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Tampa Bay Buccaneers drop season opener 27-20 to Detroit Lions

TAMPA — Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman scrambled for 2 yards and felt a cramp in his right side, the result of dehydration and a heat index that reached 102 degrees Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

It was late in the third quarter when Freeman headed to the locker room, missing part of one series and all of another before returning.

"I probably should've gone to the IV at halftime, but I was pumping fluids the whole game knowing I'm a heavy sweater," Freeman said. "My ankle kind of twisted. So I overreacted, and the next thing you know, I'm cramping all up my right side, and I've got to get off the field."

The Bucs' 27-20 loss to the Lions was that kind of day for Freeman and the offense.

Tampa Bay had trouble getting Freeman on the field — and an even tougher time keeping him there.

Detroit's Matthew Stafford passed for 305 yards and three touchdowns, two to 6-foot-5 Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson.

By halftime, Detroit had a huge advantage in total yards (324-108) and time of possession (21:45-8:15). Before the day was over, the Lions had mounted five scoring drives of 70 yards or longer.

Freeman, who was selected 16 spots behind the No. 1 overall pick Stafford in 2009, led the Bucs to their only offensive touchdown with 1:35 left in the game. And he had the Bucs at the Detroit 42 needing a touchdown to send the game into overtime.

But a short completion to Earnest Graham, four laterals and a fumble later, it ended like some long game of keep-away.

"You hate to start the season out 0-1," Freeman said. "But … it's the first game of the year, and it's not going to make or break anybody. We fought to the end, but you hate to see that one get away from you."

Make no mistake, the Lions dominated from start to finish.

Detroit hasn't finished with a winning record since 2000 and lost four straight to begin 2010. But that was after Stafford got hurt in the opener, missing 13 of the remaining 15 games. And it won its final four games of last season, including 23-20 in overtime over the Bucs on Dec. 19.

Spreading the ball to five receivers, Stafford and the Lions ran 26 plays during the first quarter to the Bucs' six. The Bucs actually led 10-6 because of two plays: Sammie Stroughter returned a kickoff 78 yards to set up a field goal, and cornerback Aqib Talib intercepted a pass that deflected off the hands of tight end Will Heller and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown.

Talib didn't fare as well against Johnson, who finished with six catches for 88 yards. On fourth and 2 in the second quarter, he beat Talib and safety Sean Jones, who was supposed to cover Johnson over the top, for a 36-yard touchdown that gave the Lions a 13-10 lead.

"Any time you're throwing the ball from No. 9 to No. 81, you're in a pretty good spot," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said.

Johnson also outleaped Talib for a 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter to leave the Bucs trailing 27-13.

"Calvin is tough to deal with. We all know that," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said of Johnson, who had 10 catches for 152 yards in last season's win. "(Stafford) made some opportune throws, and he went up and got them. We were in defenses to limit that. He beat us. That's on us. It's on us."

Freeman finished 28-of-43 for 257 yards, a touchdown and an interception. But of the Bucs' 313 yards of offense, 185 came in the fourth quarter.

The Bucs went to a no-huddle offense to start the second half, even then rarely seeming in rhythm. That effectively took running back LeGarrette Blount off the field for Graham. Blount finished with 15 yards on five carries.

What about the young Bucs defense? It allowed 431 yards, 6.3 per play, and failed to sack Stafford.

"It's really frustrating because we felt like for sure that was a winnable game," Freeman said.

"We just have to find a way to score points earlier."

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers drop season opener 27-20 to Detroit Lions 09/11/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 12, 2011 9:13am]
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