Bucs Fall Flat in Prime Time, Lose Seventh Straight to Saints
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were shut out for the first time in nine seasons on Sunday night and, as a result, were denied their first division title in 14 years, at least for the moment.
The New Orleans Saints beat the Buccaneers, 9-0 in front of a prime-time Sunday Night Football audience, marking the first time Tampa Bay had failed to score in a game since a 41-0 loss at New Orleans on Dec. 16, 2012. A victory for the Buccaneers would have clinched the 2021 NFC South title but a seventh straight win by the Saints in the head-to-head regular season series prevented that from happening in Week 15. The 10-4 Buccaneers still have a three-game lead over the 7-7 Saints in the division with three weeks remaining.
"We just didn't execute, obviously," said quarterback Tom Brady, who finished with 214 yards and no touchdowns on 26 of 48 passing. "It was just a tough night. Didn't do much of anything right. We've got to get a lot better, got to get back to work. There's a lot of football left and we'll see if we can go get a win next week."
Tampa Bay's offense, which came into the weekend leading the NFL in total yards, passing yards and points scored, could never find a gear and finished with just 302 yards of total offense. The Buccaneers' longest play of the game was a 30-yard Ronald Jones run and nine of their 15 possessions ended in six plays or less. Brady was sacked a season-high four times, every one of them on third down to kill drives.
"It's all coverage," said Head Coach Bruce Arians of the uncharacteristic pressure on Brady. "We like to get the ball out of our hand quickly. They play that tight man and two-deep safeties and they took some of those away and made us hold the ball."
The Bucs came out flat on offense but might have found their footing if not for a confounding run of injuries in the first half. Wide receivers Mike Evans (hamstring) and Chris Godwin (knee) as well as running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring) were all unavailable in the second half. The Buccaneers were also without wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday, and wide receiver Antonio Brown, who was serving the last of a three-game suspension. Running back Giovani Bernard went on injured reserve earlier in the week.
"I think it was big," said Arians of the rash of injuries. "Obviously the young guys, I was hoping they'd step up a little bit more, the receivers. Overall, we just dropped too many balls, too, when we did have some guys open. They played that hard man-to-man and we did not do a good job of getting open."
Added Brady: "A lot of guys got banged up tonight but that's part of football. We'll try to figure out who can go in and fill some roles and play great football. We're going to have to put together a great week this week."
The loss wasted an outstanding effort by Tampa Bay's defense, which held the Saints to 212 total yards and three conversions in 16 third-down tries. The one thing missing from that defensive outing, however, was takeaways; New Orleans forced the game's only two turnovers, the first a third-quarter fumble by Brady that killed one of the Bucs' best scoring opportunities. Brett Maher's three field goals provided the game's only points and neither team took a snap closer to the goal line than it's opponents' 17-yard line.
While the Buccaneers remained in a very good position in the division standings, the loss dealt them a serious blow in the race for the top seeds in the overall NFC standings. The Green Bay Packers beat the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday afternoon to improve to 11-3 and the Dallas Cowboys downed the New York Giants to get to 10-4. That combination of results resulted in the Buccaneers dropping from the second seed in the NFC race to the third. Though Tampa Bay owns a head-to-head win over the Cowboys from Week One, they are currently in a three way tie with Dallas and Arizona and that gives the edge to the Cowboys due to a better conference record.
"We just didn't play well enough," said Brady. "I think it was just about one game, how we could win the game, but obviously if you don't score points you're not going to win. Tough night. I don't think we were much good at anything tonight. I wish it was just one thing. It was a lot of things."
The Saints got six points in the first half on a pair of Maher field goals, both after the Saints' only big offensive plays of the game, catches of 40 and 33 yards by wide receiver Marquez Callaway. Callaway finished with 112 yards on six catches but the Buccaneers effectively shut down the rest of New Orleans' top offensive threats. Alvin Kamara finished with just 33 yards from scrimmage and Hill threw for just 154 yards while rushing 11 times for 33 more yards.
Lavonte David led the charge with 11 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and three tackles for loss. The Saints were playing without starting offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk and also did not have the services of Head Coach Sean Payton, who went on the COVID list late in the week. That the Buccaneers were unable to win despite that strong defensive effort was troubling for Arians.
"Yeah, it's very disappointing," he said. "It's never happened to me. I can't remember the last time I was shut out, or us. But our kicking game, our kickers let us down also. Between the offense and the kicking game, they cost us the game. The defense played good enough t owin."
The loss was the first by Tampa Bay this season in seven home games, and also their first defeat in five prime-time affairs. The Buccaneers also failed to score 30 points in a home game for the first time this season but still had a chance to win it in the fourth quarter, down just six points with most of the fourth quarter left. If the Bucs' rash of injuries on Sunday makes it more difficult for the offense to keep up its previously torrid pace for the next three weeks, the defense may have to step up to deliver the division title.
"It was hard," said safety Jordan Whitehead. "On the defensive side, we wish we dould have made a couple more plays, got a couple turnovers, got a pick. At the end of the game we could have picked it off. A couple third downs we could have stopped them on. We should have put the game on our backs. We had enough guys, enough great players on this defense to put the game on our backs, and that's what we're looking forward to do."
The Saints got the ball first but gained only one first down before punting it away. David's tackle of Kamara for a loss of one on a stretch play to the left forced the Saints into a third-and-11 and pressure on third down chased Hill into an incompletion on the right sideline.
