Smith’s Bucs Defense Is Absolute Garbage
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 Bucs got eaten alive by the Monsters of the Midway as Mitchell Trubisky, Doug Gabriel, Tarek Cohen and Khalil Mack had their way with Tampa Bay in a 48-10 beat-down that sends the Bucs into a bye week with a 2-2 record and back-to-back losses.
2 BIG STATEMENTS
Table of Contents
STATEMENT 1: Smith’s Bucs Defense Is Absolute Garbage
I’ve covered the Buccaneers for over two decades and I’ve never seen a defense that was absolute garbage. Until now.
I’ve seen some really bad defensive performances before. Jon Gruden’s Oakland Raiders destroyed the Bucs, 45-0, in 1999. But that game was an aberration as the ’99 defense was one of the best ever in Tampa Bay.
I remember the Bucs giving up 38 points in a 38-23 loss at Carolina on Monday Night Football, and then surrendering 34 to San Diego in a 41-24 debacle two weeks later that helped cost Gruden his job in 2008.
I remember a 56-14 thrashing by Atlanta against Lovie Smith’s defense in 2014, and a 48-17 destruction at the hands of Baltimore later that year.
But I’ve never seen anything like this. The Bucs defense has surrendered 132 points in four games, an average of 33 points per game. Tampa Bay cannot continue to do this or it won’t win another game this season.
No more excuses. No more saying, “Well, the Bucs played two future Hall of Famers in Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger and a Super Bowl MVP in Nick Foles.”
This was Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky.
Yes, he was a former Top 5 draft pick, but Trubisky also had thrown a total of nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his previous NFL 15 starts prior to Sunday. Against the worst pass defense in the NFL – and perhaps of all-time (it’s still early and the Bucs are definitely in the running for that dubious distinction) – Trubisky looked like a future Hall of Famer. Thanks to Smith’s horrendous defense.
Sunday’s loss will bring intense pressure to Smith and place him squarely on the hot seat.
“We were horrific in all aspects of football today,” Koetter said. “All aspects. Based on that game today, we couldn’t make enough changes. We should fire every person that was on that field today. Starting with me. That was horrific.”
By halftime, Trubisky was 14-of-18 for 289 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He finished the game completing 19-of-26 passes (73.1 percent) for 354 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. The Bucs defense had one sack, no turnovers and no answer for Trubisky and the Bears offensive weapons – none of which are Pro Bowl-caliber.
My prediction for the coming weeks? Atlanta’s Matt Ryan throws for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns against the Bucs in the next game after the bye week.
The following week, the Bucs defense shows some improvement and holds Cleveland rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield to just 600 yards and six touchdowns.
Tampa Bay’s defensive woes won’t get fixed in a week’s time. If I’m Dirk Koetter I’m petitioning the league to give the Bucs another bye week to help fix the defensive woes. There is plenty of video evidence to submit to the league to back up his request, unfortunately.
The Bucs defenders clearly weren’t prepared for the Bears’ offensive onslaught. They had no answer for tight end Trey Burton, wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson and running back Tarek Cohen – all of whom were running wide open at times in the first half.
Last year it was different. The Bucs didn’t have much talent or experience in the secondary and no pass rush up front. This year, the pass rush has improved. It’s not great, but Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry have been upgrades over what they had last year at defensive end and have 5.5 sacks between them. There is more talent in the secondary with the selection of cornerback Carlton Davis and players like Justin Evans and Ryan Smith are better and more experienced.
Yes, the Bucs started Isaiah Johnson and two other rookies – Davis and cornerback M.J. Stewart – on Sunday. Having a more experienced secondary wouldn’t hurt, but this isn’t about a lack of experience. The team’s most experienced defender – cornerback Brent Grimes – hasn’t played well since his return from a groin injury and seems to be going through the motions at age 35. He was benched in the second half for Smith, and rightfully so.
