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 fell behind 35-7 in the first half before rallying in the second half in Carolina. But great play by the Panthers offense and defense was too much to overcome as the Bucs fell to 3-4 after a 42-28 loss to their NFC South division rivals.
2 BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: Panthers’ Misdirection Killed Young Bucs Defense
The Panthers took advantage of the Buccaneers’ young and inexperienced secondary with a bunch of misdirection plays – many of them for huge gains or touchdowns on Sunday. Those misdirection plays helped Carolina race out to a 35-7 lead in the first half. The hapless Bucs defense didn’t know if the Panthers were coming or going on more than a few plays.
Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner used speedy weapons like receivers Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore, and running back Christian McCaffrey to befuddle the Bucs defenders on end arounds, reverses and double reverses. In the first half, Moore had 32 yards on an end around, followed by a 32-yard reception by McCaffrey, who hurdled Carlton Davis, on a double screen pass to set up Carolina’s second touchdown. Samuel scored on a 33-yard end around leaving several Bucs defenders in his wake with poor tackling attempts, and also had a 16-yard touchdown catch.
“Well, they had a couple of really nice double reverse plays that they threw in there and got us on two 30 yard runs, but our tackling was very poor in the first half,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. “We did much beter int he second half, but that first half, we just looked like a bad tackling football team in the first half.”
Inexperienced players like Ryan Smith (third year) and seldom-used linebackers Devante Bond (third year) and Adarius Taylor (fourth year), along with young defenders like safeties Justin Evans (second year), Isaiah Johnson (first year) and Andrew Adams (third year), not to mention rookies Davis and Jordan Whitehead, didn’t maintain discipline, were easily fooled with misdirection, took poor angles and failed up wrap up when in position to stop the Panthers’ weapons.
None of those players have more than three years worth of experience. In fact, Smith has the most playing time of any of those previously mentioned players. They’re either too young, too inexperienced, not good enough – or perhaps all three.
That speaks volumes and is an indictment on general manager Jason Licht, who didn’t sign veteran safety Eric Reid, who had an interception today, or trade for a veteran safety or cornerback – not that a player acquired in a trade on Tuesday would have helped the Bucs on Sunday, but the Bucs have eight games left and could have used some more experience. Outside of 35-year old Brent Grimes, Tampa Bay’s secondary is just too young and inexperienced to give this team a chance to win on a regular basis.
The result was confusion and missed tackles galore – not in pass coverage, but on end around runs by receivers and on screen passes. Sunday’s game in Carolina resembled the Bucs’ 30-10 debacle at New Orleans last year, when they simply couldn’t tackle Alvin Kamara – only this year it was McCaffrey who made the Bucs look silly.
“We know in play-option football, you have to play assignment football,” Koetter said. “So you’re worried about Cam [Newton] and what he can do with it, you’re worried about McCaffrey. They don’t send you a text message and let you know they’re going to run a reverse on the next run, so, that’s just another added dimension, and they’re doing a good job at that. But we couldn’t get it defended today.”
By halftime, McCaffrey had 63 yards rushing and two touchdowns and added another 36 yards through the air on two catches. He finished with 79 yards rushing and 78 yards receiving on five catches with three total TDs.
Of course we can’t just single out the Bucs youthful secondary for being awful. Tampa Bay’s veteran defenders were practically invisible on Sunday, especially in the first half when Carolina scored five straight touchdowns after going three-and-out on its first possession.
Here is what the Bucs’ top defenders turned in performance-wise in the first half:
DT Gerald McCoy – zero tackles
DE Jason Pierre-Paul – zero tackles
DT Beau Allen – zero tackles
DT Vita Vea – zero tackles
DE Vinny Curry – one tackle
LB Lavonte David – one tackle
CB Brent Grimes – one tackle
McCoy, who was playing with an injured calf, and David would split a sack on the Panthers’ initial third down of the second half, but it was too little too late. David finished with eight tackles, while McCoy finished with two. Defensive end Carl Nassib also added a second-half sack, but Pierre-Paul’s consecutive sack streak was halted at six games. JPP had an underwhelming one tackle on Sunday.
