Buccaneers - Giants 41-34: Tampa Bay loses shoot-out as Hakeem Nicks carves up secondary

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost a high-scoring game against the New York Giants in the fourth quarter. The two teams combined for 32 points in the final quarter of the game, as what had previously been a defensive struggle turned into a gunslinging battle, ultimately won by the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bucs held up admirably for three quarters, but ultimately lacked the quality to beat a good team on the road.

Through three quarters, the Buccaneers led the Giants 27-16 in what had been an amazing game for Tampa Bay up to that point. Coming off a hard-fought but low-scoring game against the Carolina Panthers, the Bucs were looking to win their second game in the same way - but a defense that couldn't compete through four quarters made that impossible. Ultimately, Eli Manning threw for 510 yards on 51 attempts, while Hakeem Nicks caught 10 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown and Victor Cruz added 11 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. Nicks repeatedly abused Aqib Talib, who had a poor game with a few good pass defenses in between, while Cruz victimized everyone he could find.

But Eli Manning didn't look that good in the first half, when he managed to gain yardage through the air, but the Buccaneers intercepted him three times. Eric Wright returned one of those passes for a touchdown in one of the best plays of the season so far. Brandon McDonald and Mason Foster managed the two other interceptions, as the Bucs harrassed Eli Manning in the pocket and looked up-and-down in the secondary, giving up some big plays but tightening up in the red zone and forcing a few turnovers.

The first three quarters were a near-perfect demonstration of Buc Ball. The Bucs allowed the Giants to go down the field, but limited them to three field goals in the red zone, allowing just one touchdown over the first three quarters. They forced three turnovers, and didn't give the ball away themselves. They scored on defense and produced a couple of big plays to get up 27-16 at the end of the third quarter. But the secondary was beat up at that point, as Eric Wright went to the locker room with a back injury. That left Brandon McDonald on Victor Cruz, and that was one disastrous mismatch. Although when Ronde Barber was on Cruz, he promptly gave up an 80-yard touchdown - so that wasn't much better. Coupled with Aqib Talib's troubles with Hakeem Nicks, and the Bucs allowed a whopping 510 yards passing on the game.

That wasn't all the fault of the secondary, however, and those issues didn't magically appear in the fourth quarter, either. The Bucs struggled to stop an unleashed Eli Manning earlier in the game, but dropped passes and three timely interceptions masked those troubles. That makes it rather perplexing that rather than giving the cornerbacks some help, the Buccaneers continued to blitz on nearly every play, leaving those struggling cornerbacks on an island time and again. Not surprisingly, the Bucs' secondary got carved up - and while the individual players struggled, the Bucs coaches deserve their share of the blame as well - especially so because none of those blitzes actually got home.

Throughout most of the game, the defense was carrying the team despite those issues. The Bucs offense had one good drive and a few isolated plays, but produced just 20 points through four quarters, with the remaining 7 points coming on Eric Wright's touchdown return. The offense played it conservatively throughout most of the final two quarters, looking simply to run down much of the clock by running the ball. That led to Doug Martin getting the ball 20 times for 66 yards, after rushing just seven times in the first half. That didn't work well, as the team had to play catch-up after the defense allowed touchdown after touchdown.

Martin, then, wasn't the foundation of the offense in this game. Instead, that was Josh Freeman and his connection with Vincent Jackson. The star receiver had five catches for 128 yards and a touchdown on 10 targets, and he was repeatedly targeted on deep passes. Throughout most of the game, in fact, he was the only productive receiver. Late in the game, when the Bucs were forced to pass to catch up quickly, the team found out it has a few other weapons in the form of Dallas Clark and Mike Williams. The latter managed to tie the game on one amazing 41-yard touchdown grab over cornerback Michael Coe. The play was reminiscent of Williams' best plays in 2010.

Unfortunately, that late touchdown tied the game - but it wasn't enough. The Giants just marched straight down the field for another touchdown, taking a 34-27 lead - and the Bucs were forced to try to get back in the endzone with just 30 seconds remaining. For a second it looked like it would work, after another amazing 40-odd yard Mike Williams grab down the sideline, but that play was called back after a lengthy review as Williams lost the ball while going to the ground. Josh Freeman would throw an interception the very next play, ending the game 15/28 for 243 yards, with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. A decent line, but far shy of Manning's 31/51 for 510 yards, 3 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Even some shenanigans on the final kneeldown of the game couldn't win the Bucs the game.

This was a weird game overall, as a defensive struggle through three quarters turned into a shootout in a 32-point fourth quarter. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers managed to hang with the defending Super Bowl champions in a tough and hard-fought game. This was a frustrating loss for the Buccaneers, but at least it wasn't a blowout loss the likes of which they experienced time and again late last year. There were some positives to take away from this game: Josh Freeman's overall performance, the connection with Vincent Jackson, the three interceptions - but the negatives can't be ignored. The secondary got torched, the pass rush was absent for most of the second half and none of the blitzes appeared to work. There's work to do - but the Bucs appear to be on the right path.

And here's one other positive: the Bucs are still leading the NFC South - at least for today.

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