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Knocked silly

The offense gets turnovers, not touchdowns, and the defense is gashed for 170 yards rushing in a 28-14 thumping by Detroit.

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson goes one way and his helmet goes the other after a vicious hit by the Lions' Corwin Brown in the third quarter. Johnson was shaken but returned to the game.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


TAMPA -- The Bucs began the season hoping they at least would return to the NFC Championship Game.

If they do, they will have to travel the same back alley to reach it as they did a year ago, one that is unpaved, littered with broken glass, full of potholes and probably runs through St. Louis.

But this year it sure looks like a dead end.

Picked to win a Super Bowl but now just a super disappointment, the Bucs lost their fourth straight game Thursday night, 28-14 to the Lions. It is their longest losing streak since they started Tony Dungy's first season 0-5.

Detroit running back James Stewart rushed for 116 yards, three touchdowns and a two-point conversion as Detroit overcame an eight-point deficit.

The Bucs dropped to 3-4, the record they had in '99 before beginning an incredible run that earned them the NFC Central title and brought them to the doorstep of the Super Bowl.

That historic charge was directed by fresh-faced rookie quarterback Shaun King.

But the reign of King and the Bucs could be over.

Playing perhaps his worst game as a pro, King threw three second-half interceptions, two with the score tied.

Those interceptions led to 10 Lions points, including Stewart's winning touchdown.

"I don't know if we're demoralized, but we're definitely disappointed," Dungy said. "We've dug ourselves a big, big hole, and the only way we get out of it is to pull ourselves out. Losing two home games is very, very tough. It's hard to fathom that. But we've got to come out of it."

King finished 17-of-34 for 149 yards.

His second interception, midway through the fourth quarter, was a killer. The score was tied, and the Bucs faced third and 1 at their 40-yard line. King rolled left and tried to hit Keyshawn Johnson downfield, but his throw was intercepted by linebacker Chris Claiborne.

That play allowed the Lions to take control and set up Stewart's winning touchdown with 4:28 to play.

Dungy said he had no plans to replace King.

"We'll look at everything, but that's not in my mind right now," Dungy said.

King, who threw 40 passes last week at Minnesota, got no help again from his running game.

The Bucs averaged 8 yards a carry in the first quarter but attempted four running plays in the second half in extending their streak to seven quarters without an offensive touchdown.

Even so, the Bucs had a great chance to win. Kicker Martin Gramatica made four field goals -- including career-best, tying blast from 55 yards and another from 50.

After the Lions took a 21-14 lead, the Bucs faced fourth and 2 at their 38 with 3:18 to play. But with only one timeout, Dungy opted to go for the first down, and King fired incomplete to Jacquez Green.

"Sure, we felt like if we punted, we had one timeout and the two-minute warning," Dungy said. "If we stopped them, maybe we get the ball back with a minute or so. But I felt we had a better chance of making one yard instead of going through all those scenarios."

Lions quarterback Charlie Batch, who was sacked seven times by the Bucs in their Sept. 17 meeting, took a similar beating Thursday as Tampa Bay matched that total.

Defensive end Marcus Jones led the charge with a club-record four sacks. Tackle Warren Sapp had two.

With the Bucs trailing by three late in the third quarter, Jones also blocked a 41-yard field-goal attempt. It was the third block of a field-goal attempt in three games for Tampa Bay, which also blocked a punt that produced a safety.

Jones' block set up Gramatica's 55-yarder to knot the score at 14 with just over 13 minutes remaining.

"Fundamentally, we had some breakdowns at the wrong time," Dungy said. "I think we're playing hard with all the energy we have, but we're not playing particularly well or particularly smart."

The first half epitomized the Bucs' season.

They failed to finish off drives and had lapses on special teams, and the defense could not put away a team it had dominated.

Two drives into the red zone failed to produce a touchdown. The blocked punt resulted in a safety instead of a touchdown. And -- stop if you've heard this before -- fullback Mike Alstott turned the tide of the game by losing his second fumble of the season.

One minute the Bucs had an 8-0 lead. The next they were tied at halftime at 11. Barely 31/2 minutes into the second half, they trailed 14-11.

Even the special teams missed a great chance to reach the end zone. Rookie Nate Webster blocked a punt by John Jett, and cornerback Ronde Barber failed on three attempts to gain possession of the ball. Teammates John McLaughlin and Alshermond Singleton also could not recover the ball in the end zone. The Lions' Corwin Brown recovered it for a safety.

The Bucs defense wasn't blameless. Despite the pressure on Batch, it allowed another running back to have a big game. It also yielded Detroit a first down on third and 22, sustaining a drive that resulted in the Lions tying the score at halftime.

"I guess you start with the coaching staff, start with me," Dungy said. "We're not doing the things in crunch time to make plays. We let them off the hook on third and long. We had turnovers against Detroit, which we knew we couldn't do.

"It's disappointing. You have to be careful right now because of the outside forces that want to say the season is over and it's time to throw in the towel. People will look at it and say what we need to do and what we did in the past. We can't really respond to that; you've got to come back and play the way we can play.

"Any time you lose a couple games in a row, you have that problem with confidence. We have to get that feeling back that you can win."

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