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 made a big statement in a 24-17 home win against Carolina that keeps the Bucs’ slim playoff hopes alive, but puts a big dent in the Panthers’ post-season aspirations with their fourth straight loss.
2 BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: Bucs Get Statement Win Over Panthers
Statement No. 1 this week is Sunday’s big statement win for Tampa Bay. The team’s 24-17 win over the Panthers was a big one for head coach Dirk Koetter, general manager Jason Licht and the rest of the Bucs’ brass as Tampa Bay improved to 5-7. The Bucs have already matched their win total from a year ago with four games left – and they are still technically alive for a Wild Card playoff berth.
Tampa Bay splits its 2018 series with Carolina, which has lost four straight, and is now just one game back from the Panthers, and has moved out of the NFC South cellar, which is now occupied by Atlanta, which is 4-8. The Bucs, who have now won back-to-back games for the first time since starting the season 2-0, notched their second NFC South win and could collect a third next week with an upset at home against New Orleans.
Speaking of the Saints, that was the Bucs’ first and only quality win of the season. Tampa Bay’s other victories have come against Philadelphia (5-6), Cleveland (4-7-1) and San Francisco (2-9) before beating the Panthers, who were 6-5 prior to kickoff today. When the Glazers evaluate the 2018 season and determine whether or not Koetter and Licht will stick around next season, this game will stand out as a quality win – a statement win – especially because of the play of unsung players like safety Andrew Adams, cornerback Javien Elliott and linebacker Kevin Minter.
So what will it take for this game to matter even more? The Bucs will need to pick up two more wins for Koetter and Licht to avoid regime change in my estimation. Any loss needs to be close, and one of those wins has to come against Atlanta in Week 17. Winning the season finale at home and ending the season on a high note will greatly help Koetter and Licht’s cause.
If the Bucs lose the next four games, this statement win over Carolina won’t matter. Just ask Lovie Smith how losing the last four games of the 2015 season after a 6-6 start worked out for him. A 7-9 finish shows improvement and that may be even for Koetter and Licht to stay in Tampa Bay, while an 8-8 record helps them even more. And mathematically, a 9-7 record isn’t out of the question, and if that happens, the Bucs will have beaten New Orleans, Baltimore, Dallas and Atlanta to end the year to make an improbable playoff run.
STATEMENT 2: Duffner’s Bucs D Is For Real (At Home)
What can you say about defensive coordinator Mark Duffner and the job he’s done since Dirk Koetter fired Mike Smith after the team’s 34-29 loss at Atlanta in Week 6?
Back in September, Koetter famously once said: “Okay, so we fire Mike Smith. Then what?”
“Well, Dirk, the Bucs defense gets better.”
That was the rhetorical answer that Koetter didn’t necessarily expect when he was still hanging on to Smith threw the bye week and the Falcons game. But Koetter made the right move, and Duffner has taken on the new responsibilities and ran with the opportunity, integrating a slew of new starters and role players into the defense to fill in for the rash of injuries that have hit Tampa Bay’s linebacker corps and secondary.
At one point, the Bucs had Andrew Adams, De’Vante Harris, Isaiah Johnson, Jordan Whitehead, Ryan Smith, Javien Elliott and Josh Shaw on the field in the secondary today. Only Smith was a starter in the defensive backfield last year, and that was out of necessity. Adams, Harris, Whitehead and Shaw weren’t even on the roster last year, and Johnson and Elliott were strictly special teamers. In Sunday’s win against Carolina, those players combined for 22 out of the Bucs’ 50 tackles, eight out of the team’s 10 pass breakups and all four interceptions.
Adams was the unlikeliest of heroes with a career-high three interceptions – a feat that’s only happened three other times in Bucs history. Ronde Barber accomplished that feat twice with three INTs against New Orleans on December 23, 2001 and against the Saints again on December 4, 2005, while Aqib Talib snared three interceptions against Washington on October 4, 2009.
The Buccaneers have missed linebacker Lavonte David’s playmaking over the last two games while he has battled through a knee injury, and he made his presence felt immediately in the first quarter of Sunday’s game against the Panthers. David tipped a pass that was picked off by Adams to help the Bucs add a field goal to go up 10-0. David led the Bucs with 12 tackles and also sacked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton later in the first quarter, which was the second sack by a linebacker as newcomer Kevin Minter also corralled Newton early in the game to help set the tone.
David now has 19.5 sacks in his career with more sacks against the Panthers than any other team. David recorded his sixth sack against Carolina and his fifth sack against Newton on Sunday.
“The D was fantastic today [with] four turnovers – four interceptions and four sacks,” Koetter said. “The offense, we just couldn’t get that last score to put that game away in the second half, so the defense just had to keep going out there and keep getting it. Our D-line played so hard. I think when Justin Evans went out at halftime. We’re basically playing with none of our starting five defensive backs to start the season. For all those guys that came in and were role players today, and stars today. Shoot, Adams with three picks today, Elliott with a pick, Harris with two nice pass break-ups. That was pretty cool for those guys. It was awesome to have Lavonte back, he lead us with 12 tackles and the one sack. So, today was a day for the D and they did a great job.”