The Bucs have several talented defensive players in McCoy, Pierre-Paul, Curry, Evans and linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David. On Sunday they were often out of position and the back seven looked lost in coverage. That’s because they were poorly prepared and Smith failed to make the appropriate adjustments to slow down a Bears offense that rolled up 400 yards at halftime.
We’ve seen this defense for three years now and the type of quarters coverage and zone schemes that Smith deploys just aren’t working. Like Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defense pitifully demonstrated in 2014-15, Mike Smith’s defensive scheme – whatever it is – no longer works in the NFL. I’m not going to insult Mike Smith by saying that the game has passed him by because he’s forgotten more about football than I’ll ever know, but this Bucs defense has become too easy to prepare for and too easy to exploit – and it’s been happening for years now.
You know it’s true, the Bucs players know it’s true – and Tampa Bay’s opponents certainly know it’s true.
I doubt that Koetter will do what he should do – which is to fire Smith – during the season. But if I were Koetter I would pull the trigger and turn the defensive play-calling duties over to linebackers coach Mark Duffner or defensive line coach Brentson Buckner.
“This is 100 percent on us,” Koetter said. “Give Chicago credit for making plays, but we were not good in any aspects. We can talk about what plays are called on both sides – we could have coached better today, there’s no question about that – but Mike Smith didn’t [miss] any tackles or turn any guys loose in coverage. You guys (the media) can make those innuendos all you want, but we got beat in all aspects of football today – and coaching as well.”
I’ve seen enough of quarterbacks completing over 75 percent of their passes. I’ve seen enough garbage, period. Something has to change.
STATEMENT 2: Winston Will Take Over At QB, But Expect A Slow Start
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter did the right thing in starting Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday in Chicago and replacing him at halftime with Jameis Winston. Fitzpatrick had to fail on the field so that Koetter could justify making a switch – a permanent switch – at the quarterback position moving forward. Fitzpatrick obliged, completing just 9-of-18 passes for 126 yards with one interception and no touchdowns.
Winston came in during the second half and led the Bucs on their only touchdown drive, and completed 16-of-20 passes (80 percent) for 145 yards with one TD and two interceptions – one of which came when his arm was hit by Khalil Mack in the act of throwing. He certainly wasn’t great, but Winston hadn’t thrown a pass in a real game in six weeks as he missed the first three games of the season due to his NFL suspension.
As long as he’s healthy, Winston will continue to start at quarterback, as he should. The Bucs have lost back-to-back games with Fitzpatrick as a starter, and he’s thrown four interceptions in those two defeats. That’s all I would need to see before turning the offense back over to Winston.
“Towards the end of the half I told the coaches that we were going to switch to Jameis,” Koetter said. “I talked to Jameis and Fitz both in the locker room at halftime and it was a chance to get Jameis some real football. We put Jameis in a terrible situation today. I told him that. I told him that right off the bat at halftime. I knew Jameis would go out and give us everything he had – and he did.”
The timing is good, as Winston and the Bucs offense will get the bye week to get back on track and for Winston to improve his timing with his receivers. It was obvious that Winston still has a rapport with Mike Evans (six catches for 59 yards), Adam Humphries (six catches for 36 yards) and Cameron Brate (three catches for 29 yards and a touchdown), but he still needs to work with DeSean Jackson (five catches for 112 yards) and Chris Godwin (two catches for 22 yards). Jackson had four catches for 104 yards with Fitzpatrick at quarterback in the first half, and just one grab for eight yards in the second with Winston in. Godwin rarely saw the ball.
Winston struggled with some of his progressions on Sunday and stared down Evans on his fourth interception against zone coverage. He still has some things to work on and some rust to shake off, as he didn’t throw the ball far downfield, but it was a decent debut for Winston, especially the 80 percent completion percentage, and something to build on. He just has to focus on making the big throws downfield that this offense calls for – that Fitzpatrick hit – and avoid turnovers.
2 PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Does Stewart Have The Athleticism To Play In The Slot?
Through the first three games of the year, it’s become apparent that cornerback M.J. Stewart, one of the team’s second-round picks, has been picked on over and over and over again. That continued on Sunday, and it’s not just because he’s a rookie and lacks experience. It’s because Stewart lacks the speed to keep up with NFL receivers, especially those in the slot.
