Buccaneers shut out by Saints amid rash of injuries: 'It hurts more losing the players we lost'
TAMPA – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ pursuit of a second-straight Super Bowl continued to be hampered by the biggest thorn in their side since Tom Brady left New England.
Buccaneers leading receiver Chris Godwin, second-leading receiver Mike Evans, leading rusher Leonard Fournette and linebacker Lavonte David all suffered injuries during Tampa Bay's woeful 9-0 loss to the New Orleans Saints Sunday night.
Their absences were immediately felt as the Buccaneers dropped their fourth straight game to the Saints, the one constant pest for Tampa Bay since Brady joined the franchise last season.
Brady was sacked four times, fumbled the football while trying to run for a first down and threw a late interception as the Buccaneers spoiled their opportunity to clinch the NFC South and a playoff berth.
“Well, we just didn’t play well enough,” Brady said.
Brady had never been shut out at home during his 22-year career. He was held scoreless for the first time since 2006.
“Obviously when you don’t score points, you’re not going to win," he said. "It’s a tough loss.”
Godwin (knee) and Evans (hamstring) exited in the second quarter while Fournette (hamstring) left the game in the third quarter. David, Tampa Bay's second-leading tackler, left in the fourth quarter with a foot injury.
Now, the Buccaneers enter the final three weeks of the season on the mend as their dream of back-to-back titles could be in jeopardy without four players who have been instrumental to their success.
“It hurts more losing all the players we lost,” Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said after the game. “I’m more concerned about that right now.”
It may not be time for the Buccaneers to hit the panic button. But they are certainly on high alert as these injuries could have ramifications on the rest of the season.
The Buccaneers (10-4) slide behind the Green Bay Packers (11-3) and Dallas Cowboys (10-4), respectively, in the NFC playoff standings. The Arizona Cardinals (10-4) are right behind them in fourth.
Tampa Bay has a favorable remaining schedule, visiting the Carolina Panthers and New York Jets the next two weeks before their home finale against the Panthers on Jan. 9.
The No. 1 seed in the playoffs could still be within reach, but their offense will need some adjusting. Especially after the Buccaneers' performance in the second half against the Saints.
“We had adversity. We didn’t fight through it,” Buccaneers backup running back Ronald Jones said. “Unexpected events and calls not going our way – momentum. It was hard to come back from.”
Brady and the offense simply could not sustain a single drive to overcome a 6-0 deficit they incurred in the first half, which became insurmountable once the Saints added another field goal in the fourth quarter. Brady's interception to Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson with 3:55 left effectively ended the game.
The Buccaneers were forced to empty the bench due to the slew of injuries. Receivers Tyler Johnson, Scotty Miller and Jaelon Darden saw increased action. Jones and Ke’Shawn Vaughn got a higher volume of carries out of the backfield. Tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard also saw more action than usual.
“The young guys, I was hoping they’d step up more,” Arians said. “Ultimately, they dropped too many balls. (The Saints) played hard man to man and we didn’t do a very good job getting open.”
Brady was unable to connect with his lone favorite target remaining in tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had just two catches for 29 yards on 11 targets.
No player finished the game with more yards than Godwin had before his exit (49) or catches than Fournette had before his injury (seven).
“We didn’t execute that great, obviously. It was a tough night. We didn’t do much right,” Brady said. “We have a lot of football left and we have to go to work next week.”
How the injuries happened
Godwin, who entered the game second in the NFL in receptions, caught a pass over the middle before he was upended in the right knee by Saints defensive back P.J. Williams in the second quarter.
Godwin was able to limp off the field and run on the sideline under a trainer’s supervision to test out his knee before being ruled out.
Evans, who entered the game second in the NFL with 11 touchdowns, caught a 14-yard pass from Brady – his only catch of the game – before trotting off to the sidelines in the second quarter.
Fournette landed awkwardly during an 8-yard run before leaving the game in the third quarter. He had been nursing an ankle injury before the Saints game.
The extent of all four players’ injuries was not immediately known after the game and will certainly be a point of discussion for Tampa Bay during this final stretch.
What's next for Tampa Bay?
Luckily for the Buccaneers, reinforcements are on the way.
Receiver Breshad Perriman, the hero who caught Brady’s game-winning touchdown pass in overtime against the Bills, could return from his bout with COVID-19.
Embattled receiver Antonio Brown and safety Mike Edwards, both of whom the NFL suspended three games after discovering they submitted falsified COVID-19 vaccination cards, will return to the Buccaneers roster this week.
“It’s in the best interest of our football team,” Arians said of Brown and Edwards. “Both of those guys have served their time and we’ll welcome them back.”
The Buccaneers can still finish this season on a strong note – with a division title, playoff berth and home-field advantage during the playoffs.
But it will depend on their ability to overcome a rash of injuries at such an untimely juncture of the season.
“We have to try to figure out who can go in, fill some roles and play good football this week,” Brady said.