TAMPA – You know it’s a tough day when the biggest highlight for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came from the legs – and not the arm – of Tom Brady.
Late in the third quarter of the much-anticipated showdown against Aaron Rodgers, the 45-year-old icon ducked a would-be sack on third down and scampered 18 yards up the middle before sliding to the turf … and breaking his knee brace.
Hey, it was his inner Lamar Jackson.
"I saw a lot of open green grass and no Packers,” Brady said after the 14-12 defeat against the Green Bay Packers. “To turn a 40-yard run into an 18-yard run, if anyone can…”
It was the lone moment of levity during Brady’s post-game news conference when he was peppered about the poor execution, mistakes and missed opportunities.
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“If I’m running it,” Brady concluded with a grin, “it’s usually not a good thing.”
He’s right. It’s not. And too bad that it didn’t count. Brady’s big run – which would have been the longest for either team on Sunday and might have been the third-longest gallop of his 23-year career and longest since 2007 – was called back after Brandon Walton was flagged for holding.
Brandon who? A first-year pro from Florida Atlantic was making his first NFL start at left tackle as the replacement for Josh Wells, who started a week earlier as the replacement for Donovan Smith.
The sequence was pretty much a microcosm of the frustration that Brady and the injury-stung Bucs offense is confronting about now.
Another example came during the final minute of the first half, with Brady & Co. desperately trying to cut into Green Bay’s 14-3 lead. Breshad Perriman grabbed a pass over the middle for an apparent first down inside the Packers 30-yard line, but Quay Walker jarred the football loose, and it was recovered by Darnell Savage to snuff out the threat.
On the next Bucs drive, early in the third quarter, Brady hit Russell Gage for a 5-yard completion near midfield to seemingly keep the momentum flowing. But oops? Keisean Nixon forced a fumbled collected by Jarran Reid.
With the Bucs top receiver, Mike Evans, suspended for the game for his role in the melee at New Orleans a week earlier and with injuries keeping wideouts Julio Jones (knee) and Chris Godwin (hamstring) on the sideline for a second consecutive week, the Bucs tried to survive with a virtual “Band-Aid Offense.” Gage was the go-to target, snagging 12 catches for 87 yards, with the 1-yard, 4th-down TD catch in traffic with 14 seconds left keeping the miracle alive.
But, as was the case for a Bucs offense that could convert on just two of 11 third downs (18%), Gage’s effort could be viewed as half-empty.
“He had a lot of catches,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles noted. “Anytime you fumble the football, that takes away everything you did. But he’s a fighter, he’s feisty and he comes to play. He just has to clean up the turnovers.”
The Bucs' defense, which entered the game allowing an NFL-low 6.5 points per game, kept Tampa Bay in a game that was witnessed by 69,197 – the largest regular-season crowd ever at Raymond James Stadium. After allowing long touchdown drives on their first two possessions that consisted of a combined 22 plays and more than 21 minutes of clock time, it got its wind and stiffened up to make life miserable for Rodgers the rest of the way. Adjusting to heavy man-to-man packages after halftime, the Bucs pitched a second-half shutout and notched one of their two turnovers.
Of course, the defense had its moments of regret, too. A beautiful downfield interception by Jamel Dean in the fourth quarter was wiped out by a yellow flag. Too many men on the field.
It was that type of lesson for the Bucs (2-1), who are opening the season with the toughest four-game stretch of any team in the league.
“It doesn’t get any easier next week going up against the Chiefs,” Brady noted.
He sighed, then added a fact of the NFL grind, “No one feels sorry for us.”
That the Bucs' offense is so undermanned is another sobering fact. Smith’s elbow injury was another huge blow to an O-line that lost its leader, center Ryan Jensen, to a significant knee injury in training camp. The receiver corps is so thin that veteran slot man Cole Beasley was signed on Tuesday, then caught three passes on Sunday. Backup running back Gio Bernard is on IR, too.
It’s no wonder that things are so out of sync for the unit led by Brady, who didn’t commit a turnover but contributed a few glaring misfires.
Brady didn’t want to use the injuries as an excuse, noting that the Packers came in with issues, too.
“You’d rather play with the guys that are the top players on your team,” Brady said. “They were missing a lot of top guys, too. So, guys went in there, they fought hard. We just made too many mistakes."
It’s a long season. If the Bucs can get healthy and stay healthy, they undoubtedly have a team built to make another championship run. And it’s evident that the defense is already playing to a championship-caliber level.
“It’s frustrating when the defense is playing so well and the offense is playing so poorly,” said tight end Cameron Brate. “Regardless of that, we had plenty of chances. Couldn’t get a rhythm. Couldn’t sustain drives.”
Bowles wants to hear nothing of an offense vs. defense imbalance – even if we can all see it with our own eyes.
“It’s a team game,” Bowles said. “We win as a team, we lose as a team. There’s no one unit that’s going to be down and the other unit is saying, ‘Look at what we did, look at what you did. If we lost, everybody lost and we didn’t do enough.”
Like Brady, Rodgers bemoaned the mistakes, execution and missed opportunities. The big win is significant for the Packers (2-1), who have also scored a tiebreaker advantage against the Bucs if it becomes relevant during the NFC playoffs.
The Packers flirted with the disaster of blowing their lead, unable to close the game on offense.
Check out how Rodgers described a sequence near the end that came up empty with two receivers winding up in the same area.
“On the action play with the crossers, that was a lack of execution,” Rodgers said. “The Z (receiver) was supposed to go over the X (receiver), kind of interfered with Juwann (Winfree) and it should have been a completion to Juwann, inside field goal range, bada bing bada boom, ballgame.”
At least Rodgers walked away the victor time, improving his lifetime record to 2-3 against his high-profile counterpart.
“Alright!” Rodgers said, grinning and pumping a fist when asked to put the matchup against Brady into context. “Listen, I have a ton of respect for him. He’s been a trailblazer at the position for a long time. I’m thankful to be in the conversation with some all-time greats in this generation. I feel like I’m in the conversation. It’s been a lot of fun competing against Tom over the years, and it’s always nice coming out on top because it hasn’t happened many times.”
And perhaps an encore is coming in January.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tom Brady, Bucs' offensive lowlights rule day in loss to Packers