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. With a Thursday Night Football game against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, Tampa Bay came into Sunday’s game against the New York Giants needing a win after a 1-1 start. The Bucs prevailed, 25-23, thanks to a game-winning field goal by Nick Folk, who previously missed two field goals and an extra point in the game.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: This Was A “Must Win” For The Bucs
The beauty of the NFL is that there are only 16 regular season games – far fewer than the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball – and that every game matters. With the Bucs entering Sunday’s game against the 0-3 New York Giants just five days before having to battle the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, Tampa Bay could not afford to be 1-2 heading to a Thursday Night Football clash against Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all-time – especially with the 2-2 Patriots coming off a stunning, 33-30 home loss to Carolina.
So this game was a “must win,” and the Bucs delivered – although they made it much harder than they needed to with a missed opportunity for a touchdown right before halftime, having to settle for a 20-yard field goal, in addition to two missed field goals from Folk and a missed extra point. The Bucs could have used the seven points from Folk’s misses, as well as the four additional points missed from failing to punch the ball in for a touchdown prior to halftime. That’s 11 points the Bucs offense left on the field.
“We left plenty of points out there, I mean the game didn’t have to be that close,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. “We’d love to have finished out that half with a touchdown. But it was. It was that close and we got behind and we came back and won. You get tested, and we passed. We passed the test tonight.”
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston had one of his best games in his young career on Sunday, completing 22-of-38 passes for 322 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against the Giants. Winston was 5-of-5 for 55 yards on the game’s final driving, hitting tight end Cam Brate twice for 31 yards just minutes after connecting with him for a 14-yard touchdown that gave the Bucs a temporary 22-17 lead. After the Giants regained the lead, 23-22, Winston engineered the seventh-game winning drive, and his fourth fourth-quarter comeback.
Koetter rolled the dice when he halted the final drive at the New York 13, opting for three kneel downs that lost three yards to set up Folk with a chance at redemption instead of trying to get a touchdown or at least a few more yards to make it an easier kick. With the game on the line, and the risk of a 1-2 start, Koetter called a timeout with four seconds left and Folk delivered on the game-winning, 34-yard field goal.
“Right before I made that kick I said to him, ‘Practice was the hard part, this is the easy shit – so just go out and make this kick,” said Baker, who yells at Folk in practice, as documented on Hard Knocks. “I told him that right before – practice is hard. This is easy. Go ahead and do it.”
Had Folk missed that field goal, imagine the heat that both he and Koetter would be feeling right now. Instead, the Bucs won a “must win” game to improve to 2-1 to start the year, especially with Carolina and Atlanta at 3-1.
STATEMENT 2: The Bucs’ Pass Rush Is Dead
I repeat – the Bucs’ pass rush is dead. D-E-A-D. Not only has Tampa Bay gone two straight games without a sack, the team has actually gone 10 quarters without a sack, as the last time the Bucs dropped a quarterback it was Chicago’s Mike Glennon in the second quarter of the season opener in Week 2. That’s bad – scary bad. Statistically, Tampa Bay ranks dead last in sacks, trailing only San Francisco, which has just four in three games. Jacksonville, which sacked New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown five times on Sunday, leads the league with 23 sacks.
The Bucs’ internal goal is to get a sack for every 14 pass attempts. Yet Tampa Bay has one sack in the last 127 pass attempts, including Eli Manning’s 49 throws on Sunday. If the Bucs were hitting their goal of one sack for every 14 pass attempts, Tampa Bay would have nine sacks on the season and be averaging three per game.
“It eats at you,” Baker said. “As a defensive lineman you pride yourself on how many sacks you can get – takeaways, too. At the end of the day I feel like sacks and takeaways come in bunches. Sometimes you are going to go three or four games without a sack. Then you get those few games where you get six or eight sacks as a team. We’re just going to keep working at getting to the quarterback. We were there, but we have to get him down. We have to keep working. When they come they are going to come.”
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was held throughout the game and didn’t draw a holding call. It’s not like McCoy isn’t affecting the game – he is, although he only had one quarterback hit to go along with Chris Baker’s hit on Manning. But two quarterback hits is not a pass rush. Defensive end Noah Spence, who is hampered by a shoulder injury, didn’t get close to Manning, and fellow defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr. played the run exceptionally well but was invisible while rushing the passer.
New defensive lineman Will Clarke got a significant amount of action at both end and tackle and had two stops, but it’s not like he’s the answer. Clarke had 4.5 sacks in the three previous years in Cincinnati, including four last season. Jacquies Smith was active on Sunday for the first time since tearing his ACL in the 2017, but seems far off from making an impact like he did in 2014 and ’15 as the team’s second-leading sacker with 13.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Not only has the Bucs defense failed to record a sack in the last 10 quarters, Tampa Bay also hasn’t recorded a takeaway during that span, either. Safety Chris Conte forced a fumble on Sunday, but it was recovered by New York and didn’t result in a turnover.
