Tampa Bay's quarterback was knocked out of the game with a swollen right elbow on a blind-side blitz in the third quarter Sunday, and he watched helplessly as Jay Cutler guided a patient Denver offense to a 16-13 win over the Buccaneers.
Cutler, who piled up nearly 1,300 yards passing in winning the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month award in September, threw for a season-low 227 yards with a workmanlike 23-for-37 performance as he worked almost strictly the underneath routes to avoid Tampa Bay's dominant downfield defenders.
"It's really not my thing. We're used to throwing the ball down the field, getting big chunks and really couldn't do it against this defense," said Cutler, who has led Denver to a 4-1 start.
Griese, making his first visit to Invesco Field since his five frustrating years in Denver as John Elway's successor, never looked at cornerback Champ Bailey barreling in on him from his right side and was smothered at the goal line just as he released the ball late in the third quarter.
"It's going to be all right," said Griese, who couldn't grip the ball without pain after taking a direct helmet hit on his elbow. "The doctor doesn't seem to think that there's anything wrong structurally so that's a good thing."
Bailey hesitated for a split-second just before his free shot on the quarterback. Otherwise, Griese might have been hurt worse and Bailey might have had his second career sack or at least a forced fumble.
"I wish I could get a sack," Bailey said. "That goes down as nothing, I don't think. I don't know how you put that down on the stat sheet."
The play happened so fast, but Bailey remembered every single step as he and fellow cornerback Dre' Bly executed a rare double safety blitz.
"I had a lot of time to think," Bailey said. "I took a little hesitation step ... because he kind of pumped a little bit and when the back ran past me I thought he was going to at least look that way. And he could have hit him real quick."
Instead, it was Bailey doing the hitting.
Griese was replaced by the more mobile Jeff Garcia, the man he supplanted after a loss to New Orleans in the opener, but Garcia had only slightly more success against the Broncos.
"I don't care too much about quarterbacks, really," Broncos pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil said. "I wish he would've stayed in the game, though. Garcia runs around too much."
Garcia shook off several hard hits himself to lead the Buccaneers on a 13-play, 90-yard drive, hitting Ike Hilliard from 7 yards to cut Denver's lead to 16-13 with 2:02 left.
The Broncos, who scored their only touchdown late in the third quarter on Cutler's 10-yard pass to Brandon Stokley, iced it thanks to running back Michael Pittman, who spent the past six seasons in Tampa Bay.
Pittman, who had a couple of key third-down runs that helped the Broncos break away from a 6-6 halftime tie, put this one away with a 6-yard rumble for a first down with 1:38 left, and Denver ran out the clock and took a two-game lead over San Diego in the AFC West.
"He was fired up about this one for obvious reasons," Cutler said. "Pitt's been there all year for us, third down, goal line, short yardage. He's very valuable for us."
The Buccaneers (3-2) blunted the Broncos' league-best offense, which came in averaging 33 points, but Denver's defense -- which had been allowing 29.5 points a game -- suddenly found traction after a miserable first month.
"We've been in some high-scoring ballgames, back and forth, and our defense has caught a little heat," Cutler said. "We had some trouble stopping some people, but we knew they were a lot better than that. We've got too much talent, too much character over there. It's good to see them lock it down this week."
The game's first touchdown came with 5:41 left in the third quarter, when Stokley hauled in Cutler's pass in the right flat and followed Brandon Marshall's big block into the end zone to put Denver ahead 13-7.
Both teams had to dink and dunk their way down the field. Tampa Bay didn't have a pass play longer than 17 yards and Denver had just one reception longer than 15 yards.
In the first half, Prater kicked field goals of 55 and 40 yards for Denver, and his counterpart, Matt Bryant, was good from 33 and 31 yards, the latter as the first half expired.
Prater estimated his 55-yarder would have been good from 70 yards, and he added four touchbacks in five kickoffs.
"Honest to God, why work on your kickoff return when you come here?" Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "That guy was unbelievable."
Griese finished 13-for-19 for 88 yards and Garcia was 13-of-17 for 93 yards, one TD and one interception.
"I was really looking forward to the game and didn't really foresee it ending this way," Griese said as he left Invesco Field in pain.
Denver's defense harasses Bucs QB Brian Griese and eventually knocks him out of the game. (US Presswire)
|Sun. Oct. 5||Final|
|TB - Pass: J. Garcia (13-17, 93), Rush: W. Dunn (11-74)|
DEN - Pass: J. Cutler (23-34, 227), Rec: T. Scheffler (4-65)
|FG||Matt Bryant 33 Yd, 4:28. Drive: 7 plays, 65 yards in 4:01.|
|FG||Matt Prater 55 Yd, 14:56. Drive: 10 plays, 40 yards in 4:32.|
|FG||Matt Prater 40 Yd, 2:21. Drive: 9 plays, 42 yards in 4:48.|
|FG||Matt Bryant 31 Yd, 0:00. Drive: 11 plays, 67 yards in 2:21.|
|TD||Brandon Stokley, 10 Yd pass from Jay Cutler (Matt Prater kick is good), 5:41. Drive: 5 plays, 47 yards in 2:11.|
|FG||Matt Prater 27 Yd, 12:24. Drive: 14 plays, 62 yards in 6:17.|
|TD||Ike Hilliard, 7 Yd pass from Jeff Garcia (Matt Bryant kick is good), 2:02. Drive: 13 plays, 90 yards in 5:22.|
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