On game’s biggest play, Raiders pay the price for playing it safe

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Wade Vandervort

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws the ball during a game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020.

Mon, Oct 26, 2020 (2 a.m.)

Raiders coach Jon Gruden is catching a lot of heat for kicking a field goal on 4th-and-1 inside the red zone in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay. Las Vegas trailed by a touchdown at the time and could have tied the game with some aggressive play-calling, but Gruden chose to settle for three points and live to fight another day.

While that particular play is drawing lots of second-guessing, it wasn’t even Las Vegas’ most conservative (cowardly?) play call of the day.

In fact, Gruden’s decision to kick could have worked out in the Raiders’ favor. No one would have hailed it as a great idea, but it could have worked if the defense came through and stopped Tampa Bay on the ensuing possession.

And that’s almost what happened. After Daniel Carlson’s 34-yard field goal trimmed Tampa Bay’s lead to 24-20 with 12 minutes remaining, the Buccaneers took over possession and the Raiders hemmed them into a 3rd-and-13 from their own 30-yard line. Had the Bucs been forced to punt, Las Vegas would have had a chance to drive for a go-ahead touchdown.

If Gruden’s field-goal decision was conservative, then defensive coordinator Paul Guenther turned it up to 11 with his third-down call. Guenther flipped to the very back of the playbook and called a prevent-style defense that saw the entire back seven drop into deep zone coverage. And by “deep,” we mean well beyond the first-down marker.

That proved to be easy pickings for Tom Brady. The veteran quarterback simply let the longer routes develop and then checked down to his running back. Leonard Fournette secured a short pass just beyond the line of scrimmage and had nothing but open space in front of him, allowing him to ramble straight ahead for the first down. He was not met by a defender until he had already reached the line to gain.

Look at how easy the Raiders made things for Brady by playing such a soft defense:

Seriously, look at the space Fournette had in front of him when he reeled in the catch:

That long, uncontested third-down conversion improved Tampa Bay’s win probability from 73.5 percent to 78.5 percent, according to ESPN’s Game Tracker. When Brady hit Chris Godwin for a 4-yard touchdown a few minutes later to cap the drive, the Bucs’ win probability jumped to 96.0 percent.

In other words, game over.

“We had them 3rd-and-12,” Gruden said. “We had them right where we wanted them, and they converted on the checkdown. Very disappointed.”

Between settling for the field goal and then playing an uber-prevent defense on the game’s most critical play, the Raiders got timid down the stretch of a winnable game. And they paid the price.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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