Tampa Bay remains winless at home after a brutal 43-28 loss to Atlanta at Raymond James Stadium on NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football. The Bucs defense couldn’t force a Falcons punt the entire game as Matt Ryan shredded the secondary for four touchdowns. Tampa Bay countered with a big night from Jameis Winton and Mike Evans, but it wasn’t enough as the team fell to 3-5 at the midway point of the 2016 season.
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.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: ELITE EVANS IS BUCS’ MIDSEASON MVP
If there is a glimmer of hope in Tampa Bay’s 3-5 start it’s been the play of wide receiver Mike Evans. After Thursday’s night’s performance in which he caught a career-high 11 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns, Evans is now officially arrived in the elite status.
“Mike played the best game I’ve seen him play in my time here,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. “Mike was fantastic tonight.’’
Consider that Julio Jones, who had eight catches for 111 yards and a touchdown in Atlanta’s 43-28 win over Tampa Bay, is the NFL’s premier receiver with 51 catches for 970 yards and five touchdowns, followed by Cincinnati’s Pro Bowler, A.J. Green, who has 59 catches for 896 yards and three scores. In his third NFL season, Evans would have to be considered the third-best receiver with 55 catches for 745 yards and an NFL-leading eight touchdown catches.
Evans had a career-high 74 catches for 1,206 yards and three touchdowns last year after setting the Bucs franchise record with 12 TD catches as a rookie in 2014. The Texas A&M product is on pace to shatter those marks with a monster campaign in 2016. If Evans stays on course he should amass 110 catches for 1,490 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns, which would set new Tampa Bay records.
“Mike is our superstar,” Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston said. “Last week we were talking about throwing him the ball and missed targets. You see when we connect what type of nights he has.”
There hasn’t been a lot that has gone right this year during Tampa Bay’s struggling start, but Evans vowed to be a more mature, focused player this year and find the end zone more than he did last year. Evans is certainly keeping his word and will be voted to his first Pro Bowl this year as a result.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
STATEMENT 2: WINSTON IS TRENDING UPWARDS
A few weeks ago when second-year quarterback Jameis Winston was throwing interceptions and head coach Dirk Koetter was spending the first quarter of games running the football rather than risking Winston putting the ball in the air, the narrative was that the quarterback was the culprit in Tampa Bay’s 1-3 start. Yet over the last four games, Winston has risen to the occasion when it comes to avoiding interceptions.
Winston began the first quarter of the season throwing eight touchdown passes and eight interceptions, but over the last four games the second-year signal caller has thrown nine touchdowns and just one interception, including three TDs in Thursday night’s 43-28 loss to Atlanta. Winston did have a fumble on a QB keeper on third-and-1 when he was using a second effort to pick up a first down, but he’s done a much better job of protecting the ball otherwise.
Winston has gone from being part of the problem in Tampa Bay to part of the solution. He’s in rhythm with wide receiver Mike Evans, who has four touchdowns and a two-point conversion catch in the last three games.
After making the Pro Bowl as an alternate last year while throwing for 4,000 yards and accounting for 28 touchdowns (22 passing, six rushing), Winston is on a similar path this year. With 2,037 yards and 18 touchdowns (17 passing, one rushing), he’s on pace to deliver 36 scores this year. The Bucs team record for touchdown passes in a season was set by Josh Freeman in 2012 with 27. Winston needs just 10 more TD passes this season to eclipse that mark.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: WHY IS THE BUCS DEFENSE COLLAPSING?
Tampa Bay’s defense has played two elite quarterbacks in back-to-back weeks in Oakland’s Derek Carr and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and has gotten shredded for eight touchdowns and nearly 900 yards passing. Part of the problem is that the Bucs aren’t blitzing much because of their struggles in pass defense, and that has to change.
Thirty-one year-old Brent Grimes is on the downside of his career and is no longer a good cornerback. Vernon Hargreaves is a rookie who has now played in 11 games, including the preseason, which is nearly a full college season. He could be hitting a rookie wall, and after playing in over 160 snaps within the last five days, Hargreaves could be mentally and physically fatigued.
