Over the coming weeks I'll be doing another new week-daily feature: the 16 crucial plays of the season. I'll pick out one play in each game which changed the game. Which play was most important in determining the outcome of the game?
In week 1, the Buccaneers faced the Browns. No one knew how good the Bucs would be at this point, and the Browns didn't seem like an easy opponent at the time. They had ended the previous season with a 4-game winning streak, which included an impressive win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In doing so they had run roughshod over all the teams they faced. Jerome Harrison even had a 286-rushing yards game against the Kansas City Chiefs, and because the Bucs defense had been notoriously poor against the run there was ample reason to be scared of the Browns.
As for the Bucs, there was some reason to be positive, but everything was uncertain. Josh Freeman had injured his thumb in the preseason and had been inconsistent at best in his rookie season. There was little reason to believe he could carry the team even with a healthy thumb, and that's what he would have to do to win. As for the defense, that had 3rd overall pick Gerald McCoy starting at defensive tackle, and Sabby Pisciteli had been replaced by Sean Jones. Those were the only major changes to the defense at the time - except for the cornerback position, where 2009 seventh-rounder E.J. Biggers was playing and starting his first ever NFL game because Aqib Talib had been suspended.
The game was ugly for the Buccaneers early on. On their second posession the Browns first converted a third-and-twelve on the ground, before Jake Delhomme hit Mohammed Massaquoi for a 41-yard touchdown. Both Tanard Jackson and E.J. Biggers took really poor angles to the ball, which allowed Massaquoi to get behind them and walk into the endzone. The Buccaneers responded with a field goal, made possible by a 33-yard scramble by Josh Freeman. After exchanging a couple of possession, the Browns got the ball back halfway through the second quarter. They then ran the ball five consecutive times, for gains of 4, 4, 6, 39 and 10 yards, the last run being a touchdown run. The Bucs were down 14-3 and this was starting to look like the 2010 Buccaneers were no different from the 2009 Buccaneers, until the oldest player on the team stepped up.
The Browns got the ball with 1:33 remaining in the second quarter after a Josh Freeman interception - an errant ball, likely caused by his injured thumb. The Browns moved 14 yards down the field, and faced first-and-ten at the Buccaneers' 39-yard-line. It looked like they were at least going to add a field goal, to make it a three-score game. Jake Delhomme was in the shotgun with Peyton Hillis next to him. At the snap the Bucs rushed the front four, and added pressure in the A-gaps by sending both Geno Hayes and Barrett Ruud. However, Gerald McCoy and Stylez G. White made this play. Stylez beat Joe Thomas around the edge - probably his most impressive feat of the year - and Gerald McCoy got past left guard Eric Steinbach. Stylez G. White hit Delhomme and was dragging him down when Delhomme managed to get the ball away at the last possible moment. But Jake Delhomme was old, had no arm strength left and was throwing off balance. The rest was easy: Ronde Barber jumped in front of Ben Watson and took the ball all the way to the 3-yard-line before being taken down by Peyton Hillis.
For me, that was the swing point of the game. Ronde Barber prevented the Browns from scoring points just before the half and gave the team the opportunity to add another touchdown instead. Josh Freeman would throw that touchdown to Mike Williams just one play later. Mike Williams managed to tip the ball to himself, before making a tiptoe-catch at the back of the end zone for a touchdown. The Bucs were back in the game, and would end the Browns' hopes in the second half. The defense would step up, holding the Browns to no points, forcing one fumble and adding another interception (E.J. Biggers' only interception to date). Finally, Josh Freeman would cap off an up-and-down day with a great touchdown throw to Michael Spurlock, who beat 7th-overall pick Joe Haden in a one-on-one situation. This would give the Buccaneers a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter, a lead they wouldn't give up. The Bucs' first game of 2010 had been won, although it wasn't pretty. And Ronde Barber's interception was the Swing Point in that first game.