TAMPA, Fla. – Moments after wide receiver Antonio Brown jogged off the field in what will be known as his last appearance for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, quarterback Tom Brady threw a perfect third-and-20 pass along the right sideline to wide receiver Cyril Grayson for exactly 20 yards and a first down.
It was late in the third quarter, with the Bucs trailing the New York Jets on the road by 14, and Tampa Bay was suddenly without its most important third-down player over the past two seasons outside of injured wide receiver Chris Godwin.
Brady turned to the lesser-known Grayson, who was elevated from the practice because of COVID-19 cases among the Bucs over the past two weeks, didn’t play a down of college football at LSU and had been with six teams before coming to Tampa Bay.
On that same drive, Brady found another journeyman wideout (though this one was a first-round pick in 2015) Breshad Perriman -- who got called up permanently from the practice squad one month ago -- racing across the middle of the field for a 32-yard completion, followed by a dart to tight end Cameron Brate on fourth-and-goal.
Brady found Grayson once again with 21 seconds left in regulation, spinning down the right sideline for a 33-yard touchdown to win the game and move into the NFC's No. 3 seed heading into the final week of the regular season.
Coach Bruce Arians told players in the locker room after the game (via NBC’s Peter King), “I want you to know that I’ll take the guys in this locker room and go play anyone in the world.”
But the reality is -- while they are now without any distractions caused by Brown -- their path to a second consecutive Super Bowl got that much harder, especially when you factor in all the players already missing on both sides of the ball because of injury.
Wide receiver Mike Evans will see more double coverages and opponents will key in on tight end Rob Gronkowski, especially without lead running back Leonard Fournette, who is likely to return for the playoffs, and with his backup, Ronald Jones II, having his status up in the air with an ankle injury.
Fournette has been on injured reserve since suffering a hamstring injury in Week 15, and Evans is just now coming off a hamstring injury of his own.
Jones is in a walking boot with an ankle injury. He has not been ruled out for the season finale. Arians said they’ll “wait and see.”
Prior to Sunday, Gronkowski and Brady had struggled to get on the same page for two weeks, as well, but Gronkowski finished the 28-24 win over the Jets with seven receptions and 115 receiving yards.
But they’ll need to keep getting more out of Grayson, Perriman and second-year wide receiver Tyler Johnson in the interim. None of those players have Brown’s Hall of Fame-caliber route running or stop-and-go ability, which impacts them heavily in the screen game.
But Grayson and Perriman both have speed -- Grayson is most effective going straight-line, while Perriman has shown he can burn defenders on crossing routes. Johnson hasn’t shown much as a blocker (he got pushed around quite a bit against the Saints), but he competes for the ball and came up huge on a second-and-10 on the final drive for a 27-yard grab to set up the game-winning score.
Grayson had six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown in that game. Over the past two weeks, Grayson has nine receptions and 162 receiving yards and a touchdown. Against the Jets, Johnson finished with four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown. Perriman, who came off the reserve/COVID-19 list last week, had two catches for 41 yards.
Grayson and Johnson were relied on significantly during the game-winning drive, which didn’t feature a single target to Evans or Gronkowski. In fact, prior to Sunday, Grayson, Perriman and Johnson accounted for a combined 501 receiving yards (under 11% of the passing game) on 35 catches (under 8% of the passing game) with two touchdowns.
Yet, against the Jets, they accounted for nearly 42% of the passing game in terms of yardage.
They’ll need more out of Brady of course. But unlike last season, when, at times, it looked like he was playing in someone else’s offense, he has full command of this one and he can elevate those around him, similar to what he did in his final years with the New England Patriots.
You can see that in the average of 2.50 seconds he takes to release the ball (the second fastest of any player in the league) versus the 2.57 he had last year, which was eighth, and significantly better than the 2.62 he had through the first five games last season.
And while there were some hiccups Sunday, as Brady was hit four times, his pass protection has been stellar this season. He has been pressured on just 12.2% of his dropbacks -- the best of any QB in the league.
His contact percentage (pressure consists of both contact and no-contact in the form of hurried throws) 0f 9.3% also tops the league. They need to rely on that, and this group’s run blocking (another position rocked by injuries) to set up play-action.
But the Bucs also must get more out of their defense, which struggled mightily against the run Sunday.
David has been on injured reserve with a foot injury since Week 15. Pierre-Paul has been dealing with a torn rotator cuff all season, but he missed the past two weeks. Barrett suffered a sprained ACL and MCL in Week 16. The hope is he’ll be back for the postseason.
“Everybody’s trending in the right direction,” Arians said. “We’ll wait and see as far as Lavonte, but he’s moving in the right direction. All those guys for next week. We’ll worry about next week, next week, but they’re all moving in the right direction.”
Considering the other five teams already in the NFC playoffs -- the Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles -- are averaging 27.15 points, the Bucs will need to bounce back in a hurry.