The emotional rollercoaster that is NFL football often leaves us in a fog. We tend to remember questionable rulings late in the fourth, clutch throws, and game-winning kicks. But when points are at a premium, as they were against New England, there are a ton of pivotal moments throughout the game worth a second look.
The sequence before halftime in Week 4 is one of those.
With 3:22 remaining in the second quarter, Mac Jones was leading his offense down the field with a chance to take a 14-3 lead. On 2nd-and-11, Shaquill Barrett blew by Patriots tackle Yasir Durant for a critical sack on Jones.
It looked like a drive-killing play until Josh McDaniels called a double pass; the nifty design gained 16 yards. On 3rd-and-18, the Buccaneers were playing a 2-high zone defense that was (wisely) focused on not being beat deep. However, with the ball on Tampa Bay’s 44-yard line and only two yards needed for a first down, it seemed that the Patriots’ scoring hopes were still alive.
Bill Belichick decided otherwise. There has been a lot of focus on the fourth quarter decision to send out Nick Folk for a field goal on 4th-and-3. In my opinion, this second quarter decision was equally as interesting. The Patriots lined up on offense before quickly subbing in their punt team with the play clock winding down. Rather than giving the rookie quarterback an opportunity to gain two yards and end the half with a score, Belichick put the ball back in Tom Brady’s hands.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots made the suboptimal call by taking a delay of game (i.e. punt) on 4th & 2 from the TB 44-yard line with 2:00 left in the first half.
The Bucs were backed up on their nine yard line with 1:25 remaining in the half on second-and-six. Brady scanned the field and felt the pocket breaking down with interior pressure. He double clutched, rolled right, and delivered an on-the-run strike to Chris Godwin for a gain of 28 yards. Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich trusted their offense in a situation where many might be too cautious. Godwin and Brady delivered.
Gotta love that Arians didn’t play it safe on this drive that started from Tampa Bay’s own 5-yard line. pic.twitter.com/luOv26JYr8
On the ensuing play, the Bucs moved to a 2×2 set by motioning Antonio Brown to the boundary. Brady knew that the Patriots were likely playing man coverage because cornerback Jonathan Jones followed Brown across the formation. Further, with the pressure New England was showing, Brady knew that it would likely be a single-high coverage. Brady caught the snap, saw the secondary rotate, used his eyes to hold free safety Devin McCourty to the middle of the field, and then tossed another perfect pass to Godwin. It’s only fitting that Brady would find success with Hoss (hitch/seam) in his return to Gillette Stadium.
It may have felt underwhelming when the Bucs ended the drive with a field goal. But the sequence of Barrett’s sack, Belichick’s fourth down conservatism, Arians’ aggression from his five-yard line, and two great plays from Brady and Godwin was as important as any for the Bucs. In a game where the Bucs struggled to generate points, maximizing every possession was critical. In a key moment, Arians understood that and trusted his quarterback. Of course, Brady delivered.