The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense backfired once and then immediately kicked into high gear Sunday in Detroit, and the Buccaneers sped out of Motown with a 38-17 win over the Lions at Ford Field.
After building an early 21-point lead, the Bucs' offense sputtered through a series of flat tires (a.k.a. hamstring injuries) in the second half but held on thanks to rookie CB Sean Murphy-Bunting's 70-yard pick-six with five minutes to play. It's the fourth straight win for Tampa Bay and their fifth in the last six games. Tampa Bay also finishes the season with a 5-3 record on the road, having won three in a row.
After hitting the midseason mark in Bruce Arians' first season at the helm with a 2-6 record, the Buccaneers have clawed their way back to .500, at 7-7, with two home games remaining against Houston and Atlanta.
"It's everything," said Head Coach Bruce Arians of the Bucs' winning streak. "We're trying to finish out on a very, very positive note. And with all the guys that had to step up in this ballgame, especially offensively, it means a ton."
The streak is building confidence in a young team that will not be able to reach its goal of the playoffs but could still finish above .500.
"We lost some games that we probably shouldn't have lost early in the season," said Murphy-Bunting. "I feel like we have a great team, an amazing team, a great group of guys on both sides of the ball, guys that are going to put it on each other to be great. The longer we stay together, the more we're going to grow into that powerhouse team."
Jameis Winston's second pass of the game was intercepted near midfield – marking the fifth time he's thrown a pick on the Bucs' first drive this season – but that barely even slowed him down. By the end of the first quarter he had 221 passing yards and two touchdowns and the Bucs were winning, 14-0. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that was the third-most passing yards in a first quarter by any quarterback in the last 40 years; Indianapolis' Peyton Manning had 247 on 9/26/04 and Buffalo's Jim Kelly had 229 on 12/2/1990.
"We were going to be aggressive," said Winston of the Bucs' fast start. "When you lose one of the best receivers in the league, you want to come out and set a tone. And we came out and those guys were ready and they did a great job.
Winston would finish the game with 28 completions on 42 attempts for 458 yards, four touchdowns, one interception and a 124.9 passer rating. After throwing for 456 yards in a win over the Colts last week, Winston is now the first player in NFL history to record consecutive 450-yard passing games.
"Okay, throw an interception, get that [stuff] over with, and let's go," said Arians. "Again, he's played really, really well. There's more good than bad, and that's what we were looking for the whole time."
He did all of that despite not throwing a football in practice until Friday due to a right thumb injury suffered a week ago. The Bucs' passing attack, already without Mike Evans, slowed down in the second half after both Scotty Miller and Chris Godwin were also lost to hamstring pulls. Godwin had 121 yards on five catches before his departure but in the fourth quarter the Bucs were down to Breshad Perriman, Justin Watson and recently-promoted rookie Ishmael Hyman.
"I can't say enough about the guys [who stepped in]," said Arians. "Ish jumped in there and got a big first down. He made a big play. With the injuries that occurred in-game, I can't say enough about the guys. I don't care what the jersey number is – when you have that Buccaneer logo on your helmet there's an expectation that you'll play at a certain level when you step on the field. The level of expectations doesn't change – get out there and do something to win the game."
Tampa Bay's revved-up start included the longest touchdown drive in franchise history, a 99-yard march that ended in Winston's 33-yard touchdown pass to Miller. Winston finished the prior drive with a 34-yard scoring strike to Breshad Perriman and had already hit five different Bucs with passes of 25 or more yards by the end of the first quarter. Perriman would finish with 113 yards and three touchdowns, both career highs, continuing his late-season surge and helping to make up for the absence of Evans, who was sidelined by a hamstring injury of his own.
"I'm surprised it took him so long," said Arians. "With Chris and Mike having the years they had, it was hard. I can't say enough about him."
Winston and Perriman had an impressive connection, repeatedly hooking up on precise downfield throws.
"When we talk about the next man up, we have countless players that just come in week-in and week-out, and they don't know when their opportunities are going to come," said Winston. "But we had some key guys – Breshad Perriman, have a day with three touchdowns. Scotty, getting his first touchdown. I just think those guys that work every single day, they need all the credit. The offensive line – how about Josh Wells coming in and picking up for one of the best left tackles in the league?"
Before Murphy-Bunting's big play, Tampa Bay's defense did its part to help the Bucs pull away early, too, although CBs Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean each dropped potential interceptions. OLB Shaq Barrett got a third-down sack in the first quarter to tie Warren Sapp's Buccaneer single-season record of 16.5 and Detroit didn't get into positive net passing yardage until midway through the second quarter. The Lions' didn't record their first successful third-down conversion until six minutes into the second half.
In addition to Evans, the Buccaneers were without starting left tackle Donovan Smith, who saw his career-opening streak of 77 straight starts come to an end. Even after the injuries to Miller and Godwin, the Bucs were still the healthier of the two teams. Detroit placed four starters on injured reserve in the week leading up to Sunday's game and were without eight players who were starters during the first half of the season, most notably QB Matthew Stafford. Undrafted rookie David Blough made his third start and was ineffective early, completing just eight passes for 45 yards by halftime.