Stewart was timed at 4.54 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, and according to MockDraftable.com, his arm length was in the 40th percentile, his 40-yard dash time was in the 29th percentile, his broad jump was in the 27th percentile and his 20-yard shuttle was only in the 22nd percentile. The higher the number the better, so those measurables aren’t that good. Stewart was drafted due to his toughness and intellect, and that’s fine if he can develop into the next Ronde Barber, who epitomized those traits.
But right now, Stewart and his lack of quickness is a weekly mismatch in the slot in favor of the offense. Stewart could not keep up with Allen Robinson, who scored a touchdown against him in the first half, or Taylor Gabriel. Stewart was again in the trail position on a deep pass for Robinson in the third quarter and was able to break it up, but only because it was underthrown. A throw on the money could have resulted in a 76-yard touchdown for Robinson against Stewart.
The loss of starting nickel cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is really hurting the Bucs because they don’t have a starting-caliber replacement that can hang with opposing slot receivers. Perhaps it’s time to start the quicker, faster Javien Elliott, who has 4.41 speed, in the slot to see what he can do. Elliott played well there as a rookie in 2016.
QUESTION 2: Will The Bucs O-Line Ever Be Good?
Can the Buccaneers find five capable, competent offensive linemen? It hasn’t happened yet despite the fact that Bucs general manager Jason Licht has spent six draft picks on offensive linemen – Kareem Edwards, Kevin Pamphile, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Caleb Benenoch and Alex Cappa – since 2014, and went through veterans Anthony Collins, Logan Mankins, Evan Smith, J.R. Sweezy and Ryan Jensen over the years, in addition to re-signing right tackle Demar Dotson.
After all that, the left side of the line appears solidified with Jensen, Marpet and Smith, but the right side of the line continued to be exposed in Chicago. Dotson is not playing anywhere close to the level he played at last year and his surgically repaired knee appears to still be an issue as Dotson hasn’t had the power he normally has in the run game.
Dotson gave up a sack to Khalil Mack on Sunday in addition to several pressures. Tampa Bay will need to invest an early-round draft pick next year on a right tackle to eventually replace Dotson, who turns 33 next month.
The Bucs hoped Benenoch would develop into a quality starter at right guard, but the transition hasn’t gone smoothly. He’s been driven back into the pocket in all four games this year, and has given up the most sacks this season in Tampa Bay. On Sunday in Chicago, Benenoch gave up two more sacks to defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and Ray Robertson-Harris.
Koetter has been rotating Evan Smith, the veteran, in with Benenoch to provide some stability while Benenoch continues to gain experience and develop. But that rotation is becoming a detriment to the offense. It may be time to go with Smith at right guard for an entire game to see if any stability can be achieved.
2 BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: Smith Takes Over For Grimes At Cornerback
Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes has done nothing but get targeted in the run game and in the pass game, and has gotten beat like a drum since returning from a groin injury that caused him to miss the first two games. Grimes had an awful training camp, and you have to think he is more of a liability right now because he isn’t covering well, which was his forte when in his prime.
Grimes was benched at halftime, and his replacement, Ryan Smith, played well in his place. Smith, who played great defense against Philadelphia in Week 2, needs to be given a chance to start after the bye week, as this is likely Grimes’ last season in the NFL at age 35, and he isn’t part of Tampa Bay’s future. Grimes isn’t the sole reason for the Bucs’ woes on defense, but he certainly isn’t part of the solution with the way he’s playing.
It should have been a win on Monday night, but it goes down as a loss because that’s what the scoreboard said. Nevertheless, I held firm in my pick of the Bears over the Bucs, and I’m holding firm in my pick of the Falcons over the Bucs after the bye week.
Tampa Bay will drop to 2-3 on the season after they bye week and won’t have a chance of getting 10 wins – or possibly even eight – unless its defense can get fixed in a hurry.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org