The Gradkowski clan came out in force Sunday in Pittsburgh. Their son had finally come home.
Bruce Gradkowski, the Bucs' rookie starting quarterback, fulfilled a dream, playing his hometown team at Heinz Field. But chances are the story never ended like this in his dreams: Steelers 20, Bucs 3.
"I wish we could have put on a better show and personally, me, too," Gradkowski said. "But things like that happen, and it was a great opportunity for me."
Gradkowski had several teammates join him at his parents' Pittsburgh home Saturday for a meal. But the reasons Pittsburgh is special to him stretch beyond his family.
Gradkowski was all-state at Seton-La Salle High, where he threw for 2,978 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior. That total surpassed some of the great quarterbacks groomed in Western Pennsylvania, among them Johnny Lujack, George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Dan Marino, all of whom played in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Association.
This visit to Pittsburgh was memorable, too, even if not for similar reasons.
"It was an amazing opportunity," Gradkowski said. "I was thrilled to come back to Pittsburgh. The fans in Pittsburgh and everyone around here have been so good to me."
WELCOME BACK: For the first time in a while, the Bucs had their full complement of players - at least those not on injured reserve - in the lineup after a litany of injuries caused several key players to miss extended periods.
Back on the field were linebacker Shelton Quarles, defensive tackle Ellis Wyms and tight end Alex Smith. Quarles and Wyms had missed the past three games, and Smith missed last week's game at Dallas.
Quarles immediately made his presence felt, netting a team-high 10 tackles and a sack of Ben Roethlisberger.
"It's been frustrating to sit on the sideline and not be able to participate when you want to be out there fighting with the guys," Quarles said.
Wyms said he "came out okay" after playing on his high ankle sprain. Smith said his ankle was "on fire" but that "I have a few more days for it to heal up."
The Bucs may have another injury to worry about. Receiver Michael Clayton injured his left knee and said he would be examined further today in Tampa.
NOT BAD: Though Gradkowski was sacked a season-high five times, coach Jon Gruden didn't blame his offensive line.
"There were a couple times where we took sacks we shouldn't have," Gruden said of Gradkowski's inability to escape the rush and tendency to hold the ball too long.
"I think the stat sheet is not representative of how well some of the guys pass protected. The Steelers are a tremendous defensive team, and they've been doing it a long time."
The linemen defended themselves, too, saying they put out a decent effort. Most seemed surprised the Steelers didn't disguise their blitzes more.
"I think in practice, the scout team gave us a great look," left tackle Anthony Davis said. "Me and (right tackle Jeremy) Trueblood were able to pick up a lot of things off the edges. It's nothing that we didn't see."
NICKEL SWAP: Phillip Buchanon supplanted Torrie Cox as the nickel back. No rationale was given to Buchanon for the decision: "The coaches just told me to be ready and go out there and play."
MILESTONES, ETC: Quarles moved into 10th in franchise history with 109 starts, and cornerback Ronde Barber tied John Lynch for fifth with 132. ... Michael Pittman's 240th reception moved him into eighth.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377.