Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter ran a tougher training camp in 2018 in the hopes it would produce a fast start to the season. Mission accomplished! The season began Sunday with one of the most impressive opening-day wins in franchise history.
The Buccaneers tied a team single-game scoring record with a 48-40 win over the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday. It marked the third time in three years with Koetter at the helm that the Bucs have won their season opener and the team's second consecutive win over New Orleans after the 2017 season ended with a 31-24 victory at Raymond James Stadium.
The Buccaneers definitely started fast. The visitors scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, scored on four straight drives and matched a team record with 31 first-half points. That was the most Tampa Bay had ever scored in the first half of a road game. It was a run built on a wild spree of big plays on offense…plus one crucial one on defense.
And it was all directed by QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who put together one of the finest performances of his 14-year career, including a career-high 417 passing yards and four total touchdowns. Even with those prolific aerial numbers, the Buccaneers still needed Fitzpatrick to make one more critical play with his feet to seal the victory.
Fitzpatrick, at the helm with Jameis Winston serving a three-game suspension, ran his record as a Buccaneer starter to 3-1 behind a prolific passing afternoon. Fitzpatrick completed 21 of 28 passes, did not the turn the ball over and finished with a near-perfect passer rating of 156.2. He began the onslaught immediately with a 58-yard touchdown bomb to DeSean Jackson on just his second throw. Fitzpatrick also threw a second-quarter nine-yard scoring pass to Chris Godwin and ran one in himself from three yards out. In the second half, he found Mike Evans on a 50-yard touchdown and Jackson again on a 36-yard score.
Fitzpatrick was well-prepared for the opener not just because camp was tougher but because the team did a good job of dividing the reps to get both him and Winston ready. Fitzpatrick had plenty of chances to get in synch with the team's top pass-catchers.
"It started with training camp and the way that we worked, the weapons that we have," he said. "I thought they did a great job, and we're on the same page in terms of throwing some of those deep balls and things. They did a nice job with the way that they're running them and the way that we're throwing them, so it all worked out today."
It was the first deep ball to Jackson that kept the Buccaneers in the game after Drew Brees and the Saints had driven right down the field for a touchdown to open the contest.
"It does a lot [for your confidence], especially when they come out and ram it right down there on us," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "To come out and answer and get that first one was big. That first drive was huge."
The Buccaneers had a slim seven-point lead at the half but were able to extend it to 24 points at one point in the second half as Fitzpatrick and the offense stayed aggressive. That proved critical because Brees led a furious rally that included two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions to make it a one-score game with three minutes to go. However, the Buccaneers were able to run out the clock thanks to Fitzpatrick's 12-yard scramble on third-and-11 just before the two-minute warning. Three kneel-downs finished it off.
"He played phenomenal, so I hope people had him on their fantasy teams, because he went crazy today," said Evans with a laugh. "And he ran and made plays with his legs and his arm. Awesome game from him, one of the most complete games I've seen from a quarterback."
Fitzpatrick's top two targets were Evans (7-147-1) and Jackson (5-146-2) but he also kept Godwin, Howard and Adam Humphries involved throughout the afternoon. In addition, RB Peyton Barber provided a power-running counterpart with 19 totes for 69 yards. With Fitzpatrick scrambling effectively throughout the game and picking up 36 yards with his feet, the Bucs managed 112 yards on the ground. That gave them 529 total yards, the second-highest single-game total in franchise history.
I think it's the guys that we have lined up outside. We've got some special players and they're tough to guard. We're going to give people problems with their matchups. It's not just one guy. It's six guys that we love throwing to."
Added Koetter: "Fitz did an awesome job of just giving some guys chances to make plays. He gave those guys a chance to make plays and they did."
The aforementioned big play on defense came courtesy of CB Vernon Hargreaves and S Justin Evans. Hargreaves forced a fumble by RB Mike Gillislee on a second-quarter sweep to the left and Evans quickly found the loose ball and ran it back 31 yards for a touchdown. LB Kwon Alexander also forced a fumble by WR Michael Thomas in the third quarter, with CB Ryan Smith recovering. The Bucs allowed 475 yards of offense but created the game's only two takeaways and had a strong stretch in the third quarter that allowed the offense to build its big lead.
In his first regular-season game with the Buccaneers, K Chandler Catanzaro hit on field goal tries of 33 and 36 yards and added six extra points for a total of 12 points. However, he missed a 44-yard try with five minutes left to keep the Saints within two scores. Catanzaro blasted seven of his nine kickoffs into the end zone for six touchbacks, as well.
The Saints got the ball first and needed only two plays to get the ball to Kamara out in space. Kamara caught a crossing route and turned up the right sideline for 35 yards to the Bucs' 32. A 14-yard grab by Thomas got the ball inside the Bucs' red zone and Kamara finished the drive with a five-yard touchdown run on third-and-two.
The Buccaneers burned just two minutes in tying the game. After a fine kickoff return by rookie RB Shaun Wilson out to the 32, the Bucs got one quick first down on a Fitzpatrick third-and-one run, then went deep. After a play-action fake, Fitzpatrick found Jackson wide open no a deep post and hit him right at the Saints' 20. Jackson took it the rest of the way in, just getting over the line as he was tackled.
The Saints countered with an 11-play field goal drive ending in Wil Lutz's 36-yarder. Eleven was the key number on the march, as Brees completed passes of that length to Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn and Benjamin Watson in the space of four plays. Kamara then broke off a 10-yard run to the Bucs' 24, but Tampa Bay's defense held there to force the field goal.
