It’s time for PewterReport.com’s 2-Point Conversion post-game column, which features two statements, two questions and two predictions based on the latest Bucs game. Tampa Bay came oh so close to beating NFC South rival Atlanta on Monday Night Football, 24-21. Former head coach Jon Gruden called the game for ESPN and was on hand for his Bucs Ring of Honor induction at halftime of a very entertaining and eventful division clash.

TWO BIG STATEMENTS

STATEMENT 1: Battered, Bruised And Beaten Bucs
Was it really Monday Night Football, or was it an old episode of M*A*S*H at Raymond James Stadium?

With former Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden looking on and calling the game for ESPN, the Buccaneers fell to the visiting Falcons, 24-21. And when I say “fell” I mean “fell” – as in fallen players.

Not only did the Bucs play without three injured starters in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, but Tampa Bay incurred a lot of injuries during the game as well. In the first quarter, cornerback Ryan Smith was evaluated for a concussion, but returned to action. Then he missed time due to a leg injury, but returned.

“We had a lot of guys – I don’t think I’ve been in a game where we’ve had that many guys out,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. “Some were able to come back. Shoot, I think Ryan Smith was hurt five different times in the game. I’m really proud of the way we used every single guy on that roster. We had guys stepping into roles that they’re not used to playing. I’m really, really proud of the way that we battled.”

Tight end Cameron Brate took a big shot to his head and injured his knee, while rookie tight end O.J. Howard suffered a sprained ankle, but briefly returned before being ruled out. Brate didn’t return until the second half.

Bucs RG J.R. Sweezy - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Bucs RG J.R. Sweezy – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

“I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a game with that many injuries,” Brate said. “Every other play we had a guy go down—a key contributor to our team. That’s a testament to the guys on the team. We’re fighting and trying everything we can. We’re getting close. We just have to do more. I can’t pinpoint on thing. It’s not a lack of effort. We just have to make a couple more plays. We have to weeks left and hopefully we can win a couple here at the end.”

Wide receiver DeSean Jackson also suffered a sprained ankle, but returned before being held out later in the second half. Bucs right guard J.R. Sweezy had a lower leg injury in the second quarter and did not return. Evan Smith, who moved from center to right guard to fill in for Sweezy, left in the fourth quarter with a left injury, but returned.

Bucs defensive end Robert Ayers collided with linebacker Adarius Glanton on a sack attempt – and I stress the word attempt – in the third quarter. Ayers had a stinger. Ayers was helped off the field by trainers and Glanton had to be carted off the field with his leg in an air cast.

Also in the second half, safety Justin Evans suffered an ankle injury and did not return. Safety T.J. Ward left the game and was treated for a concussion in the second half. In the fourth quarter linebacker Davante Bond had a stinger and left the game, marking the 10th Buccaneers who was officially listed with an injury.

In all, there were 10 Buccaneers who left the game due to injury. Some returned. Some didn’t. Howard, Sweezy and Jackson were all seen with walking boots in the locker room after the game. Sweezy and Jackson were both on crutches after the game. Glanton will undoubtedly be out for the year.

“We went through all five of our linebackers that we had up,” Koetter said. 
“They were all playing.”

STATEMENT 2: Gruden Night – What A Blast From The Past
Before kickoff, the Bucs vs. Falcons game on Monday Night Football was thought of as a mere opening act to the main event at Raymond James Stadium, which was former Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden’s induction into the Bucs Ring of Honor at halftime. Gruden, who was on hand to call the game with Sean McDonough for ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast, is the team’s all-time winningest coach with 57 victories in the regular season, and of course, the team’s only Super Bowl-winning head coach.

Former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

As it turned, the Bucs vs. Falcons game was quite entertaining – just as much as Gruden’s halftime speech to a boisterous crowd of Tampa Bay fans. Gruden was flanked by the team’s Lombardi Trophy, and a No. 37 Bucs jersey with his name on it.

After Gruden thanked the Bucs fans, the Glazers, his family, his former coaches and coordinators and his former players, he had his Super Bowl offense line up at the 3-yard line in the North end zone to call one more play.

Gruden called the play that scored the Bucs’ first touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVII – Mike Alstott up the gut. Alstott took the handoff from quarterback Brad Johnson and crossed the goal line, replicating his 3-yard scoring plunge to thunderous applause. For all of the talk of bad blood or friction between Alstott and Gruden from their days together with the Bucs, a smiling Alstott gave Gruden a big hug after scoring the touchdown, which was a very cool sight to see.

TWO PROBING QUESTIONS

QUESTION 1: Was This Winston’s Best Performance?
Not quite. Jameis Winston shrugged off his early season shoulder injury to have a sensational performance on Monday Night Football against Atlanta. Winston completed 27-of-35 passes (77.1 percent) for 299 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 130.5 QB rating in the losing effort for Tampa Bay.

“I think this is Jameis Winston at his best,” Koetter said. “We’ve seen him at his best for parts of several games. This was probably his best and most complete game. I’ve seen it over the last three years at different times. Our division is loaded with excellent quarterbacks and I think Jameis is going to be right there with them. I say it every week, he is 23 and those guys have a lot of time on him. I think you just get better with time and playing in this league. Jameis did a really nice job tonight.”