Tampa Bay’s defense stiffened in the second half, holding the Panthers offense scoreless in the third quarter as the Bucs offense added two touchdowns to cut the lead to 35-28, but once Carolina stopped running its conventional offense and went back to misdirection, it marched down the field to score another touchdown and take a 42-28 lead with just over nine minutes left to put the game away.
STATEMENT 2: Evans Picked The Wrong Day To Be Awful
Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick forgot to pack his Fitzmagic as Tampa Bay traveled to Carolina to play the Panthers on Sunday. Fitzpatrick started slow, going 0-for-3 to start with a big interception. He didn’t have much help from a porous offensive line or from his top target in the passing game.
Fitzpatrick’s first three passes were intended for wide receiver Mike Evans, who came into the game averaging 110 yards per game, and after the first two were incomplete, he overthrew Evans for an interception by safety Eric Reid that was returned 39 yards to the 10-yard line. That set up Carolina’s first touchdown and an early 7-0 lead.
Evans had two dropped passes in the first half, including one on the first play of the game and another one in the second quarter that would have been a first down. Evans was 0-of-6 on his first half targets and was completely blanketed by third-year cornerback James Bradberry as Carolina took a 35-14 lead into halftime.
There’s no other way to say it – Evans picked the wrong day to be awful.
It’s one thing for the Bucs defense to get completely gashed by the Panthers offense, but Tampa Bay’s offense has the obligation to put up points, too – especially when the Bucs have the league’s top-ranked offense, averaging 467.6 yards per game, and averaging 28.7 points per game coming into Sunday’s game at Carolina. Evans is a big part of that.
Evans’ first catch, a 16-yarder, finally came in the third quarter, but Bradberry owned him all day. It would be his lone catch of the day in Carolina.
Evans, who signed a lucrative contract extension in the offseason that made him the league’s third-highest-paid wide receiver, averaging $16.5 million per season, has been dominant all season. He’s had four 100-yard games, including a season-high 179 yards and a 72-yard touchdown. When you’re making that much money you need to bring it every week – not 14 or 15 times per year.
Fitzpatrick, who will start next week at quarterback according to head coach Dirk Koetter, wound up completing 24-of-40 passes for 243 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions and could have used a 100-yard game from Evans on Sunday. Tight end O.J. Howard turned out to be Fitzpatrick’s big target in the red zone on Sunday, with four catches for 53 yards and two touchdowns, which tied his career-high. Howard now has five touchdowns to lead the Bucs.
At wide receiver, Adam Humphries put on a show in his homecoming game. Humphries, who is from nearby Spartanburg, South Carolina and played collegiately at Clemson, had a game-high eight catches on all eight of his targets for 82 yards and two touchdowns, which were a career-high, in addition to a seven-yard run.
“Well Hump, he’s a good football player,” Koetter said. “He’s kind of down the line in the pecking order for us as far as a guy that gets targets. They did a good job on Mike today, and it was more about Hump was the guy. They were doubling Mike some, they were pressing Mike a lot. Fitz found him, and Hump made a couple of nice runs after the catch on his own.”
2 PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Should Warhop Be The Next Coach To Go?
Yes. Tampa Bay parted ways with defensive line coach Jay Hayes during the offseason and defensive coordinator Mike Smith after five games this season. Who is the next assistant coach who could/should be sent packing?
Offensive line coach George Warhop.
The Buccaneers offensive line has struggled to get the running game going all year. Whispers out of One Buccaneer Place suggest the scheme is a little more intricate that it needs to be. Tampa Bay’s pass protection started the year strong, but has struggled over the past two weeks. Last week, the Bucs offensive line surrendered six sacks at Cincinnati and allowed nine quarterback hits/hurries.
At Carolina, the Bucs offensive line gave up three sacks, but it could have been many more if not for Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ability to scramble or get rid of the ball quickly. Fitzpatrick was hit/hurried 11 times, which is a season high for Tampa Bay’s offensive line. That can’t happen. It’s a miracle the Bucs were able to still put up 28 points.
The team has invested two second-round picks in left guard Ali Marpet, who received a massive contract extension this year, and left tackle Donovan Smith, who is in line for a contract extension, but has yet to fully live up to his potential. Smith gave up three sacks in the game to defensive end Mario Addison, who came into the game with 4.5 on the year.
