TAMPA - The crowd of fans surrounding the tunnel that leads to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room broke into a dull roar as running back Doug Martin trotted off the field at Raymond James Stadium late Sunday afternoon.
It wasn't until a few minutes later, when the lesser known Leonard Johnson and less heralded Adam Hayward ran through the same gauntlet that the roar turned to a cacophonous ovation. Which was only right.
The biggest cheers are usually reserved for a game's biggest stars and Johnson and Hayward eclipsed Martin and just about everyone else in that regard during the Bucs 34-24 victory against the San Diego Chargers.
Stealing the spotlight away from an offense that has carried the Bucs for a month, Hayward returned a blocked punt for a touchdown and Johnson returned an interception for a touchdown to keep the Bucs on the fringes of the NFC playoff picture.
Winners of three in a row and four of their past five, The Bucs (5-4) went above the .500 mark for the first time since opening day and are just a half-game behind the leader for the NFC's final wild card berth.
"We have all the tools," said receiver Vincent Jackson, who played an unusually small part in Sunday's victory, making five catches for 59 yards against his former team.
"So, I'm very confident that if we go out there and play our game, which is to take care of the football, get turnovers and make plays in the kicking game, we can be a very tough team."
The Bucs proved as much on Sunday, when Johnson's failure to finish a tackle at the Chargers 33-yard line on the third play of the game allowed Danario Alexander to turn a short Philip Rivers pass into an 80-yard touchdown and early 7-0 lead.
The Bucs knew right then and there they were going to have to be resilient, which is nothing new this year. More often than not, though, the offense has led the fight back.
And, make no mistake, the offense did its part in this one. Martin accounted for 119 total yards of offense and quarterback Josh Freeman threw touchdown passes of 3 yards to tight end Dallas Clark and 15 yards to Tiquan Underwood.
But it was Hayward's 29-yard return of Dekoda Watson's blocked punt with 8:55 left in the first half that turned the game around and Johnson's 83-yard return of a Rivers pass early in the fourth quarter that sealed the victory.
"We didn't quite have our fastball today," said Bucs coach Greg Schiano, whose team became only the fifth in franchise history to score touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams in the same game – a feat Tampa Bay last accomplished on Oct. 18, 2009.
"But what we did do was play well off of each other in all three phases of the game (offense, defense and special teams). And we had guys step up and make big plays for us when we needed them to."
Hayward spent the better part of the week in Schiano's doghouse, the result of a roughing the kicker penalty during a punt-block opportunity last week against Oakland. Hayward quickly redeemed himself, though, scooping up a bouncing ball after Watson blocked punter Mike Scifres' attempt.
"Yeah, I needed that," Hayward said as he broke into laughter. "I was thinking (Watson) was going to get fined for running into (Scifres) on that play, but then I saw the ball was out and live.
"When I picked it up I was thinking at first, ‘Just don't get caught,' because everybody would have made fun of me. So, I was moving as fast as I could. It probably didn't look fast, but it felt fast."
Johnson looked fast on his return. After picking off Rivers' throw along the sideline, he pulled away so quickly from any would-be tacklers that he started strutting at about the 15-yard line and continued into the end zone.
"I think (Rivers) just made a bad decision on that throw because Leonard was standing right in front of him," safety Ronde Barber said. "But you know what, Leonard's taken good advantage of his opportunities here lately."
A Largo High product who was undrafted out of Iowa State in April, Johnson has picked off one pass in each of his three games for a defensive unit that had two interceptions on Sunday and has 15 interceptions on the year.
That ability to take the ball away has been a key aspect of a defense that went into Sunday's game ranked last in the league against the pass and gave up another 337 yards to Rivers.
"They can say we're last in the league and all that, but we're coming up with turnovers and that's what wins games," said cornerback LeQuan Lewis, who had the other pick of Rivers late in the fourth quarter. "As long as we keep coming up with those, they can criticize all they want."
As left tackle Donald Penn buttoned up his shirt and began to walk out of the locker room, he summed up the feeling after the Bucs' latest victory.
"You saw what we're capable of doing in all three phases today," Penn said. "When our offense is playing good and our defense is playing good and our special teams are playing good, we're a hard team to beat."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bucs beat Chargers 34-24 for third straight victory