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Our Favorite Plays in Bucs' 2023 Season | Point-Counterpoint

Contributors Brianna Dix and Scott Smith have some fun in their series of weekly debates, looking back on the plays they remember most fondly from the Buccaneers' exciting 2023 campaign


Every football coach's favorite play call is Victory Formation. It's a completely noncompetitive play and it usually loses a yard, but if you're sending that call in during the fourth quarter it means the win is already in your hands.

There are of course, many more exciting plays that put a team in position to line up in Victory Formation. Personally, I've always been partial to a good pick-six, but down the sideline moonshot touchdown passes are nice, too. Running backs who break either tackles or ankles while in the open field can provide for a nice highlight reel, too, and Shaq Barrett's specialty, the strip-sack can often be a game-changer.

All of those are fun to watch, but let's get more specific here. When we look back at a very entertaining 2023 season for the division-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which individual plays really stand out. Which ones were most critical to key victories, or simply made us jump out of our seat when they hit like a lightning bolt? That's what Team Writer/Reporter Brianna Dix and I will be kicking back and forth today as we continue our once-a-week series of Point-Counterpoint debates. Since there are so many good options to choose from, Brianna and I are going to deviate from our usual format and make two choices each.

Here's the full list of topics we will be debating between now and the start of free agency.

Monday, February 5: Who was the Buccaneers' 2023 MVP?

Monday, February 19: What were your two favorite plays of the 2023 season?

Monday, February 26: Which position should the Buccaneers address in the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft?

Monday, March 4: What is the biggest need the Bucs need to address this offseason in order for the team to remain a contender in 2024?

Monday, March 11: If the Bucs are able to do any free agency shopping outside of their own roster, what position should they address?

Scott Smith Play #1: Antoine Winfield's Goal Line Strip of D.J. Chark in Carolina

I'm glad it's my turn to go first because I have a feeling this one would be high on Bri's list, too.

This play came in the last week of the regular season, and the stakes couldn't have been higher. The Buccaneers needed a road win over the Panthers to seal their division title; with the Saints blowing out the Falcons at the same time Tampa Bay and Carolina were playing at Bank of America Stadium, a loss would have meant the end of the road for the Buccaneers in 2023. As expected, despite a 2-14 record coming into the game, the Panthers were giving the Bucs everything they had.

Both offenses were struggling, though, and the first quarter was scoreless. Early in the second quarter, the Panthers crossed midfield for the first time but faced a third-and-four at the Bucs' 43. Rookie quarterback Bryce Young was chased out of the pocket and to his left by Vita Vea but when Jamel Dean came up to stop the threat of a scramble, wideout D.J. Chark got wide open behind him. Chark caught the ball at the 19 and appeared to have a straight shot to the end zone up the sideline.

However, safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who started the play in a single-high formation shaded to the right hashmarks, refused to give up on the play. He was as far away from Chark at the point of the catch – 19.9 yards of separation according to NFL Next Gen Stats – as Chark was from the goal line. Eventually reaching a max speed of 18.80 miles per hour, the fastest top speed for any player on the field on that play, Winfield closed in on Chark as he neared the end zone. When Winfield saw Chark begin to extend the ball forward in his hands as he lunged toward the goal line, he took his shot and swiped at it with his right hand. Chark lost control of the ball and it bounced into the end zone, where it was recovered by Dean.

At first, the play was ruled a touchdown but replays quickly revealed the magic Winfield had wrought. His forced fumble – one of an NFL-high six on the season – occurred just inches before the ball broke the plane of the goal line and the original ruling was overturned. The result was a lost fumble and a touchback, giving the ball back to the Buccaneers.

Would the Bucs, who had to settle for three field goals on a day that quarterback Baker Mayfield was clearly limited by ankle and rib injuries, have won the game if Chark had scored? Maybe, but it's certainly fair to believe the game would have played out differently. I tend to think the Bucs would have finished the season with two or three fewer wins if they didn't have Winfield on their side, and this was probably the most obvious example of why.

Brianna Dix Play #1: Mike Evans 75-Yard-Catch-and-Run vs. Panthers

It is hard to argue with that play Scott - one that essentially encompasses Antoine Winfield Jr.'s sensational 2023 campaign - however, I am going to flip to the offensive side of the ball for this prompt. At the midpoint of the season, the Buccaneers desperately needed a win over the Panthers at home to revitalize the squad. In Week 13 against Carolina, Mike Evans put up a vintage performance that garnered a plethora of accolades. He became the catalyst and with the victory, Tampa Bay improved to 5-7, which allowed the club to stay in the hunt for a third-straight divisional title. Without Evans' highlight-worthy play between the hashes, the Bucs' season could have gone in a different direction.

