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I know, you can’t believe the Bucs called all those unsuccessful first down runs and low percentage passes on third-and-short and I’m still writing about four play calls I loved in Sunday’s 31-26 win at Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. I can’t believe it either.

But amidst the ugliness of some of Tampa Bay’s offensive tendencies, I thought four brilliant play calls and designs by head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich were the offensive difference between going home disappointed and going home to the Super Bowl on Sunday.

39-Yard TD Pass To Scotty Miller

I’m a proponent of Hail Mary attempts at the end of halves/games, but when you have the vertical threats the Bucs have, the smarter play is often to isolate a speedy threat and see what you can do. That’s what Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich did at the end of the first half, and the result was a game-changing touchdown to Scotty Miller that put the Bucs up 21-10 at halftime.

Yes, I understand that this play is more a failure by the Packers defense than it is any genius move on the part of the Bucs. Still, there are some wrinkles that I like here. First, reducing Scotty Miller’s split all the way down is a move that might have confused Green Bay, as the Bucs had zero timeouts and had to get out of bounds on the catch in order to stop the clock in time to kick a field goal. Packers right outside cornerback Kevin King plays him with a heavy outside shade, expecting an out-breaking route from Miller to pick up a few yards and stop the clock at a chance for a field goal before the half.

But the out-break never came. Miller used that reduced split to just keep climbing outside the numbers while accelerating downhill, with enough space to avoid any potential jam from King. Miller’s 4.37 speed allowed him to race right by the Packers cornerback, who inexplicably had no safety help on the play, with the Packers blanketing the middle of the field – the one place the Bucs could not go with the football.

It was a great design by Tampa Bay, which expected the safety to play on the hash closest to Mike Evans and gave Scotty Miller tons of space to get up to top speed by reducing his split and lining him up off the ball to eliminate the threat of a jam at the line of scrimmage. And more than anything, it was an aggressive mentality by Arians to go for the touchdown and not attempt a long field goal at a pivotal moment in the game.

8-Yard Play-Action TD Pass To Cam Brate

This probably seemed like a simple call to many, but I thought it was quietly one of the best decisions of the game. On the play before, a huge hit by safety Jordan Whitehead knocked the ball free from Packers running back Aaron Jones, and Devin White rumbled down to the 8-yard line with the ball. A touchdown would put a serious dent in the Packers comeback hopes, giving the Bucs a 28-10 lead early in the third quarter.

The problem? The Bucs were coming off a three-game stretch of going 6-16 in the red zone, had been run heavy on first down the past few weeks and were getting nothing done on first down in this game. If you lose first down in the open field, you’ve still got space to work other concepts. If you lose first down in a goal-to-go situation from the 8-yard line, you’re almost definitely throwing on second and third down, especially in the Bucs offense.

A first down run could have been disastrous in this situation, allowing the Packers defense to comfortably know what to expect on at least second down. So while Leftwich may have messed up first down consistently throughout the rest of the game, on this play he broke tendency to call a play-action pass to tight end Cam Brate for an easy touchdown.

Packers safety Adrian Amos bit hard on the play fake, and Brate was able to slip in behind him for a touchdown. I honestly thought Amos hadn’t reacted strongly enough to the fake to fall for it at first, but his eyes simply stayed in the backfield even as Brate continued downfield. It’s befuddling that the Bucs don’t utilize play-action passing more, but this was an excellent situational application of the principle, with the Packers entire starting 11 anticipating a run with the Bucs in jumbo 13 personnel (one back, three tight ends and one receiver).

29-Yard Screen Pass To Rob Gronkowski

With just over six minutes left in the game and the Bucs leading 28-23, Tampa Bay desperately needed a money play call after three straight drives where hunting the deep ball ended in interceptions. But a 1-yard loss by Ronald Jones III on first down again put the Bucs in a bad second down situation, desperately needing to mount some sort of a drive to add to their five-point lead and take some pressure off a Tampa Bay defense that had done all it could throughout the game.

The screen itself is a great call, but watch the impact of the window dressing that the Bucs haven’t had in their offense all season. The ghost return motion by Scotty Miller to the field side draws the attention of several Packers defenders, and Chris Godwin’s post pattern takes the boundary safety’s eyes out of the play as well. With the Packers in quarters coverage they are already susceptible to a screen on second-and-11, but the motion by Miller and the other route combinations allow the play to hit beautifully.

Center Ryan Jensen makes a great block in the flat, being careful not to block the defender in the black, while right tackle Tristan Wirfs shows off some special athleticism by getting downfield to get a piece of the cornerback and allow tight end Rob Gronkowski to show off his wheels all the way to the Packers’ 30-yard line. The critical pickup set up a 46-yard field goal by Ryan Succop a few plays later, which gave Tampa Bay a 31-23 lead that it would not relinquish.

