The Tampa Bay Buccaneers played a mile high in Week Three and, accordingly, their Tom Brady-led passing attack reached new heights in the young 2020 season.
Brady threw three touchdown passes, two to Mike Evans, to power the Buccaneers to a dominant 28-10 win over the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday. The win improved Tampa Bay to 2-1 and at least temporarily put them into first place in the NFC South. The 1-1 New Orleans Saints had a Sunday night date with the Green Bay Packers at the Superdome.
Brady was as sharp as he's been in his first season with the Buccaneers, throwing for 297 yards on 25-of-38 passing and finishing with a 115.8 passer rating after leading a turnover-free attack. He was supported by a swarming defense that held Broncos backup QB Jeff Driskel and the home team to just 226 yards of total offense, 55 of those on a meaningless fourth-quarter drive that killed much of the remaining clock.
"We built this team on defense," said Arians. "Tom was just icing on the cake. When we came into the offseason last year, it was, 'Hey, let's keep this defense together because they can be special,' and then all of a sudden Tom was the icing on the cake for us offensively."
That defensive effort was led by former Bronco Shaquil Barrett, who celebrated his return to his first NFL home with two sacks, a safety and three tackles for loss. Rookie S Antoine Winfield, who moved into the slot after Sean Murphy-Bunting was lost to injury, had another big game with six tackles, his second sack in as many games and a key pass defensed. In all, the Buccaneers' defense recorded six sacks of Driskel, who was playing for injured starter Drew Lock, and Brett Rypien, who led the team's last drive. OLB Jason Pierre-Paul recorded one of those six sacks, extending his streak to five straight games with at least one QB takedown, dating back to last season.
Barrett played four seasons in Denver before signing with the Buccaneers last year and leading the NFL with 19.5 sacks. His two sacks Sunday were his first of 2020, and were of no surprise to Arians.
"There was no doubt, you knew he was going to have a big day," said Arians. "They tried to single-block him. We kept pressuring up the middle, which was getting him singled, and people were getting home from everywhere."
Though the Buccaneers lost WR Chris Godwin to a hamstring injury at the end of the third quarter, Brady was still able to make use of his multitude of weapons to a greater degree than in the first two weeks. He completed passes to eight different players, perhaps most notably TE Rob Gronkowski, who led the team with six catches on seven targets for 48 yards. Godwin made a number of key underneath catches to keep the chains moving and started the scoring with a dive over the line to complete a 10-yard scoring catch. TE O.J. Howard and WR Scotty Miller made big catches downfield. The Bucs' trio of running backs (Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy) combined for six catches. And Evans not only scored on both of his receptions but created opportunities for his teammates.
"This was one of those teams that was going to double-team Mike the entire game, and it just opens up for the guys inside," said Arians. "I really like the way we improved in that area, getting those guys open and catching the ball, and delivering it to them. If they're going to double Mike, those guys have to show up."
It wasn't a perfect day for the offense. As was also the case in the Bucs' Week Two win over Carolina, the offense largely bogged down in the second half, in this case largely due to penalties. The Bucs were flagged nine times on Sunday, with seven coming in the second half. Brady also absorbed both of his two sacks in the last two quarters. But the Buccaneers also did not turn the ball over and were able to make their first-half lead stand up once again.
"All the receivers did a good job today," said Brady. "The tight ends did a good job, the line did a great job. We've just to close some things out and stop getting behind. In the second half, we had a long-yardage situations and we didn't overcome them. Sometimes you can but the percentages are probably you're not. We've got to figure out how to stay on the field and score points."
After a rough first week in New Orleans and a solid if unspectacular day in the Week Two win over Carolina, Tampa Bay's special teams were a winning edge in Denver. Ryan Succop hit both of his field goal attempts from 43 and 35 yards; Bradley Pinion dropped three punts inside the 20, one leading directly to Barrett's safety on a sack of Driskel; return man Jaydon Mickens had 21 yards on three punt return; and most importantly, Patrick O'Connor started the Bucs' onslaught with a blocked punt four minutes into the game. Brady hit Godwin on his first touchdown pass three plays later.
The Buccaneers built a commanding early lead for the second year in a row, going up 23-3 in the second quarter before allowing a two-minute drill by Denver for the Broncos only touchdown of the game. Though the first touchdown was a quick strike set up by O'Connor's block, Brady engineered consecutive drives in the second quarter of 75 and 56 yards, both of them ending in touchdown passes to Evans. Evans has scored in every game so far and has four total touchdowns, the most he's had through the first three games of any season.
"He's a great red-area threat, and I think his size, his quickness, his elusiveness, his hands – everything," said Brady. "Mike is one of the great receivers in the NFL so I've got to find ways to get him the ball and get him into space, not just in the red area but all over the field. It's my job to find the guys that are open and get it to them."
The Bucs' only scores in the second half were Barrett's safety and Succop's second field goal, but the defense did not allow a point after the intermission. It marked the first time Tampa Bay has pitched a second-half shutout since Week Three of the 2018 season, in a 30-27 loss to Pittsburgh. It was the first second-half shutout for the Bucs in a win since a 14-5 victory over Seattle in Week 12 of 2016. Tampa Bay won the turnover battle for the second week in a row, with interceptions by Lavonte David and Mike Edwards in the second half being key to that post-intermission shutout.
