It was a wildly-electric night that had all the makings of a primetime spectacle and finally the Bucs found a way to win, holding on to a 22-19 lead before a packed house on Monday Night Football.
For a moment, it felt like old times — long before the blown fourth-quarter leads and the boo-birds came calling for head coach Greg Schiano’s head – back to when this Buccaneer defense was the real deal and opponents had to pay any time they came to play at Raymond James Stadium.
That was back when former head coach Tony Dungy built his feared Tampa-two defense and later offensive mastermind Jon Gruden came to sprinkle in his magic with plays like ‘Y-Hurricane,’ where defensive tackle Warren Sapp lined up as a tight end and went wide for a touchdown.
Monday night however, Sapp, who was inducted into the Buccaneer ring of honor during a special halftime ceremony, and his two former coaches were honorary bystanders treated to a show by Greg Schiano’s new crop of Buccaneers.
Schiano’s Bucs, who had been making headlines since training camp for all the wrong reasons, cut, scratched and clawed their way to the team’s first win of 2013, finally holding a fourth-quarter lead and making a final defensive stand that was their best all season.
The Bucs had jumped out to a 15-0 lead, with offensive tackle Donald Penn channeling Sapp by catching a 1-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive, and kicker Rian Lindell hitting field goals from 24 and 35 yards out.
Then just before halftime, quarterback Ryan Tannehill put Miami on the board with a 6-yard touchdown pass, followed by 12 unanswered points in the third quarter, giving the Dolphins a 19-15 lead.
A 31-yard run by rookie running back Bobby Rainey, who stepped in for injured Mike James, set up his 1-yard touchdown, regaining a 22-19 lead that would stand through the remainder of the game thanks to the heroics of the defense.
Second-year linebacker Lavonte David had gathered the team up just after the two-minute warning, when the Dolphins were making a final push and gaining steam.
Ryan Tannehill had just completed a 14-yard pass to tight end Charles Clay for a first down, and then found his No. 1 receiver Mike Wallace on a short pass for a 14-yard pickup.
But David and the team’s other veterans said, “No more.”
“Lavonte got everybody together and said, ‘This is where we change. This changes now. We’ve got to change it. We’ve been in [this] situation many times and ended up losing the game so it’s time to stand up, man, in front of the world and show them that we can play ball here,'” middle linebacker Mason Foster recalled.
With 2:00 remaining and holding on to a slim three-point lead, defensive ends William Gholston and Da’Quan Bowers stormed after Tannehill, sacking him for an 8-yard loss on first-and-10 at the Miami 33.
On second-and-18, it was defensive tackle Gerald McCoy penetrating through the middle, with a 10-yard takedown. “Gerald, Da’Quan, A.C. (Adrian Clayborn), all these guys up there hunting,” said Foster. “They were all hungry. Everybody wanted to make that big play. Everybody was itching to make that big play to end the game and you could feel it. That’s the way we were playing all night. It’s great to be part of a defense like that.”
On third-and-28, cornerback Michael Adams broke up a pass intended for wide receiver Rishard Matthews.
Then came the final nail in the coffin. On fourth-and-28, cornerback Darrelle Revis intercepted Tannehill on a deep pass intended for Mike Wallace, effectively ending Miami’s chances of a comeback, which so many other teams had done against Tampa Bay this season.
“They tried to make a Hail Mary play. In that moment, when the ball is in the air, you never know who is going to come down with the ball. I just happened to sink in zone coverage and happened to jump up and catch the ball,” said Revis, who finished with four tackles, including a tackle for a loss.
“A win cures everything. We’ve been 0-8 and been struggling to get wins this year, but it [feels] good to get our first win. Especially at home, [where] the fans were into it, it was Veteran’s Day. It was an emotional game for us and we knew the type of game it was going to be on Monday night as well. It’s great; it’s great for the fans. It’s going to give us confidence to forward week in and week out,” he added.
“It had that same feel going down the back stretch, and our guys bowed up and made some plays in the clutch to win the game,” said Schiano after the game.
The team had to ‘bow up’ in the absence of newly-anointed starting running back Mike James, who rushed for 156 yards and three a touchdown past last week against Seattle and suffered a fractured left ankle in the first quarter.
Running back Brian Leonard helped fill the void left by James and by Doug Martin, who was placed on Injured Reserve last week, rushing for 57 yards on 20 carries with two catches for 16 yards.
“It’s weird. We had, technically, three running backs go down this week, with Doug [Martin] being on IR [injured reserve] and with Mike getting hurt now and with [Jeff] Demps. So, to have the two remaining do such a good job — when we acquired Brian, we knew what kind of young man he is, and the character and the toughness and all those things, but he certainly stepped up,” said Schiano.
“Then Bobby Rainey in – I don’t know how long he’s been here – two or three weeks, learning the playbook, and I thought the best thing he did is ball security; he saw it well, but sometimes you get a guy in there who hasn’t played lately and that ball gets all over the place. They both did a good job.”
But the game was won on defense, and it was only fitting that a unit that couldn’t close out games and had failed to generate pressure upfront found its stride on a night when Sapp, who transformed the three-technique position, was being honored.
“That’s what [Warren Sapp] was known for was closing out a game. And not even allowing games to get like that. That’s why his number’s up there. That’s why he has on the yellow jacket,” said McCoy.
“No better place to do it. Everybody that won the Super Bowl, [was] watching,” said David, who finished with seven combined tackles, two tackles for losses, a quarterback hurry and a safety in the second quarter.
The defense allowed just two rushing yards by the Dolphins.
“It was big, man. It was electric atmosphere tonight. You can’t really ask for a bigger platform than this – Monday Night,” said linebacker Jonathan Casillas. “This was a big time game and everybody was watching, We stepped up today and we came home with a ‘W.’”
And they awakened a sleeping giant, finding a way to win after being so close, so many times.
“That’s why it’s so hard to swallow, not winning [any] games two months into the season. I think the tide is turning for us a little bit. This is a good way to get the ball rolling and hope we can roll these things out.”