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.
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