TAMPA, Fla. – Leonard Johnson was as surprised as anyone when Philip Rivers' ill-advised pass wound up in his hands.
"The ball came right to me," Tampa Bay's rookie cornerback said Sunday. "I was just so excited. I grabbed it and just went to running."
Up the sideline, breaking through the grasp of a would-be tackler near midfield and outrunning the remainder of the pursuit for an 83-yard interception return for a touchdown that helped the surging Buccaneers beat the Chargers 34-24.
"I was shocked that I caught the ball first of all, with my hands instead of my body," said Johnson, who redeemed himself for missing a tackle on a short reception that San Diego's Danario Alexander turned into an 80-yard TD on the Chargers' third offensive play of the game.
By the time Johnson's first touchdown since high school extended Tampa Bay's lead to 31-21 early in the fourth quarter, the undrafted rookie from Iowa State said he had forgotten about the mistake that put the Bucs in an early hole.
"When you've got guys around you that consistently tell you 'next play, next play,' it's kind of easy, you know, to just put the play behind you, knowing that it's a long game to play," Johnson said. "All the guys in the secondary came back to me, kept me uplifted. I moved on and continued to play the game."
Josh Freeman threw two touchdown passes and the Bucs also scored on a blocked punt en route to their third straight win.
Freeman has thrown 13 TDs passes with just one interception in his past five games, helping the Bucs (5-4) win four times to climb over .500 following a 1-3 start.
Known for playing stingy defense but sputtering offensively, Tampa Bay has scored 28 or more points in five consecutive games for the first time.
The Bucs also got help from linebacker Adam Heyward, who scooped up a punt blocked by Dekoda Watson and ran 29 yards for a second-quarter touchdown.
"Maybe we didn't have our fastball today in every area, but what we did is we played off each other in all three phases," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "Guys made plays when they needed to make them."
Rivers threw for 337 yards and three TDs for San Diego. However, he was intercepted twice in the fourth quarter to ruin any chance of the Chargers (4-5) rallying for the win.
San Diego outgained the Bucs 426 yards to 279, had 23 first downs to Tampa Bay's 12 and finished with more than a 13-minute advantage in time of possession yet lost for the fourth time in five games.
"It's not acceptable to play hard and not win, and that's what happened," Chargers coach Norv Turner said in response to a question about his team's effort.
"Is it acceptable? No, it's not acceptable. Is it acceptable having a blocked punt and an interception for a touchdown? No," Turner added. "That's not what we're trying to accomplish out there. We're trying to go win games, and those things are keeping us from winning."
Bucs linebacker Quincy Black was hospitalized because of a neck injury after tackling running back Ryan Mathews for a 1-yard loss late in the third quarter.
The Bucs did not release specific details about the injury, but Schiano said the sixth-year pro is expected to be OK.
Trainers worked over Black for several minutes before immobilizing his neck and back on a stretcher.
"He's at the hospital for observation. We think he's going to be OK, but he's got to work through some things," Schiano said after the game.
Schiano was the head coach at Rutgers when former Scarlet Knights player Eric LeGrand broke two vertebrae and suffered a serious spinal cord injury in October 2010 during a kickoff return against Army.
He said thoughts of the paralyzed defensive lineman went through his mind when Black remained on the ground.
"I thought about it immediately. When a guy goes down and he's still," Schiano said before stopping abruptly. "The good thing was Quincy immediately moved his right arm, so that was a relief."
Freeman threw scoring passes of 3 yards to Dallas Clark and 15 to Tiquan Underwood, the latter set up by the quarterback's 4-yard run on fourth-and-inches, and a 31-yard completion to Vincent Jackson. The former Chargers receiver had five receptions for 59 yards in his first game against his old team.
Connor Barth kicked two field goals for Tampa Bay, including a 45-yarder that clinched the game after Rivers threw his second interception with San Diego trailing 31-24.
In addition to Alexander's 80-yard TD, Rivers had scoring passes of 13 yards to Antonio Gates and 3 yards to Malcom Floyd.
But the quarterback made a big mistake on his first interception, releasing the pass that went straight to Johnson as he was scampering out of bounds to avoid a sack.
Rivers said he was hoping to get the ball over Johnson's head to intended receiver Eddie Royal.
"In hindsight, not only do I wish I was throwing it over his head, I probably shouldn't have thrown the ball, period," Rivers said.
"It's a humbling game because it shows how one play, essentially one play, can ruin a game," Rivers added. "We killed ourselves on the interception for touchdown. We were rolling pretty good most of the game."
Notes: Gates has 80 career TD receptions, one behind Hall of Famer Lance Alworth for San Diego's franchise record. ... The Bucs beat the Chargers for only the second time in 10 meetings all time.
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