Packers defense anticipated Buccaneers' two-point play to outduel Tom Brady
TAMPA – Before the snap, De’Vondre Campbell knew he had to reach his spot.
There was zero surprise as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lined up at the 7-yard line with 14 seconds left Sunday, attempting a potential game-tying two-point conversion. What was left of Tom Brady’s supporting cast scattered around him. Tight end Cameron Brate toed the line of scrimmage a few yards from right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Receiver Russell Gage motioned inside behind Brate.
As Brate motioned, the lightbulb suddenly flickered for the Green Bay Packers defense. They had practiced this goal-line play all week, knowing precisely what was coming when the Bucs put two receiving options in a stack formation inside the 10-yard line. Brate curled an out route to the goal line and stopped. Gage juked inside his tight end before breaking his route outside in the end zone, carrying it all the way to the back, right corner.
There was a spot on the field where Campbell could undercut Brady’s throw. He just had to reach it.
“I just went to my instincts,” Campbell said. “Trusted my instincts. Two by two, every time they motion that receiver in, we know it’s a snag route. So I just went to my instincts and tried to make a play.”
Campbell slid to his left along the goal line after the snap. He initially covered Brate, sandwiching the tight end with Eric Stokes playing behind. When Brady exited the pocket, using his ageless legs to avoid pass rusher Rashan Gary, Campbell kept sliding.
The All-Pro linebacker didn’t know what was happening behind him, that the Packers had actually played the Bucs’ two-point attempt different than how they practiced. All he saw was Brady’s eyes fixed on the back corner. Campbell arrived at his spot, leaping as Brady’s pass sailed over his head, extending his right arm in the air to knock it away.
His defended pass sealed a 14-12 win against the Bucs in the most fitting way for this rock-fight of a game, the Packers defense making one last stand at the end of an afternoon spent allowing a seven-time-champion quarterback almost nothing.
“I knew what route they were running,” Campbell said. “So I just had to get in that window and just read the quarterback from there.”
If Campbell hadn’t knocked away Brady’s pass, safety Darnell Savage might have. The Packers were fortunate he was in position. Cornerback Eric Stokes had covered Brate at the goal line while safety Adrian Amos followed Bucs tailback Leonard Fournette out of the backfield.
Savage indicated he wasn’t supposed to cover Gage to the back corner. When he saw Gage would be open, Savage chased the receiver from the middle of the field. He was in midair when Campbell knocked away Brady’s pass.
Before that, Savage thought he might have to force the incompletion himself.
“It surprised me,” Savage said. “Because I was locked in. I knew I was going to make that play. I saw the ball in the air, and I just saw an arm go up and just kind of tip it. I was like, ‘Man.’ But I was already in midair, too. I was ready to break it up.
“So it was kind of surreal. Everything just happened in slow motion. I saw the ball and was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to make a play.’ Then all of the sudden, his hand reaches up and tips it.”
The most surreal part was seeing Brady fail to make a play the legendary quarterback seemingly has always made over his 23-year career. All momentum had changed by the time Brady uncorked his final pass. The Bucs, held without a touchdown all day, had gotten possession at their 11-yard line with 3:04 left. They needed a touchdown and, critically, a two-point conversion to force overtime with a tie.
Brady was a different quarterback on that final possession, turning back the clock. The Bucs were without their top three receivers Sunday: Mike Evans (suspended), Chris Godwin (hamstring) and Julio Jones (knee). It didn’t matter to the quarterback. Brady hit Gage for three quick passes to start the drive, gaining 29 yards. Before the 2-minute warning, Brady found Fournette open out of the backfield in the left flat, getting 17 more yards.
That pushed the Bucs across midfield.
Every team in the NFL has seen this script from Brady before. On the sideline, coach Matt LaFleur started preparing his plays for overtime. But he knew the Bucs still needed a two-point conversion even with a touchdown. That two-point conversion was the Packers’ saving grace.
“What was running through my mind,” LaFleur said, “was, ‘Well, at least if they do happen to score, they still have to get the two-pointer. And I kept telling (defensive coordinator) Joe (Barry), ‘Make sure you have whatever two-point play we want ready to roll.’”
Brady reached the Packers’ 3-yard line with 26 seconds left. Fournette got 2 yards on the left side, forcing the Bucs to burn their final timeout before second-and-goal. After an incompletion, with Savage smothering Brate at the goal line, Brady threaded a touchdown pass to Gage between cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Keisean Nixon on third-and-goal.
The Packers defense was gassed at that point. They had held the Bucs offense to short drives almost all game, keeping them fresh in Florida’s intense heat and humidity. Four of the Bucs’ 12 drives were three-and-outs. Ten were limited to six plays of fewer.
The last drive was their longest, going 91 yards on 13 plays.
“Definitely need some water,” Amos said, leaning against his locker inside a room without air condition after the game.
Those first sips felt a little more refreshing after the two-point conversion. A Packers defense advertised as potentially dominant went toe to toe with the game on the line against the sport’s scariest quarterback, but walked away celebrating.
It likely won’t be the last time this season the Packers defense is asked to win a game. That’s how this team is built, a departure from the high-flying offenses that have been the staple under Aaron Rodgers. A week earlier, the Packers thwarted the Chicago Bears with a goal-line stand in the second half. In Tampa, they did the same to Brady.
“Those are moments,” Campbell said, “that define what championship defenses are. We know what we can do in those crunch-time moments, so we just need to keep building off of it.”