Welcome to my weekly post-game column, where I’ll take a look at the moment(s) the game turned either in favor or against the Buccaneers. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive look at all the reasons the Bucs won or lost, but instead the key moment or two where things went north or south for the team.
Despite a horrendous first half, the Bucs found themselves down “just” 20-7 entering the second half. Clearly Tampa Bay couldn’t afford to waste any more possessions, especially when getting the ball to start the third quarter.
A huge 48-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski on an over route off of play-action brought the ball to the five-yard line for the Bucs, giving them a first-and-goal. With a chance to cut the deficit to six points and seize momentum to start the second half, there wouldn’t be a bigger series in in the game. So when offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich offered up two baffling play calls on first and second down, it was the turning point in the game.
For reasons that cannot be explained, Leonard Fournette, he of 16 carries for 36 yards over the past three games, was the weapon of choice on the first-and-goal series. Not Mike Evans. Not Chris Godwin. Not Antonio Brown. Not Rob Gronkowski. Heck, not even Ronald Jones.
Fournette, coming off a game in which he missed multiple open holes as a runner and dropped three of four targets, tiptoed to the line of scrimmage on first down for a gain of one. The All-22 will reveal more of what Fournette saw on the play, but it didn’t look like there was much there on first down.
The Bucs have wasted first down in the red zone consistently all season, yet still converted at the fifth-highest rate in the league. It’s a bad process, but the results have definitely been there nonetheless. The point I’m making here will be a common refrain in this article: don’t give your worst players touches in the most valuable part of the field.
On second down, the Bucs ran Scotty Miller on fake jet motion, then leaked Leonard Fournette out into the opposite flat, hoping to outflank the defense due to the motion. The concept itself is fine, although the Chiefs aren’t fooled at all, and make the tackle for a four-yard loss.
The problem I have with the play-call is two-fold: 1. You aren’t designing a play for one of your good players and 2. Fournette has been totally ineffective as a receiver for the vast majority of the season. At some point, coaches have to recognize players aren’t what you hoped they’d be and stop asking them to be what they are not.
I saw some people saying Gronkowski was open on this play, but he is indeed covered. Maybe a perfect throw scores him due to the leverage, but I think fans were fooled by the defender on him slowing down when the ball goes to Fournette, while Gronkowski continues to run.
Also, as Tony Romo pointed out on the broadcast, the Bucs haven’t really run this play all year (I think it was the first time). It’s designed to go to Fournette in the flat, with Brady eventually progressing to Gronkowski (shallow over route) or Evans working along the back of the end zone as a last resort, but all those options are covered. Brady really doesn’t have any options here, and typically when you have a new play like this one, you’re looking at your first read and then making adjustments off of what the defense showed you in the future.
On third down nobody was open and Brady overthrew a covered Gronkowski anyway, forcing the Bucs to settle for a field goal, cutting the Chiefs lead to 20-10. It was a mind-boggling approach to their most important series of the game, giving two designed touches to their worst offensive player on a possession the Bucs had to get in the end zone.
The Bucs played better as the game went on and made it close at the end, but the game was lost on that possession more than any other in my opinion. With the offense finding a rhythm with a steady mix of Godwin, Gronkowski, Jones and some Evans, suddenly deciding to insert Fournette into the lineup and use him as a focal point was a strategy that completely took the wind out of the group’s sails. The Chiefs defense deserves credit for making plays, but Leftwich deserves plenty of criticism for curiously opting away from his best players on the most vital series of the game.
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