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Opportunities, passes slip away

The way this ugly season has played out for the Bucs, it felt like one of those gifts that might not come again soon.

It began with Tampa Bay getting a wobbly punt from the Steelers' Chris Gardocki, which Phillip Buchanon fielded on the run and advanced to the Pittsburgh 34. For a team whose average starting position to that point was its 25, it suddenly seemed like there were a world of possibilities.

With Pittsburgh leading 10-0, there was a feeling this game would turn. Never did anyone anticipate it turning in the direction it did.

The Bucs blew two shots at the end zone the next seven plays, and 2:08 later, the Steelers were celebrating their game-sealing touchdown, taking a 17-0 lead the Bucs never threatened.

The series of events was emblematic of how this season has gone for the Bucs - opportunities wasted, followed by defeat.

This time, receiver Michael Clayton contributed, dropping a sure touchdown, with the nearest defender some 15 yards away. Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who has struggled with deep passes, threw it perfectly.

Clayton just dropped it.

"It was a dropped ball. That's it," said Clayton, who later sustained a left knee sprain that has the team concerned. "That's just how it's been. Bottom line, you have to make those plays. That's why they brought me here.

"At the last second, the light hit the ball and I lost it for a second. But that's a ball I have to catch."

But the frustration would only grow.

Two plays later, Gradkowski found Joey Galloway for a 15-yard pickup, then connected with Clayton for an 11-yard gain to the 3.

On second and goal from the 4, the Bucs matched 6-5 receiver Maurice Stovall wide against 6-foot cornerback Bryant McFadden. Stovall ran a fade route to the corner of the end zone and had position on McFadden.

Except Gradkowski threw the ball high and long, sailing it over Stovall's head and into McFadden's arms for the interception.

"It was a bad throw and a good play by their corner probably," coach Jon Gruden said.

Opportunity lost.

"We put a real good drive together in that third quarter and (there were) a couple plays we need to make," Gradkowski said.

Then it was the defense's turn to make mistakes. Linebacker Derrick Brooks had a 15-yard face mask penalty, Nate Washington got behind the secondary for a 36-yard pickup on a pass from Ben Roethlisberger. And Heath Miller caught a 16-yard touchdown on the next play.

"It's on the defense, too," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "We have to play stouter in that situation and get the ball back, point blank."

It took only a few minutes. But it made all the difference.

"That," Gradkowski said of the sequence, "really turned it around."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3377.

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