the ball controlling made a difference.

Carter had one highlight moment and it came on the first series. On a rollout pass, he reversed field, avoided a tackle by Sapp, and escaped for 17 yards to the Tampa Bay 3.

"I thought I was going to kill him," Sapp said. "He saw me out of the corner of his eye, stopped on a dime, told me whether it was heads or tails, and took off in the other direction."

Smith was stopped by safety Dexter Jackson after a 2-yard gain and Carter was tackled by Steve White for no gain on the option before Kelly's big tackle.

"It felt good because it was Emmitt," Kelly said of Smith, who has 145 career rushing touchdowns. "I don't know how many times you see Emmitt go into the end zone on the goal line. You've got to go with your keys. Tackle the outside leg, get slow and shoot your gun."

Even though the Bucs trailed 6-3 until the fourth quarter, they said they never felt the Cowboys offense could score a touchdown on them.

"It was like, they didn't get in then, they're not getting in the rest of the day," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "That's what we were saying. The offense was going to get the lead and we had to make it stick. It gave us a tremendous confidence boost. Probably more than people will ever know."

As for the offense, Sunday did not provide a lot of points. But it worked as a starting point.

"I saw a lot of fight from those guys," safety John Lynch said of the offense. "We're confident that these guys are going to come on. We're going to win a lot of football games and they're going to be a big part of that. I think you've just got to resist the temptation to get frustrated. You've got to resist that. It's tough to win on the road."

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