The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2020 season opener was understandably billed as an historic matchup between Tom Brady and Drew Brees, the two leading passers in NFL history. Apparently, Alvin Kamara and Janoris Jenkins didn't get the message.
Kamara scored a pair of touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving, in a 90-second span in the second quarter. Those plays, sandwiched around the first interception thrown by Brady as a Buccaneer, turned a 7-0 Bucs lead into a 14-7 deficit, and Jenkins' 36-yard pick-six early in the second half made it 24-7. Brady and the Bucs rallied but never again got closer than seven points down. The Saints eventually prevailed, 34-23.
"He came out lighting it up," said Head Coach Bruce Arians of Brady after the game. "We go right down the field and score a touchdown, so I wouldn't say he was out of synch at all until we started screwing it up. We had some good drives and we had some poor drives, but the turnovers and the penalties were the key."
That aforementioned interception by Saints safety Marcus Williams was also Brady's first incompletion as a Buccaneer, as he started a new chapter of his 21-year NFL career with an 85-yard touchdown drive on his team's first possession. Brady finished that one himself with a two-yard touchdown sneak on second-and-goal. Making his Buccaneers debut, Brady completed 23 of 36 passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Unfortunately, after that strong first drive the Bucs came up empty on their next five possessions.
"We've got to do a better job executing," said TE O.J. Howard who caught Brady's first touchdown pass as a Buccaneer after Jenkins' interception score to get the Bucs back in the game. "Penalties hurt us a little bit. Just sticking with our assignments, executing better. I think those kinds of things got us out of our groove. That first drive we did everything well – we hit big plays, we were on the same page with blocking assignments. I think we just got away from that, and once we tried to pick it back up it was a little too late."
Tampa Bay's defense held Brees to 160 yards on 18-of-30 passes and notably limited WR Michael Thomas to 17 yards on three catches, his lowest totals in both categories since he had three catches for 11 yards against Detroit on Oct. 15, 2017. Last year, Thomas set an NFL record with 149 receptions. On the other side, Bucs' WR Mike Evans was held without a catch until his two-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter, though he did also draw 67 yards worth of pass interference penalties.
Indeed, it wasn't quite the offensive shootout that was widely anticipated after the Buccaneers signed Brady in free agency after his two decades and six titles in New England and the NFL sent Tampa Bay to New Orleans for a matchup with Brees in Week One. Brees and Brady came into the game ranked first and second in league history in passing yards and touchdown passes but Sunday's game featured just 581 yards of offense between the two teams combined. The Buccaneers finished with 310 yards of offense, led by 82 yards from scrimmage from RB Ronald Jones.
Instead, the Brady era began with too many mistakes by the Buccaneers, making it nearly impossible to overcome Brees and a strong Saints team that has won the last three NFC South titles. The most glaring example of the Bucs' miscues was a botched kickoff return in which S Mike Edwards ran into return man Jaydon Mickens in the fourth quarter, causing a fumble that the Saints recovered deep in Bucs territory. And that pooched kickoff only happened because CB Carlton Davis was flagged for a facemask foul on Emmanuel Sanders' touchdown catch moments before. The Buccaneers committed nine penalties for 103 yards on the day, including a critical encroachment call on a fourth-and-two near midfield when Brees caught them with a hard count.
"Very disappointing," said Arians. "After the way we practiced for the last two weeks, I would never thought I'd see us having that many penalties and mental errors, and just basically turnovers and mental errors that basically cost us when we got back into the game.
More importantly, the Buccaneers lost the turnover battle by a 3-0 margin, which was the same problem Tampa Bay had in their efforts to catch the Saints last year. New Orleans finished the 2019 season with a plus-15 turnover ratio while the Buccaneers were negative-13. On Sunday, the Saints scored 17 points off turnovers, which was almost exactly the final margin of victory. New Orleans also added a field goal following a blocked field goal suffered by the Bucs' special teams.
"There's no doubt," said Arians of the turnovers being the difference in the game. "It's my job to make that stop. I thought we had it fixed. Obviously, I didn't do a very good job of getting it fixed."
Added Brady: "Any time you turn the ball over like we did…we had opportunities out there to make plays and just came up short. There's no excuses. We're the only ones who can do something about it. The Saints kind of played how they always play; they did a good job on offense. We hung our defense out to dry on some short fields, with not moving the ball, not doing very well on third downs at times. The turnovers really hurt us. We've got to clean that up for next week and do a lot better job."
The Buccaneers got only one sack of Brees, by OLB Jason Pierre-Paul in the third quarter, but were able to hold the Saints to five third-down conversions in 15 tries. ILBs Lavonte David and Devin White each had 11 tackles, with David adding two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit and White notching a tackle for loss and a pass defensed.
"I thought the defense played well the whole second half," said Arians. "They got a bunch of three-and-outs and gave our offense a chance. But those two guys especially played really, really well from what I could watch."