While it was certainly his best performance of the season, it wasn’t Winston’s best game as a Buccaneer. That came in 2015 during his rookie season at Philadelphia where he completed 19-of-26 passes (65.5 percent) for 246 yards with a career-high five touchdowns and no interceptions in a 45-17 Bucs win. Winston had a QB rating of 131.6 in that game.

Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Winston also shined in a 31-24 win at Atlanta to start the 2016 regular season when he completed 23-of-32 passes (71.9 percent) for 281 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. Winston had a QB rating of 125.1 in that contest and was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week for that performance.

Winston’s 77.1 percent completion percentage on Monday night was a career best. He has had seven games in which he has completed at least 70 percent of his passes, including three this season.

“Jameis played a heck of a game,” Koetter said. “He probably played his best game this season. Jameis was very sharp tonight. He took care of the football, was accurate, threw the deep ball with accuracy, checked it down, and did a good job of leading our football team. Jameis played very well.”

QUESTION 2: Did The Bucs “D” Get Victimized By Focusing Too Much On Jones?
Coming into Monday night’s game, Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones had 1,359 yards in 11 games against Tampa Bay, which is the highest per-game average by any player against one team in NFL history with a minimum of 10 games, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Jones got the best of the Bucs in their last meeting on November 26, catching 12 passes for 253 yards (21.1 avg.) and two touchdowns in Atlanta’s 34-20 win at home.

Determined not to let Jones beat the Bucs again, defensive coordinator Mike Smith pressed Jones with cornerback Brent Grimes when those two were matched up, and rolled safety Justin Evans over the top to help Ryan Smith when Jones was lined up over the second-year cornerback. As a result, Jones was held to 54 yards on three catches.

It was a great job by Tampa Bay’s beleaguered defensive coordinator, right?

Wrong.

Falcons RB Devonta Freeman - Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

Falcons RB Devonta Freeman – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

The Bucs couldn’t stop the Falcons’ toss sweep all night as Atlanta rolled up 201 yards on 35 carries (5.7 avg.). Devonta Freeman, who missed the earlier match-up in November, rushed for 126 yards and a 32-yard touchdown on 22 carries (5.7 avg.). Most of those runs were toss sweeps to the left and to the right. The Bucs defenders couldn’t consistently set the edge and stop the run all game.

Freeman even fumbled the ball twice, once at the goal where defensive end Robert Ayers hit him, but the ball was recovered in the end zone by tight end Levine Toilolo for a touchdown, and again after a big hit by safety Chris Conte. That fumble was also recovered by the Falcons.

Yet the Bucs’ lone fumble of the game, which came when Peyton Barber coughed the ball up at the Falcons’ 4-yard line after a hit by safety Keanu Neal, proved to be costly in a game that was ultimately decided by three points.

“Peyton did a nice job,” Koetter said about Barber, who started in place of the inactive Doug Martin and ran for 53 yards on 13 carries (4.1 avg.). “Obviously, the fumble on the 4-yard line hurt us and he feels terrible about it, as we all do. Give Atlanta credit for everything they do, but that ball took some crazy bounces tonight.

Unfortunately for the Bucs, Freeman and the Falcons bounced too many big runs to the outside, too.

TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS

PREDICTION 1: No Presents For Tampa Bay On Christmas Eve
I predicted the Bucs would lose to the Falcons – and they did – and fall to 4-10 on the season. That alone would make it difficult for Tampa Bay to get up for a tough road game at Carolina on Christmas Eve with the Panthers having everything to play for and the Bucs essentially having nothing to play for except for pride.

But that was before the Bucs’ bloodbath on Monday night. An already battered offensive line will be without Sweezy next week. Sweezy, who was in a walking boot and on crutches becomes the third starting offensive lineman to leave the lineup, joining center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson. Howard and Jackson likely won’t play, either.

With a banged up Bucs team at less than full strength I don’t see how Tampa Bay wins at Carolina against a Panthers team making a strong playoff push. The Bucs have 4-11 staring them in the face – 4-12, actually after a loss to New Orleans in the season finale.

PREDICTION 2: Gruden’s Temptation To Coach Winston Grows
If Gruden was waffling about returning to the sidelines next year – possibly in Tampa Bay if the Glazers fire Koetter, as I suspect they will – Winston’s performance tonight might have pushed him over the edge towards coming back. Gruden had a man crush on Winston before his performance with the latest Bucs Ring of Honor inductee in the house, but seeing Winston perform the way he did make Gruden gush about the franchise quarterback like a giddy little schoolgirl to the nationally televised audience on ESPN.

Former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden - Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

Former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

Winston was laser accurate, completing 77.1 percent of his passes for 299 yards with three touchdowns and zero turnovers in defeat. Winston only had eight incompletions, but keep in mind that Winston had two dropped passes by Brate and fullback Alan Cross, in addition to two passes on spike plays to stop the clock – otherwise he would have completed over 80 percent of his throws.

“I thought Jameis did awesome,” Brate said. “He had some pressure in his face and he got hit a couple times, but he played his ass off just like everyone else on this team.”

Gruden felt the exact same way about Winston when the night was through.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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