However, Blough caught fire in the second half and pulled the Lions within one score with a pair of touchdown drives built on scrambling long passes down the right sideline, one for 46 yards to Danny Amendola and one for 48 yards to Chris Lacy, both setting up one-yard touchdown runs by Wes Hills. Blough would eventually record 260 yards but would be intercepted twice.
"We gave up two broken plays to get them down there, but I thought our defense really rebounded well," said Arians. "Obviously Sean with the pick-six pretty much put it away and the we get another stop."
Unfortunately for the Lions, Blough's efforts to tie the game in the closing minutes were short-circuited by Murphy-Bunting's third interception of the year.
"A shout to Sean Murphy-Bunting for an excellent pick-six to seal it," said Winston.
Murphy-Bunting, a Michigan native who played his college ball at Central Michigan, was flagged for pass-interference on the play that resulted in Amendola's big catch, but he came through for the Buccaneers on a day when several other turnover opportunities were missed.
"You've got to have a short memory," said Murphy-Bunting. "You can never dwell on past mistakes or it's going to bite you in the butt in the end. So I just forget about it quick and get back to the game."
The Bucs got the ball first and started off on a good note when Jones took a short pass 26 yards into Detroit territory. However, two holding penalties on Wells put the offense in a deep hole and it got worse when Winston's short pass over the middle to Jones was intercepted by LB Jahlani Tavai at the Bucs' 46.
Given a second chance, the Bucs' offense took the next drive the distance for the game's first score. A precise Winston pass to Perriman on a crossing route got 22 yards across midfield and, after Winston kept the drive alive with a third-and-inches sneak, the two hooked up on a 34-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field. Winston was right on the money and Perriman hauled it in just as he was crossing the goal line.
The Bucs' defense got another stop but Justin Watson had trouble getting under the resulting punt and it eventually rolled out of bounds at the one-yard line. Winston got the offense out of trouble by converting a third down on a perfect 11-yard out to Miller, then on the next play scrambled and lobbed a pass over a Lions defender to Godwin, who ran up the right sideline for 51 yards. After a brief delay while the Lions tended to injured S Tavon Wilson, Winston went right back over the top, hitting Miller for a 33-yard score.
Tampa Bay increased its lead to 21-0 midway through the second quarter on Perriman's second touchdown catch of the game. The 67-yard drive included a 20-yard tackle-breaking catch by Godwin, who got the ball down to the Lions' 20. A sack pushed the Bucs back into a third-and-15 hole from there, but Winston escaped more pressure on third down and found Perriman again for another on-the-move touch pass, this one resulting in a 25-yard score.
Detroit got on the board before halftime with a 49-yard field goal drive ending in Matt Prater's 44-yard kick. Blough got the Lions into scoring territory with a collection of short crossing routes and dumpoffs to backs and also had a key scramble into Bucs' territory. However, David made the Lions settle for a field goal when he read one of those passes to RB Ty Johnson and dropped him for a loss of one.
Detroit had the ball to start the second half but the Bucs ended that with their first takeaway. Blough sailed a downfield pass over Danny Amendola's head and went directly to Adams for an interception. Adams found the right sideline and returned the pick inside Detroit's five but all of that yardage was erased by a penalty on Jason Pierre-Paul for an illegal block.
That pushed the line of scrimmage back to the Bucs' 33 but Winston got a big chunk of the yardage on the next play with a 38-yard downfield strike to Godwin. The drive stalled without another first down but Matt Gay's 46-yard field goal restored the Bucs' 21-point lead five minutes into the second half.
Detroit came right back with a 75-yard touchdown drive. After finally converting a third down near midfield, Blough went deep down the right sideline for Amendola, who not only made the catch at the Bucs' six but also drew a pass-interference call. RB Wes Hills, just called up from the practice squad the day before, finished the drive with a second-effort one-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal.
Blough hit another deep shot down the right sideline on Detroit's next drive, with Chris Lacy hauling in a 48-yarder that appeared to be intended for Amendola. That led to a first down at the Bucs' five and once again Hills ran it in from one yard out to make it a one-score game with most of the fourth quarter still to play.
The Bucs got into Detroit territory on the next possession but stalled at the 36, leading to Gay's 54-yard field goal attempt. It hit off the left upright and was no good, resulting in a first down for the Lions at their own 44 with eight minutes left in the game.
Detroit got into scoring range quickly from that point but Murphy-Bunting restored the Buccaneers two-touchdown lead with his interception and 70-yard return, making it 31-17 with five minutes to play.
Lavonte David intercepted Blough on the next play from scrimmage, too, but that one was erased by an offsides call. Another apparent interception by S Darian Stewart three plays later was reviewed and overturned, making it fourth-and-three at the Detroit 46-yard line. The drive ended on the next play when Blough was nearly sacked by Vita Vea, eventually getting off a deep pass that was incomplete and almost intercepted by Davis.
The Bucs took the ball back at the Lions' 46 and quickly put the game away with a touchdown drive to restore their 21-point lead. Winston picked up one first down with a 16-yard pass to Cam Brate and then got it into the end zone with a 25-yard strike to Perriman. David ended the Lions' next drive by forcing a Ty Johnson fumble that was recovered by Devin White.