The Buccaneers' defense got a stop on the opening possession after allowing one first down. ILB Devin White stopped TE Jared Cook in his tracks on a catch over the middle on third-and-eight, forcing a punt. The Buccaneers got their first shot starting at their own 15 after a Jaydon Mickens fair catch and Brady promptly drove his new team 85 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead halfway through the opening period.
Brady's first official pass was caught by WR Chris Godwin for a 29-yard gain and two pass-interference penalties helped the Bucs get deep into Saints territory. RB Ronald Jones ran five times on the drive, including a successful third-and-one conversion and a three-yarder that took it down to the Saints' two. From there, Brady did it himself, running a sneak between LG Ali Marpet and C Ryan Jensen to get the ball across the line.
That opening pattern repeated itself as the Bucs' defense got another quick stop after allowing one first down and Mickens fair caught the existing punt at the Bucs' 12. This time, however, Tampa Bay had to punt it back after a three-and-out, with Saints CB Janoris Jenkins dragging Scotty Miller down a foot short of the sticks on a third-and-nine slant.
The Saints took the ensuing drive into Buccaneers territory, with Brees converting a long third down on a 24-yard sideline pass to Cook, with the pass just eluding a leaping Jamel Dean. A 13-yard scramble by backup QB Taysom Hill and another third down catch by Cook helped get the ball into the red zone and Kamara scored from 12 yards out on a slow-developing screen pass on third-and-10.
The Saints got the ball right back two plays later when apparent miscommunication between Brady and Evans led to an easy interception in centerfield for S Marcus Williams. Williams returned it 17 yards to the Bucs' 35. A pass-interference call on S Jordan Whitehead on a near-interception by Murphy gave the Saints a first-and-goal at the six-yard line and Kamara ran it in on first down for his second touchdown of the game.
Two more successful third-and-one runs by Jones and a late shove by Marshon Lattimore that earned the Saints corner a personal foul call helped Tampa Bay get inside the Saints' 30 on the next drive but the Bucs came away empty. Brady was sacked on a third-down dropback and Ryan Succop's first field goal try as a Buccaneer, from 54 yards out, was blocked by DE Margus Hunt.
The Saints thus got to start at their own 45 and kept the drive alive just after the two-minute warning by virtue of Brees' excellent hard count. That bit of deception got the Buccaneers to jump early on fourth-and-two, and on the resulting first down WR Deonte Harris got 17 yards on a well-blocked screen. Brees induced another neutral-zone infraction and Thomas caught a slant out of the slot to get a first down at the 12, but the Bucs' defense held there. OLB Shaq Barrett's leaping deflection of a swing pass to Kamara was the key play, but the Saints still increased their lead to 10 points on Wil Lutz's 29-yard field goal with 44 seconds left in the half.
The Buccaneers got the ball to start the second half but quickly fell even farther behind when Jenkins jumped an out to WR Justin Watson and picked it off with a wide-open path to the end zone. Jenkins ran 36 yards untouched to make it 24-7.
Brady immediately took a deep shot to start the next drive and threw a perfect ball to Evans, with Marcus Williams having to resort to pass interference to prevent the completion. That 45-yard penalty was immediately followed by Jones' 21-yard run down to the nine, and Brady found a wide-open Howard in the end zone on the next snap to make it a 10-point game.
A pass-interference call on Carlton Davis helped the Saints get across midfield on the next possession but a third-down sack by Jason Pierre-Paul forced a punt. Brees and company quickly got the ball back in Bucs territory with a defensive stop and a good punt return by Deonte Harris. However, Tampa Bay's defense got its first three-and-out, with Lavonte David following two straight TFLs with a quarterback hit for an incompletion.
The Bucs started the ensuing drive at their own 11 but moved 69 yards to set up Succop for a 38-yard field goal that made it a one-score game. A play-action 23-yard pass to Godwin on third-and-one was the drive's big play, and Scotty Miller also drew a 28-yard pass interference penalty. After another quick defensive stop the Bucs got the ball back just before the start of the fourth quarter.
That drive ended quickly thanks in part to a Demario Davis sack, and the Saints followed with a scoring drive keyed by Cook's 46-yard catch on a pump-and-go down the left sideline. That got the ball to the Bucs' 15 and Brees finished the drive with a five-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders with 11:38 left.
Davis was flagged for a facemask penalty on the touchdown, which allowed the Saints to kick off from midfield. That turned into disaster for the visiting team as a pop-up kickoff by Thomas Morstead resulted in a turnover inside the Bucs' red zone. S Mike Edwards tried to make an over-the-shoulder catch of the short kick and ran into return man Jaydon Mickens, who was trying to settle under it near the sideline. The ball fell loose and was recovered by Saints WR Bennie Fowler at Tampa Bay's 18.
That led to a Wil Lutz field goal to make it a 17-point game. The Buccaneers scored with just under three minutes to play on Evans' touchdown catch but the Saints essentially ran out the clock with a final drive that got within inches of the Bucs' goal line after a trick-play double-pass from Brees and Hill. Kamara was originally credited with a third touchdown on a fourth-down run around left end but a replay review ruled that he stepped out of bounds before scoring.