The Bucs made free agent Ryan Jensen the league’s highest-paid center and he’s not exactly playing like a Pro Bowler.
Warhop hasn’t missed a block or given up a sack yet, but he’s in charge of a unit that is not playing up to his potential. If the Bucs are going to be a pass-first team, fine. But the pass protection has to be stellar – every week. And it’s not. Warhop has to take responsibility for that.
For some reason, Warhop is just not getting the most out of his players, and has struggled to develop either third-year player Caleb Benenoch or rookie Alex Cappa into a starting-caliber right guard this season. There is also no clear-cut replacement for an aging Demar Dotson at right tackle, either. If Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter returns next year, Tampa Bay might need to look elsewhere for an offensive line coach that can take its high-priced offensive line to the next level.
QUESTION 2: Did Licht Whiff On Panthers CB Jackson?
Absolutely. Not every general manager’s draft picks are going to be hits, but it looks like Bucs G.M. Jason Licht had a really clear miss on second-round cornerback M.J. Stewart, who is simply not athletic enough to play cornerback at the NFL level. Stewart needs to be moved to strong safety to compete with Jordan Whitehead if there’s any chance of salvaging his NFL career.
Stewart was drafted with the 53rd overall pick before the Bucs selected Carlton Davis in the second round with the 63rd overall selection, but the bigger sin was picking Stewart over Donte Jackson. Carolina drafted Donte Jackson out of LSU two picks later at No. 55 overall.
The Bucs had Jackson, who was one of the fastest and most athletic cornerbacks in the draft, in for a pre-draft visit in April, but passed on him because of his lean 5-foot-10, 180-pound frame, opting for the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Stewart.
Jackson has proven to be the much better player thus far. Although he did get flagged with pass interference on DeSean Jackson in the second half, Jackson wound up with a sack and a fourth quarter interception against Tampa Bay. That was Jackson’s fourth interception of the year, by the way.
Here’s where I obligatorily remind you that the Bucs have just one interception through eight games this year.
Even former Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, who was calling the Bucs’ broadcast for Fox, said that Jackson was one of his favorite cornerbacks coming out in the draft. Licht wanted to draft tough, physical players, and Stewart is tough and physical. He’s just not athletic enough and is doesn’t make plays on the ball.
Jackson is and does. Licht clearly drafted the wrong cornerback.
2 BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: Catanzaro Will Remain The Bucs’ Kicker
I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, I know. But Chandler Catanzaro has caused angst for many a Buccaneers fan, player, coach and front office member this season with a missed field goal, extra point – or both.
For the first time in his Buccaneers career, Catanzaro made all of his kicks in a game. He was 4-of-4 on extra points and did not attempt a field goal.
If you’re looking for a silver lining, there you go.
PREDICTION 2: If Koetter Doesn’t Survive, Bucs Might Turn To Turner
It’s too early to suggest that head coach Dirk Koetter will be fired at the end of the season, but given the fact that the Bucs are 3-5 now and just eight percent of the teams that have had 3-5 starts have made the playoffs since 1990, it’s certainly not too early to speculate. So who would the Glazers look at as a potential replacement?
Although he doesn’t fit the current trend of young, up-and-coming offensive coaches like Sean McVay and Matt Nagy, I would look at Panthers coordinator Norv Turner for a couple of reasons despite the fact he’s 66 years old.
The first is that it gets him out of Carolina where he has turned Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey loose this season and has done a fine job of incorporating speedy weapons like Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore into the offense with misdirection runs in addition to taking advantage of their receiving skills downfield. That would be a blow to the division rival Panthers.
Second, Turner has a 114-122-1 record as a head coach with stops in Washington (49-59-1) and Oakland (9-23), but had a 56-40 mark with San Diego from 2007-12 where he and Philip Rivers led the Chargers to the playoffs for three straight years, including an 11-5 record in his first year and a 13-3 record two years later in 2009. Turner went 9-7, 8-8 and 7-9 over the last three years of coaching in San Diego in 2012. Plus, he has a .500 record (4-4) in the postseason.
After his offense put up 42 points on the Bucs on Sunday he might be worth an interview if Koetter doesn’t survive. Maybe he’s too old and doesn’t have the energy to be more than a coordinator, but I would certainly find out if I am the Glazers – and I would keep an eye on Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, too.