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Bucs’ Byron Leftwich, Tom Brady must find new ways to solve offensive puzzle

The options aren’t great after the losses of Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette to injuries.
Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, right, talks with quarterback Tom Brady (12) during a game against the Bills earlier this month at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, right, talks with quarterback Tom Brady (12) during a game against the Bills earlier this month at Raymond James Stadium. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 24, 2021|Updated Dec. 24, 2021

TAMPA — Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich received a lot of attention as a possible replacement in Jacksonville for disgraced head coach Urban Meyer, who was fired just after midnight on Dec. 16.

It makes too much sense, right?

The former Jaguars quarterback and first-round pick won a Super Bowl with the Bucs, presides over one of the NFL’s highest-scoring offenses and has worked with Tom Brady for two seasons.

Well, we’re about to see how creative Leftwich is as a play-caller as the Bucs enter Sunday’s game against the Panthers without three of their most productive weapons: receivers Chris Godwin (torn ACL) and Mike Evans (hamstring), and running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring).

The Bucs will have to put the puzzle back together using different pieces, which will test Leftwich’s ability to put points on the board following last week’s shutout loss to the Saints.

“The first thing is you’ve got to get over who you’re missing, right?” Leftwich said. “You’re thinking, ‘Dang, we’re going to have to do it without Mike, without Chris, and B.P. (receiver Breshad Perriman) is down. But you know, it happened all in, like, 48 hours. It happened so quickly.

“But that’s the job. The job is not just to be able to put guys in position if it’s Mike Evans or Chris Godwin. Our job is to put whoever is there in position to have success, and that’s really how I see it. Obviously, you would love to have the guys who are out in the huddle. But that’s just football.”

Unlike 2020, the Bucs haven’t made use of their entire offensive roster this season. That may account for why, aside from running back Ronald Jones, the backups who entered the New Orleans game looked so woefully out of sync with Brady.

The easiest thing for Brady to do moving forward is turn and hand off the ball to Jones, who was 22 yards shy of reaching 1,000 in 2020.

Which other players will Leftwich and Brady need to lean on in the last three regular season games, if not longer?

Antonio Brown The Bucs are fortunate he returns from a three-game suspension this week, but he hasn’t played since Oct. 15. Tampa Bay is 5-0 with Brown in the lineup, but that’s been as a third receiver. What can he do with safeties rotating toward him as the No. 1 target? Also, how much rust does he have to knock off?

“It helps any time you have him out there, really, on the grass,” Leftwich said. “Obviously, he’s just coming back, too, though.”

Rob Gronkowski The tight end is coming off his worst game in years. He caught only two of 11 targets and dropped at least three others. Even Brady was at a loss to explain it. “I don’t know,” he said. “Just didn’t play our best game, obviously. Just a bad day.””

Cameron Brate The Bucs could deploy more two-tight-end sets and let Brate work the middle of the field. He doesn’t get much separation and dropped a few passes he normally would catch Sunday. Brate has not caught more than four passes in any game this season and did that only once, against the Rams.

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Tyler Johnson He’ll likely be thrust into Godwin’s role as the slot receiver. But he was pushed around by the Saints. Johnson’s lack of speed was glaring as he failed to get separation. He has only 27 receptions for 288 yards and no TDs on 42 targets, an underwhelming 64.3 catch percentage.

Scotty Miller Once the Bucs’ deep threat, he’s now a clear-out guy on the outside to draw safety help. Halfway through 2020, Miller was the Bucs’ receiving yardage leader. He enters Sunday with only four catches for 29 yards and 0 TDs. Aside from some tunnel screens, not sure he will have an impact.

Perriman, the hero of the win over the Bills with his 58-yard TD catch in overtime, is on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Le’Veon Bell signed this week and may not be ready to contribute as a third-down back.

“You’ve got to find different ways to win with different players, different avenues for success,” Brady said. “It’s not always the same thing that’s going to win all the time. I always feel like there’s got to be some type of opportunity guys look for in moments like this. Because you’re challenged in different ways, it makes you think differently. Some of those things can add to other aspects of what we’re trying to do offensively.”

Kicking themselves

It was notable that Cowboys punter Bryan Anger and Rams kicker Matt Gay were named to the NFC Pro Bowl team.

Both, of course, are former Bucs. Anger, who punted for Tampa Bay from 2016-18, leads the NFL with a 43.9 net average, with 21 punts inside the 20.

Gay, who was drafted by the Bucs in the fifth round in 2019, stayed only one season and made 77.1 percent of his field goal attempts before he was released. This year, he’s 28 of 29 field goal attempts, leading the NFL with 96.6 percent accuracy. Dating back to last season, he’s made 42 of 45 field goal tries in the regular season and was a perfect 4 for 4 on field goals in the playoffs, or 93.9 percent in 23 total games with the Rams.

Meanwhile, Bucs punter Bradley Pinion is struggling with a hip injury. He’s 34th in yards per punt this season at 42.4. He also has the ninth-highest cap hit among all punters at $2.8 million.

“It’s just his play,” Arians said of Pinion. “I don’t think the injury had anything to do with it.”

Kicker Ryan Succop missed his only try Sunday, from 48 yards. His 81 percent made field goal percentage ranks 26th in the NFL. While he’s missed only four field goals, Succop’s limited range has seen him attempt just 21. He’s also missed three extra points.

“It can’t continue, that’s for sure,” Arians said.

Practice squad punter Sterling Hofrichter and kicker Jose Borregales got plenty of reps in practice this week.

Playoff picture

The Bucs can clinch the NFC South with a win or tie against the Panthers or a loss or tie by the Saints.

They can clinch at least a wild-card berth with one of the following outcomes:

• Vikings loss or tie and Eagles loss or tie

• Vikings loss or tie and Cowboys win or tie

• Vikings loss or tie and Cowboys clinch at least a tie in strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Eagles

• • •

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