The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2014 season came to an end on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, and as it has for most of the season, it came down to the end.
Continuing a four-month trend, the Buccaneers had difficulty finishing in their season finale against the New Orleans Saints, allowing a 20-7 halftime lead to melt into a 23-20 loss. The home team led for 49 of the game's 60 minutes but saw their advantage slip away in the final two on a 36-yard touchdown catch by Marques Colston and a sack of Josh McCown in the end zone for a safety.
With the loss, the Buccaneers finished 2-14, including an 0-8 record at home. The Saints improved to 7-9 but knew the division title would be decided by the game in Atlanta between the 6-9 Falcons and the 6-8-1 Carolina Panthers.
The Buccaneers made full use of their depth chart in the season finale as they made a concerted effort to look at a long list of young players. That led to extended playing time for such reserves as WR Tavarres King, S Keith Tandy, LB James Williams, G Josh Allen, TE Evan Rodriguez and DE T.J. Fatinikun. Even with that rotating cast of characters, the Buccaneers held Drew Brees and company to 338 yards, nearly 80 below their season average, including just 118 in the first half.
"The players knew that everybody who was dressed should be ready to go in and play," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "Of the 46 guys we had active and ready to go, I wanted them to be ready to go."
The Buccaneers led by 13 points after three quarters but couldn't hold on, losing for the fourth time in five tries this season in which they took an advantage into the final period. Though it slipped away at the end, the Bucs were in position to win thanks largely to its best – and most persistent – rushing attack of the season and a defense that picked QB Drew Brees off three times for the second time this season. CB Leonard Johnson's interception in the second quarter set up the second of K Patrick Murray's two field goals, and both Bradley McDougald and Keith Tandy turned away Saints scoring threats in the third quarter with takeaways in the end zone.
Meanwhile, third-year veteran Doug Martin and rookie Charles Sims did their best job of all season working in tandem, taking turns en route to a team total of 183 yards on 39 carries. Martin had his first 100-yard game of the season, picking up 108 yards on 19 totes, while Sims added 69 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. The Bucs picked up 4.7 yards per carry and had 148 yards on the ground by the intermission.
"At the beginning of the game, we got in a rhythm," said Martin. "Chuck was doing a good job and finding holes in the line. The line was opening holes for us and, yeah, we had some success in the first half."
It was definitely a game of two halves, however. In some ways, the first 30 minutes was the Buccaneers' most dominant half of football all season. The team ran for 148 yards, which was already their third-highest complete-game total of 2014. They also converted eight of 11 third downs, their best mark before halftime all year, and held Brees and company to just seven first downs.
Most importantly, they were able to turn those advantages into points, going into the locker room with a 20-7 lead and their best first-half scoring total of the year. After Murray's 39-yard field goal opened the scoring in the first quarter, the Bucs made it 10-0 on an impressive 80-yard drive that included three third-down conversions, a 45-yard run by Martin and a six-yard touchdown catch by Evans.
After the Saints countered with their own 80-yard drive and Khiry Robinson's one-yard TD scamper, the Bucs ran seven times on a 10-play drive, capped by Sims' first career touchdown, a power eight-yard run over left tackle. Leonard Johnson's interception of a pass deflected by DT Clinton McDonald allowed the Bucs to tack on one more Murray field goal, from 27 yards, before halftime.
The Bucs turned to their reserves more extensively in the second half and they also tried to keep the rushing dominance going with a two-score lead. They nearly succeeded in running the clock out on Brees, but a third-and-five pass to King – one of only three that McCown threw in the second half, bounced off his hands and was intercepted by CB Keenan Lewis at midfield with just over five minutes to play. The Saints then converted a fourth-and-two from the Bucs' 42-yard line three plays before Colston's decisive score. Had King held on, the play would have resulted in a first down in Saints territory and the Buccaneers would have been close to field goal range and a potential two-score lead. As such, some individual performances, such as Martin's 100-yard game and the 54 yards and a score for Evans in the first half went for naught.
"It's a bittersweet feeling," said Martin. "We wanted to end on a good note and we wanted to win this first home game of the season. On the other side, it was awfully nice to have the 100-yard game."
