The Tampa Bay Buccaneers continued to build a new identity on defense, leaving the winless St. Louis Rams to answer more questions about another puzzling performance on offense.
Hard-hitting safety Jermaine Phillips and reserve cornerback Phillip Buchanon intercepted passes as the revamped Bucs throttled Marc Bulger and routed the sputtering, injury-riddled Rams 24-3 on Sunday.
“Obviously giving up three points is a tremendous feat in pro football, but we’re expecting a lot more from them,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said.
“Nothing’s good enough yet on defense, and we’re going to hold the standards where they belong here. Until we get some quick three-and-outs and we start scoring on defense, we’re going to be asking for a lot more.”
The Bucs won the Super Bowl five seasons ago and had one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses for nearly a decade before slipping to the middle of the pack statistically during Tampa Bay’s 4-12 finish in 2006.
The unit is still led by Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber. But the Bucs are counting on five new starters and several young reserves like Buchanon, a former first-round pick which two other teams gave up on.
Seldom-used running back Earnest Graham entered the game in the fourth quarter and scored on runs of 8 and 28 yards for Tampa Bay (2-1). Carnell “Cadillac” Williams rushed for a 7-yard touchdown in the third quarter, and Matt Bryant kicked a short field goal during a brief but intense rainstorm to give the Bucs a 3-0 lead at the half.
St. Louis (0-3) remained winless despite finally getting Steven Jackson involved in an offense that has suddenly found it difficult to score points. The fourth-year running back had 115 yards on 30 carries and caught four passes for 18 yards.
“The score doesn’t indicate it, but we were right there,” Rams coach Scott Linehan said.
“Missed opportunities again. I know it sounds like a broken record, the idea is not to miss them, and we’re working at it. ... We’re not seeing any dividends of our hard work yet.”
The Bucs followed up a strong defensive performance in a lopsided victory over New Orleans with an even more impressive outing, limiting Bulger to 116 yards passing and holding Pro Bowl receiver Torry Holt to less than 100 yards receiving for the first time in five meetings between the teams.
Bulger, who never really tested the Bucs secondary with deep passes, was 17-for-26 andthrew three interceptions. Holt finished with five receptions for 63 yards despite averaging nearly nine catches and 142 yards in four previous games against the Bucs.
“If you want to blame someone, blame me, because as quarterback, it’s my job to get us in (the end zone) and I’m not doing it,” Bulger said.
After Jackson averaged 3 yards per carry and 59 yards per game in the first two weeks, the Rams were determined to get him on track. He carried 18 times for 63 yards in the first half, and fullback Brian Leonard averaged 5.3 yards on four attempts when Bulger wasn’t handing off to his star runner.
The success on the ground enabled St. Louis to dominate time of possession. But it was not reflected on the scoreboard after Jeff Wilkins hooked a 42-yard field goal wide-left with two minutes remaining in the half.
“We kind of figured we were going to be able to pound the ball on them up and down the field, and in the red zone we wanted to be able to execute. That’s where we came up short,” Jackson said. “Once we got to the red zone, we weren’t able to put the defense away.”
Williams’ TD made it 10-0 early in the third quarter, and the Bucs defense made the lead stand until Graham took over.
Phillips’ interception stopped one promising St. Louis drive in the second quarter. Buchanon’s end zone interception on Bulger’s lob throw intended for Drew Bennett ruined a long march that reached the Bucs’ 10 with help from 15-yard penalties on Brooks and Barber.
Wilkins hit the upright on a 43-yard field goal try on the last play of the third quarter, but the Rams got another chance to get back in the game when Williams fumbled on the next play. St. Louis turned the mistake into a 25-yard field goal, then saw any chance for a comeback fade when Graham scored on Tampa Bay’s next two possessions.
“I can’t be more pleased,” Gruden said. “We were punishing at times offensively, just the way you want to close out a football game.”