Dominated in all phases almost from the outset, the Bucs fall flat as a mediocre start to the season turns woeful in a 17-10 loss to Pittsburgh.
By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2001
TAMPA -- With the Bucs trailing by a touchdown with seconds to play, the ball hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity -- the onside kick, the game and perhaps the season still up for grabs.
If there was a metaphor for the Bucs' 17-10 loss to the Steelers on Sunday, this was it.
Another opportunity presented itself and Tampa Bay seemingly had it in its grasp. Cornerback Brian Kelly leaped high and clutched the ball, hanging on until he crashed onto the turf.
But then they took a second look. Replays showed Kelly never had a firm grip on the ball and lost it in the pile to the Steelers' Mark Bruener. Everyone at Raymond James Stadium was fooled.
Maybe the Bucs never were what they appeared to be, either.
Tampa Bay's once-feared defense was run over by the Bus, yielding 143 yards and a touchdown to running back Jerome Bettis. Bettis also threw a 32-yard halfback pass to tight end Jerame Tuman for a touchdown.
And Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson was buried under 10 sacks, tying a Pittsburgh team record. Oh, and a Bucs team record for most sacks surrendered. "I'm shocked by the way all of us played," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "We didn't play very well. If you were at the game, you saw a display of poor football."
Unfortunately for the Bucs, it's not the first time.
Sunday's loss was their second in a row, dropping them to 2-3 and into fourth place in the NFC Central behind Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota.
And, despite the final score, the Bucs were dominated in every phase of the game.
Aside from the 10-catch, 159-yard receiving performance by Johnson, and the persistence of quarterback Brad Johnson to keep getting off the ground, the Bucs had few bright moments.
Tampa Bay was unable to establish any rushing attack, gaining 64 yards on 19 carries.
Meanwhile, the Bucs defense allowed the Steelers to rush for 220 yards, much of it coming on runs of 46 and 29 yards by Bettis, the first for a score to stake Pittsburgh to a 14-3 halftime lead.
Bettis used his arm to put the Steelers on the board in the second quarter, capping an 80-yard drive with his third-down pass to Tuman in the end zone.
"I should've had John (Lynch's) back on that with that safety coming up the field," said rookie safety John Howell, who made his first NFL start in place of injured Dexter Jackson. "I lost sight of Bettis. Usually, I can see that play pretty good, but when I lost sight of him, I wasn't sure what was going on and let the tight end get behind me."
The Bucs offense, which has scored six points in the first quarter this season, failed to give its defense much cushion.
Locked in a scoreless tie, Tampa Bay marched 87 yards and had first and goal at the Pittsburgh 8-yard line early in the second quarter. Johnson & Johnson hooked up three times on the march for 56 yards and fullback Mike Alstott broke tackles for a 12-yard gain.
But rather than take a shot into the end zone using their most potent passing combination, offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen ran Alstott twice for a total of 3 yards and Brad Johnson was sacked on third down by blitzing Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend.
Instead of a momentum-setting touchdown, the Bucs settled for a 31-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica and a 3-0 lead.
"We felt like Alstott was going. We came into the game with an emphasis on the run and it carried over down there," Christensen said. "We thought we could push the pile and get him loose."
The Bucs defense forced three turnovers, all by cornerback Ronde Barber, who intercepted Kordell Stewart twice and recovered a fumble.
In the end, Bettis was too big of a load for the Bucs defense, which no longer seems feared by opponents. Coming in, Tampa Bay was next-to-last in the league, allowing opponents to convert 50 percent of third-down attempts. The trend continued Sunday as the Steelers were 6-of-10.
Lynch said the Bucs defense needs to re-establish its one-time dominance.
"And the only way we're going to do that is come out and play like we set the standard around here for a long time," Lynch said. "And that's why people came in here worrying about playing our defense. The only way you get that back is by doing it on the field. We just have to start re-establishing that and when we do, we'll give ourselves a chance to win."
As he did last week in Tennessee, Brad Johnson tried to rally the Bucs in the fourth quarter. When he wasn't being sacked, he completed 24 of 40 passes for 283 yards and one interception.
"Any time your quarterback hits the ground as many times as Brad did. ... I mean, I can only imagine how many times he got hit, knowing he got sacked like (10) times," Keyshawn Johnson said. "He probably got hit 20 times. Looking down a barrel, after a while you're going to start to get a little gun-shy. I don't blame him at all. We've just got to do a better job of protecting him, do a better job of running the football and just do a better job as a team."
Johnson's 5-yard touchdown pass to Frank Murphy with 28 seconds left set up the onside kick by Gramatica, which Kelly lost in the pile.
"It's not who gets it first, it's who gets it last," Bruener said.
In the aftermath, there were more questions than answers.
Receiver Jacquez Green was questioning Christensen's offense, which he says only makes use of Warrick Dunn and Keyshawn Johnson.
The Steelers questioned Tampa Bay's lofty reputation, with safety Lee Flowers calling the Bucs a "paper champion."
There also was a question about the health of Keyshawn Johnson, the NFC's leading receiver who sustained a right hip flexor strain and left the game late in the fourth quarter.
And everyone is questioning whether the Bucs' best days for coach Tony Dungy are behind them.
"What are you going to do? Believe the naysayers and say, 'You know what, we stink? We come home and can't get a win?"' Barber said. "It'd be easy to fall into that trap and I don't think anybody on this team is going to fall into that. We're a prideful bunch of guys and competitive as hell and I think we're going to keep being that way."