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. It’s gut-check time in Tampa Bay as the Bucs have fallen to 2-4 after a stunning 30-27 defeat at Buffalo thanks to a late turnover and poor play by Mike Smith’s defense yet again. The Bucs defense surrendered 434 yards and allowed the Bills to convert 10-of-16 third downs (63 percent) in the loss.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: This Bucs Defense Is Awful
If you would have told me that Jameis Winston would throw for 384 yards with three touchdowns and one meaningless interception, and that rookie tight end O.J. Howard would have six catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns and Mike Evans would have seven catches for 88 yards and a touchdown I would suspect that the Bucs routed the Bills in Buffalo – in any other year but this year.
This year, the Bucs defense is awful, especially on the road. It’s worse than it was at the start of the season last year when Tampa Bay’s defense surrendered 32 points at Arizona, 30 points at home to Los Angeles and 27 points to Denver. This year, Tampa Bay’s defense has allowed 34 points at Minnesota, 38 points at Arizona and 30 points at Buffalo.
The main reason is the lack of pass rush. Defensive end Robert Ayers got the lone sack today, which was his first of the season, and it came against a tight end. The Bucs just don’t have the talent up front outside of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who had one tackle and three quarterback hurries. Noah Spence has one sack in the last 11 games dating back to last year. Combine a non-existent pass rush with inconsistent pass coverage and it’s a recipe for disaster – not just against quarterbacks like Eli Manning and Tom Brady, but also against the likes of Case Keenum, Carson Palmer and Tyrod Taylor.
Head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht gambled on four things this offseason – and lost. First, the only additions to the defensive line were run-stopping defensive tackle Chris Baker and re-signing run-stopping defensive end Will Gholston. The Bucs didn’t draft or sign any other pass rushers.
Second, they put all their eggs in a basket in a basket that contained 31-year old Ayers, Spence and his surgically repaired shoulder and Jacquies Smith and his surgically repaired knee. Ayers looks like a shell of his former self, Spence has been a non-factor this year after coaches and teammates said he could be a double-digit sacker, and Smith never made it back from injury and was released. The Bucs’ pass rush plan this season has backfired spectacularly.
Third, the Bucs believed that defensive coordinator Mike Smith’s defense could pick up where it left off and that new wrinkles would help. Tampa Bay has used some 3-4 and 3-3-5 looks at times this year, but without much impact. Smith has also mixed man coverage, cover 3 and quarters (cover 4), but it doesn’t seem to matter without a consistent pass rush and soft coverage. The Bucs defense hasn’t gotten better or even stayed the same this year. It’s gotten worse, especially against the run and on third down.
And finally, Koetter and Licht believed that by getting Jameis Winston more weapons that they could outscore opponents and might not need as many valiant, dominant performances from the Bucs defense this year. Adding DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard has helped as the two have combined for 33 catches for 566 yards and five touchdowns, while Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans (34 catches for 459 yards and four touchdowns) and tight end Cam Brate (27 catches for 341 yards and four touchdowns) continue to do their thing. The problem is that most of the Bucs’ scoring has come in the second half, rallying from behind.
Tampa Bay’s offense isn’t doing its part early in games, and it’s not helping to play complimentary football.
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
The Bucs have only scored 49 points on offense in the first half this season, while scoring 87 points in the second half.
“There are a lot of plays at the beginning of the game where we’re going to look back and say, ‘Wish we would have done this,’” Winston said. “We’ve got to finish.
“We’ve got to score early – touchdowns. We moved the ball well. We stopped ourselves on every single drive. Every drive. We have to fix that. I have to fix that. I have to do a better job and we’ve got to execute.”
At the end of Week 7 in the NFL, expect Tampa Bay’s defense to be ranked in the bottom third of the league in yards allowed, scoring defense and third down defense, in the bottom five for interceptions and dead last in sacks.
STATEMENT 2: Poor Tackling Is Dooming Tampa Bay
I’m sure I’m going to have some people at One Buccaneer Place denying PewterReport.com’s assertion that an incredibly soft training camp may have something to do with the lousy tackling that has taken place over the last two weeks in losses at Arizona and Buffalo. That’s okay. I don’t have all the answers and may be grasping at straws, but it sure seems like the Bucs coaches and players are grasping at straws, too.
The PewterReport.com staff talked about it on our Pewter Nation Podcasts and we’ve written about it. This year’s training camp was as soft as Charmin toilet paper. I’ve never seen less contact in training camp in my 24 years covering this team, and I have to think it’s playing some kind of role in the lack of physicality by the offensive line in opening up holes in the running game, and the lack of effectiveness in stopping the run and poor tackling by Tampa Bay’s defense.
Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Getty Images
In August I spoke to former three-time Bucs Pro Bowl center Tony Mayberry as we watched a training camp practice. He was stunned at how little contact there was during practice, which was by design as Koetter wanted to stay as healthy as possible for the regular season.
“Back then training camp hardened you, it deadened your nerves, it fortified you,” Mayberry said. “It made it so you felt you were ready for the season because your fingers had cracked and been twisted up. You already got your little dinger. You had all the things you would have in the season all one after another. By the time the season came around and they took the gas off from training camp – you couldn’t wait for the start of the season because it got easier. You felt like you were physically and mentally ready to play. It’s tough for these guys because they are saving their bodies, but nobody cares about training camp when it’s over. These preseason games don’t count. All that matters is Week 1. That being said, with the nature of this game, it’s not something you want to jump into Week 1. I don’t want my full-out contact to be the first game. I want to make sure I’ve done it and suffered a bit. Then I know I’m ready.”
