By Tom Brady – Tampa Bay Buccaneers Writer
Wow, wow, wow. If you ever wondered what it was like to be a Buccaneers fan over the past 10 years, watch this game.
A gut-wrenching 32-31 defeat to the New York Giants on Sunday night left the Bucs with a 1-2 record but the defeat felt more significant than that. It was a case of same old Tampa Bay with penalties, scoring chances being squandered and inadequate kicking being the downfall. The sad thing is, the manner of this defeat won’t even surprise us hardened Bucs fans.
I must admit, at half-time, I considered going to bed. For me, the win was all but guaranteed. We had an 18 point lead, the Giants captain on defense in Ogletree and best player on offense in Saquon Barkley were out of the game and the Bucs were finally showing a ‘go for it’ attitude on offense.
First half and Daniel Jones enters the NFL
There was an electric atmosphere around the Raymond James – Giants fans traveled in numbers to see their new quarterback Daniel Jones in his first NFL start, and Bucs fans were optimistic of beating a side many considered weaker than them.
On the first drive of the game, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston stuttered up the pitch with the help of a penalty and a number of short passes including a ballsy fourth-down conversion. Despite being sacked for a loss, Winston and the Bucs found themselves in Giants territory when Winston took a shot to star wideout Mike Evans, who expertly brought in his first touchdown of the year.
This was a surprisingly fast start for Tampa, who normally takes a while to get going – this was their first opening possession TD since 9 December. The extra point was then missed by rookie kicker Matt Gay but this seemed just a minor blip at the time…
Following the early TD for the Bucs, it was time for the first drive of rookie Daniel Jones’ NFL career. You’d expect the rookie to be feeling some sort of pressure leading a prestigious team like the Giants and replacing an NFL legend in Eli Manning. But, immediately Jones looked confident and assured, ignoring the intense pressure from the Bucs interior linemen and linebackers.
Jones kept his eyes down the field and converted a couple of 3rd downs including a throw to tight end Evan Engram, who produced a ridiculous Odell style one-handed grab. A solid first drive ended in a field goal for the Giants to get them on the board. 6-3.
The next Bucs drive was one of the best I’ve seen by Winston. It began with a screen pass and 40 yards pick up by running back Ronald Jones. Winston then found summer acquisition Breshad Perriman on third down when in tight coverage and made the Giants D pay further by hitting tight end O.J Howard, with a bullet over the middle to the Giants 5 yard line.
You may remember I mentioned in my preview of this game that the Bucs’ Mike Evans was just waiting for more targets and the chance to ball out. He duly obliged in the first quarter of this game bringing in a quickfire pass from Winston to walk in for a 5-yard touchdown and his second of the game. Bucs kicker Gay again missed the extra point and the first quarter ended Bucs 12-3 Giants.
The second quarter began by the Giants and Jones showed off his wheels on 3rd down to get the Giants to midfield. It was clear the Giants were willing to be more creative and explosive with Jones under center compared to the less mobile Manning.
A worrying sight for Giants fans was Saquon Barkley going to the tent for medical assistance following a number of heavy hits from Bucs rookie safety Mike Edwards. Although Barkley was yet to make an impact in the game, Bucs fans wouldn’t have been disappointed to see an elite rusher leave the game at this early stage.
A dubious pass interference call followed by a throw to the not-fully-recovered Barkley led the Giants to the Bucs 7 yard line. Jones took full advantage and ran to the pylon for his first NFL touchdown sparking wild scenes on the Giants bench – Jones was clearly bringing a different dimension to the Giants offense and they were rightfully getting excited.
The next drive for the Bucs was again productive and this was quickly turning into a very entertaining game. Winston hit the man of the moment Evans for a huge pick up to the Giants 20. It was clear that Winston loved the matchup between Evans and Giants corner Janoris Jenkins and he was targeting Evans on almost every throw. Winston was then sacked on 3rd down, an all too common occurrence, and the Bucs settled for a 47-yard field goal which gave kicker Gay his first points of the day.
After a quick 3 and out for the Giants, the Bucs gained possession and were given a soft pass interference call which took them to the giants 40-yard line. Winston hit O.J Howard with a bomb to the Giants 12 and following a review on the next play of whether Winston fumbled the ball or threw an incomplete pass, the call was overturned to incomplete. Gay capitalized with his second FG of the day – the Bucs seemed to be in cruise control and the offense was perfectly in sync.
Along with an impressive start from the offense, I want to mention just how good the interior D-line was in the first half. Suh, Vea, and the underrated Gholston brought pressure to the rookie Jones on almost every play and completely stopped Barkley when he was given the ball. All this pressure eventually resulted in Jones coughing the ball up and giving Winston and the Bucs a chance at a 2-minute drill before the half.
