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Jordan Whitehead or Cyril Grayson | Week 16 Game Ball

Jordan Whitehead set the tone for a defense that allowed just two touchdowns and Cyril Grayson impressed his coach and his quarterback with his effort…Carmen Vitali and Scott Smith make their suggestions for the Game Ball vote


Who deserves the Game Ball for the Bucs' division-clinching blowout of the Panthers in Week 16? Vote now!

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went to Charlotte in Week 16 needing just a win to clinch their first NFC South title since 2007, but they had to pursue that goal with a depleted roster. Among the players not available against the Carolina Panthers were Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Leonard Fournette, Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Patrick O'Connor.

Fortunately, Buccaneers with résumés large and small were able to step up in big ways and the Bucs ran away with a 32-6 victory. The offense nearly cracked 400 yards and the defense did not allow a touchdown for the second game in a row. Tom Brady ran a very efficient passing attack and the combination of Ronald Jones and Ke'Shawn Vaughn gave the Bucs a potent rushing attack.

It was no big surprise to see Shaq Barrett rack up a sack, two tackles for loss and two passes defensed in just one half of play, or to watch Antonio Brown post a 100-yard day in his first game since October. It would have been a little harder to predict Cyril Grayson approaching 100 yards from scrimmage or Will Gholston setting a career high with 2.5 sacks.

But all of those things happened, which is good for Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I, in that it gives us a number of interesting candidates for our Game Ball nominations. As we have all season, Carmen and I will be offering our suggestions for the Game Ball after every Buccaneer victory. You then get to vote – with four total choices, actually – and you'll even qualify to win some cool prizes if you do. See the bottom of this article for all of that. Since we are not allowed to pick the same player, the order of selection sometimes matters and it's Carmen's turn to go first and ruin my day by picking the player I really want to nominate.

Carmen Vitali: S Jordan Whitehead

Kind of like NFL overtime, the person who gets to go first in our game ball series usually comes out on top. Don't hate the player, hate the rules?

I digress.

I am, in fact, picking Whitehead because that's the obvious answer here. He led the team with seven combined tackles, racked up three pass breakups and then also picked off a pass from Cam Newton. Plus, it's just so fun to watch him play. Whitehead may be 5'10 but he plays much bigger than that, coming downhill and sticking his nose in the pile when playing the run or, as we saw Sunday, bullying receivers off their marks and getting in the way of the ball. We've known how physical a player Whitehead can be but now that he's starting to recognize and diagnose passing plays to the point where can anticipate them? That's approaching boss level as a safety and is much needed when you have a guy like Antoine Winfield Jr. out of the lineup.

The only thing Whitehead didn't do was get a sack. But that's ok, the rest of the Bucs' defense made up for it, turning in a 7.0 sack performance on the various Carolina quarterbacks. That's the most sacks the Bucs have had in a single game since 2013.

And it's not to say Whitehead didn't get a tackle on the quarterback. He brought down Newton almost immediately on a designed run in the first quarter after only a yard. Wrapping up the 6'5 Newton on you own is no easy task – especially for a 5'10 defensive back – but Whitehead was clearly up to the challenge.

Whitehead led the way on an all-around impressive defensive performance. Tampa Bay has now not allowed a touchdown in the last eight quarters (nine if you count overtime against the Bills).

Scott Smith: WR Cyril Grayson

Yep, that's who I would have picked, too. The stats were there, but I don't think they fully illustrate how entertaining it was to watch Whitehead play. He definitely brought a different level of energy.

So now I have to try to beat Whitehead, which neither Newton nor Sam Darnold were able to do Sunday. And I think I have to get creative to have a chance. I'm certainly tempted by what Gholston and Brown did, but we've seen those two have big games before. What I'm going to do is pick a player whose production was far greater than most people likely anticipated, and that was what the Buccaneers really needed in order to overcome all those injuries.

And who anticipated Cyril Grayson contributing 95 yards from scrimmage, given that his career total before Sunday was 53 yards? Well, it's possible that Bruce Arians and his coaching staff saw it coming, as Arians told Grayson early in the week of preparation that he was going to have a big role in the offense. The outside observer would probably have pegged Scotty Miller as the third receiver alongside Brown and Tyler Johnson, but it was Grayson who played a career-high 53 snaps, to three for Miller.

Grayson finished with three catches for 81 yards and one carry for 14 yards. His biggest play was a 62-yard bomb from Tom Brady down the right sideline that got the ball inside the Panthers' 10 and set up Brady's four-yard touchdown pass to Cam Brate.

Actually, though, if you ask some of Grayson's teammates, they'd probably say that his biggest play is one that doesn't show up in his own stat line. Early in the game, with the Panthers leading 3-0, the Buccaneers faced a second-and-two at their own 45. Ke'Shawn Vaughn got his first handoff of the game and darted over left tackle and into the second level of the defense. He slipped through an attempted ankle tackle by safety Juston Burris and started sprinting down the left sideline. It was going to be a big gain, for sure, but defensive back Myles Hartsfield had an angle on him and was likely to get Vaughn out of bounds around the 25 or so.

That's when Grayson arrived. Grayson, who had started out in the right slot, hustled over to the other side of the field and made himself a nuisance for Hartsfield, first blocking him towards the sideline and allowing Vaughn to cut back inside. Hartsfield actually spun away from that block nicely to get back in Vaughn's path, but Grayson then got back in the defender's way and allowed Vaughn to cut back again to the sideline and dance the last seven yards into the end zone.

Grayson's blocking ability was one of the big reasons that Arians and his staff chose to give him such a big role on Sunday, particularly with what they were missing in that regard in Godwin's absence.

"Cyril is a ferocious blocker," said Arians after the game. "He's a speed guy but he will block. At that position you've got to be able to block. He's gotten so much better. If there was a most improved player in the last two years, he's worked harder than anybody that we've had on our practice squad. Every time he's gotten an opportunity he's flashed with it."

And every good candidate needs an endorsement from somebody whose words carry a lot of weight. Will Tom Brady do? In Brady's estimation, Grayson's play was exactly what the Bucs needed in order to keep moving forward in the wake of all their injuries.

"That was a great block," said Brady. "That's the team game. Nothing's accomplished without everybody doing their job and that was a great effort by Cyril. It wouldn't have scored without Cyril's effort so I love seeing that. That's what great team football's all about. That's what we've got to become. We've got to all fight for each other."

Who deserves the Game Ball for the Bucs' division-clinching blowout of the Panthers in Week 16? Vote now!

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