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 lost its third-straight game of the year in Atlanta, 34-29, on Sunday. The Bucs defense allowed 24 points by the Falcons at halftime, and the team’s comeback effort fell short at the Atlanta 8-yard line as time expired.
2 BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: Bucs Must Trade For CB Peterson
As much as they need to, the Bucs aren’t going to fire defensive coordinator Mike Smith. At least that’s what head coach Dirk Koetter says.
The last time a coordinator was fired in-season was Jim Bates, who was on Raheem Morris’ staff in 2009. Smith may get fired, but it will likely be at season’s end – unless the Glazers think they have seen enough and force Koetter to make a change right now.
Heck, it’s their team. And the move would be universally applauded.
While the Bucs may be stuck with Smith for the time being, they don’t have to be stuck with their existing personnel.
The 2019 NFL Draft won’t help the 2018 Buccaneers one bit. Free agency won’t come around for six more months, and won’t help this year’s defense, either. Smith and Koetter have to work with the players they’ve got, especially in a young and talent-depleted secondary.
Second-round cornerback Carlton Davis looks like he can become a good player if he can stay healthy. I’m not sold on fellow second-round cornerback MJ Stewart, who has shown he lacks the speed and athleticism to play in the slot thus far. Brent Grimes is 35 and a shell of his former self. Ryan Smith is a work in progress and may not be anything more than a reserve cornerback and special teams ace.
For heaven’s sake, Jason Licht – do something. This secondary is simply not competitive.
Get on the phone with your buddy and mentor Steve Keim and trade for Cardinals Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson, who is rumored to be on the trading block.
Peterson, a seven-time Pro Bowler, immediately helps the Buccaneers and becomes the best defensive back in Tampa Bay the minute his flight arrives from Arizona if the team pursues this trade. The secondary could use his leadership, too, as he’s respected as team player that has helped develop younger defensive backs in Arizona.
It will cost at least a first-round pick, but anyone Licht drafts in the first round next year won’t be as good as Peterson will be in 2019. The 28-year old Peterson hasn’t slowed down and has at least three great years left in him. He has 22 interceptions in just over seven seasons and is capable of shutting down a team’s primary receiver.
At 6-foot-1, 203 pounds, Peterson has the size and speed to match up with Bucs killers like Atlanta’s Julio Jones, who had 10 catches for 143 yards on Sunday against Tampa Bay, New Orleans’ Michael Thomas, and Carolina’s Devin Funchess in the division. Peterson doesn’t have to play off coverage, which those receivers feast on. He thrives playing a more aggressive style of man coverage at the line of scrimmage, which this defense desperately needs right now.
Enough with Smith playing soft and scared with his play-calling. If he’s going to remain the play-caller, Licht needs to give him another premier weapon. We’ve seen how good the trade for Jason Pierre-Paul has worked out for the Bucs. Pierre-Paul, who was acquired for a third-round pick, has been the best defensive player in Tampa Bay to start the season and is leading the team in sacks with five, with all of them coming in the last four games.
The Bucs will probably have to restructure a deal or two to fit Peterson’s remaining salary ($7,562,500) under the team’s salary cap, but this is a deal worth pursuing for the rest of the 2018 season and beyond.
If Koetter gets fired at the end of the season Licht might go down with him. Licht has had five years to build a playoff-caliber roster. I think the talent is here in Tampa Bay to win 9-10 games, but I don’t have much faith in the defensive system and some of the current personnel in the secondary.
If Licht is going down with Koetter, he needs to go down with guns blazing. A first-round pick next year does nothing for Licht and Koetter if they aren’t here. Send next year’s first-round pick, defensive end Noah Spence and a mid-round pick if necessary to Arizona for Peterson and have a chance at salvaging the 2018 season.
Licht needs to do whatever it takes to pull this trade off. His friendship and background with Keim should only help. He either makes it happen or the Bucs continue to have the league’s worst pass defense all year.
STATEMENT 2: Another 2-3 Start For The Bucs – We Know How This Ends
With Sunday’s loss, the Bucs have now started the season with a 2-3 record for the fourth straight year, unfortunately. We know how those seasons ended – without a trip to the playoffs.
Expect the same this year, unfortunately.
The Bucs finished 6-10 after a 2-3 start in 2015, and it cost Lovie Smith his job after two seasons in Tampa Bay. Dirk Koetter won his first game as a head coach the next year in Atlanta, but that couldn’t stop another 2-3 start. Tampa Bay won five games in a row to get to 8-5 in 2016, but went 1-2 down the stretch to finish 9-7 and one win short of a playoff berth.
Last year’s 2-3 start ended in disaster with a 5-11 record. Quarterback Jameis Winston got hurt, Tampa Bay couldn’t sack groceries – let alone a quarterback – and the Bucs went 3-8 from Week 6 on.
Tampa Bay has six games coming up against winning teams and five games against losing teams, but Atlanta was 1-4 coming into this game, so does that even matter?
Bucs’ Remaining Opponents With Winning Records
Panthers 3-2 (twice)
Bucs’ Remaining Opponents With Losing Records
NY Giants 1-4
Tampa Bay was able to go on a five-game winning streak in 2016 largely due to the play of its defense. Right now the Bucs have the worst defense in the entire league, so don’t expect any five-game winning streaks down the stretch.
Will the Bucs’ 2018 record come close to 9-7 or will it be closer to last year’s 5-11 mark? I’m leaning towards the latter right now. Based on this three-game losing streak, aren’t you?
