Bucs Keep Pedal to the Metal, Stun Defending Champs
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 16 September 2018|
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started their 2018 home opener as well as they possibly could have, but it was the way they finished each half that really made the difference in a 27-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick stunned the defending Super Bowl champions with a 75-yard touchdown pass to former Eagles star DeSean Jackson on the first play of the game, but the Buccaneers' offense slowed down after that and the game was tied, 7-7, with five minutes to go in the second quarter. That's when Fitzpatrick engineered two rapid-fire touchdown drives, hitting TE O.J. Howard on a 75-yard touchdown then capping a two-minute drill with an eight-yard scoring pass to WR Chris Godwin.
That 13-point lead swelled to 20 when Fitzpatrick threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans to cap the Bucs' first drive of the second half. The Bucs held on against an Eagles rally that included a fourth-down touchdown catch by Nelson Agholor with three minutes to play. "Both sides of the ball had their moments," said Fitzpatrick. 'We had our lulls and we had our moments where we stepped up. When the plays needed to be made I thought, as a team, we made them. That's an important piece of having a good team."
The Buccaneers improved to 2-0 to start a season for the first time since 2010 and moved into sole possession of first place in the NFC South. After Atlanta beat Carolina on Sunday and New Orleans – beaten by Tampa Bay in Week One – came back to beat Cleveland, the other three teams in the division are all 1-1.
Fitzpatrick finished the game with 402 passing yards, four touchdowns and one interception on a ball that went in and out of Howard's hands. A week after having a near-perfect passer rating in a 48-40 win over the Saints, Fitzpatrick finished with a rating of 144.4 in the home opener. Through the first two games of the season he has eight touchdown passes, the most ever for a Buccaneers quarterback. Moreover, Fitzpatrick is just the third player in NFL history, with at least four touchdown passes in each of his team's first two games, joining Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes this year and New England's Drew Bledsoe in 1997. He is also just the third player in NFL history with at least 400 passing yards in each of the first two seasons, matching the feats of Tom Brady and Cam Newton in 2011.
"He's a good quarterback," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "[He's] extremely efficient, putting the ball on the money, letting our playmakers make plays. Ryan deserves everything he's getting right now. He's playing great football, so why not?"
Evans, Godwin and Jackson all had touchdown catches for the second game in a row and the Bucs already have four touchdowns this season that covered more than 50 yards. They had exactly one of those in the last two seasons combined. Jackson's catch was the longest play ever for the Buccaneers on the first offensive snap of a game. When Howard took a short pass and ran free down the left sideline for his long score, Tampa Bay had two touchdowns of 75 or more yards in the same game for the first time in franchise history.
"I think first and foremost [it's] the explosive plays," said Fitzpatrick of how effective the Bucs' offense has been so far. "For O.J. to catch that ball and run for a touchdown, obviously the D-Jack one, we've got guys with the run-after-the-catch ability really playing well and it does make a difference."
The Buccaneers both gained and allowed more than 400 yards for the second straight season (412 to the Eagles' 436). In each case, the team has made just enough plays on defense to stay in the lead, such as the diving pass breakup by second-year safety Justin Evans on a fourth-and-10 pass intended for RB Corey Clement in the fourth quarter.
The Buccaneers started the game with two rookie cornerbacks in the defense, with Carlton Davis on the outside opposite Ryan Smith and M.J. Stewart in the slot. Rookie safety Jordan Whitehead later took over after Chris Conte left with a knee injury. At one point, the Buccaneers had those three rookies plus first-year safety Isaiah Johnson and cornerback Marcus Williams, who just joined the team last Tuesday, on the field at the same time.
The young players and newcomers held up well against the defending champs. Davis had six tackles, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery and Williams made a key third-down tackle on his very first play on defense as a Buccaneer. The Eagles went for it on fourth down at midfield after that spot, one of their five fourth-down plays, and failed on a great open-field tackle by David on Zach Ertz.
"Carlton played a lot better today," said Koetter. "M.J. in the nickel spot, other than one play, he had one tough play, I thought he did a good job. When Jordan Whitehead went in there, he laid the wood."
