The second last-minute pressure kick of Matt Gay's career didn't quite carry the same level of difficulty as the first, but it did bear the same stakes and – to the great pleasure of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – it delivered the same outcome.
Gay's 21-yard field goal with 15 seconds left on Friday night gave the Buccaneers a 13-12 win over the visiting Cleveland Browns at Raymond James Stadium. That came just one week after the rookie kicker drilled a 48-yarder with 10 seconds to go to beat the Miami Dolphins, in another preseason game that featured a Ryan Griffin-led comeback.
"Every kick's got to be the same, whether it's 21 or 51," said Gay, who is battling veteran Cairo Santos for the Bucs' kicking job this season. "You make sure you go through your process. When you start getting into the mindset of, 'I can just chip this one in,' that's when you start missing them. Every kick's got to be the same. You've got to hit them with authority and just put them through."
Griffin took over at quarterback early in the second half when Blaine Gabbert suffered a shoulder injury on a third-down scramble. Griffin continued his scorching preseason with an 11-of-15 performance, throwing for 121 yards and a touchdown, much of it on the game-winning 16-play, 72-yard field goal drive. That march drained more than seven minutes off the clock and ensured the Bucs would move to 2-1 on the preseason.
Griffin, who has been with the Buccaneers since September of 2014, is in his fifth preseason with the Buccaneers, and he has often produced positive results as he did on Friday night, though he has yet to take a snap in the regular season. The injury to Gabbert and Griffin's particularly strong efforts this summer could change the final outcome in this particular preseason, but he hasn't changed his approach.
"It's always been that way," said Griffin. "I'm always playing for my job. Every year has been the same, so I don't have to change my mindset."
A 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Leggett gave the Buccaneers a 10-9 lead near the end of the third quarter and gave Griffin his third scoring toss against no interceptions this preseason. He has completed 63.0% of his passes, averaged 8.0 yards per pass attempt and compiled a 100.4 passer rating. On Friday, he completed four more passes for 49 yards to his favorite target, first-year tight end Tanner Hudson. Hudson's 226 receiving yards through three games are the most in a single preseason by any Buccaneer since at least 2000.
The Buccaneers finally got a dry night on which to play a preseason football game, but their first-team offense bogged down. Fortunately, the defense made the evening equally frustrating for Baker Mayfield and the Browns' offense.
Tampa Bay's starting offense played the first half and had just 78 yards of total offense at the intermission. Quarterback Jameis Winston, who absorbed five sacks and was under frequent pressure, was held to a nine-of-19 performance for 88 yards. The Bucs' second drive was their best, as it covered 59 yards – 35 of it on two catches by Chris Godwin – but it ended on a 37-yard field goal try by Gay that hit the right upright and deflected out.
"We wouldn't have been in that [game-ending] situation if I made the first one," said Gay. "I've got to be better at that one. I've got to make sure I'm locked in on those. Inside 40 needs to be a hundred percent. If I make that, we're not in that position in the end. But wins are hard to come by in this league so we'll take it."
Tampa Bay's starting defense played well but was repeatedly hurt by bad field position in the first half. Cleveland had just 75 yards at halftime but took a 9-0 lead into the break on three field goals by rookie kicker Austin Seibert. Penalties were also a problem again, with the Bucs drawing six first-half flags, including a drive-extending roughing-the-passer call on Ndamukong Suh on Cleveland's third field goal drive.
"[We] started out, had a good drive down there and missed the field goal, but after that it was one-on-one blocks – we just didn't perform well enough to move the football," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. [We] kept turning it over inside the 50. Our defense played fantastic."
Tampa Bay's young secondary was particularly impressive in the first half. Second-year safety Jordan Whitehead broke up a third-down pass at the back of the end zone to deny one touchdown opportunity and intercepted a pass to end the half, while also leading the team with four tackles. Second-year cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis also broke up passes as the Bucs' defense held promising young QB Baker Mayfield to just 10 completions and 72 yards in 26 attempts. Mayfield finished the half with a 30.6 passer rating. Meanwhile, RB Kareem Hunt accounted for all the Browns' rushing yards, with 11 on five carries.
"[Whitehead] made a couple of real good plays throughout all those series," said Arians. "Our whole defense – when you give the ball up inside the 50 five times and only give up nine points, it's a damn good job."
The Buccaneers are counting on their very young defensive backfield to produce far better results after a tough 2019 season. Though the Browns played without wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry on Friday night, they still present a serious challenge for any defense, and the Bucs met that with a stifling effort that limited the visitors to 141 total yards.
"Everybody in the secondary made plays today," said Whitehead. "That's something we're building on, looking forward to in camp, coming in and making plays on the ball."
The Bucs got a first down on the game's opening drive on a quick third-and-seven slant to Breshad Perriman that got just enough to move the chains. However, the next three plays all went backward, including consecutive sacks by Olivier Vernon and Chris Smith. The Buccaneers also used their first replay challenge on the game's second play, unsuccessfully getting a non-call on a potential pass-interference play overturned. The resulting punt by Bradley Pinion rolled out of bounds at the Browns' 46.
The Browns didn't go far on their opening possession but did get the game's first points. Mayfield converted a third-and-five three plays in when he impressively escaped what seemed like a sure sack and got off a pass to WR Derrick Willies for just enough. On the next third down, DL William Gholston got a hand on a third-and-short pass, forcing Cleveland to settle for a 54-yard field goal attempt. Seibert sent it straight down the middle for three points.
