Who will Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers turn to next without Antonio Brown?

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TAMPA, Fla. – Moments after wide receiver Antonio Brown jogged off the field in what will become 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 in exactly 20 yards and a first attempt.

It was late in the third quarter as the Bucs followed the New York Jets on the road with 14, and Tampa Bay was suddenly without its main third-down player over the last two seasons outside of injured wide receiver Chris Godwin.

Brady turned to the lesser-known Grayson, who was elevated from practice due to COVID-19 incidents among the Bucs over the past two weeks, did not play a downturn in college football at LSU and had been with six teams before he came to Tampa Bay.

On the same drive, Brady found another journeyman wideout (though this was a first-round pick in 2015) Breshad Perriman – who was called up permanently from the training team a month ago – drove across the middle of the field for a 32-yard finish followed by an arrow to tight-end Cameron Brate on fourth-and-goal.

Brady found Grayson again with 21 seconds left of 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 the players in the locker room after the game (via NBC’s Peter King), “I want you to know that I’ll take the guys to this locker room and play against anyone in the world.”

But the reality is – while they are now without anyone distractions caused by Brown – their path to another Super Bowl in a row became so much harder, especially when you include all the players who are already missing on both sides of the ball due to an injury.

Wide receiver Mike Evans will see more double coverage, and opponents will hit tight-end Rob Gronkowski, especially without lead running back Leonard Fournette, who is likely to return to the playoffs, and with his backup, Ronald Jones II, has his status up. in the air with ankle injury.

Fournette has been on injured reserve since he suffered a hamstring injury in week 15, and Evans is currently recovering from his own hamstring injury.

Jones is in a walking boot with an ankle injury. He has not been ruled out for the season finale. Arians said they would “wait and see.”

Before Sunday, Gronkowski and Brady had also struggled to get on the same side for two weeks, but Gronkowski ended the 28-24 victory over the Jets with seven receptions and 115 receiving yards.

But they will have to keep getting more out of Grayson, Perriman and second-year wide receiver Tyler Johnson in the meantime. None of these players have Brown’s Hall of Fame caliber route or stop-and-go ability, which greatly affects them in the on-screen game.

But Grayson and Perriman both have speed – Grayson is most effective at going straight, while Perriman has shown he can burn defenders on intersecting routes. Johnson has not shown much as a blocker (he was pushed a lot around against the Saints), but he competes for the ball and came up hugely on a second-and-10 on the final drive for a 27-yard grip to set up the game-winning score .

Grayson had six catches on 81 yards and a touchdown in that game. Over the past two weeks, Grayson has had nine receptions and 162 receiving yards and one touchdown. Against the Jets, Johnson finished with four catches on 50 yards and a touchdown. Perriman, who came off the reserve / COVID-19 list last week, had two catches on 41 yards.

Grayson and Johnson were relied upon significantly during the game-winning drive, which did not have a single goal for Evans or Gronkowski. In fact, before Sunday, Grayson, Perriman and Johnson accounted for a total of 501 yards (under 11% of passing) on ​​35 catches (under 8% of passing) with two touchdowns.

Still, they accounted for almost 42% of the passing game against the Jets in terms of yardage.

They need to get more out of Brady, of course. But unlike last season, where at times it looked like he was playing in someone else’s offensive, he has full command over this, and he can lift those around him, similar to what he did in his final years with New England. Patriots.

You can see that in an average of 2.50 seconds he takes to drop the ball (the second fastest of any player in the league) against 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 even though there were some hiccups on Sunday when Brady was hit four times, his passport protection has been fantastic this season. He has been under pressure 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 hasty throws) 0f 9.3% also tops the league. They have to rely on that, and this group’s running block (another position shaken by injuries) to set up play-action.

But the Bucs must also get more out of their defense, which fought fiercely against the run-up on Sunday.

They really missed Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, with a sack against the Jets. They missed the safe tackle of inside linebacker Lavonte David and had no takeaways.

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 last two weeks. Barrett suffered a sprained ACL and MCL in week 16. The hope is that he will be back for the off-season.

“Everyone is going in the right direction,” Arians said. “We wait and see as far as Lavonte, but he is moving in the right direction. All those guys for next week. We will worry about next week, next week, but they are all moving in the right direction. “

Given that the other five teams already in the NFC playoffs – the Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles – have an average of 27.15 points, the Bucs will have to get back in a hurry.

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