“It blows our mind,” said Bucs defensive tackle Clinton McDonald. “We are very aware that we don’t have any sacks or takeaways at this point and time of the season. It’s still the first half of the season, with a lot of football to be played, but at the same time, when they come they come in bunches. We have to remember that. That doesn’t mean we’re lacking effort getting to the guy or covering a guy. When you play a quarterback like Eli Manning he doesn’t want to get hit. He is going to get the ball out quick. We have to do a better job of rushing and covering at the same time. We have to make it work together.”
Brady is the same way, and there is a decent chance the Bucs’ dubious streak continues to 14 quarters.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Will The Bucs Be Bringing In Another Kicker For A Tryout?
No, despite the fact that Folk struggled mightily on Sunday, missing two field goals and one extra point, while connecting on one extra point and two field goals, including the 34-yard game-winner as time expired.
“Never a doubt,” Koetter said. “Nick is a pro kicker. He’s going to make that kick every time.”
Folk missed his first field goal of the season when his 46-yard attempt was wide right. That came after he missed an extra point – his second missed PAT of the year – following Tampa Bay’s second touchdown of the game. Instead of the Bucs being up 17-0 early in the game, they only had a modest 13-point lead.
Folk missed another field goal, a 49-yarder wide right in the third quarter. That allowed the Giants to creep back into the game and take a 17-16 lead. The missed extra point forced the Bucs to go for two points in the fourth quarter when Cameron Brate’s touchdown catch put Tampa Bay up 22-17. Winston’s pass to DeSean Jackson was off the mark and the two-point conversion failed.
Despite missing a total of seven points in the game, Koetter’s confidence in Folk didn’t waver, although he did bypass the chance for a 52-yard attempt early in the fourth quarter when he opted to go for it on fourth-and-2.
“Again, we’ve talked about this before,” Koetter said. “They’ve got to make it. That’s what they get paid to do and Nick’s made a lot of kicks. Shoot, we had it, it was right there. He was going to make that kick. There was no doubt in mind about that.”
No lack of confidence in Koetter’s mind means no other kickers will be brought in for a tryout.
QUESTION 2: What Was With The Abysmal Play-Calling Right Before Halftime?
Instant replay took away a Mike Evans touchdown catch, his second in the game, with 56 left before halftime when it was ruled that Evans was down at the half-yard line. Instead of pounding Jacquizz Rodgers up the middle for a touchdown, the play call was to toss the ball to Rodgers. The questionable call lost a yard and a half.
“Of course,” Koetter said. “We’d love to have finished out that half with a touchdown.”
The Bucs used a second-round draft pick on run-blocking lineman Ali Marpet and are spending over $5 million per year on right guard J.R. Sweezy and the play call was a toss to the right? Koetter needed to pound the ball up the middle or off right guard three times behind Marpet and Sweezy. Sometimes Koetter gets too cute with his play-calling and that creates problems for the offense.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: The Juice Is Loose
Yes, technically felon O.J. Simpson is out of jail after spending nine years in jail for committing armed robbery. He was released on Saturday. But the O.J. I’m talking about is Tampa Bay rookie tight end O.J. Howard, who scored his first NFL touchdown – a 58-yarder down the left sideline to push the Bucs’ lead to 14-0 over the visiting New York Giants.
Koetter’s game prep for the Giants game obviously included watching Howard in Alabama vs. Clemson games where he totaled nine catches for 314 yards and three touchdowns in back-to-back national championship contests. In Alabama’s 45-40 victory two years, Howard had a couple of wide-open touchdowns.
Howard was left wide open in a busted coverage and Winston used play action to loft a perfectly thrown deep ball to the rookie tight end. That was the third-longest touchdown by a Bucs tight end in team history and the longest scoring catch by rookie since Doug Martin’s 64-yard touchdown catch in 2012.
Howard scores another touchdown against New England on Thursday night as he gets more incorporated into Koetter’s passing game. I’m not saying whether or not that will be enough to win, though. My Bucs vs. Patriots prediction will come on Wednesday in PewterReport.com’s Pewter Preview and Predictions article.
PREDICTION 2: David Returns To Face Gronkowski
Did you notice how Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David was listed as “doubtful” but not “out” for Sunday’s Bucs vs. Giants game, yet middle linebacker Kwon Alexander was listed as “out” despite the fact that neither practiced all week? That’s because David’s sprained ankle wasn’t nearly as bad as it was first thought and the team believes there is a chance that he could return to action on Thursday Night Football against New England.
With Brady and Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski coming to Tampa Bay in a few days the team is hopeful that David will respond to treatment and be well enough to play by kickoff. Given his experience and playmaking ability, the Bucs would rather have David covering Gronkowski as opposed to rookie Kendell Beckwith or Adarius Glanton. David might not even practice this week but still play if he gets cleared to play by the Bucs doctors.
Alexander’s hamstring issue is more severe and there is no chance that he’ll be ready to go by Thursday. However, Tampa Bay is hopeful that he could return to face Arizona 10 days later following the Patriots game. Koetter is giving the players three days off – Saturday, Sunday and Monday – to help rest and recover due to the fact that the team’s bye week was moved from Week 11 to Week 1 due to Hurricane Irma.