Bruce Arians thought he might keep his starters in throughout the first half of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' preseason finale Saturday night in Houston. Turns out three drives each was enough for Arians to be satisfied with the state of both his offense and defense as the team's Super Bowl-defending season looms just ahead.
The Buccaneers got their first win of the 2021 preseason after uninspiring losses to Cincinnati and Tennessee at home, just holding on to a 23-16 victory at NRG Stadium. More importantly, the score was 13-0 in Tampa Bay's favor when its starters departed well before the intermission. Tom Brady and the Bucs' offense caught fire after an opening-game sequence that didn't go well and ended in a quick punt.
"[I was] pleased with everything but the first series on offense," said Arians after the game. "We can't start against Dallas [in Week One] with a penalty and a three-and-out, giving them field position. But other than that, we had a nice rhythm. I loved the speed of the defense, the speed of the offense once we got going. I saw the things I wanted to see. I didn't see anymore."
Brady directed touchdown drives of 91 and 93 yards in the first quarter and left the game with 154 yards on 11-of-14 passing and a 136.3 passer rating. Brady completed multiple passes to all three of his primary receivers – Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown – with Godwin leading the way with three catches for 84 yards and a touchdown. Running back Ronald Jones added 27 yards and a touchdown on four carries.
"We got off to a little slow start, the three-and-out, but it was good to get a couple good, long drives. We really haven't played that much, so just get our feel and get out there and get some rhythm. The O-Line did a great job in protection and the receivers all made plays so it was just good to spread the ball around and get into a little flow. It was good to score and good to win."
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's first-string defense pitched a shutout against Tyrod Taylor and the Texans' starting offense, though they did allow one unusual 18-play drive. That one ended without points on a failed fourth-down conversion, apparently because kicker Kai'mi Fairbairn was held out due to a minor injury. Lavonte David led the way with eight tackles in the first quarter alone.
Brady completed 10 consecutive passes during one stretch and had little trouble finding his talented receivers in the clear and on the run. After he and the rest of the starters left the game five minutes into the second quarter, Tampa Bay's offense stalled for the most part with Blaine Gabbert at the helm but did roll up 353 yards on the night, helped by several long drives with rookie Kyle Trask under center in the second half.
"It felt really good to be back out there and make some plays," said Godwin. "We really needed to come out here and show some cohesion, really needed to start putting some drives together. Our only other drive that we had in the preseason we got one first down, so like six plays. So it was good for us to be able to drive downfield, bounce back from a little adversity and put good drives together."
There were some standout plays by the Bucs' first round of defensive reserves, too, as the only first-half points allowed by the visitors came on a safety. Rookie outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka forced one of the Buccaneers' five defensive takeaways with a strip-sack of Taylor in the second quarter, part of a night that included four tackles, a tackle for loss and two quarterback hits. First-year cornerback Herb Miller created another turnover with an impressive interception in the same period cornerback Dee Delaney completed the trio of first-half takeaways with a minute to play before the break, setting up a short drive that ended in 36-yard field goal by rookie kicker Jose Borregales. Delaney later picked off another pass in the final two minutes of the game to seal the win. In the second half, safety Javon Hagan and outside linebacker Ladarius Hamilton each recorded sacks, with Hagan's resulting in a lost fumble by Mills.
"Some young players stepped up, others didn't," said Arians. "We've got some rookies that the game is still a little big for. We'll continue to coach with them and hopefully we won't have to play them."
Trask's first drive didn't go far after a fumbled handoff between him and running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn at the Bucs' 11-yard line, recovered by Houston. The Texans' own rookie quarterback, Davis Mills, capitalized on the turnover one play later with a quick slant to wide receiver Nico Collins for Houston's first touchdown of the game. Mills also hit wideout Keke Coutee for a two-point conversion to trim the Bucs' lead to 16-10.
View the best photos from the Bucs third preseason game vs. the Houston Texans.
However, Trask countered with a sharp, 78-yard touchdown drive on which he completed all four of his passes, three of them for 20-plus yards, culminating in his 20-yard touchdown to tight end Codey McElroy. That put the Bucs up by a 23-10 margin with five minutes left in the third quarter. Trask finished the night with 12 completions in 16 attempts for 146 yards and a 133.9 passer rating. Tampa Bay's defense allowed 324 yards, including 209 on the ground, but benefited from five takeaways and four fourth-down stops against the kicker-less Texans.
"I was very, very pleased," said Arians, assessing the Bucs' defense. "Obviously getting five turnovers but stopping them on all those fourth downs. It's obviously a totally different game when their kicker was injured. Some young guys really came in and did a good job."
The Buccaneers played the game without veteran kicker Ryan Succop, one of four Tampa Bay players currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Borregales got his first field goal opportunities of the preseason, and while he hit the aforementioned 36-yarder and an extra point he also had two kicks blocked.