In order to help out the Bucs’ struggling corners, Mike Smith needs to dial up more blitzes to force quicker throws, and hopefully some errant throws. The team fears blitzing too much because it leaves safeties Bradley McDougald and Chris Conte in man coverage where they have struggled. Conte has given up multiple touchdowns in man coverage this year.
Perhaps the Bucs could try subbing in Alterraun Verner for a series or two to give Grimes and Hargreaves a breather and stay fresh for the fourth quarter. Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said that the best players play and that the team won’t substitute in the secondary unless there is an injury.
That was true of the Bucs back in the glory days, as the likes of Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly and Donnie Abraham didn’t come off the field. However, the Bucs defense under Monte Kiffin used to routinely generate takeaways or three-and-outs, and the defensive players rarely logged more than 60 snaps back in the day. Under Smith, Tampa Bay’s defense has averaged over 80 snaps per game over the last two contests, and that’s far too much.
Until the Bucs upgrade their secondary with better personnel in the offseason, this team is going to die via the pass. If they keep playing the way they’re playing it will be a slow death as quarterbacks pick up first downs with ease and march down the field for touchdowns, as Matt Ryan did four times on Thursday night. Or Tampa Bay will die a quick death with a player like Conte or a rookie like Hargreaves manned up in single coverage without any help over the top on a blitz.
But at least with a blitz there is a chance to sack the quarterback or force an incompletion. Right now, the Bucs defense has little to no chance at success without more pressure.
QUESTION 2: WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED TO DAVID?
There used to be a time when you could pencil Lavonte David in to be the Bucs’ leading tackler at the start of a game or even the start of the season. For three years from 2013-15 David, who made his first Pro Bowl last season, didn’t have fewer than five tackles in any game.
This year, in Mike Smith’s defensive scheme, David looks lost and his play has been neutered. After racking up double-digit sacks four times as a rookie in 2012, David accumulated 10 tackles or more six times the next season. David racked up double-digit tackles in half of the team’s games in 2014 and did so seven times last year.
Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
David’s play has fallen off the map this year, as he hasn’t surpassed eight tackles in any game this season. The Nebraska product didn’t notch a single tackle in a 40-7 loss at Arizona in Week 2 for the first time in his NFL career. On Thursday night against Atlanta, David posted just four tackles.
With only 44 tackles thus far, David is in danger of not reaching 100 tackles in a season for the first time in his five-year NFL career. That would be remarkable considering he has improved his tackle totals each year since entering the NFL as a rookie with 139 stops in 2012.
The splash plays are also missing from his game as he has just two forced fumbles, two pass breakups and a sack through the first half of the 2016 season. If there’s one player that needs to play up to his potential down the stretch it’s David, a two-time team captain. By comparison, middle linebacker Kwon Alexander has 72 tackles, which is 28 more than David.
Does the scheme not fit David’s skill set? Is Smith not utilizing his abilities in the best way? Is David having trouble understanding Smith’s system? David’s slow start to 2016 is quite puzzling and it’s definitely hurting the Bucs defense.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: MARTIN WILL NOT LEAD THE BUCS IN RUSHING
Everyone asks me when Doug Martin will return to the starting lineup. I have no idea, and I don’t think the Bucs do either. Martin has been sidelined since suffering a hamstring injury in a Week 2 loss at Arizona. He suffered a setback on the Sunday prior to the Monday Night Football win at Carolina in Week 5, and there is no timetable for his return.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucs shut him down and put Martin on injured reserve because severe hamstring injuries are tough to heal during a football season. Hamstrings need several months of rest to fully heal. Even if Martin returns in the second half of the season, how effective would be?
If Jacquizz Rodgers, who has 393 yards rushing and one touchdown, returns from his foot injury in the next week or two he’ll wind up as Tampa Bay’s leading rusher this year.
PREDICTION 2: BUCS WILL GET A WIN AT HOME AGAINST THE BEARS
I have no idea why the Bucs would beat the Bears at home next Sunday – especially since it’s a home game. I just have a feeling they will use the extra time before that game to get in the film room, correct mistakes and get some injured Bucs healthy. No reason other than a gut feeling.
Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while. The Bucs find a win at Ray-Jay next Sunday.