Evans and Jackson came into the game needing three and nine receiving yards, respectively, to become the first pair of 1,000-yard receivers in the same season in Buccaneer history. They got it just two plays into the contest, with Evans' eight-yard catch followed by an 11-yard strike to Jackson. After that, however, Jackson left the game with a groin injury following an attempted deep ball down the right sideline, and Evans was held out in favor of younger players in the second half.
"A lot of young guys stepped up today and were able to fill a starting position," said Martin. "We have a great foundation for next year and we have a lot of good things to build off of and be successful."
Indeed, despite the loss – and perhaps because so many of their games came down to the wire – the Buccaneers' postgame locker room was still infused with confidence regarding the team's future.
"We'll look back on this a year from now, two years from now, and we're going to reflect and say to ourselves as a team, 'Look where we came from,'" said McDonald, who had one of the team's two sacks of Brees. "Like Coach Smith said, we laid the foundation this year, and if you look at any building, any structure that was ever made, the foundation was the messiest part."
Evans and Jackson started the game with their two milestone receptions, which also created a first down at the Bucs' 39. Three plays later, on third-and-seven, McCown threw a perfect deep out to Evans to get 13 more and a first down in Saints territory. The next third down play failed, however and the Bucs punted from near midfield. Special teams ace Russell Shepard made an impressive diving play to turn a near touchback into a first down at the seven yard line.
The Bucs' defense put the Saints into an immediate third-and-nine hole when S Bradley McDougald deflected a quick slant pass intended for TE Jimmy Graham on second down. The Bucs couldn't quite get to the deflected ball, but they did get off the field when CB Johnthan Banks had good coverage on WR Kenny Stills on third down. Thomas Morstead helped the visitors flip the field position to some extent, blasting a 57-yard punt.
The Bucs faced a third-and-seven at the beginning of the drive and the Saints managed to get a free blitzer straight up the middle on McCown. Somehow McCown escaped and that gave him time to hit Evans over the middle for a gain of 18. An eight-yard run by Martin and a quick five-yard buttonhook to TE Brandon Myers moved the chains again, down to the Saints' 21. McCown was sacked after a long ramble around the pocket two plays later, and on third-and-16 an underneath pass to Sims got it back to the original line of scrimmage. Murray came on to boot a 39-yard field goal to start the scoring.
The Saints got their initial first down on the next drive when Brees threw a fade-stop to WR Nick Toon on third-and-five and Toon turned at just the right time for a 24-yard gain. DT Clinton McDonald flipped Brees to the ground roughly on the next play for an eight-yard sacks, and Banks broke up a short pass on second down. Good coverage downfield forced Brees to settle for a throw underneath to Graham on third-and-long, and the play came up well short.
A nifty 14-yard punt return by Bobby Rainey allowed the Bucs to start at their own 20, and a first down followed on two Martin runs and a four-yard diving scramble by McCown on third-and-three. Sims then bounced his first-down run out around right tackle and got nine. On the first play of the second quarter, Martin came back in to power over left tackle on third-and-one, then showed good patience on a six-yard first-down carry. On the next snap, Martin snuck through the line and got into the open field for a gain of 45 to the Saints' seven. CB Terrence Frederick barely tripped him up to prevent the touchdown, but that only delayed the seven-point score. After two plays picked up just a yard, McCown was given time to throw by a great blitz pick-up by Martin and he was able to get off a six-yard lob to Evans in the back middle of the end zone.
After a touchback, the Saints got moving with a five-yard Ingram run and a short pass over the middle to Stills. On the resulting first down, Brees somehow fit a pass in between three Buc defenders to WR Robert Meachem at the Saints' 48. Brees then converted a third-and-five from just over midfield with a crossing pass to WR Marques Colston, though he subsequently (and surprisingly) missed Colston deep over the middle on the next play. On third-and-three from the Bucs' 25, Brees easily zipped a slant into Stills' hands for a gain of 10. A free run up the middle by Ingram two plays later made it first-and-goal and Robinson took it around left tackle on first-and-goal for the score.