9-Yard Play-Action Pass To Mike Evans

Yes, some very questionable coaching decisions book-ended this game-changing play, but in this one moment, Arians and Leftwich’s approach was flawless. With the Bucs facing a first-and-10 with 2:02 on the clock and the Packers still holding all three timeouts, Tampa Bay knew it needed at least one first down to seal the game, so Leftwich broke tendency and again went to the air.

King, who had given up two touchdowns in the game, just has no chance in a press man situation against Mike Evans, and Tom Brady knows it. He never looks anywhere else off the play fake, as Evans wards off King’s jam and creates excellent separation on the pivot route. Nine yards later, the Bucs were in the second-and-1 situation they wanted to be in, rather than the almost certain second-and-8 or worse they’d have been in if they had run the ball.

It pays to be aggressive, but it also pays to be aggressive in situations where your opponent least expects it. The Packers undoubtedly believed the Bucs were going to run the ball here, as their linebackers fired downhill right off the play fake, leaving no underneath coverage for Brady to worry about throwing over. It was a great call by Leftwich in a pivotal moment, hopefully again revealing to him the value of throwing the ball more often on first down.

Yes, first half Tom Brady and the Bucs defense (which I’ll write about in more detail later this week or early next week) had to rescue Tampa Bay from some less-than-desirable offensive play-calling throughout the game, but I did think these four calls were critical to Tampa Bay’s success on offense in a game against elite competition. To get to the Super Bowl you need a few calls like these in clutch moments, and on Sunday night, Arians, Leftwich and Brady delivered.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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eaustinyoung
eaustinyoung
1 year ago

I said it from the beginning that Scotty is just as lethal a deep threat as AB is right now. Brown’s ceiling is higher (as far as we can tell), but Scotty is $$$$$ on Brady’s deep passes right now.

drdneast
drdneast
Reply to  eaustinyoung
1 year ago

No doubt that as far as a deep threat is concerned Miller has the advantage.
But if you are playing against a Tampa Two defense which seems to be what a lot of teams are employing now against the Bucs, AB is the better receiver.
Watched the film on him when he was Mic’d up and the man is incredibly quick coming out of his breaks and running with the ball after the catch. Because he is much more stout than Miller, he can also take the punishment that DB’s and LB’s hand out.

ScottC543
ScottC543
Reply to  drdneast
1 year ago

I agree. Give me AB with the ball in his hands over Miller, every time. Miller makes the catches, but AB is the greater threat to advance the ball after the catch.

eaustinyoung
eaustinyoung
Reply to  ScottC543
1 year ago

Yes Brown is older, stronger, and smarter. More experienced. But Scotty has surprised the NFL with his lethality. Gotta respect him.

RW
RW
Reply to  eaustinyoung
1 year ago

Miller beat King for the TD but on Brady’s 2nd interception, Scotty lead Alexander, who was covering him, into the middle of the field and Alexander was in position to grab the tipped ball.

RW
RW
Reply to  eaustinyoung
1 year ago

Scotty is great on deep balls when he can run past a defender but he is not in the class of AB as an overall receiver. Without Brown the Bucs moved away from those WR screens that Brown had been running. And if it’s 3rd and short I trust Brown to shake free and catch a difficult ball far more than Miller and Evans for that matter.

Buc76
Buc76
1 year ago

The last comment about the Mike Evans catch raises concerns about Byron Leftwich calling the SuperBowl. Spagnuolo has the advantage. This is Byron Leftwich’s chance to prove his worth. We’ll see

gg720
gg720
Reply to  Buc76
1 year ago

Agree 100% about Leftwich’s play calling is very suspect. His tendency to call running plays always on first downs, not wanting to throw the ball over the middle for 10 to 15 yds, and constantly running the ball up the middle instead of mixing it up with runs also to the outside. Lets play ball control type offense against KC and keep the ball for long periods of time and not giving the ball as often to Mahomes.

RW
RW
Reply to  gg720
1 year ago

2 of the best calls were the screen to Gronk and the end around to Godwin to seal the game. They need to have creative calls like that in the Superbowl to win it.

compewterpirate
compewterpirate
Reply to  Buc76
1 year ago

Byron Leftwich is a ‘conservative’ play caller, which is a kind way of saying ‘too predictable’ or ‘unimaginative’. There are too many run plays called on 1st down, too many of those in between the tackles, etc. However, as illustrated by three of Jon’s four play calls above, there is one silver lining to that. His play calling is generally so predictable that when he does deviate from the script, as with the TD throw on first down to Brate, the TD throw to Scotty Miller and that last throw to Mike Evans, it takes opposing defenses completely by surprise!… Read more »

Buc76
Buc76
1 year ago

You use words like its befuddling and Leftwich messed up 1st down consistently throughout the game? This is not good. You’re saying basically he called a terrible game. This is where Josh McDaniels made a difference for Brady. This is scary that you are saying this right before the SuperBowl. We need the best play calls we can get. It doesn’t seem like that’s where we are right now.

eaustinyoung
eaustinyoung
1 year ago

Bucs missed Vita Vea and Ali Marpet last time they played. Todd Bowles won’t try and cover Hill with just Davis again. Chiefs missing 2 pro bowl tackles. The D will come prepared.

