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What does Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin's absence mean for the Tampa Buccaneers' playoff run?

Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) makes a catch against Atlanta Falcons safety Richie Grant (27) during the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

While Antonio Brown has apparently gone from the Pit to the Palace, his now-former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will try to avoid going from the Palace to the Pit, as they are now heading to the playoffs without Brown and Chris Godwin, two of their star receivers.

Godwin was injured in the Week 15 clash with the New Orleans Saints while Brown picked up his ball and left in the middle of the Bucs' game in New York against the Jets in Week 17. 

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Tom Brady‘s remaining receiving options include a true No. 1 pass catcher in Mike Evans, a former No. 1 pass catcher in Rob Gronkowski and a slew of unproven secondary options. 

Replacing Godwin

Godwin and Evans are both true No. 1 receivers, and picking who is better would be akin to splitting hairs. However, Godwin's contributions might be more valuable, as his slot presence unlocks the rest of the offense. How the Saints treated Godwin in Week 15 shows how much they thought of the veteran receiver.

The Saints bracketed the slot receivers whenever Godwin lined up there after getting torched for 111 yards and a touchdown on just six catches by Godwin in Week 8.

Once Godwin was injured and out of the game, the Saints went away from that coverage entirely. Other teams have used similar coverage principles against Godwin in the past.

In the two games since Godwin's injury, Tyler Johnson has run 39 routes from the slot — the most on the team. Johnson caught two passes from three targets for 17 yards. Both catches were on “Godwin-esque” routes — short, five-yard in routes — but he wasn’t targeted on the few short option routes that are typically the backbone of Godwin and Brady’s lethal connection.

Brady is used to quick, fleet-footed route runners who can generate separation underneath so his connection with Johnson needs to improve. Scotty Miller, the hero of the 2020 NFC Championship game, has aligned in the slot for only 30 snaps this season. After Johnson, the Bucs will split tight ends Gronkowski and Cameron Brate in the slot. 

Gronkowski had had a good season as the No. 3 option behind Evans and Godwin, but his play has tailed off since Week 15, where he was elevated into a more prominent role in the Bucs offense. 

In the three weeks prior to Week 15, Gronkowski recorded a 82.1 receiving grade, which has since fallen to 63.4 — even though he made a classic Gronkowski catch over the middle late in the game against the Jets. While he has probably aged out of the No. 2 receiver role, in a one-game setting, it'd be moronic to count out the future Hall of Famer. 

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