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 scored a major upset with a team-record 48 points in a 48-40 shootout win over the Saints in New Orleans to start the season 1-0.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: Fitzmagic, Monken’s Play-Calling Were Superb
Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter made the absolute right call in letting offensive coordinator Todd Monken continue calling plays in the regular season. The original plan was to let Monken call plays in the preseason with Koetter taking over during the regular season. With the Bucs offense averaging 387 yards per game and 28.3 points per game in the first three preseason games when the starters were in the lineup, Koetter made the absolute right call in calling an audible and letting Monken continue in the play-calling role in the regular season as the offense carried the day in Tampa Bay’s 48-40 win at New Orleans.
We saw a 58-yard touchdown shot from Ryan Fitzpatrick to DeSean Jackson in the first half – out of the slot no less. Per the Buccaneers communications department, DeSean Jackson tied Hall of Famers Terrell Owens and Lance Alworth for the third-most touchdowns of 50-plus yards in NFL history. Jackson wound up with two touchdowns on the day.
Bucs WR DeSean Jackson – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR
“I’m happy to announce that Fitzmagic is alive and well,” Koetter said in his post-game press conference. “Quite a start, huh?”
We saw a quarterback sneak on third down for a first down by Ryan Fitzpatrick – make that Fitzmagic. We saw vertical shots to wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, who both scored touchdowns. We saw a run for a touchdown by a 35-year old quarterback. We saw tight end O.J. Howard making big, explosive plays. We saw Peyton Barber running wild and averaging a workmanlike 3.9 yards per carry en route to 69 yards. We saw 31 first half points in the first half – 24 by the offense.
Bryan Anger didn’t even punt in the first half. I can’t remember the last time that happened.
Fitzpatrick wound up with two passing touchdowns of 50-plus yards in today’s game – one to Jackson and one to Evans. The last time they did that was in 1998 against Green Bay (Dec. 17, 1998; 62-yard touchdown catch Bert Emanuel & 64-yard touchdown catch Jacquez Green). Yes, it’s been a minute, Bucs fans.
Jackson fought through a shoulder injury and possibly suffered a concussion en route to catching five passes for 146 yards and two scores, including a key 36-yarder in the second half, while Evans defeated nemesis Marshon Lattimore to catch seven passes for 147 yards and one touchdown in the win.
“To go out and answer, that first one was big, that first drive was huge,” Koetter said. “I thought Fitz did an awesome job of just giving guys chances to make plays. We had one in the third quarter where he overthrew Mike when 23 fell down. But other than that, all of our other balls down field he gave those guys a chance to make plays and they did. I mean two of them, [Chris] Godwin, the one over the middle, two to O.J. [Howard], the guys were hanging all over him. Those were both pretty plays, but those are the plays O.J. makes in practice, he makes those plays.”
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter and OC Todd Monken – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
With Monken’s play-calling leading the way, we saw Tampa Bay score 41 of the team’s 48 points, which tied a team record as the team matched a franchise high three times – versus Atlanta on September 13, 1987; vs. New Orleans on December 31, 2001; and against Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVIII on January 26, 2003.
The Bucs punted once. They offense had zero turnovers and zero sacks. What a start to the season for Koetter, Monken and Fitzpatrick.
“Everything starts with protection,” Koetter said. “Protection beats coverage, we talked about that all week. Protection beats coverage.”
What a statement win to open the season with 529 yards of total offense, including 112 yards on the ground and converting 8-of-13 (62 percent) on third downs. This offense has been years in the making for Koetter and general manager Jason Licht, who were the architects. It arrived just in time for an opening day upset in 2018 – with Fitzpatrick as the unlikely hero.
STATEMENT 2: Smith’s Defense Is A Work In Progress
It was disappointing to see Mike Smith’s defense allow 24 points to New Orleans in the first half and surrender 40 points in the game, but keep in mind a few things – and I’m not making excuses for Smith. The Bucs had as many as six new starters on defense on the field at the same time on Sunday – cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart, defensive linemen Beau Allen, Vinny Curry, Carl Nassib and Jason Pierre-Paul. It’s going to take some time for this unit to gel – especially without top cornerback Brent Grimes.
Drew Brees and the Saints offense is going to score 30+ points against several teams this year. That’s a fact. I’m sure Smith and the Bucs defenders didn’t like giving up that many points against New Orleans, but there will be improvement as this unit comes together and learns to work in unison.
Two big takeaways by Smith’s defense and a third down sack by new defensive end Vinny Curry were keys to Tampa Bay’s opening day victory. Bucs free safety Justin Evans looked like the Pro Bowler that Smith indicated he could become with a scoop-and-score in the first half, as well as a nice tackle on a third down pass to prevent a punt in the second half.