Evans' 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown sparked the team and spurred the victory over the Bucs' NFC South rival. The score came one play after the Panthers had taken the lead on a Chuba Hubbard one-yard touchdown rush. Evans took advantage of a free release and subsequently utilized a lethal stutter-step maneuver to bait the defensive back into believing he was going to run a corner route, then Evans broke inside at the stem, gaining leverage. No. 13 then used his long-stride speed, sprinting to the end zone. Evans was chased by Panthers' C.J. Henderson, and he went airborne to cross the pylon. With his body parallel to the field and an outstretched arm, Evans gifted the Bucs with a 14-10 lead over the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.

Evans finished the Week 13 matchup with highs in receptions (seven), receiving yards (162) and receiving touchdowns (one). His 162 receiving yards put Evans at 1,012 yards on the season, extending his own NFL record of consecutive seasons with 1,000-or-more receiving yards to begin a career to 10. Evans' streak of 10-consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards became the second-longest such streak in league history, trailing only Jerry Rice (11). That game, and that specific 75-yard-catch-and-run by Evans, showcased why he will one day be immortalized in the Hall of Fame.

Scott Smith Play #2: Baker Mayfield 26-Yard TD Pass to Rachaad White in Green Bay

I was very tempted by another Mayfield-White hookup, that being the little swing pass against the Titans in Week 10 that the running back turned into a 43-yard touchdown by weaving through some fantastic blocks and sprinting to the left front pylon. It would have been a worthy choice, but I think their touchdown at Lambeau Field was more impressive from top to bottom, starting with Dave Canales's play call and including Mayfield's pinpoint pass and White's perfect route. Besides, we just have to include something from what had to be the most satisfying win of the whole season.

Mayfield, you might recall, was playing out of his mind in this game. He would finish with four touchdown passes and become the first visiting quarterback in the history of Lambeau Field to post a perfect 158.3 passer rating in a game. The Bucs won going away, 34-20, but early in the third quarter their lead was just 13-10. An 18-yard catch by Evans had gotten the visitors into Packers territory, and a 15-yard Mayfield strike to Godwin converted a third-and-12. After a short pass to rookie wideout Trey Palmer, it was second-and-five at the Packers' 26. That's when Canales dialed up a play that would utilize White's advanced route-running skills.

Before the snap, White lined up in the backfield just to the right of Mayfield, who was in shotgun. WR Deven Thompkins started to cross behind Mayfield and White from right to left, but stopped at the snap and pivoted out on a flat route back to the right and looked like he would be the target of a screen pass. That action initially drew cornerbacks Keisean Nixon and Carrington Valentine toward the line of scrimmage, only for a couple steps but enough to allow White to blow past Nixon down the right seam. It was technically deemed a wheel route since White came out of the backfield, but he got vertical right away and was able to give Mayfield a clear throwing lane between Nixon and linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who was closing in from the middle of the field.

Campbell's angle wasn't good enough and White zipped past him and caught Mayfield's pass at the 19. Critically, Mayfield hit White in stride, which allowed him to keep sprinting to the end zone. Safety Rudy Ford, who had started out in the middle of the field close to the box before backing up to the nine and the left hashmarks by the time of the snap, was the only remaining Packer defender who had a chance. In reality, he had no chance because White's unbroken sprint allowed him to easily make a cut behind Ford at the five-yard line and waltz into the end zone untouched.

Like I said, everything about this play from its design to its execution was great. I think it was easily one of Mayfield's 10 best passes of the season, and it came in what was definitely his best game overall.

Brianna Dix #2: Antoine Winfield Jr. Two-Play Sequence Against New Orleans

In a Week Four matchup for bragging rights atop the NFC South, Antoine Winfield Jr. stepped up for the Buccaneers. The aforementioned No. 1 play Scott selected is likely the play of Winfield's that most fans remember from the 2023 campaign, however, a two-play sequence against the Saints usurps – well, in my opinion.

No progression embodied Winfield's athleticism better than the duo in the third quarter against New Orleans. From first-and-10, Shaq Barrett reacted and chased Alvin Kamara to the boundary, which forced him to bubble, and Winfield dropped Kamara for a loss behind the line of scrimmage, setting up second-and-long. Two plays later, Winfield was in the end zone breaking up a pass intended for Chris Olave, which forced a Saints' punt. He matched Olave stride-for-stride and watched the wideout's eyes to knock down the ball as it arrived. Winfield killed the drive and prevented a Saints' touchdown that could have changed the trajectory of the matchup.

Winfield became the first player since Justin Houston in 2018 to record multiple games with five-or-more tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in a single season. He played like his hair was on fire against the Saints and showcased his outstanding range manning the post. Winfield's name echoed in the press box so often during the Week Four matchup that attempting to keep track of his monumental plays became a worthless task. He guided the team to victory against a divisional foe and energized the defense. That performance epitomizes what makes Winfield one of the best safeties in the NFL.

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