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 snapped a three-game losing streak with a 26-23, wild, wacky overtime win against Cleveland on Sunday to move to 3-3 on the year. The Browns have the most overtime games in the league over the last three years with eight, including four this year. With the loss today, Cleveland is 1-2-1 in those overtime contests.
2 BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: Duffner Makes A Difference
Before the Bucs’ bye week I called for head coach Dirk Koetter to fire defensive coordinator Mike Smith and replace him with linebackers coach Mark Duffner. It took Koetter two weeks to act on that suggestion, but in the end, Koetter did it.
And it worked – at least for one game.
Tampa Bay beat Cleveland – thanks to its defense.
That’s something we couldn’t write or say while covering the Bucs for quite a while, right?
The reason why? Duffner.
The linebackers coach and new defensive play-caller was working the sidelines, pumping his players, communicating with each of the units individually. On the first play of the second half while the Bucs offense was on the field, Duffner gathered the entire defense in a huddle on the sidelines and barked out orders. I’ve never seen that before at the NFL level. He told the Bucs defenders that they would be playing without their Pro Bowl middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, who suffered a possible torn ACL, in the second half and that they had to continue to play well.
On the second play of the game we saw Duffner dial up a nickel blitz to generate pressure. On the second third down – a third-and-8 situation – Duffner brought pressure with another blitz, which forced Baker Mayfield to step up and get sacked by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul for his sixth sack of the year, which leads the team. Tampa Bay would have a season-high five sacks with linebacker Adarius Taylor, defensive lineman Will Gholston and two key sacks by defensive end Carl Nassib, a former Browns defender who got the start in place of the injured Vinny Curry.
“Thank God our defense did because our defense played their tails off today,” Koetter said. “Really, this day is about our defense. The job they did on third down, of getting five sacks, and overcoming the loss of Kwon at halftime, right before the half there. [I’m] very proud of the defense. If we could ever put four quarters together on both sides, we’ll be a tough team to beat. Today we got a win – that’s hard to get when you’re minus three in turnovers.”
Duffner’s Bucs held the Browns to 23 points and just 305 yards through four quarters and overtime, and were better in coverage and with their pass rush on Sunday. What is the next step for improvement on the defensive side?
The Bucs haven’t recorded a takeaway on defense in the last three games – although linebacker Lavonte David made a heroic forced fumble on a Baker Mayfield scramble right before halftime in the Tampa Bay red zone and the ball rolled out of bounds one yard shy of the first down for a turnover on downs. Tampa Bay’s only official takeaway happened on special teams when tight end Antony Auclair forced a fumble that was recovered by safety Isaiah Johnson that set up the Bucs’ winning field goal in overtime – a 59-yarder by the struggling Chandler Catanzaro.
The Bucs defense was good from the start and shut out the Browns in the first quarter and led 3-2. That was only the second time this year Tampa Bay had held an opponent scoreless in the first quarter. The Bucs led the Eagles 7-0 after the first quarter in Week 2.
Tampa Bay’s defense was the best it has been on third down against Cleveland, allowing the Browns to convert just 3-of-14 (21.4 percent). Three of Tampa Bay’s sacks came on third downs, too – none bigger than Nassib’s seven-yard sack on third-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 45 in overtime that knocked the Browns out of field goal position.
And how about that goal-line stand on fourth and goal by the Bucs defense in the fourth quarter? When was the last time you saw that from Tampa Bay? I can’t remember.
The magic of that great defensive play lost some of its luster, though, as the Bucs offense couldn’t convert the first down and had to punt the ball right back to the Browns. A 41-yard punt by Bryan Anger allowed Jabril Peppers to return the ball 32 yards down to the 16-yard line and Mayfield hit Jarvis Landry for a touchdown on the next play.
It wasn’t perfect, but Duffner’s debut as defensive coordinator was enough for the Bucs to get one of the whackiest and ugliest wins that I can recall. And it came without Curry or six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
Duffner’s job just got harder because he’ll likely be without Alexander for the rest of the season.
STATEMENT 2: Winston Leads Bucs’ Ground Game
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston had a very uneven game as a passer on Sunday against a feisty Browns defense. After throwing for 395 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in his first start of the year last week in Atlanta, Winston really struggled versus Cleveland. He completed 32-of-52 passes (61.5 percent) for 365 yards with no touchdowns and twos interceptions, both of which came on poor reads down the middle of the field.
