They have taken all the shovels away from the Bucs offense. For a unit used to digging itself out of a hole, Tampa Bay instead has outscored opponents 31-0 in the first quarter this season.
Whether it’s the result of great execution of the first 15 scripted plays, synergy between Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich or an opportunistic defense, playing from ahead has been one of the biggest reasons for the 2-1 start heading into Sunday’s game against the Chargers.
“It’s one thing to get off to a good start," Brady said. "You want to play well at the end of every half, too, (and) you want to start the third quarter fast — really, you want to play a great 60 minutes every week. It’s a pretty small sample size still. ... You want to play on your terms. We’re certainly going to have to — as the year goes on — continue to gain consistency and dependability over the course of the whole game. That’s going to be the goal.”
A year ago, quarterback Jameis Winston threw 30 interceptions, including seven that were returned for touchdowns. In fact, four of those pick-sixes came on the first pass attempt of the game.
Brady had an interception returned for a touchdown in a season-opening loss at New Orleans. But he has built his Hall of Fame career on protecting the football.
“It’s just constant execution and it’s really happening early in games,” Leftwich said. “We all know each football game comes with 50, 60, 70 plays and you’ve got to be able to execute consistently down in and down out. I think we’ve done a great job of that coming into football games. I think we did a good job of that, really, training to execute in the second half.”
For whatever reason, the Bucs have been unable to sustain that momentum. They have been outscored 61-41 after the first quarter.
“I think what’s happened is the third quarter has been a big quarter for us when we’ve gotten a lot of penalties and we’re in a lot of second and 20s, first and 20s,” Leftwich said. “In this league, that’s going to always put you in third and long, and you try your best to stay out of those situations because obviously you’re not going to convert a high percentage of those. ... The penalties that we’ve gotten in the second half just put us in bad positions
If the Bucs can learn how to put teams away, and Brady continues to protect the ball, this could be a dominant offense by November or December.
Rob Gronkowski finally got involved in the passing game, catching six for 48 yards in last Sunday’s win at Denver.
But the surprising thing may have been that he played 63 plays, or 93 percent of the offensive snaps. Meanwhile, O.J. Howard played 33 snaps (49 percent) and Cameron Brate participated in five (7 percent).
Gronkowski retired from football and did not play in 2019. At 31, a little load management may be in order if the Bucs would like to see him play in December or January.
Leftwich said the defensive coverage will dictate how much Gronkowski touches the football.
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“Like I tell you, don’t force feed it,” Leftwich said. “We’ll get guys the ball. I’m always trying to put these guys in positions, so everything is thought out all the time. Sometimes the ball doesn’t come his way, but obviously it came (their) way last week and we’ll see.”
Brady vs. Manning
Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen spent 14 seasons with the Colts, who battled Brady for AFC titles every year. He may be the best one to make comparisons between Peyton Manning and Brady, who were bitter rivals that have become close friends. In fact, Manning and his kids surprised Brady before the game at Denver.
“They’re so elite at that position that they see things that maybe even coaches miss,” Christensen said. “So, their preparation is impeccable. There’s going to be a phone call at 9:30 almost every night just confirming something. It goes from sun up until sun down and even all the way to Saturday or Sunday morning … just going back over it. ‘When is this going to show up? Am I ready?' ... Sometimes you can look in their eyes and see we’ve got a beat on these guys. That’s a good feeling. I think as Tom gets more comfortable, that will become more apparent.”