CLEVELAND -- In one fluky play that saw a Cleveland Browns defender attempt to hurdle his way to Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady in overtime, the seven-time Super Bowl champion suffered what might be another devastating blow to his offensive line and his chance at another ring.
All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs, one of 45-year-old Brady's most valuable and consistent protectors, was carted off the field in overtime of Sunday's 23-17 loss. It dropped the Bucs to 5-6 but not out of first place in what continues to be a weak NFC South, with the second-place Atlanta Falcons losing to the Washington Commanders 19-13.
"It's awful," Brady said of losing Wirfs, just the ninth offensive lineman since 1990 to be named a First-Team All Pro in his first two seasons. "It's awful for us, it's awful for him. He's a great player for us. The other guys in are going to have to do a good job, but it's hard to replace him."
Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles did not have specifics on the severity of the injury, and the team did not make Wirfs available to the media after the game, as is typically the case with injured players. He was, however, seen walking around in the locker room putting weight on his left leg and was wearing a walking boot.
"It's tough," Bowles said. "We know it's tough. When you lose a player like that -- you say, 'It's part of the game' -- but a lot of those guys are so close that it hurts a lot. The next man's got to step up, but hopefully it's not as bad as it looks and he gets a speedy recovery and we go from there. That's all you can do in this game. It's a tragedy to lose guys like that on a team, but at the same time, we've got to push on."
The injury happened on second-and-9 while Wirfs was pass-blocking defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, with outside linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah attempting to hurdle running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who inadvertently pushed Owusu-Koramoah into the back of Wirfs' legs.
"I don't know where that came from," running back Rachaad White said of the hurdle. "I saw that on the sideline and I talked to Ke'Shawn 'Sneak' about it. It was like insane. That was crazy. I wouldn't have expected that either if I was in, and I'm pretty sure he didn't."
Teammates, who were visibly shaken, gathered around Wirfs to offer encouragement as he left the field. On the very next play, on third down, Brady was immediately sacked by Myles Garrett for a loss of 4 yards and would not get the ball back for a third try.
The Buccaneers punted on fourth down, and the Browns, playing with backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, a close friend, former teammate and mentee of Brady's, marched 71 yards on six plays. Running back Nick Chubb punctuated the drive by bursting through the middle of the Bucs' defensive line for a 3-yard touchdown.
"It's tough seeing any one of our brothers out like that, getting carted off -- it's tough to see," safety Mike Edwards said. "Especially a guy like Tristan -- one of the best offensive linemen in the league. He's definitely a big part of our team."
"That's the toughest part -- losing Tristan," wide receiver Mike Evans said. "I mean, we shouldn't have been in that situation. I thought that immediately when he went down. I wish I could have played better to help prevent that."
The Buccaneers held a one-score lead from halfway through the third quarter until the final 37 seconds in regulation, when they surrendered a one-handed touchdown grab to tight end David Njoku.
The Bucs went 2-for-2 in the red zone Sunday but could not sustain drives and went just 4-for-15 on third down Sunday with Evans mustering just 2 catches on 9 targets for 31 receiving yards.
"Losing a guy like that, one of our best players, such a promising future -- I hope he's OK. We all hope he's OK," Evans said. "We've just got to play better so we can prevent things like that."
Multiple times Brady and Evans could not connect on the deep ball as the Buccaneers, once again, could not cross the 17-point threshold, a problem all season after averaging 30 points a game last year.
"It's super frustrating," Evans said. "Early on -- it felt like we could do whatever we wanted -- run the ball, play-action pass, quick game -- it felt like we could do whatever."
But come overtime, the Buccaneers had two possessions -- including the opening possession -- and could not score.
If Wirfs is out for any period of time, it could significantly jeopardize Brady and the Bucs' chances of a late-season push.
The Bucs have already lost Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen in training camp, Pro Bowl left guard Ali Marpet to retirement and right guard Alex Cappa -- a Pro Bowl alternate last season -- to free agency. Aaron Stinnie, who was challenging for the starting left guard job, was also lost for the season during camp after tearing his ACL and MCL.
The team has left the door open for Jensen to possibly make a return for the postseason, but Bowles said last week that the Bucs aren't holding their breath.
"We're going without him," Bowles said of Jensen. "We expect to go without him. If he gets better somehow then we'll welcome him back, but right now we're going with everybody we've got."
Wirfs suffered a high ankle sprain last year in the Bucs' wild-card win over the Philadelphia Eagles and was unable to play the following week in the NFC divisional playoff. The Los Angeles Rams won 30-27 on a last-second field goal after heavily pressuring Brady all game as Wirf's replacement, Josh Wells, struggled.
Some teammates expressed optimism that Wirfs could recover, although after starting the season 4-6, every game at this point has become "must win." On Monday night, the Bucs face a New Orleans Saints team Brady has beaten only once in the regular season as a Buccaneer.
"He a warrior. He gone be all right," inside linebacker Devin White said of Wirfs. "I don't think it's going to be nothing serious. Especially when you see him in there. He still got a smile on his face. That tells me all I need to know right there. I'm going to be praying for him, just hoping that it's nothing severe and hope he can be back with us because we need him. He's the best in the business right now, and he holds it down on that right side.
"He's just a loving, caring, giving person. At the end of the day, we've got to have his back. We've got to step up for him in whatever way. We've got to encourage him and we've got to encourage the player stepping in for him if he's not back by Monday or whatever the case may be. We've just got to be that and we've got to be able to lean on each other."