But where Winston excelled was as a runner, and Sunday’s game against the Browns resembled one of the games during his rookie season when he relied more on his legs to move the chains than he has over the last two years. Winston was the Bucs’ leading rusher with 55 yards on 10 carries (5.5 avg.), picking up three first downs in the game and scoring on a 14-yard scramble.
Winston also had a fumble when the ball was swatted out of his hand as he went to pass when Myles Garrett beat left tackle Donovan Smith to force the turnover. The Browns came into Sunday’s game with an NFL-leading 15 takeaways and recorded four in the game that allowed Cleveland to mount a comeback. The Bucs led 16-2 and then had three straight turnovers on offense that stymied their attempt to score points and gave the Browns new life.
Winston was sacked four times, including twice on back-to-back plays in overtime where he inexplicably held on to the football too long. Winston made too many poor decisions that nearly cost his team a chance to win, but his scrambling ability was his saving grace.
“You say he was running around like crazy – they were playing a lot of two-man [deep defense] today,” Koetter said. “One thing about two-man is the quarterback is not accounted for. Jamies was also our leading rusher today and he made some big plays with his feet. I don’t have any problem with the way Jameis scrambled today. He made some really big plays. [He] started off extremely fast. Jameis started off on fire. There were two turnovers at the end of the first half. We played a good first half, great on defense. Then, those two last drives where we turned it over; the interception and the fumble. [When] we came out in that third quarter and offensively; we just had terrible body language. We weren’t doing anything very well, we just didn’t seem like we had much energy.”
Winston extended several plays with his feet behind the line of scrimmage too, finding Mike Evans (seven catches for 107 yards) and Chris Godwin (five catches for 59 yards) for big gains, especially in the second half and overtime. But there were several passes that were erratic and overthrown, too.
Is this the guy that the Bucs want to give a long-term extension to? I’m not so sure after this game. Winston should be further along than he is in terms of making better decisions with the ball. Yes, he looked like a rookie running the ball and making plays and scoring touchdowns with his feet. But he also looked like rookie with the way he was throwing the ball too – unfortunately.
“Main thing is – like I always say, you’ve got to take care of the football, have to give our team a chance to win,” Winston said. “We won, so I think I did a good enough job in that aspect. Bottom line is, I’ve just got to get better.”
The fact that Winston led the Bucs in rushing is an indictment on the offensive line and proof that the Bucs running game just can’t get on track. Peyton Barber had 30 yards on 11 carries (2.7) and was tackled in the backfield for a safety in the first quarter. Rookie Ronald Jones had 13 yards on six carries (2.2 avg.) and his first NFL touchdown, while Jacquizz Rodgers had eight yards on three carries (2.7 avg.).
2 PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Did This Win Save Koetter’s Job?
Probably. Not that Koetter was going to fired on Monday if the Bucs lost their fourth straight game and fell to 2-4 on the year. But Sunday’s contest against Cleveland was a must-win game for Koetter and for Tampa Bay. I wrote about it this week in SR’s Fab 5, and Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones also stated that fact.
“Oh, you guys made that perfectly clear,” Koetter said when he was asked if Sunday’s 26-23 overtime victory was a must-win affair. “I look at it as they’re all must-wins. Me personally, every week is ‘must.’ You guys did a good job of making us aware that we had to win.”
A loss would have been deflating and forced the Bucs to go 7-3 or 8-2 down the stretch to make the playoffs and likely could have cost Koetter his job at the end of the season. And if kicker Chandler Catanzaro hadn’t made his 59-yard game-winner in overtime, Bucs general manager Jason Licht, who has struggled to find a competent kicker in his five years on the job, would have been in immediate jeopardy, too.
Now the Bucs remain in playoff contention and the seat for Koetter and Licht isn’t as hot as it could have been if Tampa Bay hadn’t beaten Cleveland in overtime. As ugly as it was, this victory counts as a win and if the Bucs can find six more in the last 10 games Koetter will likely remain the head coach in 2019.
QUESTION 2: Is Alexander Out For The Year?
Quite possibly. You knew it was likely a serious knee injury when Alexander grabbed his knee right before halftime and most of the team came out on the field to pray over him. It looked like good news when Alexander walked off the field – albeit gingerly – however he was ruled out at halftime and was replaced by Adarius Taylor on the field. Lavonte David assumed the role of play-caller on the field.
But NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said that the team fears that Alexander may have torn his ACL. Alexander will have an MRI on Monday.
Before he left the game, Alexander was all over the field with a team-leading seven tackles, including two on third downs and a pass breakup. The best-case scenario is that Alexander tore his MCL, which is more of a 4-6 week injury. An ACL tear would end Alexander’s season.
“Well, you know guys like Kwon mean everything to this team and I have empathy for him,” Winston said. “Also, a guy like Kwon, he’s going to be one of the biggest forces in this team. He said to us before we left out there for halftime, he was like, ‘Never take anything for granted.’ He’s so right. We see the passion he plays with. We see the heart he puts in the locker room. We are going to have his back just like we had his back today. That’s the thing about football, you have your injuries here and there, but I love Kwon. We’re going to miss him and I know he is going to make an amazing comeback. That’s just the type of person that he is and his work ethic has been strong since he’s been here.”
Making matters worse for the Bucs linebacker corps was the fact that rookie Jack Cichy was also lost for the game with a knee injury. Cichy, who made a comeback from a knee injury that cost him his final year at Wisconsin, might also be out for the season with a torn ACL.
Tampa Bay only has six linebackers on its active roster, although the team has one waiting in the bullpen in Kendell Beckwith, who is on the non-football injury list and could be activated if he’s cleared to return to practice in the coming week or weeks.
2 BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: Bucs Will Be Auditioning Kickers On Tuesday
New Bucs kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed his third extra point of the season – and the second in as many weeks – after the team’s first touchdown. Catanzaro did convert on two other extra points and made a 38-yard field goal, but missed a 40-yarder right before the end of regulation that forced the game into overtime.
“Yeah, obviously I did,” Catanzaro said. “Very, very upset with how I hit the first one at the end of regulation. I didn’t trust it. I’ve got to get that fixed this week, so I’m looking forward to getting back to work tomorrow.”
Koetter’s decision to have Catanzaro kick the 59-yard game-winner in overtime wasn’t about having confidence in Catanzaro. Koetter was forced to attempt the field goal because with less than two minutes left the Bucs weren’t going to get the ball back. If Tampa Bay had punted the ball it was going to lose or see the game end in a tie.
“He made it from 61 [yards] in practice this week,” Koetter said. “So, I knew he had the distance in him. Chandler had a rough day earlier. With the timing going to the 10-minute overtime, that’s the first time we’ve played in it since then. We weren’t going to get the ball back. So, if we didn’t make that one, we weren’t getting it back. You either go for the win or hope you tie. The way that game was going, we were going for the win. But, I knew he could make it if he hit it.”
Catanzaro’s 59-yard field goal was the longest game-winner in overtime in NFL history.
“I think it’s part of my DNA,” Catanzaro said. “I’ve always kind of found a way to bounce back. I rarely miss two in a row. Even if it’s for 59 [yards], I was just looking for a shot. If it was from 66 [yards], I would have tried it. So, just really thankful for the opportunity and like I said earlier, God is good.”
But we’ve seen this before though with a struggling kicker in Tampa Bay. Nick Folk struggled with misses against the Giants last year in Week 3 before hitting the redeeming game-winner, and then was cut after missing three field goals the next week against New England. Catanzaro’s job is not safe. No way.
He won’t be cut on Monday, but the Bucs will be bringing in kickers to audition and if Catanzaro continues to struggle to make extra points he’ll be gone.
PREDICTION 2: Pierre-Paul Will Make The Pro Bowl
Bucs defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul recorded his sixth sack of the season, which leads the team, and now has at least one sack in each of the last four games. Pierre-Paul is tied for seventh in the NFL for sacks and is on pace for 16 sacks this season, which would be close to his career high of 16.5, which was set in 2011 with the New York Giants.
Even better, if Pierre-Paul gets four more sacks in the next 10 games he will hit 10 sacks on the season. The last time a Buccaneer had double-digit sacks was Simeon Rice with 14 in 2005. Pierre-Paul has made the Pro Bowl twice (2011 and ’12) and has two double-digit sack seasons in ’11 and in 2014 when he notched 12.5 QB captures.
Right now, St. Louis defensive end Aaron Donald leads the league with eight sacks, followed by Minnesota defensive end Danielle Hunter’s 7.5 sacks. Arizona linebacker Chandler Jones’ is third in the NFC with seven with Pierre-Paul’s six ranking fourth in the conference.