Additional game details (scoring plays highlighted):
Driskel got the Broncos moving on the opening drive when he scrambled on third-and-seven and got nine for the game's initial first down. CB Carlton Davis put the Broncos in another long third down when he made a great open-field tackle on an end-around attempt by rookie WR K.J. Hamler for a loss of three, and this time Driskel couldn't convert.
The Broncos sent Sam Martin out to punt but O'Connor got pressure straight up the middle and blocked the kick, sending it back towards the Denver end zone. O'Connor also picked up the loose ball and returned it to the Denver 10. Three plays later, on third-and-goal from the 10, Brady hit Godwin underneath cutting right to left and Godwin was able to extend the ball over two defenders and just across the goal line for the game's first points.
Denver's second drive went nowhere thanks to a tackle for loss by DL Vita Vea and a hit on Driskel by OLB Jason Pierre-Paul that nearly led to a Sean Murphy-Bunting interception. Martin got his punt off this time and it rolled down to the Bucs' 28. A couple catches by TE Rob Gronkowski got the ball close to midfield but the Bucs had to punt from their 47 and Pinion's kick was fair caught at the 16.
Another Denver three-and-out led to the Bucs' next drive starting at their own 46. An underneath pass to McCoy on third-and-10 came up less than a yard short and the Bucs went for it on fourth down. Before the next play, the Bucs tried to get the Broncos to jump offside, then called a timeout and challenged the spot of the previous play. The call was upheld, costing the Bucs a second timeout, but Fournette did get the first down on a run up the middle. On third-and-one from the Denver 24, DE Shelby Harris leaped to get a hand on Brady's short pass attempt to McCoy and the Bucs settled for Ryan Succop's 43-yard field goal.
The Broncos followed with their first scoring drive, moving 37 yards on seven plays to set up a 56-yard field goal by Brandon McManus that cleared the bar with ease. Consecutive catches of 15 yards by Jeudy and 18 by Fant got the home team into scoring range but an eight-yard sack by Winfield, who blitzed around left tackle, helped stall the drive.
WR Scotty Miller made a remarkable 47-yard catch on third-and-eight with S Justin Simmons draped all over him, and Brady found Godwin underneath again to convert a third-and-five and set up a first down at the Denver 15. Three plays later, Brady hooked up with Gronkowski for a third time on third-and-four to make it first-and-goal at the three. Brady then got into the end zone on third-and-one with a very quick pass out to the right to Evans, who then slid across the line for his third TD in as many games. That gave the Bucs a 17-3 lead with 6:35 left in the first half.
A sack by former Bronco Shaq Barrett helped end the ensuing drive quickly and the Bucs got the ball back at their own 44 with five minutes before the intermission. Howard got the Bucs into scoring range with a remarkable catch made with one hand as his other was wrapped around the helmet of LB Josey Jewell, picking up 33 yards to the Denver 23. Jones kept the drive moving with an impressive power run on third-and-one that was originally stopped surge before he surged the pile forward for nine yards down to the five. Two plays later, Brady threw a perfect back-corner fade to Evans for their second TD hookup of the half. Succop's extra point attempt was blocked by LB Joseph Jones, who leapt completely over the line of blockers.
The Broncos were able to trim the Bucs' lead to 13 before halftime, putting together their first sustained drive of the game. Driskel hit WR Tim Patrick on a seven-yard pivot route for a touchdown to complete an eight-play, 75-yard march. Patrick also had the other key play on the drive, a 27-yard catch over the middle that converted a third-and-20.
The Bucs got the ball first to start the second half but stalled out near midfield and punted down to the Denver eight. That fine kick by Pinion, fair caught by Diontae Spencer, set up another score for the Buccaneers. On third-and-13 from the five, Barrett dropped Driskel five yards deep in the end zone, resulting in a safety that improved the Bucs' lead to 25-10.
The Broncos had to kick it back to the Buccaneers after the safety but a pair of holding penalties negated a nice return by Mickens and a good gain by Jones. As a result, the Bucs ended up punting again from their own 43-yard line with nine minutes left in the third quarter.
Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back with the game's first takeaway, as OLB Anthony Nelson's hit on Driskel forced a wobbler that David intercepted as he fell on his back on the midfield stripe. A spinning 30-yard catch by Godwin on the right sideline got the ball into Denver territory and a nine-yard catch by Jones led to a first down at the 14. However, a sack by Shelby Harris on a scrambling Brady led to a third-and-14 and Bradley Chubb dropped Brady after a one-yard scramble on third down. Succop came in to drill a 35-yard field goal and push the Bucs' lead to 18 points as the third quarter came to an end.
After an exchange of punts, the Broncos got the ball back at their 27 with 10 minutes to play and relieved Driskel with first-year QB Brett Rypien. The Bucs' defense played back to kill the clock, which worked as the ensuing drive chewed up six minutes and then came up empty when Edwards intercepted Rypien's pass into the end zone and returned it to the Bucs' 29. Jones' 13-yard carry two plays later created a new set of downs and allowed the Bucs to run the last four minutes off the clock.
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 3 matchup against Denver.