Splash play seizes momentum for Buccaneers
Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune, published 12 October 2015

Strange deal, the NFL. You can go from yesterday’s news to tomorrow’s headline. You can go from the back seat back to the front seat. It can turn on one play — or player. George Johnson’s number came up Sunday.

George Johnson, who was brought in this season to bolster a weak pass rush, which he hadn’t done. George Johnson, who a few weeks ago lost his starting defensive end job to William Gholston. Another failed Lovie Smith “find.”

And then there he was. To turn it all around. To help the Bucs win, 38-31. George Johnson, late in the third quarter, with the Bucs down 24-23, beat his man upfield, raced into the Jacksonville Jaguars backfield to tackle and strip running back Corey Grant. “Just came across and knocked it out of his hand,” Johnson said.

Then ... “I saw a big wave of white jerseys.”

Jacquies Smith fell on the football at the Jacksonville 3-yard line, then pulled himself up, or his teammates pulled him up. He wasn’t sure, “because it was like a pack of piranhas,” Smith said. Anyway, he scored. The Bucs led. The first forced fumble of Johnson’s four-year NFL career.

Everything turned. Jameis Winston connected with Vincent Jackson for two more points. And it was 31-24. The Bucs offense came down on its next possession and delivered, running back Doug Martin’s third touchdown of the game. And it was 38-24.

Ding dong the wicked home losing streak is dead. Face it: If the Bucs had lost to the Jags heading into the bye week, it would have been 14 days of trouble for Lovie Smith and his team. The noise in the system would have been deafening. We’d have broken out the long knives.

Along came George. “I’m going to tell you right now, man, the play of the game, in my eyes, was that forced fumble by George,” Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “That’s huge. That changed the game right there.”

Season changer? Easy there, everybody. One game. But imagine if it had been one loss. “We said coming off the sideline that we needed a big play,” Johnson said. “It just happened to come when I got upfield.”

There were other big happenings that made the Bucs winners. The running game was overpowering, Martin leading the way. Winston turned it around with a giveaway-free afternoon. The defense had six sacks. Coming soon: Howard Jones Bobblehead Day.

But none of it would have meant anything without Johnson’s play. The Bucs had a 20-7 lead at one point in the first half. Jacksonville reeled off 10 points in the third quarter to grab a 24-20 lead.

The Bucs defense was gassed. It was sagging. Along came George. “We needed that play,” Lovie Smith said. “They had momentum. Defensively we needed to make a stand there. George led it. But it just wasn’t that play. He played throughout the day. That’s the type of play we expect from him every down, every game.”

That they hadn’t got it out of him before Sunday was a fact. Johnson, who’d been with the Bucs for parts of 2011 and 2012, came over in a trade with Detroit last offseason. He had six sacks last season. He was the next Johnson up. Michael Johnson, now gone, was a free agent disaster for Lovie last season. But before the Carolina game, Gholston took over for Johnson.

“Sometimes your role changes,” Johnson said. “Will can do a lot of things. He’s real special. So for me to take a back seat and let him do that, it didn’t affect me at all. I still had to go out there and perform.”

“Obviously he wants to be a starter,” McCoy said. “But he hasn’t complained, hasn’t come in to work with his head down. When he gets his reps, he goes in there and gets better.”

Season changer? We have no idea, for the Bucs, for George Johnson. Never mind all that. “It felt good,” Johnson said. “Coaches kept telling me, week after week, it’s going to come, it’s going to finally break, keep going at it, keep chopping at it. It finally broke and I was finally able to do something.”

And it changed everything.