2 PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Where Are The Takeaways On Defense?
The Bucs have exactly one interception in five games this year. That lone pick came in Week 3 against Pittsburgh by free safety Justin Evans. The Bucs have forced four fumbles and have four fumble recoveries, so Tampa Bay is averaging one takeaway per game through five games.
But the reality is that the Bucs defense has not forced a takeaway over the past two games and they’ve lost both. No surprise.
The Bucs will never get interceptions playing as much off coverage as they do. Mike Smith’s lack of press-man coverage is hurting the team’s chances of getting interceptions.
Exhibit A: defensive end Carl Nassib had the Bucs’ only pass breakup on Sunday.
None of the Bucs linebackers or defensive backs came close to breaking up a pass because Smith’s scheme lets receivers catch the ball and then attempts to make the tackle. That’s why Matt Ryan was able to complete 31-of-41 passes (75 percent) for 354 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions and post a QB rating of 125.5 on Sunday.
Tampa Bay’s defense has two sacks in the last two games, which is not nearly enough. Both of those have come courtesy of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who has a sack-fumble, but that came against Pittsburgh in Week 3.
Bucs cornerback Ryan Smith forced a fumble on a tackle of Calvin Ridley, but the ball went out of bounds and the Falcons retained possession and did not result in a takeaway. Tampa Bay’s defense gives up way too many yards – 400 yards or more in 20 of the last 37 games under Mike Smith, which is unacceptable – and way too many points – 33.2 points per game – to win without create at least two or three takeaways per game.
“We lose the turnover battle 2-0 today and it’s tough to win,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said.
QUESTION 2: Is Ryan The Bucs’ Kryptonite?
Since losing the 2016 season opener, 31-24, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is now 4-0 against the Buccaneers, including Sunday’s 34-29 win against Tampa Bay. Ryan came into Sunday’s game completing 95-of-139 passes (68.3 percent) for 1,207 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
Ryan completed 31-of-41 (75 percent) passes for 354 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in Atlanta’s 34-29 victory. Now those stats swell to Ryan completing 70 percent of his passes for 1,561 yards – an average of 312 yards per game.
Imagine how many yards Ryan could have passed for if rookie receiver Calvin Ridley and veteran Mohamed Sanu hadn’t left the game in the first half with injuries?
More importantly, Ryan has thrown 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the last five games against Tampa Bay. Ryan is now dominating the Bucs the way Jake Delhomme did in Carolina in the 2000s and the way Brett Favre did with Green Bay in the 1990s.
Ryan has been sacked just nine times in the last five games, an average of less than twice per game, which has contributed to his gaudy passing statistics against the Bucs. Ryan was masterful against Tampa Bay’s pitiful pass defense on Sunday, especially on third down.
“We got them in third-and-long, we couldn’t get off the field,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. “They finished 8-of- [on third down], but in the first half it was third-and-9 and third-and-17 and whatever it was we couldn’t get off the field on third down. We pressured a lot more today. We hit Matt a few times. He hung in there and made some nice throws. We couldn’t get off the field – plain and simple. In the second half, the defense did an excellent job getting off the field. … We can’t play the tale of two halves. We can’t do that.”
2 BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: The Bucs Will Beat The Browns
The Browns are a better team this year with rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, the first overall draft pick in 2018, but they got pummeled by San Diego, 38-14 at home on Sunday. Cleveland’s defense gave up over 200 yards rushing, and Mayfield threw two interceptions to only one touchdown in the loss.
The Bucs offense has more balance thanks to a strong showing from Peyton Barber, who rushed for 82 yards on 13 carries (6.3 avg.). Barber also had four catches for 24 yards, including his first receiving touchdown. Tampa Bay rushed for a season-high 123 yards on 20 carries (6.2 avg.) against Atlanta, which has one of the league’s worst rushing defenses.
The Bucs can beat the Browns – and should – at home to stop a three-game losing skid and get back to .500 with a 3-3 record. If not, and the Bucs fall to 2-4, there will be calls for Dirk Koetter to be fired. Although Cleveland is a better team this year, evidenced by its 2-3-1 record – they are still the Browns, and a loss on Sunday would be a huge psychological blow to this team and its fan base.
Just like I predicted a shootout on Sunday in Atlanta and a narrow win by the Falcons, I think Tampa Bay avoids apocalypse and wins a close game against Cleveland.
PREDICTION 2: Smith Replaces Benenoch
Caleb Benenoch continues to struggle at right guard in both the running game and in pass protection. Benenoch gave up a key sack on third-and-5 from the Atlanta 11-yard line, which forced a field goal attempt in the third quarter. In the second quarter, Benenoch allowed a pressure that led to Winston being sacked on third-and-12.
The Bucs have wanted Benenoch to be the right guard of the future, but he’s making too many costly mistakes and isn’t solid enough in either pass protection or run blocking to warrant starting at this point. Evan Smith has been subbing in about one-third of the snaps. That needs to change.
Smith needs to start and play two-thirds of the snaps with Benenoch playing only one third at the most. Smith is not a long-term solution at guard, and the Bucs better hope that Alex Cappa, the team’s third-round pick this year, can develop into that kind of player – and not the sack-waiting-to-happen guy that he was in the preseason.
Right now, Benenoch is a sack waiting to happen, and has given up five sacks in the last four games. That has to change.