Highlighted by Ken Dilger's 45-yard TD catch, eight players catch 21 passed for 262 yards.
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 11, 2004

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NEW ORLEANS - The guys who were expected to make big plays downfield for the Bucs came through in an especially big way Sunday, and it didn't matter who was throwing to them.

Six Tampa Bay players had receptions of at least 11 yards. Three of them had gains of 21 yards or more. Those numbers added up to the most consistent and effective offensive showing of the season, and one much-needed victory.

The offense was guided by the hot hands of Chris Simms, who was 5-for-8 for 68 yards before a first-quarter shoulder injury ended his starting debut, and Brian Griese, 16-for-19 for 194 yards and a touchdown.

But a welcome sight for Jon Gruden was the performance of the receiving corps. Running back Michael Pittman played a vital role catching passes out of the backfield, five for 29 yards, including a 14-yard gain on third and 5 at midfield in the waning minutes that helped seal the 20-17 victory over the Saints.

Then there were wide receivers Charles Lee (four catches, 76 yards, with a long of 28) and rookie Michael Clayton (four catches, 61 yards, long of 21) and the game-breaking contribution of tight end Ken Dilger, whose 45-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter gave Tampa Bay what proved to be an insurmountable 20-7 lead. Dilger, who finished with three catches for 60 yards, also kept Tampa Bay's clinching drive moving in the fourth quarter with an 11-yard first-down catch.

Dilger is no stranger to scoring touchdowns at the Superdome. His first scoring catch last season came on a 14-yarder from Brad Johnson in a 14-7 Bucs victory.

Sunday, the 6-5, 250-pounder slanted over the middle on the team's opening drive of the second half. Griese found him alone and he scored easily.

"It's nice to get a play like that," he said. "Every time you get a chance, you just have to make it and hope for the best. I was thinking, "Just catch the ball, you know.' It was a big drive and a big touchdown for us, to go up 13 points."

Dilger couldn't say enough about Simms and Griese.

"I'll tell you what, Chris was ready this week," Dilger said. "He had a great week of practice and unfortunately he couldn't finish the game. But Brian stepped in and he did a great job. That's what the veteran leadership of this team is all about."

Could this be an important step forward for the offense?

"I think so," Dilger said. "In all phases of the game, we made some nice things happen. ... I think we came in very loose and just ready to play. That's what we need, just to play loose and go out and have fun."

Clayton, who also buoyed the ground attack with a pair of end-arounds for 24 yards, couldn't have been happier to have made an impact and savor a win in his hometown (dozens of family members and friends sat in a section of the stands wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Clayton's Crew.")

The former Louisiana State standout enjoyed many good memories in the Superdome, including being part of a national championship team last season. But the victory against the Saints, his first as a pro, couldn't have felt better.

"It feels good to come home and still you're supported by these Louisiana fans," he said. " ... It was really exciting. I had to get something like 80 tickets for all my friends and family (who) wanted to see the game."

Of his expanding role in the offense, Clayton said: "I just think Coach believes in me, so he's calling my number. When we sense a weakness in their defense, we are going to attack it and that's what we did out there."

Lee senses a new attitude on the part of the receivers.

"Basically, it's just an attitude," he said. "I mean, we feel like we can get the job done. It's just a matter of the plays getting called and the ball getting thrown. We feel like if the ball's in the air, it's ours, and it's ours to win."

[Last modified October 11, 2004, 04:32:12]