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. After a convincing 29-7 win at home last week, Tampa Bay fall to 1-1 after getting throttled by the Minnesota Vikings, 34-17, in the team’s first road game of the season.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: The Bucs Have No Pass Rush
If you were fretting when Tampa Bay did not draft a pass rusher this year despite the fact that its top two speed rushers, defensive ends Noah Spence (shoulder) and Jacquies Smith (knee), were recovering from major surgeries you were vindicated today. Coming into this season, the Bucs defense only had two legit pass rushers in Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Spence – and three if you count Smith, who hasn’t been active yet for a game after having a second knee surgery in August.
With Spence injuring a shoulder against Minnesota and missing most of the game, the Bucs defense was down to only McCoy in terms of reliably getting to the quarterback, and he’s often double-teamed without the threat of an outside pass rush. That was the case again on Sunday in Minnesota.
Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith tried to rush linebackers and cornerbacks, but Vikings quarterback Case Keenum deftly avoided the blitz and checked down to running back Dalvin Cook, who had five catches for 72 yards in addition to rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
In the end, the Bucs didn’t register a sack against Keenum, who had all day to throw the ball.
“We couldn’t really stop the run,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter Koetter said. “We couldn’t cover them and we had no pass rush. There wasn’t much [that was] good.”
Koetter was right when he said earlier in the year that the cavalry isn’t coming. The Bucs have to play the players they have on the roster. There isn’t a savior pass rusher on the streets for general manager Jason Licht to sign.
Defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr. looks like a shell of his former self and hasn’t shown this year that he can get to the quarterback. Will Gholston is a run stuffing defensive end and doesn’t have any speed off the edge. Ryan Russell also hasn’t displayed the ability to get to the quarterback, evidenced by his one career sack in the past two years.
Through eight quarters the Bucs have just one sack and that came from Spence last week against Chicago. Outside of a sack by blitzing linebacker Lavonte David in Jacksonville, Spence was the only starting defender that had a sack in the preseason, which proved to be an ominous sign.
The Bucs will face Eli Manning next Sunday and an offensive line that has been under fire for allowing eight sacks in the first two games, although Manning wasn’t sacked despite 47 pass attempts in a 27-24 loss at Philadelphia. Tampa Bay has registered just one sack in 78 pass attempts between Keenum and Mike Glennon, and that’s awful.
STATEMENT 2: Sorry, But Cook Fumbled The Ball At The Goal Line
Vikings rookie running back Dalvin Cook fumbled the ball at the goal line in the first quarter, but it wasn’t ruled a turnover and Minnesota went up 7-0 as a result. That was a big, momentum-changing play early in the game. Of course there was plenty of time after that play for Tampa Bay’s defense to stop Minnesota’s offense and for the Bucs offense to put points on the board, so I’m not making any excuses for the team.
But here’s what I don’t like about the stipulation that there has to be enough video evidence to overturn the call. The ruling on the field was a touchdown from the linesmen – despite the fact that their view was obscured. Yet instant replay showed the ball being punched out by Chris Conte right at the goal line. Maybe Cook was in. But maybe Conte punched it just before. Yet the instant replay view was clearly better than the view of the officials on the field.
Don’t call me a Bucs homer, but if I was the instant replay referee I would have gone with the best view possible, which was the various TV camera angles that looked to show Cook fumble the ball – not some obstructed view that the officials had. There’s no telling what a fumble at the goal line would have done for the flow of the rest of the game.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Was This Week 2 at Arizona In 2016 Or Week 2 at Minnesota 2017?
It’s déjà vu all over again for the Buccaneers. If you thought Tampa Bay’s devastating, 40-7 loss in Week 2 at Arizona last year was bad, Bucs fans had to relive it all over again on Sunday in Minnesota. The Bucs’ 34-17 loss to the Vikings had all of the earmarks from the team’s second game of the season a year ago. Coming off an impressive win last year at Atlanta in the 2016 season opener, the Bucs were full of confidence, only to run into a buzz saw in the desert that not only left the team’s pride wounded after such a big defeat, it also left Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster quite wounded, too.
Last year, running back Doug Martin (hamstring), blocking tight end Luke Stocker (ankle) and wide receiver Cecil Shorts (hamstring) went down with injuries that kept them out weeks and hampered the offense, while defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr. was also lost for several weeks with a high ankle sprain. Those injuries played a role in the team’s 3-5 start to the season.
The Bucs were missing several players due to injury coming into Sunday’s game at Minnesota with the flu keeping defensive tackle Chris Baker and defensive end Jacquies Smith out for the game, while linebacker Kwon Alexander (hamstring) and cornerback Brent Grimes (shoulder) were out from injuries suffered last week. It went from bad to worse early for the visiting Bucs.
Defensive end Noah Spence dislocated the same shoulder he had surgically repaired in the offseason early in the contest and only returned briefly to rush on a third down in the third quarter. Newly acquired safety T.J. Ward hurt his hip/quad in the third quarter and did not return.
After catching a 15-yard touchdown in the third quarter tight end Cameron Brate was rocked from Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo with a hit that should’ve been called “targeting.” Brate didn’t return to the game.
“I feel good,” Brate said after the game in the locker room. “No injury.”
Brate was woozy after he got up and I’m surprised he isn’t in the concussion protocol. Brate gave the indication he would be ready to go this week, but Alexander said the same thing in the locker room after last Sunday’s victory over the Bears. In the end the players don’t make the call as to whether they can play or not – the team trainers do.
Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is dealing with a sprained ankle coming into Sunday’s game, had to leave the game twice after re-aggravating it. Yet the worst injury news came when star linebacker and team captain Lavonte David had his left ankle rolled up on by a Vikings offensive lineman. David writhed around and grimaced in pain, and had to be carted off the field.
“X-rays were negative,” Koetter said. “That’s the good news.”
The initial opinion is that it’s a high ankle sprain, and if that holds true he will be sidelined a few weeks and miss upcoming games against the New York Giants and New England Patriots at least. David will have an MRI tomorrow.
After the loss to Arizona last year, the Bucs returned home to face a “bad team” in the Los Angeles Rams, who pulled off the upset with a 37-32 victory. The next week featured a home game against the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, who prevailed at Raymond James Stadium 27-7.
This year’s third game for Tampa Bay features another so-called “bad team” in the 0-3 Giants, who lost on the road in Philadelphia, followed by another home game against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, who will be favored to win. Will history repeat itself and the Bucs get off to another 1-3 start with three straight losses to start the 2017 campaign?
QUESTION 2: Did The Bucs Really Want To Run The Ball?
The revamped Buccaneers offensive line was supposed to be better at run blocking this year, but struggled mightily this week in Minnesota in helping produce just 26 yards on nine carries (2.9 avg.). Koetter talked all offseason about how the Bucs had to get better running the ball this year, but after rushing for 117 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries in a 29-7 win against Chicago, the Bucs only ran the ball five times for 14 yards in the first half despite trailing only 14-3 at one point, and just four more times for 12 yards with the team behind 21-3.
The running game wasn’t working against a tougher Vikings front seven, but the ineffectiveness of the ground game directly led to the Bucs not being able to convert a third down until 10:22 was left in the third quarter. Yet if a team wants to run the ball, it needs to dedicate itself to doing that.
What the lack of carries, especially in the first half, tells me is that Koetter doesn’t fully trust Rodgers and the O-line to get the job done. The Bucs took to the air too soon and the three-and-outs piled up in the first half, which led to a fatigued defense.
“Not good enough in any aspect by us,” Koetter said. “We definitely got away from what we do best, which I think is mix run and pass. We just couldn’t stop them there in the first half and we tried to react and play a little faster and there was a turnover.”
The Bucs did not rush for a first down against the Vikings. According to ProFootballReference.com, the only other time that didn’t happen since 1999 was in a 2014 loss to the Lions, which was a stat the Tampa Bay Times’ Greg Auman found after the game. The Bucs should have a chance to get their ground game back on track when they face the 0-3 Giants, who gave up 193 yards rushing and a touchdown on 39 carries in a 27-24 loss at Philadelphia on Sunday. The Giants run defense is among the league’s worst, allowing 460 yards and a touchdown on 102 carries (4.6 avg.) this year.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: The Bucs Won’t Recover From This Game
Injuries played a role in Tampa Bay’s 1-3 start last season that quickly turned into a 3-5 record by the time November came around. The end result was a 9-7 record and the Bucs being one win away from the playoffs despite a furious 6-2 record that featured a five-game winning streak down the stretch.
For some odd reason, it looks like the damage the Bucs incurred in Week 2 this year may come back to bite them. The Bucs are far more injured than they were heading into this week and could face the Giants without linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, which would be a nightmare for Tampa Bay.
Eli Manning is a better quarterback than Case Keenum, who lit up the Bucs for three touchdowns. Odell Beckham, Jr. is a better wide receiver than Minnesota’s Stephon Diggs, who had eight catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Unless Brent Grimes returns next week to cover OBJ and the Bucs can find a pass rush somewhere, the Bucs may have two ugly Sundays in a row.
The prediction here is that the Bucs lose to a desperate 0-3 Giants team, and then again to the Patriots to start the year 1-3 – again. If that happens Tampa Bay will have to get hot and go on a streak to salvage its season like it did a year ago. If Tampa Bay does start off 2017 with a 1-3 record it will have to finish 9-3 down the stretch, and that would be a very tall order for the banged up Buccaneers.
PREDITION 2: Keenum Is The Bucs’ Kryptonite
Journeyman quarterback Case Keenum just has the Bucs’ number. There’s no doubt about it. With Sunday’s victory Keenum is now 3-0 against Tampa Bay winning twice with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams in 2015 and ’16, and then on Sunday with the Vikings.
“They did a good job of mixing [plays]. Case Keenum has been lights out every time we’ve played him. He looked like the best player in the NFL today. He hit those deep balls and they made the plays. They mixed it up well.”
Keenum completed 25-of-33 passes (75 percent) for 369 yards and three touchdowns, producing a QB rating of 142.1. In last year’s 37-32 win in Tampa Bay with the Rams, Keenum completed 14-of-26 passes (53.8 percent) for 190 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. In 2015 at St. Louis on Thursday Night Football, Keenum was again lights out, completing 14-of-17 passes (82.4 percent) for 234 yards with two touchdowns and no picks.
If Keenum ever faces the Bucs – regardless of what team he’s on – history shows it’s not going to be pretty for Tampa Bay. Sometimes players and teams just have another team’s number, and Keenum definitely has the Bucs’ number. Tampa Bay will never beat Keenum.