The Buccaneers also benefited from an improved pass rush. Gerald McCoy, Jason Pierre-Paul and Kwon Alexander all had sacks, and Alexander's well-timed blitz also caused a fumble that Davis recovered in Philadelphia territory. Alexander finished with three tackles for loss and Lavonte David led the team with nine stops plus a pass defensed and a fumble recovery.
Still, the Buccaneers' offense had to make one more play to ice the game, just as it did in New Orleans on Fitzpatrick's 12-yard scramble on third-and-11. This time, it was Fitzpatrick hitting Evans on a sharp 10-yard slant on third-and-three with two-and-a-half minutes left. The Bucs were able to run the clock under 30 seconds before punting and David recovered a fumble to end the game on the Eagles' final desperation pitch play.
"I don't know that anybody in the world can cover that guy," said Fitzpatrick of the fifth-year wideout. "Mike Evans one-on-one, in a situation like that, with the game on the line, he's going to make that play."
The game started about as well as it possibly could for the Buccaneers, who took a touchback on the opening kickoff and then scored on the next play. Tampa Bay lined up in a traditional two-back set with Alan Cross in front of Peyton Barber but Fitzpatrick faked a handoff and threw a deep post pass to Jackson. The ball hit Jackson in stride and he broke to the left sideline before cutting back inside to evade the final would-be tackler and stroll into the end zone untouched.
Tampa Bay's defense started quickly, too, forcing a three-and-out on the strength of Kwon Alexander's tackle of RB Jay Ajayi seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Bucs' second drive got a first down on a nine-yard run by Shaun Wilson on a read-option play and a seven-yard catch by Barber. However, DT Fletcher Cox streaked into the backfield for a hard seven-yard sack of Fitzpatrick and the drive ended shortly thereafter.
The Eagles appeared to be off to a good start on their second possession, approaching midfield on Foles completions of 17 yards to Nelson Agholor and 14 to Corey Clement but penalties for a crack-back block, an illegal block in the back and tripping managed to put them into a third-and-41. Clement's 15-yard catch came up a bit short of the sticks but a booming 56-yard punt by Cameron Johnson successfully flipped the field, pushing the Bucs back to their own 15.
The Bucs got one first down on a Barber nine-yard run and a seven-yard Evans catch on the sideline but the drive was hijacked by a 15-yard personal foul on C Ryan Jensen. However, the home team got the ball back in Eagles territory thanks to the game's first turnover. Alexander came on a blindside blitz and hit Foles just as he was bringing his arm back, resulting in a fumble that went forward across the line of scrimmage and was recovered by Davis at the Eagles' 47.
Unfortunately, the Bucs' possession of the ball didn't last long. Two plays into the drive, Fitzpatrick hit a wide-open O.J. Howard over the middle but S Rodney McLeod popped the ball out of Howard's hands and straight up in the air. CB Ronald Darby caught it on the run and got to the Bucs' 47. The play was ruled an interception because Howard never gained possession of the ball.
The first play of the ensuing drive, and the last play of the first quarter, was a four-yard sack by Pierre Paul. The Eagles brought a big blitz on third-and-eight but Ryan Smith had perfect coverage on a pass down the sideline intended for WR Shelton Gibson.
The Bucs got back to midfield but had to punt it back. Anger's kick hit the turf and bounced back the wrong way to the Eagles' 22. An 11-yard pass to TE Zach Ertz and a pass-interference call on Chris Conte got the ball to midfield. The Bucs blitzed on third-and-seven but Foles got a good pass off with pressure in his face for 13 yards to Agholor. Foles nearly converted another third down to get to the Bucs' 22, needing four coming up just a few inches short on a crossing route to Agholor. The Eagles went for it and easily got it on a sneak by Foles. Two plays later, Clement darted around left end and found a lane to the pylon for a game-tying touchdown with five minutes left in the half.
The Bucs didn't need even a minute of that remaining time to score. On the first play of the drive, after a touchback, Fitzpatrick hit Howard about 20 yards down the left numbers and the tight end did the rest, evading tacklers to get to the left sideline and then sprinting all the way to the end zone. Chandler Catanzaro missed the extra point, leaving the Bucs' lead at 13-7.
