-One word: Defense
The first half wasn't kind to the Bucs' offense. The offensive line struggled in trying to protect quarterback Jameis Winston and Winston himself admitted responsibility for at least two of the five sacks he took, saying he held the ball too long. Still, the Bucs went into the half down just 9-3 thanks in large part to an impressive effort from the defense.
"I thought, at halftime, our guys regrouped," Head Coach Bruce Arians said of the offense. "We talked about the first five minutes of the third quarter defense going out – I thought our defense was outstanding all night [considering] the field position that we put them in and to only give up three field goals, and one of them was after a penalty. But, all in all, I thought our defense, especially the combination of rush and secondary was outstanding in this ballgame."
It's not that the Browns didn't get into the red zone. They did so twice in the first half and both times were held to field goals. At the start of the second quarter, Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield faced third-and-three at the Tampa Bay 18-yard-line. He fired a pass off to wide receiver Derrick Willies who caught the ball initially before Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis came down and stripped him of the ball before he could make a move. Third-and-12 at the 12 and safety Jordan Whitehead was on the coverage as Mayfield took a shot to the end zone.
The Browns would get into the red zone just once more.
Both of those big third-down plays were part of an overall effort that held Cleveland to just two of 14 third-down attempts. Just two. The secondary was anticipatory and the line, while registering just one sack in the first half, applied enough pressure to get Mayfield to retreat. Pressure doesn't always equate to sacks.
Take the interception by safety Jordan Whitehead just before the half. The Browns were in their hurry-up offense with just a few seconds left. Mayfield must have thought wide receiver Jaelen Strong was one-on-one, not accounting for Whitehead who made a read and jumped the route instead, ending the half and keeping the Bucs within one possession.
Hey, any time you can keep teams out of the end zone after they've gotten inside the 20, register takeaways and render a team ineffective on third down, that's a good night.
-Chris Godwin could be WR1.
A very big bright spot on offense was wide receiver Chris Godwin, who got his most work of the preseason on Friday night. He caught four passes on six targets for a total of 52 yards while only playing just 46% of the team's offensive snaps. It's not just how many yards he got, either. It's when those yards came.
After an opening drive that fell flat, the offense bounced back on the next drive – on the very first play – on a 20-yard completion to Godwin. Two plays later, Winston hit Godwin for 15 yards, moving down the field quickly. That first play was tied for the longest play of the night for the Buccaneers.
"Well, he's my guy," Winston said of Godwin. "He's just an excellent receiver and we've got a bunch of young guys that are stepping in. Breshad [Perriman] stepped in on some big places – I missed him a couple times that would've been huge gains – but I think Chris knows how to carry the load. He comes to work every single day. He's a true professional, being that this is his [third] year. So, just excited for his development and his growth and I know he's going to be a great player for us."
Wide receiver Mike Evans was sidelined on Friday night, leaving Godwin to shoulder a lot of the load without any attention taken off him in favor of Evans on the other side. Think about it. When both Godwin and Evans are on the field, often on opposite sides of the formation, it forces defenses to make choices as to who to focus on. Godwin didn't have the luxury of Evans on the other side Friday night, but it didn't matter.
"Chris, to me, is a number one," Coach Arians said after the game. "As is [wide receiver] Breshad [Perriman]. I thought Breshad had a couple chances. We just didn't have enough time to get it to him. I probably shouldn't have challenged [a non-penalty for pass interference], but it's fun."
It IS fun.
-Quarterback Ryan Griffin shines again.
Starting quarterback Jameis Winston ended up playing the entirety of the first half but relinquished duties to Blaine Gabbert for the start of the third quarter. On Gabbert's first drive, however, after scrambling for a first down, Gabbert was shaken up on the play. He exited the game immediately after what ended up being a dislocated left shoulder. Enter Ryan Griffin, who has had most of the work this preseason as it is. The experience and rapport with the reserves showed – to the tune of a 105.3 passer rating after going 11-for-17 and 121 yards with a touchdown.
Though Gabbert's injury is to his non-throwing shoulder, the team doesn't know how much time he'll miss. It now becomes an opportunity for Griffin to take over as the sole backup to Winston heading into the regular season.
"I'm more than comfortable, more than comfortable," Coach Arians said of Griffin in the main backup role. "He's proven with some of the guys he is playing with -- directing them; [he's] poised. He's moved our team up and down the field. Just like he did again tonight."
The countdown to season kickoff is on! The Bucs are kicking off the NFL's 100th season with a FREE Tim McGraw pregame concert for all fans with a ticket to the home opener on Sept. 8! Get your tickets today.