RW
RW
Reply to  eaustinyoung
1 year ago

Vea ‘s presence will allow the other D lineman to get after Mahomes. And with Marpet the Oline can slow down Chris Jones somewhat.

Pete Wood
Pete Wood
1 year ago

I agree one hundred percent with those calls.
I’d also like to give a shout out to Green Bay for sealing the win by going for two instead of kicking the extra point in the first half and then kicking the field goal in the fourth. And a special thank you to all the Packers who stood around and gawked at the strip/fumble and let White pick it up. Apparently they thought it was an incomplete pass.

SenileSenior
SenileSenior
Reply to  Pete Wood
1 year ago

Swarming to the ball on every play for the defense can lead to a key turnover in a tight game. Never giving up on a play might seem like a small thing, but it is not.

eaustinyoung
eaustinyoung
1 year ago

Also I keep adding the cold takes to my list. Got room for 1 or 2 more after the Super Bowl if they win.

drdneast
drdneast
Reply to  eaustinyoung
1 year ago

I love that. All haters. Must suck to be those who say and think as an idiot like that. Like homeless dogs.

PatsFan
PatsFan
Reply to  eaustinyoung
1 year ago

Great graphic. What the simpleton haters don’t understand is that Brady is the system. Bucs just need a receiver to take on the Edelman role in the SB…someone who wants the ball and will catch everything thrown his way. Edelman is mediocre in the regular season, routinely dropping passes, but he is clutch in the playoffs and SB.

Dave
Dave
Reply to  eaustinyoung
1 year ago

I’m curious what percentage of those “cold takes” came from BS lol. Set the o/u at 50%? Lol. Speaking of BS, I have a couple to add. Brady is a lock for 20 or more INT’s this year. And if mobile Jameis got sacked 47 times, statue Brady will get sacked more, behind this offensive line.

Last edited 1 year ago by Dave
drdneast
drdneast
1 year ago

Lefto has such an easy gig. Since the preponderance of first down calls are run plays, he only has to work 66 percent of the time on game day. Even after the Chiefs game he has shown very little imagination to his play calling. I remember in the second game of the year he called a statue of liberty play but haven’t seen anything like it since. The closest he has come to it was that screen pass to Gronk. As you look around the NFL you see a lot of teams using pre snap movement, ROP and misdirection but… Read more »

Pete Wood
Pete Wood
Reply to  drdneast
1 year ago

Yeah, why can’t the Bucs be more like all those other teams with their creative offensive play calling and genius offensive coordinators? That must be why the Bucs didn’t make the playoffs this year and all those other teams are doing so much better.
Bucs should fire Leftwich. What’s he done for us this year?

SenileSenior
SenileSenior
Reply to  Pete Wood
1 year ago

I agree with your sentiment, Pete. Let’s not get caught up in the minutia of “analysis paralysis”, Buc fans. Leftwich has done a fine job overall this year. We can always find a few calls to criticize in any given game. The chess match goes on for the entire game. As a “field general” it is up to the QB to make those less second switches or adjustments to the plays that are sent in. Right now our offense is humming along at a championship level. We are taking on the current champs who also have shown no letdown so… Read more »

SenileSenior
SenileSenior
Reply to  SenileSenior
1 year ago

Meant “last second switches” … (I don’t call myself “senile” for nothing! 😋)

Dave
Dave
Reply to  drdneast
1 year ago

Guess you haven’t watched a lot of KC games this year. Especially the playoff games.The playoffs has been mostly A) quick hitters to Hill, where he piles up yac with his speed. Or B) 10 yard slants to Kelce(especially on 3rd downs), who’s basically impossible to cover 1 on 1 on a slant. Hill and Kelce have accounted for 47 of the 76 Mahomes targets in the playoffs(62%). Their offense in the playoffs has been as far from imaginative as humanly possible. It’s basically been, we’re going back to these 2 plays over and over and over, until you prove… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by Dave
The Wall
The Wall
1 year ago

“Befuddling” to describe BL’s play calling is the word I’ve been looking for all year. I really hope he doesn’t cost us the win. I just don’t understand why he has so much trouble changing up when it is so obvious to the whole football world.

eaustinyoung
eaustinyoung
Reply to  The Wall
1 year ago

I get it and I’ve said it. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. They’re finding ways to win games with everything stacked against them – travel, weather, injuries. Let BL get through February 7th and let’s all re-evaluate him then. See what he can do with the offseason if he doesn’t take a coaching job elsewhere.

eaustinyoung
eaustinyoung
Reply to  The Wall
1 year ago

If he costs us the game, off with his head. I’m done with him. But if he doesn’t and can work with Brady to pull off the upset, he earns way more credit than anyone has given him thus far.

