Stay the Course Out of Houston

The Buccaneers’ loss to the Texans on Sunday falls on Tampa’s offense. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

There’s no question the Bucs were sloppy in nearly every phase of the game. Kicker Kyle Brindza left seven easy points on the field with three missed field goals and extra point. The receiving corps dropped numerous catchable balls, particularly Mike Evans. Once again, missed tackles and soft coverage plagued the defense.

Despite their miscues, the defense actually played a strong game. Until the fourth quarter, they allowed only seven points, one field goal attempt, and four third-down conversions.

They matched that in the fourth quarter, but that’s going to happen when the offense only possesses the ball for 18 minutes prior.

The Bucs’ only touchdown came from a short field courtesy of a Kwon Alexander interception. Their performance almost conjured the Bucs teams of the ‘90s that relied on the defense to make it as easy as possible for the offense to score.

Obviously, Lovie Smith’s defense is not those great defenses that carried the Bucs into the playoffs. The pass rush was again nonexistent and dumb penalties in the secondary kept a few Houston drives alive.

There’s no question the defense has a long way to go before they look like Lovie’s Bears defenses, much less the Bucs Super Bowl defense. But, it’s also clear that it’s the offense that has a longer way to go.

Believe it or not, that’s okay.

The Bucs are starting three rookies and two second-year players on offense. They have a new offensive coordinator and yet another reconfigured offensive line. There isn’t a piece of the Bucs offense that isn’t a work in progress.

While the Bucs’ four dropped passes were the big story of the day, the whole pass offense was out of sync. Blame cannot be placed on the offensive line for a change as it held JJ Watt and the Houston defensive line without a sack and only seven pressures per Pro Football Focus.

Winston often had room to throw, throwing 29 of 36 snaps without pressure according to PFF. Still, Winston was woefully inaccurate, completing only 17 of those 36 passes.

He often missed open receivers in favor of a returning but rusty Mike Evans. His three drops killed a few drives, and Winston’s lone interception came trying to force the ball to Evans.

Obviously Evans should play a big part of the pass offense, but he was as much a hindrance as help on Sunday.

Doug Martin’s renaissance continues to be squandered by poor blocking up front. He breaks far too many tackles just trying to get back to the line of scrimmage than a quality running back deserves.

Charles Sims fulfilled his Tedford-ian destiny against Houston, flashing that “speed in space” so ballyhooed last year with his nifty 32-yard touchdown run. Sims could be the cure to the Bucs’ storied woes with screen plays.

The offense had numerous opportunities to put the game away. What they were missing was seasoning. Chemistry between Winston and receivers, along the offensive line and in the backfield.

Chemistry takes time and patience. The Bucs loss to Houston proved they need all three.

Redemption in the Big Easy

The Buccaneers responded to a horrible loss with an ugly, gutsy win over division rival New Orleans.

It was exactly what they needed.

A dominant win simply wasn’t going to happen. There are just too many issues on this team, from an abundance of inexperience from the rookies to the declining skills of some its veterans.

Even with the win, Lovie Smith and his staff did not acquit themselves of the terrible job they did to prepare their team for this season. Smith still has a ways to go before he proves that he’s turned this team around.

Still, Sunday’s win was a big one, full of revelations and new concerns.

The Bucs defense provided a taste of what it could be. The defensive line was disruptive, particularly defensive end Jacquies Smith and as usual Gerald McCoy. Smith, now the NFL’s leader in sacks, was a game-changer, notching three sacks and forcing two fumbles.

The win belongs to Smith and the defense. While the offense certainly played its part, they squandered numerous opportunities harvested by the defense and cultivated new challenges with its ineptitude.

The two late fumbles by Jameis Winston and Doug Martin along with some conservative play-calling kept the Saints in the game much later than they deserved. Only great plays by Johnthan Banks, Will Gholston and Chris Conte kept the game out of reach.

The Bucs’ rookie quarterback played a much better and more even game. Calling himself “a game manager” on Monday per the Tampa Bay Times‘ Rick Stroud, Winston’s play sometimes indicated otherwise. His 54-yard completion to Louis Murphy and pinpoint touchdown to Vincent Jackson were nothing short of spectacular.

Aside from the fumble, Martin looked like a true-blue bellcow running back. While the Saints defense clamped down on the run and frequently found their way into the backfield, Martin added 58 yards after contact according to Pro Football Focus.

The offensive line remained inconsistent. Donovan Smith gave up the sack that led to Winston’s fumble. Run blocking was in and out, often leaving Martin and Charles Sims to fend for themselves.

There’s no question the offense still has work to do. The encouraging takeaway from Sunday’s game is the play of the defense and it’s ability to make plays and hold onto a win.