The Buccaneers took their first lead of the game on the ensuing drive. Barber started it off with runs of 23 and 12 runs. Godwin then made an amazing diving catch up the right numbers for 16 yards, after which Fitzpatrick on the right sideline for 21 more to the three-yard line. Fitzpatrick took it in himself on first-and-goal, faking a draw-play handoff to Barber before taking it himself around right end, absorbing a hard hit to the head in the process.
The Saints took the lead back on the game's fifth straight scoring drive. The Saints picked up a Bucs blitz to give Brees time to find Thomas for a gain of 35 yards into Bucs territory, and Brees finished it on the first play of the second quarter with a precise 28-yard touchdown pass to Ginn.
The Buccaneers tied it back up at the 11-minute mark of the second quarter, with Catanzaro hitting on a 33-yard field goal to complete a 60-yard march. Fitzpatrick started it with a 12-yard strike over the middle to Godwin, who had to recover his own fumble at the end of the play. Fitzpatrick then converted a third-and-four with a downfield strike over the top of the coverage to Howard for a gain of 35. The drive stalled there but Catanzaro hit on his first field goal as a Buccaneer.
The Saints' fourth drive was the first one of the game for either team that did not end in points. In fact, it was a three-and-out, with Curry flying around the right end to drop Brees for a loss of seven on third-and-four. The Buccaneers put DeSean Jackson deep for the punt but he was corralled quickly after Thomas Morstead's 56-yard boot.
The Bucs' streak stayed alive, however, as Fitzpatrick directed a 10-play, 78-yard touchdown drive ending in an incredible nine-yard touchdown catch by Godwin. Fitzpatrick got most of the drive's yards on a three-play stretch in which he hit Evans for gains of 12 and 15 sandwiched around a leaping 19-yard grab by Howard. A defensive holding call gave the Bucs a first down at the 13 and, on third-and-six Fitzpatrick threw a hard pass to the pylon to Godwin, who was well-covered by Ken Crawley. Godwin walled off the defender and made a spinning catch, somehow keeping his feet inbounds just over the line.
The Bucs scored again on the next play from scrimmage, as Hargreaves got to Gillislee on a sweep left and poked the ball loose. A hustling Evans got to it quickly, picked it off the turf and ran untouched 31 yards to the end zone.
The Saints came back with a 75-yard touchdown drive that used up most of the remaining time in the first half. Brees hit Kamara for completions of 18 and 23 yards and completed the march on third-and-one with a six-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Thomas in the middle of the end zone.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half and Fitzpatrick once again drove the Bucs down the field for a score. This one was helped by a pair of roughing-the-passer calls against the Saints but the big gain was a 31-yard strike over the middle to Evans. Unfortunately, the Bucs couldn't turn first-and-goal at the three into a touchdown and they had to settle for Catanzaro's 36-yard field goal and a 10-point lead. The kick gained a little extra difficulty when Ryan Jensen drew a personal-foul call after a failed third down.
The Bucs' defense got a three-and-out to start the half. Gerald McCoy and Kwon Alexander had back-to-back stops for one-yard losses on Kamara, and Lavonte David arrived in time on a third-down pass to Austin Carr to stop him a yard short of the sticks.
The Bucs followed with their first three-and-out of the game, though Fitzpatrick nearly hit Godwin deep down the sideline on third-and-one. A great open-field tackle by Ryan Smith and a penalty on the Saints on Bryan Anger's first punt of the game pushed the Saints back to their own 14. Tampa Bay's defense followed with another quick stop, this one keyed by S Justin Evans laser-guided tackle on Michael Thomas on a third-and-eight catch.
Adam Humphries got the Bucs close to midfield with a 16-yard punt return and a 20-yard scamper on a screen pass. Three plays later, on third-and-six from midfield, Evans ran deep, got behind the defense and hauled in a perfect strike from Fitzpatrick for a touchdown. Catanzaro booted the extra point to give the Bucs a 17-point lead with three minutes left in the third quarter.
Brees did overcome an early holding call on the next drive to get his team into Buccaneers territory, but the drive ended on the game's second turnover. This time, Alexander caught Thomas from behind and punched the ball out with Ryan Smith recovering at the Bucs' 35.
The Bucs got to midfield but faced a third-and-10. Fitzpatrick's sideline pass to Jackson was incomplete, but Crawley was hit with a pass-interference call and that created a new set of downs at the New Orleans 36. On the very next play, Fitzpatrick went deep to Jackson again, hitting him with a 36-yard touchdown pass to give the Bucs a 48-24 lead with 12 minutes to play.
The Saints came back with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, ending in Kamara's second touchdown run, a one-yarder. Brees converted a fourth-and-four with a six-yard pass to Watson at the Bucs' seven, then somehow escaped a sack from Jason Pierre-Paul and threw another six-yarder to Thomas just short of the goal line. Brees then hurried the offense up to the line and handed off to Kamara for an easy score. Kamara also made a sharp cut on a run to convert the ensuing two-point conversion.
With nine minutes left in the game, the Buccaneers took over at their own 25 and went to work on the clock, with Barber posting two runs for seven yards up the middle. The Bucs stayed aggressive on third down, however, with Fitz going up top to Jackson for another 35 yards and a first down at the Saints' 33. Two more Barber runs made it third-and-four at the 27, but he was stopped short of the sticks on third down. That led to Catanzaro's missed attempt and Brees followed with another touchdown drive, this one ending in a seven-yard touchdown pass to Kamara. Brees also hit Ginn for the two-point conversion to make it an eight-point game.
The final drive began with Barber taking a four-yard loss, but Fitzpatrick scrambled to his left and then darted upfield to get past the sticks and secure the win.