The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got the ball back at their own 11-yard line with 3:04 left in regulation and no timeouts in their quiver on Sunday afternoon, meaning they essentially had one shot to go 89 yards for the potential game-tying score. They trailed the visiting Green Bay Packers, 14-6, and had spent the afternoon in fits and starts on offense, with such notables as Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Julio Jones and Donovan Smith all unavailable.
One of the players who did suit up along with quarterback Tom Brady was wide receiver Russell Gage, one of the team's most important offseason additions. But it wasn't as if Gage was in the best of situations himself. He had been dealing with a hamstring injury since early in training camp and had not practiced freely in weeks. Still, with Brady looking to engineer yet another of his signature game-winning comebacks, it was Gage who became his go-to man.
"He did a great job," said Brady. "He really battled through it. We had a lot of guys down, but those guys that were in there somehow or another did a great job, especially that last drive.
The drive started with three straight catches by Gage, for a total of 29 yards, getting the ball close to midfield. Brady found the former Falcon again to convert a second-and-six at the Falcons' 18, then went to him again when it mattered most, completing the drive with a one-yard touchdown pass over the middle. Brady delivered the ball a little behind Gage, who had to make a dazzling spinning catch, but it might not have worked any other way.
"It was put the only place it could be," said Gage. "I think he did a good job of putting it on me instead of leading me into the next guy, so I'm kind of happy he did put a little extra on it."
The drive, and the game, ultimately did not have a storybook ending in Gage's first big breakout as a Buccaneer. After taking a delay-of-game penalty that pushed the ball back to the seven-yard line, the Bucs tried to tie the game with a two-point conversion but Brady's pass in Gage's direction was tipped away by linebacker De'Vondre Campbell. The Buccaneers fully expected to be sending the game into overtime.
"We knew we were going to score," said Gage. "At a certain point, we knew it. It was just a matter of execution and finishing the play. Even that two-point play – they made a great play tipping the ball. I think if they don't tip it it might be PI or something, but they made a nice play. But we've got to start faster."
Gage would finish the game with 12 catches for 87 yards and that end-of-game touchdown. In Godwin's absence he gave Brady a viable weapon out of the slot and proved reliable in the most important moments. Unfortunately, he also lost a fumble that ended a promising drive near midfield early in the third quarter. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman also fumbled late in the first half after a Logan Ryan fumble recovery in the end zone had seemed to give the home team some momentum.
"Those fumbles hurt," said Gage ruefully. "We were in field goal range, for sure, or getting in field goal range, for sure. So those are points for sure, and ultimately we win that game. I have to learn. I have to hold onto the ball. We know this, though. We know we have to finish drives, we have to be better in those areas because turnovers can kill you. Our defense did a great job of taking it away from them. We can't give it back."
Gage said he is rounding into form from his camp injury and "getting better every week." He also gave Brady credit for spending extra time with him on the sideline going through mental reps when he is being hold out of practice. Evans will be back from his one-game suspension next week, Jones is getting close to his own return and it won't be long until Godwin is back in the mix as well. At some point, the Buccaneers' passing attack will start to look like what the team was expecting it would when it put this group together. In the meantime, Gage says the players who are on the field have to do a better job of helping the offense reach its potential.
"[It's] just execution, man," he said. "Early on, we were shooting ourselves in the foot a lot. We've got to understand we're that type of team – early in the game, that's now who we are, that's not who we want to be. That last drive is what we're capable of, what we know we can be. We've just got to figure out a way to duplicate that on every drive."