The Bucs emerged victorious on Sunday, despite trailing by 10 points at halftime to the Indianapolis Colts. But the result was constantly in doubt, as Tampa Bay often elected to take difficult paths to victory. Late in the game, Leonard Fournette’s 28-yard touchdown run put the Bucs up 38-31 with 20 seconds left. That 7-point advantage represents almost certain victory at that point in the game, but the Bucs still almost blew it.
On the ensuing kickoff, Bradley Pinion pounded the ball into the end zone. But Colts return man Isaiah Rodgers fielded it under his own goal posts to bring the kick out. Rodgers erupted past the Bucs porous kickoff coverage unit, taking the kick back 72 yards to the Bucs 32. Only a clutch tackle by Mike Edwards saved a game-tying touchdown.
“Obviously, Mike, I think he hit top speed of his life chasing the guy on the kickoff return,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. “And thank God he did.”
With 10 seconds left, the Colts had two shots to tie it. Lavonte David broke up Wentz’s first attempt, before Pierre Desir intercepted a Hail Mary at the 2-yard line to end the threat. In hindsight, Arians wishes he would have handled the last 30 seconds of the game better.
“Probably in hindsight, I would have got on the headset and told Leonard [Fournette] not to score,” Arians said. “So that you do take all the time off the clock and kick the field goal. And so you don’t have that kickoff return. Also in hindsight, we would not kick that ball deep.”
Bucs RB Leonard Fournette – Photo by: USA Today
In fairness to Arians, I have no issue with Fournette scoring a touchdown with 20 seconds left. I would never trust my game result to a kicker if I had another surefire option, even from chip shot range. Now, if there was 1:20 left on the clock, absolutely. Not going down at the 1 in that situation would have been a critical error. But with 20 seconds left, now the Colts need a touchdown with one timeout. It would take a colossal failure to lose the game at that point.
But, that colossal failure almost happened. And this is where I do blame Arians a little bit. Last year, the Bucs had the worst kickoff coverage unit in NFL history. This year, the Bucs are the third-worst coverage unit in the league. The only silver lining is that Bradley Pinion allows so few returns. Against the Colts, Pinion had sent every kick out of the end zone until the last one.
Why? Was it intentionally put in play? I’m not sure. But it was a mistake that can’t happen in that situation. Perhaps Arians just assumed Pinion would send the ball out of play like he almost always does. Maybe Pinion didn’t get a hold of it completely, and Rodgers had a shot at a return. Either way, I’m sure the Bucs will squib that kick on the ground down the middle of the field next time. I blame the coverage unit more than the coaching, but Arians is probably smart to improve his process a bit there too.
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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