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Sometimes the best thing about the NFL is that there’s always another game right around the corner.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers get that, especially given where they were earlier this week, when they were getting ripped after their embarrassing no-show in a blowout home loss to the New Orleans Saints last Sunday.
They deserved it, too. Thanks to an ascending offense and a suffocating defense, Tampa Bay got Super Bowl hype leading up to the contest against the Saints. I joined in that chorus, confident the Bucs would exact revenge against the same opponent that embarrassed them in the season opener.
The Bucs’ defense got ripped by Drew Brees, who flat-out refuses to throw deep, while the Bucs’ offense looked flat, with Tom Brady’s occasional inability to operate efficiently under pressure apparent.
The most disconcerting thing about that loss was the way it exposed the Bucs’ offense when the threat of the run is wiped out, as the Bucs ran just five times against the Saints — an NFL record.
The Bucs can blame their defense, in part, for this. The unit got steamrolled in the first half vs. the Saints, allowing New Orleans to build a 31-0 lead at the break and forcing the Bucs into obvious throwing situations. While some teams are built to chuck it around even when defenses know they are going to throw, Tampa Bay is not built that way.
Its quarterback is 43 years old, and we know he is comfortable pairing play-action with precision passes to running backs and tight ends, and occasional deep shots.
There is nothing wrong with this. Brady has been playing like this for the past six seasons or so, and he has won Super Bowls doing it this way. He may not be a new-age dual-threat quarterback, but he moves well enough in the pocket and attempts enough deep throws to keep teams honest. His deep accuracy hasn’t been great this year, but his receiving corps, when healthy, is. When January rolls around, there’s a chance he’ll connect on enough to give the Bucs Super Bowl-caliber dynamism.
Buccaneers’ rushers are key to Super Bowl run
For this to work, Tampa Bay’s running game must be on point. The Bucs have the personnel to do it, with a solid offensive line, one of the league’s best blocking tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and two young, talented backs with contrasting styles in Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette.
Those guys need the ball, even when Ali Marpet, one of the league’s best guards, doesn’t play as he didn’t the past two weeks. Those guys need the ball, even when the defense they’re facing is good against the run like the Saints.
They can’t be given the ball after falling into a 21-0 hole, as the Bucs did against the Saints a week ago. It’s no coincidence that all three of Brady’s interceptions came after that.
“Offensively, we got out of that game plan so fast [that] I felt terrible for the left side of the line because there was no threat of the run,” Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians explained last week. “I thought we had a really good plan for the running game, but when you go down 21-0, we tried to jump-start it with the two-minute drive just to get something going. It just didn’t work. We got our [butts] kicked pretty good.”
The team the Bucs beat 46-23 on Sunday — the Carolina Panthers — are not good against the run. That doesn’t diminish the balance they showed, since it’s the same formula they will need to execute if they want to make it to the Super Bowl.
Against the Panthers, for example, Brady threw 39 times and the Bucs ran 37 times. Jones was outstanding, rushing 23 times for 192 yards and a touchdown, and he also had an explosive 98-yard TD run that the retooled offensive line — with A.Q. Shipley stepping in at center and Ryan Jensen shifting over to Marpet’s old spot at left guard — paved the way for.
“They’re doing great in the run game, blocking hard, being really aggressive up front,” Brady said. “It was definitely great to see them play physical today — that’s what we needed.”
Tom Brady, Bucs respond to adversity
Brady missed a few deep throws against the Panthers but generally looked good, completing 28 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns as the Bucs showed the type of mental toughness a championship contender is supposed to have. (Brady is 21-5 in his last 26 games following a loss.)
“It was outstanding,” Arians said of Brady’s performance. “When they were blitzing, he threw it out on his checkdowns. Those quick throws outside are kind of audibles after the ball is snapped. He did play really, really well. He knows he left a couple out there, too. We had AB [Antonio Brown] wide open, Mike [Evans] and Gronk — the wind was really tricky. He’s as critical of himself as I am, [but] he played fantastic.”
Most important, Arians noted, the entire team responded to the adversity they faced this past week. Not only did the Bucs have to bounce back following an embarrassing loss, they had to adjust their practice schedule multiple times due to Tropical Storm Eta. They even had issues getting to Charlotte, as the Bucs’ team plane was delayed 6½ hours on Saturday due to mechanical issues, and didn’t arrive at their hotel until midnight.
None of that kept them from improving to 7-3 against a competitive, well-coached Carolina team that is better than its 3-7 record.
“With the disruption of the storm on Wednesday, having to leave early on Tuesday, practice late on Wednesday and then the plane [delay] — can’t say enough about our guys’ focus,” Arians said.
Arians was also highly complimentary of his team’s run game, and it’s no coincidence. The Bucs have the greatest quarterback of all time, one who might be good enough — even at his advanced age — to get to the big game.
If the Bucs are going to get there, it has to be because of their offensive balance and stifling defense — not just their future Hall of Fame quarterback.
“I was really, really happy to rush for 200 [yards],” Arians said. “I thought that was huge for us and the o-line takes a lot of pride in that. The tight ends did a great job and the receivers [in run blocking]. Tom played great, and we still see where we can leave things out there and still get better.”
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