Four Keys to the Bucs’ Match-Up in New Orleans

It’s hard to imagine the Buccaneers starting off their season any worse than they did in their 42-14 loss to the Titans last Sunday. In just the second game of 2015, Tampa Bay’s season could be on the line.

That may seem like an overreaction to the Bucs’ opening loss, but the nature of the loss should concern the team over its long-term prospects. Another blowout, and questions of the team’s ability and Lovie Smith’s competence will be unavoidable.

It is unlikely that the Bucs will again lose in such a humiliating fashion. The Saints are as vulnerable as they’ve been since Drew Brees signed with them in 2006.

Over the offseason New Orleans lost its two top playmakers on both sides of the football, tight end Jimmy Graham and linebacker Junior Galette. They may also be without safety Jarius Byrd, LB Danelle Ellerbe, and cornerback Keenan Lewis as none practiced this week so far.

Regardless of injuries, the Saints are no automatic win. New Orleans won its last seven matchups with the Bucs, scoring more than 30 points in four of those contests.

The Bucs have too many issues of their own to consider any game going forward a gimme. Every aspect of the team needs improvement, none moreso than the coaching.

Here are the four keys to this week’s game in New Orleans:

1. Remediate the Winston Project

Jameis Winston had a rough first outing as the Bucs quarterback last Sunday. While many of the offense’s problems are on him, there are ways to get him back on track.

Winston’s problems began almost the instant he took the field, beginning with the  protection he received, or didn’t receive, from his offensive line.

According to PFF, the offensive line allowed 14 total pressures including four sacks. Rookies Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith were expected to struggle, but Gosder Cherilus made it apparent why he was unsigned through most of training camp.

The Titans knew the Bucs’ line was not entirely up to the task and blitzed often. The Bucs can expect the same treatment from the Saints.

Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter needs to relieve the pressure with max protection schemes and short pass plays early to get Winston into a rhythm. He won’t be able to completely eliminate Winston’s or the offensive line’s mistakes, but he can help them create more positive plays than negative.

2. Play Mike Evans

Lovie Smith is notoriously stubborn when it comes to hamstring health. If a player’s hammy is not 100%, he doesn’t play.

That fear kept wide receiver Mike Evans out last week. It should not keep him out of New Orleans.’s Ian Rapoport reported before the game Sunday that Evans was “feeling good and optimistic about playing.” Obviously, Evans’ feelings were wrong as he remained inactive.

The Tampa Bay Times‘ Greg Auman reported Thursday that Evans says his hamstring feels “100 percent.” Again, this means nothing as Lovie Smith owns the final word.

That final word needs to be “go.” Evans was sorely missed against the Titans and if he believes he can play, he should play.

The Saints may be without Keenan Lewis this week, enhancing the potential size advantage Evans could bring.

3. Emphasize The Fundamentals

Tackling was a serious problem on Sunday. While Lovie Smith likes to teach his players to try and force fumbles, it was clear he didn’t spend enough time working on basic tackling.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Bucs missed 10 tackles against the Titans, but that’s only half the story. Marcus Mariota completed exactly zero passes over twenty yards but still managed four plays of over twenty yards.

In fact, most of the Titans’ offensive production came after the catch or contact. On the ground, the Titans gained 94 yards after contact, and the Tennessee receivers picked up an additional 117 yards after the catch per PFF.

These three stats begin to paint a picture of an undisciplined defense that doesn’t wrap up and doesn’t gang tackle, hallmarks of Lovie Smith’s defense in Chicago. Whatever it takes to tighten up the Bucs discipline, Smith needs to pull the trigger.

4. Feed Doug Martin

There was one positive takeaway from last week: Doug Martin is back. The fourth-year running back looked like his rookie self and should remain the centerpiece of the Bucs offense this year.

Martin ran for 52 yards on 11 carries, which seems unimpressive until considering 30 of those yards came after contact per PFF. The second effort that seemed to be missing last year found its way back.

Martin is the most reliable weapon in an offense led by an erratic Jameis Winston. Until the rookie passer can get firm footing, the Bucs need Martin to lead the way.

Last week the Saints allowed 120 yards in 25 carries by the Cardinals run game. Martin could be as, if not more, successful if given as many opportunities in New Orleans.

Sound and Fury

The Buccaneers started the 2015 season firing the cannons… directly into their own ship.

There are several words that could be used to describe the Bucs’ following the 42-17 rout they suffered at the hands of Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans. Humiliating, pathetic, infuriating all come to mind when recalling how easily the other top quarterback of this year’s draft stomped the team that passed on him.

