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Bucs flip the coin, and script, on first-quarter futility

Tampa Bay ends its opening-quarter doldrums with two quick touchdowns against the Lions.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) receives a high-five after a first-half touchdown pass Saturday in Detroit.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) receives a high-five after a first-half touchdown pass Saturday in Detroit. [ AL GOLDIS | Associated Press ]
Published Dec. 26, 2020
Updated Dec. 26, 2020

After attempting virtually everything short of hiring a hypnotist to help shake their chronic first-quarter doldrums, the Bucs found their solution Saturday in the referee’s pocket.

When his coin flipped, so did Tampa Bay’s first-quarter fortunes.

Instead of deferring upon winning the pregame coin toss at Detroit’s Ford Field (which any metric frowns upon), the Bucs chose to receive. Within minutes, their notorious first-quarter funk was history.

Outscored 59-7 in the opening quarter over the previous six games, the Bucs scored touchdowns on their first two possessions en route to a 47-7 romp of the Lions.

“This week we felt like we could attack,” said coach Bruce Arians, whose team led 13-0 after one quarter and 34-0 at intermission. “So we took the football if we won the coin toss and our guys just went out and went right down the field.”

A frustrating purveyor of early three-and-outs the previous six weeks, the Bucs scored on six plays on their opening possession, capped by Tom Brady’s 33-yard scoring toss to Rob Gronkowski. They needed only four plays to score the second time, with Brady’s 47-yard completion to Chris Godwin setting up his 27-yard scoring toss to Mike Evans.

Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) makes a diving catch in the first half against the Detroit Lions.
Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) makes a diving catch in the first half against the Detroit Lions. [ RICK OSENTOSKI | AP ]

After those two series, Brady was 6-for-7 for 146 yards and two TDs. He finished the period with 179 yards.

“Just good execution,” Brady said. “The guys were making plays for me all over the field. I tried to just give them opportunities.”

The early lead was Tampa Bay’s first in the opening quarter since a Monday night road win against the Giants on Nov. 2. They hadn’t previously scored a touchdown on each of their first two drives since Week 3 of 2019, according to ESPN.

“It was something we needed desperately, just so people would quit talking about it,” Arians said. “We had been winning, but we’re not winning nice enough. But hopefully today it was nice enough.”

Not everything was special

Fortunately for normally steady Bucs kicker Ryan Succop, Saturday’s special teams woes were almost totally shrouded by the offense’s de facto clinic.

Succop sent two extra points wide right, including his first attempt that bounced off the upright. He also sent a 42-yard field-goal attempt wide left in the fourth quarter, ending his streak of consecutive field goals at 21.

Additionally, Lions returner Jamal Agnew needed to break only one tackle on a 74-yard punt-return touchdown in the third quarter. It was the first punt return for a score against the Bucs since Devin Hester returned one 68 yards on Sept. 18, 2014.

By contrast, the Bucs started three possessions inside their 11 following punts. Returner Kenjon Barner appeared tentative on a first-half return and fielded it inside his 10.

“Our special teams were a little shaky today,” Arians said. “(Succop) just hates this turf and it showed today. I really wanted that goose egg, and we gave up that punt return. Everything can’t be perfect but I’m always looking for perfect.”

Bucs empty the bench

Bucs quarterback Blaine Gabbert (11) runs the ball while being chased by Lions defensive end Austin Bryant (94) in the second half.
Bucs quarterback Blaine Gabbert (11) runs the ball while being chased by Lions defensive end Austin Bryant (94) in the second half. [ RICK OSENTOSKI | AP ]

Tampa Bay’s 34-point halftime cushion against a Lions team with a piecemeal coaching staff enabled Arians to substitute liberally in the second half.

Backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, taking his first meaningful snaps in two years, played the entire second half and went 9-for-15 for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Rookie tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran for a game-high 62 yards on 15 carries.

Defensively, second-year cornerback Herb Miller, a former Florida Atlantic standout, had his first career interception in the fourth quarter. Miller was elevated from the practice squad for Saturday’s game when injured starter Carlton Davis (groin) was ruled out. Second-year defensive peers Jeremiah Ledbetter and Anthony Nelson each registered their first full NFL sacks.

“Blaine hadn’t played in a year and a half,” Arians said. “People don’t know how good Blaine Gabbert is; I mean, he can really spin a football.

“And we’ve known what Ke’Shawn is, it’s just getting an opportunity. He’s so quick and sudden, a different-style runner. Leonard (Fournette) is a big, powerful guy. It just gives us another good change of pace.”

Odds and ends

The Bucs have gone three consecutive games without a turnover. ... Tampa Bay’s four sacks Saturday give the Bucs 47 for the season, tied for the most in the NFL through Saturday’s 1 p.m. time slot. ... The seven points allowed Saturday were the fewest surrendered by the Bucs since a 29-7 win against the Bears in the 2017 opener. ... Gronkowski (two touchdown catches) now has 17 multi-touchdown games in his career, third-most by a tight end in NFL history. Antonio Gates (21) leads the way.