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Inside Washington’s 19-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to beat the Bucs

Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin hauls in a pivotal third-down catch on the game-sealing drive against the Buccaneers. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
5 min

The Washington Football Team’s offense jogged onto the field Sunday afternoon with 10 minutes 55 seconds remaining, leading by four and needing not just to score but also to run time off the clock. If it didn’t, Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have the opportunity to take the lead.

Brady and Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans had just connected for a 40-yard touchdown, and Tampa Bay held the momentum after Washington wide receiver Dax Milne had fumbled on the previous possession.

But the next time Brady touched the ball, there were 29 seconds left and the game was out of even his reach.

Quarterback Taylor Heinicke and the Washington offense pieced together a 19-play, 80-yard drive that took 10:26 of game time and ended with a one-yard Antonio Gibson touchdown run. It sealed Washington’s 29-19 upset and was the longest drive in terms of plays for Washington since 1991, in addition to being the longest in the NFL since Week 7 of 2018, according to TruMedia.

“That was a grown-man drive,” wide receiver DeAndre Carter said.

How did Washington pull it off? These three elements mattered most:

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Washington matched Tampa Bay’s physicality. The Buccaneers’ defense entered Sunday giving up 78 rushing yards per game, the second fewest in the NFL, so Washington knew it would have a tough time running the ball. Before its final drive, it had 21 carries for 59 yards.

But Coach Ron Rivera applauded offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s persistence sticking with the run on the final drive against Tampa Bay’s stout front. Thirteen of the 19 plays on that drive were runs (including two Heinicke scrambles), and tackle Cornelius Lucas said he was proud of the offensive line’s effort in matching the Bucs’ physicality because it allowed Washington to keep the Buccaneers guessing.

“If you just go pass, pass, pass, then they’re going to play the pass,” Lucas said. “So you have to be able to get those runs to keep them honest.”

Gibson, who had nine carries on the drive for 24 yards, said after the game that he had never faced a team as physical as the Buccaneers were Sunday.

“I definitely had to earn the yards I got today,” he said.

Washington excelled on third down. Heinicke, who finished 26 for 32 for 256 yards and a touchdown, made the drive’s first key play with his legs. On third and two from Washington’s 28-yard line, Heinicke scrambled for a three-yard gain and the first of four third-down conversions.

Later in the drive, Gibson ran for two yards on third and one from the Tampa Bay 33. Three plays after that, Heinicke completed a five-yard pass to wide receiver Adam Humphries along the left sideline on third and four that advanced Washington to the Tampa Bay 20.

That set the stage for the most pivotal conversion of the march. With 3:05 remaining, Washington faced third and five from the Tampa Bay 15. Turner called a play that featured top wide receiver Terry McLaurin on a slant route. The offense had a feeling, Heinicke said, that the Bucs would run some variation of cover-zero, sending a heavy blitz that would leave receivers one-on-one in man coverage.

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Heinicke zipped the ball to McLaurin in tight coverage, with Bucs cornerback Jamel Dean behind McLaurin and safety Jordan Whitehead bearing down at full speed. McLaurin got sandwiched between the defenders but held on to the ball for a six-yard gain and a first down.

“Taylor gave me a great ball,” McLaurin said. “It was bang-bang, but it was away from me enough that I could pluck the ball with my hands and try to make a play.”

Washington went for the win. There was one third down on the final drive that Washington didn’t convert: its final one. That left Rivera with a decision: kick a field goal that would extend Washington’s lead to seven or leave his offense on the field for fourth and goal from the 1.

Rivera opted to go for the knockout punch — knowing that if Washington didn’t get it, it would leave the Bucs with a long way to go with just half a minute remaining.

“Why not try and win it right there?” Rivera said. “Also part of the thinking, too, is if not, they got to go 99 [yards] to score a touchdown. At that point, with the way we were playing, I felt pretty inspired by our guys.”

The final play call was a run straight up the gut, but when the Buccaneers’ defense came crashing down inside, Gibson cut to the outside and beat linebacker Lavonte David to get into the end zone.

“It showed [Rivera’s] faith in us to pull the game out,” Lucas said. “For him to put the game in our hands ... just makes us feel good as O-linemen that we can come out and win a game like that.”

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