Tampa Bay finally won a home game at Raymond James Stadium as Dirk Koetter’s Buccaneers beat the Bears 36-10 to improve to 4-5 on the season. The Bucs defense forced four takeaways, registered four sacks and overcame a Hail Mary touchdown at halftime to dominate Jay Cutler and the Bears, while quarterback Jameis Winston threw for over 300 yards and two touchdowns in the victory.
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.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1. THROWBACK DAY FOR BUCS DEFENSE AGAINST THE BEARS
Back in the glory days when Monte Kiffin was the defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay’s defense had at least a 50-50 chance of forcing a field goal when faced with a third-and-goal scenario, defending its own 4-yard line. In recent years, the Bucs’ opponents have had far better odds at scoring touchdowns.
But on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, it seemed like a throwback game for Tampa Bay, who was facing off against its old NFC Central rival Chicago. Not only did the Bucs stop the Bears, Noah Spence came off the left side like a faster version of Chidi Ahanotu to sack Jay Cutler and strip him of the football to prevent Chicago from getting any points.
The Bucs’ beleaguered defense was introduced before game and seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd to force four first-half takeaways. The first came when Brent Grimes jumped an Alshon Jeffery’s route and picked off Cutler. The Bucs needed to pressure Cutler and did so. In addition to Spence’s sack, nose tackle Clinton McDonald returned from injury to drop Cutler in the first half.
Bucs DE Robert Ayers – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
But it was a blitz by strongside linebacker Daryl Smith that did the most damage as he came in with his hands up and forced a quick throw in the flat to tight end Logan Paulson. Safety Chris Conte, a former Bear, looked like John Lynch for a brief instant, stepping in front of Paulson to pick it off and return the interception 20 yards for a touchdown to put the Bucs up 7-0 in the first quarter.
Granted, Tampa Bay wasn’t facing an elite passer like Oakland’s Derek Carr or Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, but Cutler is a very good quarterback capable of beating the Bucs as he’s done in each of the last two years. But Sunday wasn’t one of those days as Tampa Bay’s defense went to throwback mode – save for a lucky Hail Mary touchdown by Cutler to receiver Cameron Meredith right before halftime to cut the Bucs’ lead to 17-10.
The Bucs would finish the game with four takeaways, four sacks, a defensive touchdown and a safety from defensive end Robert Ayers’ sack in the end zone late in the game. Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith wanted his team to be tougher on defense with suffocating coverage and more pressure on the quarterback after two straight losses. His players answered the call and for one day it looked like the Bucs defense of yesteryear.
STATEMENT 2: BIG-TIME BRATE EMERGING AS LETHAL WEAPON FOR WINSTON
With Mike Evans facing periods of double coverage by the Bears, third-year tight end Cameron Brate stepped up in a huge way for Tampa Bay on Sunday. Brate, who entered the game with four touchdown catches to lead all NFL tight ends, added another one against the Bears and had a career day in the process. His five TD catches is currently tied for the lead league.
By halftime, Evans didn’t have a single catch, but Brate had a career-high six for 70 yards. Brate became Jameis Winston’s go-to receiver in the passing game, finishing with seven catches for 84 yards after adding a 14-yard reception in the second half, in addition to drawing two penalties on the Bears defense.
Brate now has 34 catches for 375 yards and five touchdowns on the season, and is on pace to finish the year with 60 catches for 666 yards and eight touchdowns. Brate, an undrafted free agent, is far from being a household name in Tampa Bay let alone the rest of the league. But he’s putting up some Pro Bowl-worthy stats this season and has a touchdown catch in each of the last three games.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: IS AGUAYO FINDING HIS GROOVE?
Don’t look now, but Bucs kicker Roberto Aguayo had his best day as an NFL kicker. No, he didn’t drill a pair of 50-yard field goals, including a game-winner. But he had six kick attempts in Tampa Bay’s 36-10 win over Chicago and was perfect on all of them.
The struggling rookie, who came into Sunday connecting on just 7-of-12 field goals (58.3 percent) this season, connected on both of his field goals against the Bears from 30 and 27 yards. In fact, Aguayo’s four extra point attempts against Chicago were all longer kicks than his field goals as the distance for PATs is now 33 yards.
Aguayo’s field goal percentage is now 64.3 percent (9-of-14), and he’s made six of his last seven field goal attempts dating back to his game-winning kick against Carolina on Monday Night Football. That’s 85.7 percent, which the Bucs would take over the course of a season.
Although Aguayo missed an extra point against Oakland, he’s 11-of-12 on extra points over the last four games, including the last seven in a row. Add up all of his kicks since his game-winner against the Panthers and he has connected on 17-of-19 (89.5 percent) over the last five games. That’s not necessarily great, considering it includes extra points and the league average is around 95 percent on those kicks, but it is progress for the rookie kicker.
QUESTION 2: DID THE BUCS GET GLIMPSE OF NEXT YEAR’S CENTER?
With starting center Joe Hawley out of Sunday’s game due to a knee injury, backup Evan Smith got the start, and practice squad player Ben Gottschalk was signed on Friday to the active roster. Just six plays into the game, Smith went down with what is believed to be a sprained MCL knee injury and Gottschalk entered the game to see his first NFL action.
Bucs C Ben Gottschalk – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
Gottschalk didn’t exactly have rock solid veterans lining up beside him, helping him, either. To his right was right guard Ali Marpet, who is in his second year. To his left was left guard Caleb Benenoch, a rookie, who was also playing in his first NFL regular season game. Yet Gottschalk played 69 snaps and performed well.
So well that Gottschalk could be in the mix for the starting job next year, as Smith will be entering a contract year in 2017, while Hawley’s contract is up at the end of the year. Smith, who is 30, is slated to make $4.5 million next year. Hawley, who is 28, is earning $3.5 million this season.
Smith’s injury will keep him out of action next week and possibly up to three weeks according to early reports, so unless Hawley returns from injury by next Sunday, Gottschalk could be getting his first NFL start on the road in Kansas City. The team is interested to see how he progresses this year as it could have a significant impact on the depth chart next year.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: WINSTON IS GOING BACK TO THE PRO BOWL
Some NFL analysts and observers sighed over the fact that Jameis Winston made the Pro Bowl last year after several quarterbacks opted not to play due to injury or lack of interest. Winston wasn’t an alternate last year despite becoming the third rookie quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards. He was an alternate’s alternate.
But once he got to Hawaii he proved he belonged with two highlight TD passes. Winston has a shot at being voted in this year, as his 19 touchdowns are the third-most in the NFC behind New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (24 each) and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (22). The fact that the Pro Bowl is reverting back to its NFC vs. AFC format helps Winston’s chances.
PREDICTION 2: BUCS GET ANOTHER ROAD WIN IN KC
The Carolina Panthers had the Kansas City Chiefs on the ropes, winning 17-3 entering the fourth quarter on Sunday. But the Chiefs made a furious comeback, thanks in part to Eric Berry’s 42-yard pick-six and a two-point conversion, and scored 17 unanswered points in the final 15 minutes to claim a 20-17 victory that sent the Panthers home with a 3-6 record.
The Bucs are 3-1 on the road this year, and will pull a road upset this week in Kansas City to tie their record at 5-5 before a big home game against Seattle the following week. The 7-2 Chiefs are quite formidable, especially at home, but the Bucs played a complete game against the Bears and will be full of the confidence necessary to get a tough road win on Sunday. If they can replicate that performance this Sunday Tampa Bay will be be 4-1 on the road in 2016.