Tampa Bay's game-opening possession went about as poorly as it could, short of a turnover. After Jaelon Darden only got to the 16 on his kickoff return, Brown committed a false start penalty and Jones was stopped for a loss of three. After a little screen to Giovani Bernard was incomplete on third down, the Bucs had to punt from their own eight and Houston got a good start at their 46 for their first drive.
Tampa Bay's defense got a quick stop as David closed quickly to stop a screen to Brandin Cooks on second down and Taylor threw incomplete deep downfield on third down. Darden fair caught the ensuing punt at the Bucs' nine.
The Bucs took the lead on the next possession, which went about as well as it could, in contrast to the first drive. Brady threw the ball on all seven plays of the 91-yard touchdown march, completing each of them and hitting Godwin, Evans and Brown two times each. Godwin had the big gain on the drive with a 28-yarder down the right seam and then finished it with a 24-yard touchdown catch, bouncing off two tacklers inside the five to get into the end zone. The extra point attempt by Borregales was blocked.
The Texans answered with an 18-play non-scoring drive that included two third-down conversions, a fourth-down conversion and a 21-yard run across midfield by David Johnson. But Houston went for it again on fourth-and-five at the Bucs' seven – with no kicker available to get the easy three points – and Taylor was quickly pressured into a scramble and an eventual incompletion into the end zone in Johnson's direction.
Brady went right back to Godwin to start the next drive and he caught it cutting left to right for a gain of 32 yards to end the first quarter. Brady completed three more passes on the drive, two to Brown for a total of 26 yards, but the difference in this drive was the contribution by Jones on the ground. He carried three times for 30 yards, including the final 13-yard touchdown run that he bounced around right end and raced to the end zone untouched.
The Buccaneers went to their second-string defense for Houston's next possession, with starter Taylor remaining in the game. After one first down, Tryon-Shoyinka snuffed out the drive with a backside tackle of Phillip Lindsay for a gain of just one followed by a strip-sack of Taylor on third down. The loose ball ricocheted around for a while before defensive lineman Khalil Davis eventually recovered for Tampa Bay at the Houston 33.
Blaine Gabbert took over under center as the Bucs brought in a second-team offense and was immediately greeted by a 10-yard sack by defensive end Charles Omenihu. On the next snap, Gabbert was intercepted down the left seam by safety Terrence Brooks.
Rookie QB Davis Mills came in to direct the Texans' next drive and was nearly picked off deep down the right sideline by Ross Cockrell on the first play. However, Mark Ingram ran for 11 and six yards on the next two plays to get the ball into Buccaneers territory. The drive stalled there, however, with Tryon-Shoyinka hitting Mills on a third-down pass that was deflected away downfield by cornerback Dee Delaney.
Houston managed to get on the scoreboard without even getting the ball back after Cameron Johnston's punt pinned the Bucs back at their own four. Three plays later, rookie center Robert Hainsey sent a low and wobbly snap back towards Gabbert and the veteran quarterback couldn't quite corral it and get it out of the end zone. Defensive tackle DeMarcus Walker was credited with the safety after falling on Gabbert.
The Texans also got good field position after the free kick necessitated by the safety. However, after getting one first down the home team coughed it up when Mills tried to hit wide receiver Chris Moore deep down the right sideline but Miller jumped over the targeted player for the interception at Tampa Bay's 45.
Houston tried to end the first half with a two-minute drill led by Mills but Delaney ended it with a sideline interception at the Texans' 42 with just under a minute to play. Two strikes over the middle by Gabbert to tight end Cameron Brate put the Bucs in position to end the half with Borregales' first NFL field goal attempt, which he drilled from 36 yards out.
The Texans got the ball to start the second half and embarked on yet another long drive that came up empty. This one was an 11-play march that included a 34-yard run by Scottie Phillips but ended when rookie inside linebacker K.J. Britt stuffed Rex Burkhead on a fourth-and-goal run from the Bucs' one-yard line.
Three plays later, Trask and Vaughn had their bad handoff and the Texans turned it immediately into eight points on the Collins touchdown and Coutee two-point conversion. Vaughn also fumbled on the ensuing kickoff return, though this one was saved by Buccaneers' defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter. That allowed Trask to deliver a six-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that included three completions of 20-plus yards, the last one a 20-yard scoring strike down the left seam to McElroy. Trask also hit fellow rookie Jaelon Darden for 26 yards one play before the touchdown.
Trask's third drive ended in another turnover, as he was sacked from behind by Walker, forcing a fumble that the Texans recovered at Tampa Bay's 39. Mills turned that into another touchdown, converting a fourth-and-eight from the nine with a scrambling strike to wide receiver Jordan Veasy between two Bucs defenders. Houston went for two again and failed this time, making it a seven-point game with 12:33 left in regulation.
Trask drove the Buccaneers into Houston territory on the next possession but took a costly sack that led to a 49-yard field goal attempt by Borregales. This one was blocked by cornerback Tavierre Thomas and recovered by Brooks who returned it 30 yards to the Bucs' 30. However, that scoring threat was ended by Hagan's fourth-down strip-sack. The Texans had one more chance to mount a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter but it was snuffed by Delaney's second pick.