Tampa Bay's defense followed with a three-and-out, giving the ball back to the offense with 2:26 left to work with in the half. The first play was a sliding catch by Howard over the middle. Godwin's 18-yarder down the middle on the next play brought on the two-minute warning and took the ball down to Philadelphia's 32. Two completions to Evans on the left side earned another first down at the 15. A draw play to Rodgers got seven more and, after a timeout called by Koetter, Fitzpatrick finished it with an eight-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Godwin. Catanzaro's extra point made it 20-7 with 42 seconds left in the half.
A leaping 34-yard catch by Ertz down the right sideline helped the Eagles to get in scoring territory before halftime. The Eagles took one crack at the end zone with 12 seconds and no timeouts left but it was incomplete, leading to a 44-yard field goal attempt by Jake Elliott. Elliott's kick was denied by the right upright and the Bucs' 13-point lead held into the intermission.
Philadelphia got the ball first to start the second half and got to midfield on a 20-yard run by Ajayi. However, the Bucs got the stop near midfield and took over on downs at their own 46. After CB Carlton Davis was helped off the field with apparent leg cramps, cornerback Marcus Williams – just signed to the team last Tuesday – made an open-field stop on a third-down pass to Ertz. The Eagles chose to go for it on fourth-and-four and Foles completed a little pivot-route pass to Ertz, but Lavonte David was able to drag him down a yard shy of the sticks.
The Bucs used that great field position to drive for another touchdown and a 27-7 lead. Fitzpatrick got the team inside Philadelphia's red zone with a 28-yard pass to Jackson down the left sideline, then completed the march with a five-yard scoring toss to Evans. Isolated on the right side of the offense, Evans faked a fade and then cut sharply back to the middle, with Fitzpatrick threading a hard pass through traffic for the touchdown.
After another Catanzaro touchback, McCoy sacked Foles for a loss of nine on the first play of the Eagles' drive. Rookie CB M.J. Stewart made a nice open-field tackle on WR Kamar Aiken on third down to force a Philadelphia punt. Johnston boomed another one, pushing the Bucs back to their own 16.
The Bucs had to punt it back, flipping the field to the Eagles' 16, but a well-designed screen to Clement picked up a quick 19 yards. Two plays later, Agholor took a short pass and found the sideline, turning it up for a gain of 50 to the Bucs' 15. It took the Eagles six plays to get it in from there, including another fourth-and-inches sneak by Foles, but Ajayi scored on a powerful two-yard run to make it 27-14 with nine seconds left in the third quarter.
The Buccaneers took the ensuing drive across midfield but Evans fumbled while fighting for extra yards at the end of a 20-yard catch. Jordan Hicks recovered for the Eagles and returned it 13 yards to the Eagles' 43.
A 10-yard catch by Ertz got the Eagles across midfield but the drive stalled outside of scoring range. A diving Gerald McCoy nearly intercepted a pass that David had deflected away from Ertz, and on the next play Whitehead denied a desperation heave downfield. The Eagles went for it on fourth down again, this time needing 10 yards from the Bucs' 35. Foles was flushed out of the pocket to the left and, with a Buccaneer defender hanging on him, managed to get off a lob down the sideline towards Clement. Evans made a diving stop, colliding with the diving running back and leaving both players shaken up.
The Bucs kept the clock running with the next three plays but eventually punted away. The Eagles' next drive started at their own 22 with 6:36 left. A broken play 30-yard pass from Foles to third-string TE Joshua Perkins got the Eagles into scoring range. The Buccaneers defense managed to bleed the clock down under three minutes with three stops inside the 10-yard line but the Eagles went for it on fourth down and Foles made an incredible touchdown pass into the back corner of the end zone to Agholor.
A well-covered pooch kick on the ensuing kickoff forced the Buccaneers to start at their own 15. Barber was stopped for a loss of three on first down and the Eagles used their first timeout with 2:36 left. A gutsy sideline throw on the next snap worked as Fitzpatrick hit Jackson for a gain of 17. Jackson stepped out of bounds to stop the clock at 2:30, and Barber's two-yard run took it down to 2:26 before another Eagles timeout. Philadelphia helped with an encroachment call but Barber's second-down run gained no yards and the Eagles used their last timeout at 2:23. Fitzpatrick converted the third down with a 10-yard slant to Evans.