The Bucs defense looked ready in Week 2 in the season opener in a 29-7 rout of Chicago, but hasn’t really since then outside of a decent effort against New England. Poor tackling has been an issue this year, but has reared its ugly head more so in these last two losses because of the amount of yards and points Tampa Bay’s defense has surrendered.
“We missed tackles,” Koetter said. “We missed tackles in the first half on their quarterback.”
Buffalo rushed for 173 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry against Tampa Bay’s defense, which was supposedly upgraded to stop the run this year.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Why Do The Coaches Keep Saying Help Isn’t On The Way?
Whether it’s “Help isn’t on the way” or “The cavalry isn’t coming” or “Our guys are our guys,” we’ve heard both Koetter and Smith utter these phrases this season, which is coach-speak for “We don’t have the necessary talent to execute what we want to do.” I’ve heard it enough times in my 24 years of covering the Buccaneers and the NFL to be able to correctly identify it.
Koetter was asked if he had the right personnel on defense after Sunday’s loss to Buffalo and said he did.
“Our personnel is good enough, but our execution isn’t good enough,” Koetter said. “We missed too many tackles and gave up too many big plays.”
I know that’s not the case, but can’t blame Koetter for saying anything otherwise. With 10 games remaining the head coach can’t throw his players under the bus. Koetter is right that the guys they have on the team are their guys. There are no saviors on the street in October.
Bucs DT Chris Baker – Photo by: Getty Images
Take a hard look at Tampa Bay’s current defense. There won’t be quite a few of those players around next year, barring a dramatic turnaround in the second half of the season. The guess here is that Ayers, who has two sacks in the last nine games, is released with one year left on his deal at age 32. Baker, who will be 31 next year, doesn’t have any guaranteed money after this year and hasn’t produced enough to warrant his $4.875 million contract in 2018. Defensive end Will Clarke and defensive tackle Sealver Siliga signed one-year deals and will also be free agents next year.
In the secondary, cornerback Brent Grimes hasn’t played as well this year as he did last year and will be a 35-year old unrestricted free agent. Cornerback Robert McClain and safeties T.J. Ward and Keith Tandy are slated for free agency next year. And the Bucs won’t take any cap hit if they release safety Chris Conte, who will be 30 next year and in the final year of a contract that is scheduled to pay him $2.25 million.
Of course if this type of play continues, the Bucs might be running a new defensive scheme entirely next year if changes are made to the coaching staff.
QUESTION 2: Do The Bucs Still Have A Shot At The Playoffs?
No. While Tampa Bay’s 2017 season technically isn’t over at 2-4, the Bucs would have to go 8-2 to get to 10-6 to realistically have a shot at making the playoffs, and the way they are playing I don’t see that happening. Do you?
Even a 7-3 finish would only guarantee a 9-7 record, and we saw that 9-7 wasn’t good enough last season to make the postseason.
Tampa Bay, which has now lost three straight games, would have to win three straight to get above .500, which wouldn’t happen until mid-November. As former U.S. President George W. Bush would say, “That’s fuzzy math.”
The fact that the next two opponents are NFC South foes Carolina (4-3) and New Orleans (4-2) doesn’t increase the Bucs’ chances of winning as both teams have proven to be formidable opponents this year. If Tampa Bay doesn’t start playing better defensively and getting off to a faster start offensively the Bucs will have a better shot at a top 10 draft pick than they will the playoffs.
Offensively, the Bucs have comet to life and have averaged 30 points per game, but shockingly that hasn’t been enough due to how awful the defense is playing. You would think that if Tampa Bay would score 30 points per game they would win, but that’s not the case.
Defense wins championships and Tampa Bay’s defense is at a 2-4 level right now.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: There Will Be Coaching Changes In 2018
I caught some flak last week for writing about how Dirk Koetter may be on the hot seat soon if he didn’t fix some of Tampa Bay’s problems quickly. Some said that was way too premature. How do you feel about Koetter and his coaching staff now, Bucs fans?
Unless this team has double-digit losses this season, I actually think Koetter, who is now 11-11 as Tampa Bay’s head coach, may be safe this year – unless the Glazers decide to pursue former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. But if the Bucs were to rally to finish 7-9 or 8-8, Koetter would likely have to make some changes to his coaching staff in order to stay without some significant improvement over the next 10 games.
Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith may have to fall on the sword unless this team can improve in stopping the run, creating more takeaways and generating more of a pass rush. If it’s deemed that a lack of talent is more of a problem than the coaching and play-calling, Smith may stick around, but some assistants, perhaps defensive line coach Jay Hayes, would be forced out due to lack of production from their units.
Whether it’s an assistant coach or two, a coordinator or the entire coaching staff, heads will roll in January if the Bucs don’t make the playoffs in a year filled with very high expectations. The Glazers have proven to be impatient owners.
PREDICTION 2: There Will Be Empty Seats At Ray-Jay Next Week
While the boycott against the protests against the NFL players kneeling down during the National Anthem has caused plenty of empty seats around the league, that hasn’t affected Tampa Bay yet. The Bucs had two near capacity crowds in their last two home games against New York and New England.
But let’s not kid ourselves. There were an awful lot of Giants and Patriots fans in Raymond James Stadium during those games, and the Bucs’ 2017 season had just gotten underway and was in the midst of a six-game home winning streak until losing to the Patriots.
Now that the Bucs have lost their last two road games and return home 2-4 to face the 4-3 Panthers, expect a smaller and less enthusiastic crowd in Tampa Bay next Sunday as Carolina fans don’t travel nearly as well. The Bucs haven’t given their fans much to cheer about the last three weeks and it will show at the turnstiles. The guess here is around 50,000 in actual attendance – about 15,000 less than capacity.