The last time Tampa Bay played Carolina the Panthers had 35 points at halftime. On Sunday, it was the Bucs that were doing the scoring in the first half. Tampa Bay led 17-7, but it could have been 24-7 if not for Peyton Barber’s goal line fumble. While the Bucs’ 17 points first half points were impressive, the real noteworthy stat was Tampa Bay’s defense holding Carolina to just seven points after two quarters of action.
That crazy stat I dug up about the Bucs coming into Sunday’ game, allowing just 18.4 points per home – only 16 points per game with Mark Duffner at the helm – as opposed to allowing 38.6 points per game on the road is real. There is nothing like home sweet home for Tampa Bay when it comes to playing defense. That’s a 20-point differential that favors the Bucs when they play at home, and that’s what happened in Sunday’s 24-17 win.
Duffner and the Bucs will see if they can change their fortunes on the road with back-to-back games coming up at Baltimore and at Dallas, but next up is New Orleans where Tampa Bay could certainly use another stifling performance, holding a potent Saints offense to 17 points on Sunday.
2 PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Is Winston Helping His Cause For Staying On In 2019?
Heck, yes. Winston played his second turnover-free game in a row and that made a huge difference for Tampa Bay once again as the Bucs were plus-4 in the turnover margin with four interceptions of Cam Newton. Winston made maybe one or two questionable throws, but played another clean up completing 20-of-30 passes for 249 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions and a QB rating of 114.4.
This was the first time the Buccaneers, who have the league’s top passing offense, haven’t passed for 300 yards in a game, but who cares? Tampa Bay got the win and that’s that mattered. Winston, who became the Bucs’ all-time touchdown leader with 81, surpassing Josh Freeman, made very decisions with the football and didn’t fumble despite being sacked four times.
Winston was also Tampa Bay’s leading rusher with 48 yards on five carries (9.6 avg.), including a season-long 18-yard scramble. The Bucs’ first-round pick in 2015 is showing progress in shedding the “turnover machine” label he’s earned in the past, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that he will be back next year on a fifth-year option that will pay him $20.92 million as Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback.
“Jameis was our run game today, he was our leading rusher,” Koetter said. “I thought Jameis’ best play of the day was the touchdown to [Chris] Godwin. That was actually his fourth option on that play, and he scrambled up and found him in the back of the end zone. I thought that was his best play, but I thought Jameis really was in control all day, and for the most part, took what they gave him. We just couldn’t get in a very good rhythm there in the second half. In the first half, we moved it, I thought, really well.”
QUESTION 2: Is Smith Helping His Cause For A Contract Extension?
Heck, no. Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith continues to struggle this season in pass protection, and had a sub-par performance against Carolina on Sunday. I’ve Smith, who is in a contract year and is slated to be a free agent in March of 2019,
Smith had allowed 4.5 sacks coming into Sunday’s game at Carolina, and allowed back-to-back sacks in the second quarter that forced the Bucs to punt on one series. Smith’s previous high when it came to sack totals occurred last year and in his rookie season when he allowed five. Now Smith has allowed 6.5 sacks this season with four games to go. Smith allowed a sack against Carolina earlier in the year, so almost half of his sacks have come against the Panthers.
Smith also had a big holding penalty on second-and-1 at the Carolina 3-yard line right before halftime, but the Bucs were able to overcome that and score a touchdown to build a 17-7 lead. I wrote a few weeks ago how the team should hold off on re-signing Smith to a contract extension for a reason. He’s not playing great football this season – in a contract year.
2 BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: Jackson Won’t Be A Buccaneer
With quarterback Jameis Winston likely returning next year to play on his fifth-year option, it’s doubtful that veteran receiver DeSean Jackson returns in 2019. Jackson, who missed the game with a thumb injury, and Winston simply don’t have the rapport that Jackson had with Ryan Fitzpatrick when it came to downfield passes, which is Jackson’s forte.
Meanwhile, Chris Godwin stepped up in Jackson’s place and had five catches for 101 yards and a touchdown, including a game-long 48-yard reception. Godwin is worthy of starting and receiving more targets next year in his third season, but that won’t happen with Jackson on the roster.
With contract extensions likely coming for left tackle Donovan Smith – even though he might not totally deserve it – and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, in addition to some help on the defensive side of the ball, the Bucs could use some extra salary cap room next year. Jackson is on the books for $10 million and that money be better spent elsewhere.
PREDICTION 2: The Takeaways Continue
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is having an NFL MVP-caliber season by completing 75.5 percent of his passes for 3,262 yards with 30 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He’s incredibly hard to pick off, yet the unheralded, patch-work Bucs secondary now has six interceptions in the last two games.
Tampa Bay was plus-two in the turnover margin in last week’s win against San Francisco and were plus-three in the turnover margin in the victory over Carolina. Turnovers are coming in bunches and the Bucs are making things happen defensively right now.
If the Bucs are going to win their third straight game and upset the Saints at Raymond James Stadium next week, they’ll need to finish at least plus-two in the turnover margin again. I think they’ll get at least one pick against Brees on Sunday – and it will be former Saints cornerback De’Vante Harris, who had three pass breakups against Carolina, coming up with his first career interception.