Travis Benjamin appeared onscreen, and the entire Bucs defense was chasing him.
He was going to score a touchdown. You just knew it.
And then … he dropped it! He (expletive) dropped it!
If Benjamin catches Philip Rivers' 48-yard fourth-quarter pass, we're talking about a 28-20 Chargers win instead of a 28-21 Bucs win. Sunday's game was that close … fingertips close.
Sometimes you get a little lucky. What matters most, though, is what you do with that good fortune.
This Bucs team — this relentless Bucs team — capitalized faster than you can say Austin Seferian-Jenkins. On the fourth play of Tampa Bay's next drive, Jameis Winston threaded a 12-yard touchdown pass over and between two San Diego defenders to tight end Cameron Brate. It was Brate's sixth touchdown of the season, tied with Tennessee's Delanie Walker for most among tight ends.
Luck had nothing to do with that touchdown. It was months in the making. It was the product of staying after practice day after day, perfecting timing and building chemistry. As Winston said after beating the Bears — the win that sparked this four-game streak — "Cam is in there as long as I'm in there."
On the second-and-5 play, the Bucs weren't just hoping for a touchdown, they were expecting it.
"Presnap, I kind of knew that I was going to get the ball," Brate said. "I just had to run my route and not rush it too bad."
Why were the Bucs so confident? When they came to the line, they got the look from the Chargers defense that they wanted. San Diego aligned with a single high safety and shaded him to the right side of the field — Mike Evans' side. Brate was on the left, next to tackle Donovan Smith.
Brate faked an out route and then ran down the seam (seams are the empty spaces in a defense between zones), his double move key to gaining separation from linebacker Denzel Perryman, who was alone in coverage because the safety was shaded toward Evans.
One other key to that play, on which the Chargers rushed five defenders: Jacquizz Rodgers' block in the backfield of linebacker Korey Toomer.
Less than 30 games into Winston's career, it's too early to apply the "franchise quarterback" label, but his performance Sunday, while it wasn't flawless, presented more compelling evidence that he is on track.
The Bucs offense was decimated in the first half after losing Luke Stocker, Cecil Shorts and Adam Humphries to injuries. In the past, Winston would have responded by forcing targets to Evans. On Sunday, though, he was patient. Freddie Martino, who had two catches this season, caught four passes for 56 yards. Brate, not Evans, led the team in targets (nine), receptions (six) and receiving yards (86).
The touchdown pass wasn't the only time the Bucs used Brate to attack the vertical seams of the Chargers defense.
On Tampa Bay's final drive of the first half, Winston hit Brate for an 18-yard gain that put the Bucs in field-goal range. Then Roberto Aguayo ... well, let's not talk about Roberto Aguayo right now.
In the third quarter, Brate was one-on-one with Perryman, the linebacker he later beat to score the touchdown. Perryman was expecting safety help, but no one was there. Winston pump-faked to the left side of the field and then found Brate on the right for a 38-yard gain. The Bucs capped the drive with a field goal that cut the Chargers' lead to 21-20.
Through 12 games, Brate has become Winston's most reliable target, after Evans. That wasn't the plan before the season, but his rise from undrafted free agent in 2014 to one of the NFL's most productive tight ends mirrors the Bucs' climb into contention. With each game, they become more and more difficult to dismiss. It's time to take notice.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.