Two weeks into December, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came out of their late-season bye and started their run to the playoffs with a 26-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings, a team that had won five of its previous six games. The Buccaneers had gone into the bye week with their only two-game losing streak of the season and three losses in their last four outings.
As tends to happen with a clearly talented team that is struggling on one side of the ball or the other, the Buccaneers had been hearing about their lack of an "offensive identity." Arians held up his team's performance against Minnesota as an answer to that question.
"When asked early this week about our identity, I think we just showed our identity," said Arians. "We can do any damn thing we want to do."
That was an aggressively confident statement and, mind you, it did not come after one of the Bucs' most explosive offensive games of the season. In fact, the Buccaneers have topped the 26 points and 303 yards they got against Minnesota in every game since, sometimes by quite a bit. But Arians liked the way the Bucs controlled the line of scrimmage, got the running game going, kept Tom Brady from being sacked and hit some big plays in the passing game. More to the point, Arians liked that the Bucs, with their wide variety of talent, could tailor an attack specifically to succeed against what the Vikings try to do on defense.
Over the next four weeks, the Buccaneers' attack averaged 499.0 yards and 38.3 points per week, which could be seen as an offense doing "any damn thing" it wants to do, but the most recent win over the New Orleans Saints might actually be a better example.
The Buccaneers had 316 yards of offense against one of the NFL's best defenses on Sunday night, but leading receiver Mike Evans had just one three-yard touchdown catch. Recent sparkplug Antonio Brown also had just one catch for 10 yards. Chris Godwin was held to 34 yards on four catches. The team's top two leading receivers were running back Leonard Fournette and tight end Cameron Brate. Tom Brady was well-protected and efficient, with 199 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, but the big plays didn't materialize as they had so often in recent weeks.
This wasn't a surprise to the Buccaneers, and Brate took some time on Monday afternoon to explain why.
"The teams that play us with the single-high safety, our receivers are going to be one-on-one, and those games, Mike and Chris and AB, those are the games that those guys have great games," said Brate. "When teams are a little more conservative and try to take away the deep shots, those are the games where we're going to have to rely on the guys working the middle of the field, whether it's the running backs, tight ends, Chris in the slot. With what the Saints were doing on defense, it was going to be the guys on the inside who were going to have the best looks. We knew that going into the game and I thought Tom did a great job managing the game and taking what the defensive gave him. We can't always throw 50-yard bombs to Mike. We're going to have to sometimes be patient and run the football and take more short to intermediate throws. That's what we had to do yesterday to get the win."
Brate caught four passes for 50 yards, and added to his 80-yard game in the Wild Card round at Washington, he know has more receiving yards than any other tight end has had in a single postseason franchise history. Ronald Jones returned from injury to pair with playoff riser Leonard Fournette to give the Bucs 127 yards and a touchdown on the ground. They controlled the ball for more than 31 and a half minutes and didn't commit a turnover.
As Brate knows, it is surely hard for a coaching staff devising a game plan and a play-caller picking from his options on game day to not throw the ball to Evans or Godwin or Brown. But the Bucs are so deep at every offensive skill position that they can still succeed if they go that route.
"I think a lot of it has to do with trying to establish a run and getting more tight ends on the field," said Brate. "It's hard to game-plan that way when you have the weapons that we do [and] the quarterback that we have. Just establishing the line of scrimmage, making sure the defense doesn't just pin their ears back and pressure us – that's been big for us and we've kind of been gearing that way toward the end of the regular season and now into the playoffs. It's worked out for me and [I've] just been able to make some plays for us, which is cool."
Brown was also slowed by a knee injury during the game but the Bucs got big catches from Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson in the fourth quarter to convert long third downs and keep the go-ahead drive alive. Fournette led the whole team with five catches for 44 yards and a touchdown. The Bucs are confident in every pass-catcher and ballcarrier they have, even as they go farther down the depth chart.
"That's what it's all about," said Arians. "You get your opportunities, you've got to make the best of them. You don't know when they're coming and this time Scotty jumped out there. It was really a play designed for Antonio, but Scotty ran a great route [and] beat him. Tyler makes a great catch, [Aaron] Stinnie steps in there and does a great, great job. It's everybody just doing their job and that's what we went down there [to do].
"All we've got to do is do our job. We're good enough to beat anybody."
The Bucs are even proving that they can rely on the ground game if necessary, which didn't always seem to be the case during the season. Tampa Bay tied for 28th in rushing offense during the regular season, with 94.9 yards per game. Over the last four weeks the Bucs have averaged 118.5 rushing yards per game and 4.23 yards per carry and have scored four times on the ground. It's a commonly-held belief that the running game becomes more important in the playoffs, particularly in cold-weather sites, and the Bucs appear to have planned to be ready for that.
"Yeah, that's kind of been the plan all year," said Arians. "Just trying to keep them both fresh. Getting RoJo back and getting him back in shape from the COVID and the finger [injury]. I think Leonard's done a great job in his absence and 'Ro' (Jones II) really added a spark when he got in there, so it's a good one-two punch."
No, the Buccaneers' offense can't do anything and everything it wants in every game and against every opponent. But it can succeed at just about anything across the offensive spectrum if it needs to in a particular game. That was evident in New Orleans on Sunday night.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Divisional Round game vs. New Orleans.