A pair of young players got the Bucs moving on the next drive, as WR Tavarres King got seven yards on a slant and Sims broke through a seam around right end for nine more to the 42. Three plays later, McCown was given tons of time in the pocket and was able to find Myers for nine yards and a first down at the Saints' 45. Sims made several hard cuts to break free for 20 yards, with a five-yard defensive penalty tacked on the end. From the 20, Sims lost two yards on a run and the Saints called a timeout with 2:13 left in the half. A four-yard run by Martin brought on the two-minute warning and made it third-and-eight. After the break, McCown found Evans with a sharp pass on the left sideline for a first down at the Saints' eight. Sims powered over left tackle on first-and-goal for his first NFL touchdown and a 17-7 Bucs lead.
Tampa Bay's defense took the ball back just three plays later. On third-and-two, McDonald leaped to bat a Brees pass headed out to the left and Johnson leaped in a crowd to pull in the deflection at the Saints' 34. Three plays later, McCown just got off a pass to Shepard, who made a sliding catch at the 19 to convert a third-and-five. Two more runs made it first-and-goal at the eight, but the drive stalled there, leaving Murray to kick a 27-yard field goal for a 20-7 Bucs lead.
Brees guided the Saints into Bucs territory on the opening drive of the second half, converting a pair of third downs with short throws, sandwiched around a sack by Spence. However, when he tried to go deep to Stills down the middle from the Bucs' 31, McDougald was able to get to the ball, reach out with one hand to tip it and then pull it in at the back of the end zone for the pick.
The Bucs went nowhere on the ensuing possession and had to punt for just the second time in the game. The Saints got the ball back at their own 45 but backed up thanks to two holding penalties. That left them in a third-and-15 hole, but Brees converted that and got much more with a deep post to Stills, with the pass dropping between three Buc defenders. However, the drive once again ended on a pick, with Tandy jumping in front of Colston right at the goal line.
A replay review ruled that Tandy was tackled at the Bucs' three, and Tampa Bay's offense couldn't get the ball much farther from the goal line before punting, which put the Saints back in possession at their own 46. It took just two plays, an 18-yard jaunt around left end by Robinson and a 16-yard deep square-in by Stills, to get the ball to the Bucs' 20 near the end of the third quarter. A perfectly-executed screen to Robinson got it down to the one on the final play of the period.
After the teams switched sides, Ingram tried to run right for the score but was denied by a swarm of Buc tacklers. A pass-interference call on LB Orie Lemon made it a new first-and-goal at the one, however, and Ingram was able to power up the middle for the score.
The Bucs ran five straight times to start the next drive and got the ball across midfield, but a third-and-one run by Sims was stuffed for no gain and the Bucs had to punt again. The defense held, however, forcing a punt after one first down on a catch by Graham and an overthrown deep ball to Stills on third down.
Still relying on the run, the Bucs got five yards on two plays from Sims and then moved the sticks with a six-yard completion to King. Two plays later, King ran a slant and McCown hit him on the run but the ball deflected backwards off his hands and was intercepted by CB Keenan Lewis near midfield.**
Photos from the first half of Buccaneers vs. Saints at Raymond James Stadium.
- Tampa Bay declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sundays' game: WR Robert Herron, WR Solomon Patton, RB Mike James, CB Isaiah Frey, DE George Uko, LB Mason Foster and T Anthony Collins. Foster, Patton and Frey were out due to injuries.
- New Orleans' seven inactives were WR Seantavius Jones, WR Brandon Coleman, S Kenny Vaccaro, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, LB Moise Fokou, LB Jerry Franklin and T Terron Armstead. Armstead was out due to injury.
- Rookie K Patrick Murray was good on his only two field goal attempts of the game, hitting from 39 and 27 yards in the first half. That extended his season-ending streak to 13 consecutive successful attempts, and overall his debut NFL campaign finished with 20 field goals in 24 tries.
- The Buccaneers reached three goal-to-go situations on Sunday against the Saints and finished with two touchdowns and a field goal. That marked the first time since the last game against New Orleans, in Week Five, that the Bucs had scored touchdowns on more than one goal-to-go situation. It was also the first time they created three or more goal-to-go opportunities since the win at Pittsburgh in Week Four.
- According to Stats, Inc., the Buccaneers' 148 rushing yards by halftime was the team's best first-half total since at least 1991, which is as far back as the single-half records are tallied.
Photos from the second half of Buccaneers vs. Saints at Raymond James Stadium.