Bucs FS Justin Evans – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR
“Yeah the turnover touchdown I mean, we were talking on the headphones to the coaches, and at one point, one of the coaches said, ‘It looks like it’s going to be a track meet,’” Koetter said. “And we said on the phone right then, “Okay, what happens in a track meet? Turnovers are what decide it.’ And that’s probably what happened.”
Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander redeemed himself from a rough first half with a key forced fumble in the second half. The Bucs defense was far from perfect in surrendering 439 yards passing and three touchdowns to Brees, and 40 points on Sunday, but it did enough to win.
It certainly wasn’t pretty, but it was a start for a rebuilt Bucs defense that figures to get better with time – and more experience for rookies like Davis and Stewart.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Why Was RoJo Inactive?
Initially, it looks damning for Bucs general manager Jason Licht, right? A total of four of the team’s draft picks on the inactive list today, including defensive tackle Vita Vea, the team’s first-round pick, and running back Ronald Jones, the Bucs’ second-rounder. Third-round pick Alex Cappa and wide receiver Justin Watson, a fifth-round pick, were also inactive.
But a closer look reveals that this Buccaneers team is deep at several key positions, and that Vea is recovering from an injury. Cappa is a work in progress at guard, and the Bucs are plenty deep at wide receiver, which is why Watson was inactive. Tampa Bay didn’t need much of its rookie class in New Orleans.
The big surprise – or maybe it wasn’t – was Jones being inactive. Yes, he’s a second-round pick, but he averaged less than a yard per carry in the preseason and doesn’t play on special teams, which is a problem.
Bucs RB Ronald Jones – Photo by Mary Holt/PR
The truth is that if Jones was a fifth-round pick he would have been released after rushing for 22 yards on 28 carries in the preseason. Last year’s fifth-round pick, Jeremy McNichols, was cut after rushing for 79 yards last August and averaging nearly four yards per carry. He’s a work in progress, and until that progress happens – or an injury to Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers or fellow rookie Shaun Wilson occurs, he’ll remain on the inactive list.
But the real reason why these rookies are on the inactive list is because the Bucs have enough capable veterans on this team. Keep in mind that five of Bill Belichick’s draft picks were inactive today in New England, including second-round running back Sony Michel. The Bucs won today without a lot of rookies, so at the end of the day, those inactives were the right call.
QUESTION 2: What Does This Opening Day Win Mean?
The Bucs caught the Saints off guard and scored a bunch of points in a shootout win to start the season 1-0, including a 1-0 start atop the NFC South division. So what does this victory ultimately mean? Not much, really.
It’s a great start, as being 1-0 is much better than starting the year 0-1. But this win counts as one win – and one division win at the end of the day. Tampa Bay started the 2016 season with a 31-24 Week 1 upset at Atlanta and finished 9-7 and one game out of the playoffs. Last year, the Bucs beat Chicago at home, 29-7, to start the season 1-0 and finished 5-11.
Koetter is now 3-0 in season openers as Tampa Bay’s head coach, which is the best opening day record for a head coach in franchise history, but what transpires over the next 16 weeks will ultimately tell the Bucs’ tale. A 1-0 start is great, but doesn’t mean much if the Bucs lose at home next week against visiting Philadelphia.
Bucs DE Vinny Curry and MLB Kwon Alexander – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR
Yet for a Bucs team that had just one division win last year – in the season finale against the Saints – getting that first NFC South victory in Week 1 has to be quite sweet. It won’t be Tampa Bay’s last year this year.
“Again, we’re right into it – we got a whole new set of problems in about a few hours,” Koetter said. “But to win on the road, against a division team, NFC team, in a place like this, against a team like that, against a quarterback like that – that’s huge. That’s a huge way to start your season, I don’t think anyone here was picking us, I mean are you kidding me? That’s a huge plus, but they’re all tough, they’re tough. We got to figure out a way to do it better, different, some way, find a way to do it again next week because I mean, Philly, they don’t care about that game.”
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: Fitzpatrick Will Be NFC Offensive Player Of The Week
Fitzpatrick threw for a career-high 417 yards and four touchdowns, while rushing for 36 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries in Tampa Bay’s Week 1 upset at New Orleans. He’s got to be a shoo-in for the NFC Offensive Player of the Week. If the league gives it to someone else it it’s a crime. Five touchdowns and 450 total yards from a backup quarterback? Give it to him, NFL. The 35-year old Fitzpatrick deserves it.
Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR
PREDICTION 2: Winston Will Have To Wait
I’m predicting that Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston will not start in Week 4 at Chicago. Instead, Tampa Bay will continue to start Fitzpatrick at quarterback unless the offense grinds to a screeching halt for some reason over the next two weeks in big home games against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Bucs, who have not been to the playoffs in a decade, cannot afford to rock the boat if Fitzpatrick continues to have such command of the offense. Winston is the future at the quarterback position, but he’s 24. Fitzpatrick showed in New Orleans that he is Tampa Bay’s quarterback of the present.