The Bucs' first drive started at their own 21 and quickly hit a third-and-six issue after Brady's first pass was nearly intercepted by Marshon Lattimore. However, a swing pass out to the left to Fournette worked to perfection to move the sticks. The drive ended moments later, however, after two short passes to Fournette failed to move the sticks. Bradley Pinion's punt was fair caught at the Saints' 19.
The Saints created the game's first scoring opportunity on the next possession, with Hill going up top on third-and-six to hit Callaway for a 40-yard gain down to the Bucs' 24. The Bucs held there but the Saints still got the scoring started on Brett Maher's 39-yard field goal.
Two plays into the Bucs' next drive, Godwin got wide open down the right sideline and caught a 23-yard pass to Tampa Bay's 40. However, the Bucs soon faced a third-and-five and Cam Jordan used a power swim move to cut right through the line and sack Brady for a loss of seven. Easop Winston then tacked a 34-yard return onto Pinion's 53-yard punt and the Saints got to start fresh at the Bucs' 43.
A seven-yard catch by Callaway on third-and-three got the ball across midfield but a holding call on the next snap pushed the Saints back 10 yards. Hill made that up and more with another long pass to Callaway, this one an underthrown ball that resulted in a 33-yard gain. The Saints lined up to go for it on fourth-and-two from the Bucs' 12 as the first quarter came to an end. They came out again on offense after the break but called a timeout after trying to get the Bucs to jump offside and settled for Maher's 35-yarder and a six-point lead.
The Bucs started their next drive, after a touchback, with their first run of the game, a three-yard dahsh off right tackle for Ronald Jones. Godwin caught an eight-yard pass to move the sticks but was tripped up on a third-down catch moments later short of the sticks and the Bucs had to punt for the third time in as many possessions. However, they were able to get the ball back quickly thanks to a Pinion punt down to the 10 and a three-and-out keyed by Lavonte David's second-down sack. Tampa Bay's next drive started at their own 43.
Fournette absorbed a high-low double-hit to convert a third-and-two on a quick five-yard slant, getting the ball down to the Saints' 44, and Evans made a leaping catch for 14 yards to the Saints' 24 three plays later. The drive stalled, however, after Jordan got his second sack on a third-and-seven, setting up a 45-yard field goal attempt that Succop pulled to the left to keep the Bucs off the scoreboard.
The Bucs' defense got a quick three-and-out to get the ball back for Brady and the offense with 3:37 left in the half. A sideline pass to Gronkowski converted a third-and-three and the two-minute warning arrived with the Bucs facing a second-and-11 at their 43. Three plays later, Scotty Miller ran a quick route over the middle and caught a five-yard pass to convert a third-and-four. However, that drive stalled, too, as Brady was sacked for a third time on third down, this time by Marcus Davenport.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half but still couldn't get the offense in gear. After one first down, Brady failed to hook up with Jaelon Darden on a deep ball down the left sideline on third-and-two and another punt ensued. The Saints got the ball back at their 31 but netted only three yards before punting it back. The Bucs didn't do anything with the next possession, either, and the Saints got it back a their own 18. Continuing the trend, that drive went nowhere; in fact, it lost two yards thanks to a third-down sack by Joe Tryon-Shoyinka.
The Bucs started anew at their own 39 and got a quick 16 yards on a sliding catch by Cameron Brate. The Bucs then faced a fourth-and-one at the Saints' 36 and elected to go for it. An attempted deep pass down the right sideline to Gronkowski failed and the ball turned over on downs. Tampa Bay's defense forced another quick punt, giving it back to the offense at the Bucs' 19.
The Buccaneers needed just two plays to get into Saints territory thanks to Jones, who bashed up the middle for 12 yards and then got around the right edge for a 30-yard jaunt down the sideline. Brady converted a crucial third-and-seven with a perfect slant pass to Gronkowski to take the ball down to the Saints' 27, but this drive ended in the game's first turnover. Brady tried to scramble up the middle on third-and-three but came up short and lost the ball on a strip by Jordan. Marshon Lattimore recovered for the Saints at their own 15.
The third quarter came to an end with the Saints facing a third-and-two at the 22. Hill tried to move the chains with a keeper but was tripped up by Adams at the line and New Orleans once again punted it back. The Bucs got it back at their own 32. One run and one catch by Jones made it third-and-one but Ke'Shawn Vaughn was stopped on his third-down carry and the Bucs punted again.
The Saints started again at their 34 with 12 minutes to play. A misdirection rollout pass to Callaway got a quick 17 yards and pushed the ball across midfield and Hill ran an RPO to the right on the next snap for seven more. A dumpoff over the middle to Ingram on third down kept the drive alive, and the Saints eventually capitalized on Maher's third field goal, this one a 42-yarder with 7:28 left.
After another exchange of punts the Bucs had to start at their own three with five minutes left. They had to go for it on fourth down early and stayed alive with a pass interference call on Malcolm Jenkins. A deep shot to Darden missed and Johnson made a leaping catch at the 33 for another first down. Three plays later, Brady scrambled out of trouble and tried to find Miller on the right sideline but it was intercepted by C.J. Gardner Johnson at the Bucs' 42.
The Bucs got the ball back one more time with a minute to play but that wasn't enough time to mount a scoring threat with no timeouts remaining.
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 20 December 2021