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. The boo birds came out in Tampa Bay after the Bucs offense was inconsistent against Carolina and mustered up just three points in a 17-3 loss at home to Carolina. The Bucs are now 2-5 and what was once a bright, promising season in Tampa Bay is quickly fading to darkness.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: First Half Scoring Is Dooming The Bucs
I brought up this statistic last week, but it’s become a running narrative, unfortunately, so here it is again. The lack of first-half points from the offense is dooming the Buccaneers.
Bucs’ First Half / Second Half Points
Week 2 vs. Bears – 20 / 3 = 29-7 win (defense scored 6 points)
Week 3 at Vikings – 3 / 14 = 34-17 loss
Week 4 vs. NY Giants – 16 / 9 = 25-23 win
Week 5 vs. New England – 7 / 7 = 19-14 loss
Week 6 at Arizona – 0 / 33 = 38-33 loss
Week 7 at Buffalo – 6 / 21 = 30-27 loss
Week 8 vs. Carolina – 0 / 3 = 17-3 loss
For the second time in three weeks, Tampa Bay’s offense scored zero points in the first half of the game and trailed at halftime. This Sunday, the Bucs trailed the Panthers 10-0 and had just 111 yards of offense at halftime, which was the worst half of offensive production this season. A 41-yard field goal by Pat Murray gave Tampa Bay its first points of the game with 4:49 left in the third quarter.
Tampa Bay is only averaging seven points per game in the first half this season, and has only had two halftime leads, which came in both of the Bucs’ wins this year. Yet the last two games Tampa Bay’s offense came to life in the second half as Jameis Winston and Co. scored 27 points last week in a 30-27 loss to Buffalo and backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick helped fuel the Bucs to 33 second half points in a 38-33 loss at Arizona.
Unfortunately for Tampa Bay that second half rally didn’t come against a stingy Carolina defense on Sunday like most expected. After the game, Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans, who had a couple of dropped passes in addition to catching five passes for 60 yards.
“I honestly don’t know, but I know we’ve got to pick that it up soon or the season is going to be gone. What are we, 2-5 right now? We’ve got more than half the season left, so we’ve got to pick this [expletive] up right away. We’ve got to pick it up soon if we [want to] have a chance to reach our goal.”
Tampa Bay only got inside the Carolina red zone one for one play on Sunday, which came at the Panthers’ 19-yard line with 2:54 remaining in the game. Winston was sacked on the next play back at the 28-yard line.
Having just one play inside an opponents’ red zone is simply inexcusable. The offensive line played its worst game of the season, as did Winston, who completed 21-of-38 passes for 210 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
“It was self-inflicted wounds,” Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson said. “We moved the ball a little bit and then we get a holding call. We’d get in field goal range and then another holding or a false start. We just had too many self-inflicted wounds, and that’s a good defense. We just can’t beat ourselves. Our defense played amazing. They played well enough to win a football game, we just beat ourselves – that was most of the problem.”
STATEMENT 2: Young Bucs DBs All Showed Up
If you are looking for a positive in Tampa Bay’s 17-3 loss to Carolina, look no further than the Bucs’ much-maligned secondary. Playing without starting veteran cornerbacks Brent Grimes (shoulder) and Robert McClain (concussion), the Bucs started three second-year players in Vernon Hargreaves III, Ryan Smith and Javien Elliott, who had 29 combined starts between them.
Hargreaves and Smith struggled mightily in Minnesota in Week 3 the last time Tampa Bay started that tandem, but both young cornerbacks showed much improvement on Sunday against the Panthers. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton completed just 18-of-32 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown with one interception. His longest completion of the game was just 25 yards thanks to the play of Hargreaves, Smith and Elliott.
“Vern played great today,” said Tampa Bay safety T.J. Ward. “I saw him have his hand in there a bunch of times today. It was great to see him bounce back from a few tough weeks. I know how that is as a player. Sometimes you get down on yourself and start questioning your own ability. You just have to snap out of it. I tried to let him know, ‘Hey, you can be a great corner in this league. You just have to focus and pay attention to details.’ If you just have that ultimate confidence you will be all right.
“He showed up great and Smitty came in and played great. He had a couple pass break ups and some great tackles. Those two young guys came in when their name was called and answered.”
Hargreaves and Smith each had six tackles and two pass breakups. Smith’s best play was a pass breakup on a deep throw to Curtis Samuel that could have been a touchdown with two minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Kelvin Benjamin was targeted seven times but held to just three catches for 39 yards. He scored a touchdown on rookie safety Justin Evans, but not Hargreaves or Smith. Samuel was limited to just two catches for 15 yards, and Devon Funchess was held to just two catches for 11 yards.
Now can Hargreaves and Smith build off this performance and ascend from here?
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Is This The Downward Spiral For The 2017 Bucs?