A string of short passes took the Bucs upfield and a 20-yard pass to Evans gave him a hat-trick of touchdowns. Evans was showing why he is considered one of the elite receivers in the league and was evidently enjoying the number of targets he was getting.
The Giants did nothing on their last possession of the half and the Bucs made them pay by getting into FG position themselves – a 52-yarder was drilled by Gay to give the Bucs a 28-10 lead at half time.
The collapse – Second Half
The second half of this game was defined by the first play. Giants received and on the first play, Jones hit TE Engram for a huge 75-yard TD. Giants risked a 2-point conversion and were rewarded when Jones found Sterling Shepard to bring the Giants within 10 points.
Despite the loss of Barkley during the first half, the Giants offense looked revamped and Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram were becoming increasingly dominant. The Buccaneers offense couldn’t get anything going and the Giants made them pay. Jones produced another confident drive downfield and found Shepard for a 7-yard touchdown. The Giants were back in it and momentum was swinging in their direction. Bucs 28-25 Giants.
Following some scrappy play involving Winston in particular (exchange of turnovers and a number of sacks), both teams turned to the run game halfway through the second half. Ronald Jones produced some eye-catching runs for the Bucs but fellow back Peyton Barber was limited and Arians has maintained that whichever back has the hot hand will continue to get fed. Winston started to struggle and was coming underpass pressure so it was Rojo who was the catalyst to take the Bucs down the field and into FG position. Gay converted to give the Bucs a 6 point lead with around 3 minutes to go.
The two-minute warning was soon upon us and the Giants were on halfway with just one time out remaining. Jones stepped up and produced a dime to Shepard to get the Giants to the red zone with 1 minute 30 seconds remaining. The tension in the Raymond James rose as a sense of ‘surely not again’ swept across the stadium.
Sure enough, the Buccaneers made two big stops to get the Giants to 3rd down. The defensive backs then put all their attention on the Giants receivers (and I mean literally turned their backs to Jones and faced their own goal line) and Jones took full advantage by sprinting untouched into the Bucs end zone for a 7-yard TD. The extra point was converted and suddenly the Giants were ahead 32-31 with 45 seconds remaining.
Hope was restored for Tampa when Winston hit Evans to get the Buccaneers into prime FG position and a huge chance to win the game. The Bucs used their final timeout to get into the perfect position for Gay to convert a straight forward 25-yarder with 3 seconds remaining. I don’t think I even need to tell you what happened next. The rookie kicker missed and gifted the Giants a win. There is an incredible stat that the Bucs have never beaten a debutant QB and this curse will, unfortunately, live on.
I don’t think you can get a much more ‘Tampa Bay’ performance than this one. We went from a creative and explosive offense complemented by a superb defensive performance in the first half to full-on YUCKaneers mode in the second half.
I’ve been a critic of Winston in recent weeks but I really can’t put the blame on him for this loss. He produced when he needed to and although his performance level massively dropped in the second half, he still put us in a perfect position to win the game. It may sound strange to say this, I don’t want to put the blame on our kicker either.
Gay is a rookie and has looked clutch until the last 3 seconds of this game. He’s still learning and I feel he will be a good kicker for the Bucs for years to come – he doesn’t seem the type to let his head drop like kickers in seasons gone by and I’m sure he will make a lot of important kicks for us this year.
Without sounding too bitter, the Bucs are a better team than the Giants evidenced by large periods of this game but without taking chances and finishing games off, it’s going to be another long disappointing season. With the Rams and a divisional game against the Saints coming up for the Bucs, things won’t get any easier.
The good news is that we are only 3 games in and a record of 1-2 is nothing to panic about… just yet.
Bucs player of the game:
Mike Evans had a season breakout game getting 3 touchdowns and 170 receiving yards in a dominant performance. Evans went missing for most of the second half (although not his fault) until the last throw of the game which should have set the Buccaneers up for the win.
I also want to mention Shaq Barrett who is an absolute sack monster. He will enjoy his $250,000 bonus for getting 8 sacks (8 sacks in just 3 games by the way!) and I have no doubt his sack number will go up and up this year. He’s uncontainable at the moment and seems to be a major upgrade on Kwon Alexander.
Giants player of the game:
The whole offense. Jones was fantastic in his first start and at times looked like the more experienced pro compared to Winston. He made the right throws at the right time and batted off the constant Bucs pressure. Shepard and Engram were stand out receivers and stepped up when they really needed to.
The adversity faced when losing your best player in Saquon Barkley seemed to give the Giants a kick up the backside in the second half and the whole offense raised their game to grind out an invaluable win.
A special mention to Ronde Barber who was inducted into the Buccaneers Ring of Honor at half time. During his playing days, Ronde was the best secondary player in the league and my hero growing up – he will forever be a Buc legend.