There are some things you assume are true without even thinking about them. Fire is hot. If you sit in a chair, it will support your weight. When you jump in a pool, you get wet. Football teams that lead by 24 points win games.
Well, about that last one…
Bucs fans have seen a lot of blowouts and fourth-quarter collapses the past few years, but they haven't witnessed a stunner like Sunday's 31-30 loss to Washington in more than two decades. The last time Tampa Bay blew a 24-point lead — Dec. 6, 1992 — the Rams played in Los Angeles.
When the Bucs jumped ahead 24-0 midway through the second quarter on defensive end Howard Jones' 43-yard fumble return, the restless Landover, Md., crowd directed a cascade of boos toward a 2-4 team that appeared to be a spark away from a detonation that not even Jack Bauer could prevent.
Not the response coach Jay Gruden was seeking when he declared the game a "code red" situation.
After the return, the Bucs' chances of winning peaked at 98 percent. Kirk Cousins' 8-yard touchdown run with 4:26 left in the first half trimmed those chances only 4.7 percentage points. Even with Washington on the board, history was on Tampa Bay's side. Consider that before Sunday …
• The Bucs had scored 24 or more points in the first half in 18 games and won 15 of them, including 11 of the past 12. (Bucs' opponents, by the way, have scored 24 or more points in the first half in 45 games and won 42 of them.)
• The Bucs had a lead of 17 or more points at halftime in 26 games and lost only two of them, in 1992 to the Rams and in October 2003 to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
• Washington had come back from a 21-point deficit three times — the last time in October 1999 — but never from down 24 points.
• Washington had been outscored 46-3 in the third quarter this season.
• Cousins had not thrown more than one touchdown pass in any game this season.
• No team this season had come back after falling behind by 24 points. In Week 5, the Cincinnati Bengals rallied from 17 points down to beat the Seattle Seahawks.
While it's fair to question the Bucs' disinterest in playing football during the final 80 seconds of the first half despite having three timeouts, the game was relatively tension-free until Washington's first possession of the second half. Back-to-back penalties — the Bucs' ninth and 10th of the game — set up Washington with first-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 3-yard line.
In all, the Bucs surrendered 142 yards on 16 penalties, the most during the Lovie Smith era and third-most in franchise history. Perhaps it's time to change the color of the flag outside One Buc Place to better reflect the team's style of play.
In addition to penalties, communication issues persist in the secondary and led to a blown coverage on Cousins' touchdown pass to Ryan Grant, Washington's first touchdown in the third quarter all season. Let's take a closer look at the breakdown.
Ryan Grant lines up on the left side of the formation, and Pierre Garcon lines up on the right. Initially, Bucs rookie cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah is responsible for Grant, and Johnthan Banks is responsible for Garcon.
Washington sends Grant in motion, and Adjei-Barimah follows him. The Bucs are in man coverage. Before Grant sets behind Garcon — Washington wants to get him a clean release off the line — Banks tries to communicate with Adjei-Barimah.
It looks as if he doesn't respond, so Banks stays with Garcon. But Adjei-Barimah comes off his coverage of Grant and also covers Garcon, leaving Grant uncovered. There's no reason for Garcon to be doubled, and poor communication between Banks and Adjei-Barimah is the culprit.
Two weeks ago against the Jaguars, presnap motion also led to confusion among the Bucs' defensive backs, but Blake Bortles bailed them out when he overlooked Allen Robinson — uncovered over the middle — and threw to tight end Marcedes Lewis. Safety Bradley McDougald jumped the route and picked off the pass. If Bortles had seen Robinson, he might have had a touchdown.
The touchdown pass to Grant cut the Bucs' lead to 24-14 and reduced their win probability to a still-healthy 83.5 percent. But a surprise onside kick and recovery officially turned "code red" for Washington to "code dread" for Tampa Bay. On Washington's next possession, it not only cut its deficit to three points but also revealed how it was going to beat the Bucs. Let's examine the crucial series.
We're midway through the third quarter now, and Kwon Alexander's holding penalty gives Washington a new series of downs at the Tampa Bay 8-yard line. Jamison Crowder moves from the left side of the field to the right to set up the "quads" formation, which places four receivers on one side of the field and creates a one-on-one matchup between tight end Jordan Reed and Adjei-Barimah on the other (remember this look). Adjei-Barimah gives Reed a 6-yard cushion, and safety Chris Conte slides into the box and shows blitz.
The Bucs pick the wrong time to send Conte. Because of the soft cushion, Reed runs a clean slant to the space where Conte had been, and it's an easy pitch and catch that takes Washington to the Tampa Bay 3-yard line.
Washington runs another slant on the next play, this time to Garcon. While Adjei-Barimah plays closer to the line, Garcon still wins inside.
Adjei-Barimah manages to break up the pass, though he might have gotten away with pass interference.
It's a nearly impossible route to defend, even for the most elite NFL defenders let alone a rookie recently promoted from the practice squad. Darrelle Revis looked helpless against it last week.
After the incompletion, Washington goes back to Reed on the slant but adds a wrinkle. Running back Matt Jones lines up in the slot and draws Lavonte David's attention.
Jones engages David and pushes him back into the end zone. That bit of contact clears space for Reed, who again wins inside, this time against safety D.J. Swearinger.
Though the Bucs' chances of winning fell to 59.2 percent after the score, a touchdown of their own would have been a knockout blow. They reached the Washington 20-yard line on one drive and then the 1-yard line — the 1! — on another in the fourth quarter but each time settled for a field goal.
The Bucs' failure to punch it in the end zone opened the door for Cousins to complete the largest comeback in Washington history. Down 30-24 with 2:24 left to play, Cousins marched down the field, hitting short pass after short pass. Completions of 6, 5, 13, 8, 10, 7, 3 and 18 yards put Washington at the Tampa Bay 6-yard line with 36 seconds remaining. After incompletions on first and second down, Washington set up again in quads formation. Here's a look at the game winner.
It's the same play as the one that set up Reed's third-quarter touchdown, just flopped so that Reed is on the right side of the formation. As the Bucs frantically sort out the coverage on the other side, Reed is left one-on-one again with a defensive back.
Just as before, Reed wins inside and catches his second touchdown pass of the afternoon, a career high.
Cousins finished with 33 completions (a career high), 317 yards (a season high), three touchdown passes (matching a career high) and a 124.7 passer rating (a career high).
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.