Unfortunately, yes. The Bucs have now lost four straight games after a 2-1 start and sit squarely at 2-5 and three full games back from the Saints, who they face next week in New Orleans. Tampa Bay essentially has to run the table or at least go 7-2 down the stretch to have a shot at the playoffs.
After the game I went to the most honest player in the locker room, Tampa Bay right tackle Demar Dotson, who is also the longest tenured Buccaneer, for his take on this team. For too many years, Dotson has seen a slow start turn into a double-digit losing season.
“We’ve got to start winning,” Dotson said. “That’s the only thing that’s going to change it. I’ve seen a lot of 2-5 seasons go south with guys just starting to give up because they might see New Orleans is 5-2 and Carolina is 5-3 and Atlanta is [4-3]. You start looking like there is no hope and you start giving up on the season. I’ve been here a lot of years and guys fought, but internally, guys had given if. If guys allow that to start happening internally, you’re going to start losing football games. You’re going to go from a 2-5 football team to a 4-12 or 6-10 team and it’s going to be a waste of a talented team. That’s what I’ve seen from years before. They still came to practice and practiced hard, and still looked like they competed, but internally, the guys were already given up and were looking forward to the season being over.”
I asked Dotson if he thinks that happen this year in Tampa Bay.
“It falls on the guy – the individual guy,” Dotson said. “You can’t make a guy do it. It has to come from inside the guy. You have to think positive, keep fighting and keep digging. Let’s go a little harder. A lot of guys say stuff with their mouth, but it doesn’t always show up on the inside. It falls on each individual guy and you have to have a collective group of guys that is willing to fight and dig out of this ditch.”
I asked Dotson if the Bucs have enough fighters in the locker room?
“We’re going to find out,” Dotson said. “In years past you just find out. In three or four games from now, we’ll know what kind of guys we have. If not, this season is over if we don’t have guys that are going to dig ourselves out of this ditch. It’s over.”
Like it or not, Dotson is right. We’ll see what type of character the Bucs players have in their locker room down the stretch.
QUESTION 2: How Did Vegas Get It Right?
Many Bucs fans – and some “supposed Bucs experts” that cover the team for a living (like me) – scoffed at the fact that the oddsmakers in Las Vegas initially put the Bucs’ projected win total at eight. How in the world would Tampa Bay go 8-8 after finishing 9-7 a year ago and adding key pieces like wide receiver DeSean Jackson, defensive tackle Chris Baker and tight end O.J. Howard in the offseason?
Well, as of right now Vegas is looking good – or at least more realistic than PewterReport.com’s prediction of 10-6 for Tampa Bay. Plenty of other media members predicted 10-6 or at least 9-7.
So how did the Vegas oddsmakers get it right? I could spend some time explaining their formula to you, or I could just link this a very well-researched article from Tampa Bay Times’ Tom Bassinger that gets to the bottom of it. Very interesting stuff and well worth your read.
Even though I’m in my 24th year of covering this team I’m still learning new things. I’ll be more cautious in my future predictions surrounding this Buccaneers team. I’m getting tired of fooling myself – and you, the die-hard Bucs fan and PewterReport.com reader – with this team that has continued to underachieve at times over the past decade.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: Bucs’ Losing Streak Continues In New Orleans
After seven games I still can’t figure out what the Bucs’ identity is on offense. Can you? On Sunday it seemed as if Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter was simply grasping at straws with his play-calling as very little seemed to be working. He says he wants to be a run-first, play-action offense, but the Bucs don’t run the ball well enough to truly do that.
On one series they come out in a three tight-end look, and then the Bucs will go five-wide with an empty backfield on the next series. It just doesn’t seem like Koetter and the offense have bread-and-butter plays – plays that are the Bucs’ “go-to” plays.
Because of that, and the defense’s inability to apply pressure on the quarterback and play well on the road, I can’t see the Bucs winning in New Orleans. Not with the Saints playing so well and leading the division. Tampa Bay will lose its fifth straight game of the season, unfortunately.
PREDICTION 2: The Gruden Chatter Will Start To Heat Up
I’m going to get criticized by some for even bringing up Jon Gruden’s name with the Bucs mired in a 2-5 start to the 2017 season, but the reality is that I’m not the only one in Tampa Bay that is thinking that Gruden could be a viable option to replace Dirk Koetter if the Glazers want to make a change at the end of the year. That idea is totally plausible, so don’t kill the messenger.
I’m not suggesting that will happen, nor am I calling for that to happen right now. All I’m saying is that the chatter will grow on Twitter, on Facebook and on sports radio as the losses pile up in Tampa Bay. I don’t know if the Glazers would consider bringing “Chucky” back for another run with the Bucs, or whether that’s even a good idea. But just like Vols fans have been clamoring for Gruden in Tennessee for years, long-suffering Bucs fans will begin to clamor for the return of the last coach to take their team to the playoffs. It’s only natural for folks to harken back to the good ol’ days of yesteryear – when the Bucs were winners and playoff contenders.