The Bucs countered with a drive that reached into scoring territory but came up empty when Gay hit the upright. Chris Godwin accounted for the first 35 yards on two catches, the first a screen down the line in which he got free with a good stiff-arm. Perriman made a nice off-the-body snatch in traffic for a first down at the 33 and Winston escaped a near sack to hit TE O.J. Howard for another first down at the 23. The drive stalled there, however, and the missed kick kept Cleveland in front by three.
The Bucs' defense got the ball back quickly with a three-and-out despite an offside penalty making it first-and-five at the start. Stewart had tight coverage on WR Rashard Higgins and was able to knock away a third-and-five pass. However, Tampa Bay's offense also gave it up quickly with the Browns' Christian Kirksey ending it with a third-down sack as the first quarter came to an end. Things to worse to start the second quarter as Pinion's punt was rushed by traffic, going only 27 yards and resulting in a first down for Cleveland at the Bucs' 36.
The Browns again scored on a short drive, getting a field goal after moving the ball just 18 yards. Davis ended it with an impressive pass break-up on a quick third-and-three pass, and the Browns settled for Seibert's 36-yarder.
Tampa Bay's next drive was another short one, ending on Cleveland's fifth sack of the game, just 19 minutes in. The result was good field position once again for the Browns, who started anew at the Bucs' 49. Tampa Bay's defense seemed to have it stopped in three plays but a third-down roughing-the-passer call on Ndamukong Suh made it first-and-10 at the 31. The Bucs then forced a fourth-and-two but the Browns went for it and kept the drive alive with a six-yard out to Higgins down to the Bucs' 17. Mayfield zipped a 12-yard pass into traffic to TE Pharaoh Brown for a first down at the four, but a sack by Rakeem Nunez-Roches and a pass breakup by Deone Bucannon left Cleveland in a third-and-long back at the 12. After offsetting penalties erased one incompletion, Noah Spence pressured Mayfield into a scramble and Whitehead broke up a pass to TE Demetrius Harris on the back line of the end zone. The Browns once again settled for a field goal, this one Seibert's 30-yard chip shot.
After an exchange of three-and-outs and punts, the Bucs got the ball back at their own 15 with three minutes left in the half. Rookie WR Scotty Miller recorded his first NFL reception to convert a third-and-one, and Winston scrambled out of bounds at the two-minute warning to set up a third-and-six at the 33. However, the Bucs had to punt again after the break when Winston failed to connect with Perriman on a deep ball down the middle.
Tampa Bay's defense gave the Bucs one more scoring chance with a minute left. DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches hit Mayfield on his third-down pass attempt, forcing an incomplete floater, and the resulting punt went out of bounds at the Bucs' 18. The offense once again failed to move the chains, however, and punted with 18 seconds left. Cleveland's last possession lasted one play, as Whitehead intercepted Mayfield's last pass of the night as time expired.
Cleveland started the second half with the ball but punted two minutes in thanks in large part to an aborted play on a bad snap that cost the Browns 18 yards. Blaine Gabbert came in to lead the Bucs' first drive of the half and succeeded in getting them into scoring range, though he was in the locker room by the time Cairo Santos nailed a 23-yard field goal. Gabbert completed four of five passes for 33 yards on the drive but he suffered a shoulder injury on a successful third-down scramble that got the ball to the Browns' 16. Griffin came in and got one more first down but his third-down pass attempt to Tanner Hudson in the end zone was incomplete.
Tampa Bay's defense collected another three-and-out to follow, thanks to a Jack Cichy run-down tackle on a one-yard carry and Shaq Barrett's third-down hurry. Bobo Wilson returned the ensuing punt 14 yard to the Bucs' 31. Tanner Hudson got the drive going with a nifty one-handed catch for 19 yards and a pass interference call on the Browns made it first-and-10 at the Cleveland 46. Griffin and Hudson hooked up on another 16-yard play on third-and-14 to keep the drive alive and Griffin then found Leggett on third-and-one for a 20-yard touchdown and a 10-9 lead. Leggett caught the pass wide open in the middle of the field and legged it the rest of the way for the score.
A Nunez-Roches sack ended Cleveland's next drive quickly and the Bucs got it back at their own 23 with 13:20 left in regulation. They gave it back just as quickly, thanks mostly to a Devaroe Lawrence sack. A tough 18-yard return by Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi allowed Cleveland to open its next possession just across midfield.
View photos from Tampa Bay's Week 3 Preseason matchup against Cleveland.
A couple more penalties against the Buccaneers' defense and a 12-yard scramble by third quarterback David Blough got Cleveland into the red zone midway through the final period. One play ruled a touchdown from the nine-yard line was overturned on replay and blitzing safety Darian Stewart killed the drive on third down, but Seibert still gave Cleveland a 12-10 lead midway through the final period with his fourth field goal, a 35-yarder.
The Bucs got close to midfield on Griffin's third-and-10 strike over the middle to Watson for 15 yards, but a holding penalty pushed them back to the 30. A screen to Miller got those 10 yards back, and an outlet pass to RB Dare Ogunbowale made it third-and-four at the Bucs' 46. Griffin went back to Watson on another third down, hitting for six yards to keep the drive alive. A perfect play-action strike to Wilson got it down to the Cleveland 33, and the Bucs put it on the ground from there with three runs by Ogunbowale and Andre Ellington down to the 22.
Griffin stumbled out of the snap on the next play and had to fall on the ball after a botched handoff as the two-minute warning arrived. However, a short catch by Wilson and a personal foul on Ray-Ray Armstrong made it first-and-10 at the 11. The Bucs ran Ogunbowale three more times, and while they came up short of another set of downs they ran all but 18 seconds off the clock. Gay then came in to drill the game-winner.
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