Earnest Graham’s first NFL start wasn’t terribly productive — at least on the stat sheet.
The Cape Coral Mariner product rushed for only 29 yards on 13 carries for Tampa Bay against Tennessee on Sunday. He also caught six passes for 17 yards, giving him 46 yards on 19 touches.
Head coach Jon Gruden said after the game that because the Titans had such a stout run defense — it was the NFL’s No. 3 unit entering the game — the Buccaneers knew run yardage would be at a premium. That’s why the Bucs threw the ball twice as much as they ran it.
But quarterback Jeff Garcia thanked Graham afterward for saving him a chewing-out from Gruden on a nearly-botched pitch. Garcia got out from under center late and nearly threw it behind Graham, but the back caught the ball, preventing a turnover.
“That could have been a disaster,” Garcia said. “I had to thank him after that. That play from the start was not a good situation. He saved us on that play.”
Graham was surprised the ball even came to him on the play.
“My eyes got big,” Graham said. “Luckily, I was able to make the catch.”
HE BROKE IT, THEN HE DIDN’T — TWICE: Bucs CB Ronde Barber appeared to break the Buccaneers’ all-time interception mark, held by Donnie Abraham, twice on Sunday.
First, Barber picked off Tennessee backup Kerry Collins in the third quarter, but came down on his back with the ball and was unable to hang on. Then, in the fourth quarter, Barber picked off Collins again on what would have been a touchdown pass.
Both times, replay overturned the interception. On the second pick, one of Barber’s legs landed inbounds, but his hand landed out of bounds, negating the pick.
“It’s rare I get my hands on the ball three times (he dropped a potential interception in the first half) in one game,” Barber said.
YOUNG HURT: Tennessee quarterback Vince Young left the game with 7:11 left in the third quarter after he injured his quadriceps muscle while evading the rush of Bucs defensive tackle Jovan Haye. Young appeared to trip on the ground as he went out of bounds. He spent several minutes with the trainers on the sideline before going to the locker room for tests. He returned to the sideline in the fourth quarter, but did not play.
Young finished 11-of-14 for 120 yards and an interception. Kerry Collins, his backup, led the Titans to a touchdown late to tie the contest. He went 10-of-20 for 125 yards. Head coach Jeff Fisher declared Young “day-to-day” after the game.
ROSTER MOVE: Before the game, the Buccaneers released running back Kenneth Darby and signed running back Lionel Gates from the practice squad. Neither Gates nor fullback Zack Crockett, signed on Wednesday, played on Sunday.
STAYING OUT OF TROUBLE: Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia did not throw an interception for the sixth straight game. He has now thrown 144 passes without an interception this season.
MASTERY TAKES A HIT: For Tennessee, the loss was their first on the road in their last six games, and only their second in their last 15 meetings with teams from the NFC South.
GETTING TO THE QB A BIT MORE: While Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said afterward the pass rush had to improve, the Buccaneers did record more sacks (3) and quarterback hurries (9) on Sunday than in any game so far this season. Plus, rookie Gaines Adams recorded his first sack, though it was a bit dubious. Tennessee quarterback Vince Young collided with running back LenDale White behind the line of scrimmage and Adams was the closest to Young, so he was given credit for the sack.
Veteran Kevin Carter recorded his 99th NFL sack in the fourth quarter.
STARTING CHANGES: For Tampa Bay, CB Phillip Buchanon started for Brian Kelly on the right side. For Tennessee, WR Roydell Williams started for WR Brandon Jones.
INJURIES: Titans DT Albert Haynesworth, who entered the game with a sore ankle, left in the first quarter but returned. For the Bucs, TE Alex Smith (ankle) left the game in the third quarter and did not return. He was carted off the field and had tests on the ankle. But results of those tests were not known. DE Patrick Chukwurah (shoulder) left the game in the third quarter and did not return.
INACTIVES: Tennessee: P Josh Miller, WR Paul Williams, CB Kelly Herndon, RB Chris Henry, G/C Leroy Harris, DE Sean Conover, WR Brandon Jones, DE Bryce Fisher. Tampa Bay: QB Luke McCown, CB Brian Kelly, RB Michael Pittman, LB Jeremiah Trotter, LB Adam Hayward, G Dan Buenning, T Dennis Roland, DT Ryan Sims.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.