Pete Wood
Pete Wood
Reply to  eaustinyoung
1 year ago

By all means, let’s fire the offensive coordinator who got us to the playoffs for the first time in almost twenty years. Maybe we can get somebody to take over the play calling in time for the super bowl. And, while we’re at it, let’s cut Brady. We don’t need an old geezer on the team who throws three picks in an nfc championship game. We have a good team and a good coaching staff. Is it that hard to grasp? We’re going to win the super bowl. And, if some pewter fans have their way, the day after we… Read more »

eaustinyoung
eaustinyoung
Reply to  Pete Wood
1 year ago

Your sarcasm doesn’t make your point more poignant. What you’re saying isn’t that special or deep. Also, he could very easily take a head coaching job somewhere anyways. Coaches move on. Get the hell over it lol

Pete Wood
Pete Wood
Reply to  eaustinyoung
1 year ago

I agree I am neither special, nor deep. I’m kind of like the guy who replaced John Travolta on Welcome Back Kotter. Nobody remembers him for good reason.

Pete Wood
Pete Wood
Reply to  Pete Wood
1 year ago

point well taken about the sarcasm, though. Gave you a thumbs up for calling me out.

eaustinyoung
eaustinyoung
Reply to  Pete Wood
1 year ago

All good. I got thick skin.

Spitfire
Spitfire
1 year ago

I keep feeling like the point is suckering in other teams to assume we are always running on 1st down to set up the play action later in the game, not that it’s right. It’s just hard because you would think that a former Offensive HC, a for QB at OC and the greatest QB of all time know what they’re doing. There has to be a method to their madness. I would like to know what that method is, but if they told us then everyone would know. So who knows. Al I know is we are in the… Read more »

^^mtn^^
^^mtn^^
Reply to  Spitfire
1 year ago

Agree.
Also feel that way about Bowles and think he takes into consideration the rest of the schedule as well as potential playoff opponents.
Selective about what they put on tape.

Rod
Rod
1 year ago

I agree with the catch by Scotty before the end of the half and the screen pass to Gronk. But I would challenge you to look at the catch from Tyler Johnson in the 4th Qtr on 3rd and 8 for a 1st down. That was a critical catch which led to a FG instead of having a 3 and out.

cgmaster27
cgmaster27
1 year ago

Imagine that, 2 of those plays are play action on first down. We all know you can’t do it every time, but how about a little more frequently. I guarantee, if we come out on our first drive in the big game and do play action on first down. It will be a massive gain. These third downs we had last week were not kind. Brady and the guys were 3rd and long consistently and you can’t expect to keep picking those up. Byrons play calling the final 4 weeks of the season was outstanding mixing things up. We’ve won… Read more »

SaskBucs
SaskBucs
1 year ago

These were huge plays but you are right about the play calling being head scratching at times. I don’t want Leftwich’s head, he has obviously done a good enough job to help the Bucs get here but he also has arguably the most talented offense in the league at his disposal, so expectations are high. It is possible they are playing a long game here in regards to their gameday schemes. All the off coverage bull that Bowles was playing earlier in the year set the D up well to switch to more aggressive man coverage and effectively thwart the… Read more »

scubog
scubog
1 year ago

Absolutely incredible that our team is headed to the Super Bowl and all some want to do is bemoan the play-calling because in their mind the OC is incompetent for running too often on 1st down. It’s not the play, it’s the poor execution. The whole idea of attempting to run the ball on 1st down is to be able to run play-action. It’s kinda like the old “rope a dope”. We have seen the outcome of games in which we passed all the time and it wasn’t the desired result. We’re in the Super Bowl in our home stadium.… Read more »

scohad
scohad
1 year ago

The third and 5 at the end of the game with Chris Godwin sweep/reverse was surprising as well. Actually, most of the Chris Godwin plays during the game were well designed. I’m no fan of Leftwich, but those plays were really effective and great calls for the Bucs.

Captain Sly
Captain Sly
1 year ago

Ledyard bringing that loser mentality from Pittsburgh to criticize our play calling when his team couldn’t beat the Browns.. We haven’t lost a game since KC and have beaten some really solid football teams to get to the SB. As a lifelong Bucs fan I don’t care how we win “just win baby”(Al Davis).. There are no extra points for creativity, style or grace just execution and that’s what we should celebrate. So let’s enjoy Bucs fan because we’re going to Win this thing!