TAMPA, Fla. — Josh Johnson gave the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the reassurance they sought with starting quarterback Josh Freeman sidelined by a broken thumb.
Jacksonville backup Luke McCown showed his team the way to the end zone and a 19-13 preseason victory on Saturday night.
Filling in for Freeman, who the Bucs expect to return in time for their regular season opener, Johnson completed 9 of 14 passes for 122 yards and one touchdown to build a 13-6 lead before leaving the game in the third quarter.
Jacksonville moved the ball consistently with starter David Garrard at quarterback. But it settled for field goals on three promising drives and had its best possession of the night turned back by a goal-line interception that linebacker Barrett Ruud returned 80 yards to set up Tampa Bay's only touchdown.
McCown gave the Jaguars some relief from their frustration, throwing a 27-yard TD pass to John Matthews on his first attempt of the night to put Jacksonville up 16-13 late in the third quarter. Josh Scobee's fourth field goal provided the final margin of victory.
Garrard, in what likely was his final tuneup for the regular season, played into the third quarter and completed 24 of 31 passes for 211 yards and one interception. Coach Jack Del Rio has said he probably will not play many starters in Thursday's preseason finale against Atlanta.
Raheem Morris has similar plans for the Bucs' finale at Houston, which is why it was important for Johnson to play well.
The third-year pro started four games last season, going 0-4 but showing enough progress that Morris insists he's comfortable with the idea of the 24-year-old leading the offense in the opener if Freeman doesn't recover as quickly as expected.
The Jaguars played without running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who sat out three days of practice last week and did not make the trip to Tampa. The Pro Bowler's agent said the fifth-year pro is not injured and that the Jaguars were holding him out of the final two preseason games for "precautionary reasons."
Jacksonville was also without all three starting linebackers – Daryl Smith, Kirk Morrison and Justin Durant — in a revamped defense, which continued to struggle to mount a pass rush. One of the few times the Jaguars got decent pressure, Johnson scrambled for an 18-yard gain that made him Tampa Bay's leading rusher well into the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville's running game sputtered again, despite having the first-team offensive line intact for the first time this preseason. After averaging just 2.4 yards per carry against Philadelphia and Miami, the Jaguars were limited to 33 yards on 11 attempts in the opening half, when both team's starters were on the field.
Other than the goal-line interception, Garrard was efficient if not spectacular. He completed 15 of his first 17 passes for 134 yards and was 4 of 4 in marching the Jaguars into scoring position before Ruud stepped in front of his pass intended for Greg Jones.
The Tampa Bay linebacker returned the interception up the sideline to the Jaguars 19. Four plays later, Johnson threw a 2-yard TD pass to Earnest Graham.
"Obviously that is a missed opportunity there," said Del Rio, who nevertheless was encouraged that the Jaguars took the ensuing kickoff and drove 49 yards in 11 plays to set up Scobee's 43-yard field goal just before halftime.
"What I talked to the guys about tonight coming out was as a football team we have to learn how to respond positively. It's not always going to go the way you want," Del Rio said. "I thought we did a nice job coming back on the two-minute drill, moving down the field, having a shot at a touchdown, securing the points, so we go into halftime at least feeling good about how we finished the half."
The game was delayed for 30 minutes between the first and second quarters because of lightning.