The one word that may not immediately manifest is inevitable. Hope and optimism permeate freely among NFL teams and their fanbases before a season begins, but reality usually comes crashing through their dreams of January and reminds them how bad their teams really are.

The Bucs were not going to be good this year. They have a rookie quarterback in an offense playing under its fifth offensive coordinator in five years. Their offensive line is either too old or too green. Their defensive ends and safeties would likely not start on most other teams.

Some of these issues are likely to improve over the course of the season. Dirk Koetter is a seasoned offensive coordinator known to produce even with limited talent on the field. Jameis Winston is a very talented passer who needs time to adjust to the NFL, and his offensive line should improve as it continues to gel.

None of these issues are all that troubling. They’re not even the reasons why the Bucs were repeatedly roundhouse-kicked in Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.

The real problem is Lovie Smith.

Smith is almost exclusively a defensive coach. He built his reputation on it in Chicago. While his offenses were consistently inconsistent, his defense was an immutable monolith rising out of Soldier Field for nearly a decade.

Whatever Smith did to build his temple to defensive consistency in Chicago was apparently lost when he came to Tampa Bay. It took Smith a year to get his defense working in Chicago. A year and a game into his tenure with the Bucs, Smith made no apparent progress.

Yes, there are some talent deficiencies, particularly in the secondary defensive ends, but not enough to allow four touchdowns in one half.

The confusion on defense leapt off the screen. Otherwise smart and dependable players like linebacker Lavonte David were lost in the confusion wrought by the Titans’ superior planning and execution.

Does this one game mark the end of the Bucs’ season? No, but expectations should be tempered. If Lovie Smith couldn’t prepare his team in three months, how are they going to look each week?

Who is the Bucs’ Likely MVP?

The fate of the Buccaneers’ 2015 season rests in the arms of running back Doug Martin. His redemption is the key to Tampa Bay’s return to relevancy.

Make no mistake; the Bucs are not a true playoff team this year. Only the substandard quality of the NFC South gives them any hope of reaching the postseason.

The Bucs defense should improve from last season but still lacks the necessary edge rush to make the Tampa 2 really hum. It won’t be a liability, but the defense is not yet ready to carry the team like the Tony Dungy/Monte Kiffin defenses of old.

The offense remains Tampa Bay’s rubix cube. No one has figured out how to make it any good.

Jameis Winston could be the long-awaited solution, but he’s only a rookie, though it seems many Bucs fans forget that. His renowned football IQ, pocket awareness and ball placement have yet to be tested, much less exhibited in a real NFL game.

Winston is allowed to struggle his rookie year. It’s an inevitability especially with a shaky offensive line that allowed 29 hurries, six hits and five sacks on Tampa’s quarterbacks during the preseason per Pro Football Focus.

The preseason told the tale of two Bucs offensive lines. One was introducing Winston to as many NFL pass-rushers as possible, leading to an abysmal 6.6 yards per pass attempt during the preseason. The other was proving that Doug Martin was indeed back as he averaged 5.9 yards per carry in the same span.

The change in the fourth-year running back is obvious. In 2012, Martin exploded on the scene, running decisively and breaking tackles like a human bowling ball. Since then, he struggled with injuries and general inefficacy. He couldn’t break tackles like he did in 2012 against Vikings in Week 8 or set franchise records as he did in Week 9.

It became clear this preseason that 2012 Doug Martin was back, likely stemming from his offseason weight drop. Per ESPN’s Pat Yasinskas, Martin shed between 205 and 208 pounds this offseason from his playing weight of 215 pounds (despite his 223-pound listed weight).

Over three preseason games, Martin ran the ball 20 times for 118 yards and a touchdown. He was elusive, decisive and explosive – everything he wasn’t in the past two seasons.

Part of Martin’s apparent resurgence is owed to the improved run blocking by the offensive line. While Bucs made personnel changes that improved the line’s overall talent, it’s the addition of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter that makes the biggest difference.

For all intents and purposes, the Bucs didn’t have an offensive coordinator last year. Jeff Tedford never called a game, and his replacement Marcus Arroyo had no NFL experience and very little as an offensive coordinator.

Koetter has seven years experience as an NFL offensive coordinator and is one of the more respected coordinators in the league. He has the coaching acumen to make the Bucs a legitimately respectable offense in the next few years.

It’s no secret Koetter is a fan of Doug Martin. Pewter Report’s Scott Reynolds reported in June that it was Koetter that kept Martin with the Bucs this offseason. While most of the team now has Jason Licht and Lovie Smith’s stamp of approval, Martin clearly has Koetter’s.

With offensive line still struggling to mesh in pass protection, Koetter will likely lean on Martin early in the season. It will be up to Martin to carry the offense until the rest of the team can pick up the slack.