Despite having a plus-four turnover margin and 101 yards rushing from Jacquizz Rodgers in his first Bucs start, Tampa Bay narrowly edged Carolina for the win on Monday Night Football, 17-14. The Bucs halted a three-game skid and head into the bye week 2-3 but with a 2-0 record in the NFC South. 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: BUCS’ 2016 SEASON IS FAR FROM OVER
Let’s face it. The Buccaneers were another Roberto Aguayo missed field goal away from what could have been another forgettable season in Tampa Bay after a disastrous 1-4 start. Instead, it’s the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers that are 1-4 and reeling after the Bucs’ come-from-behind 17-14 victory on Monday Night Football.
The Bucs improved to 2-3 on the year heading into the bye week, and that record came against Atlanta (4-1), Arizona (2-3), Los Angeles (3-2), Denver (4-1) and Carolina (1-4). Those teams have a combined record of 14-11. Up next is a 1-4 San Francisco team that just changed quarterbacks from Blaine Gabbert to Colin Kaepernick. There’s a real chance the Bucs could be 3-3 after the bye week with a win against the 49ers, setting up a home showdown against the 4-1 Oakland Raiders.
The Bucs have a Thursday night rematch game against the Falcons at home on November 3 and could either be 4-3 or 3-4 and looking to get back to .500 before another home game against the 1-4 Chicago Bears after a nine-day layoff. There’s a real opportunity for Tampa Bay to at least win three out of its next four games – two of which are against one-win teams in San Francisco and Chicago. Winning three out of four, especially the Falcons game, would put the Bucs at 5-4 with a 3-0 record in the NFC South.
The reason for optimism is the health of the football team. The Bucs’ bye week comes at an opportune time as Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin (hamstring), Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (calf), starting defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (hamstring), starting defensive end Robert Ayers (ankle) and starting tight end Luke Stocker (ankle) should all be back in the lineup after the bye week. Throw in rookie defensive end Noah Spence, who was limited with a shoulder injury on Monday night and Tampa Bay could be at full strength heading to San Francisco.
STATEMENT 2: TAMPA BAY’S PERSONNEL DEPT. REALLY HELPED WIN THIS GAME
Criticize Bucs general manager Jason Licht for some bad drafting if you want. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins looks like a bad second-round pick from the 2014 draft, as he was released two weeks ago after spotty production on the field and a DUI arrest. Aguayo, one of this year’s two second-round picks, looks to be a shaky early pick as well.
But aside from the draft picks that contributed to Tampa Bay’s 17-14 win at Carolina, including Jameis Winston, the 2015 first-rounder, throwing a touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Evans, the 2014 first-rounder, and Aguayo, who did make the game-winning kick, there were plenty of undrafted gems that also played a role in the Bucs’ big victory on Monday Night Football. Tight end Cameron Brate, an undrafted free agent tight end from 2014, had just one catch, but it went for 38 yards and set up Evans’ 26-yard touchdown on the next play.
Rookie fullback Alan Cross, another undrafted free agent, threw a key, de-cleating block on Winston’s touchdown pass against a blitzing Panther. After the touchdown, wide receiver Adam Humphries, an undrafted free agent from Clemson, who was playing against his favorite team growing up near Charlotte, caught Winston’s two-point conversion pass to tie the game at 14-14.
Throw in the fact that the Bucs started two rookie undrafted defensive linemen in DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward to help a unit that was without starting defensive linemen McCoy, McDonald and Ayers, and Tampa Bay’s personnel department should be lauded for finding some capable reserves that played like starters – at least for one night. Lambert forced a key second half fumble when he hit a scrambling Derek Anderson, and he had four tackles on the night, while Ward had two.
Licht and Co. also had a couple of key in-season additions play big roles against the Panthers. Running back Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for a career-high 101 yards on a career-high 30 carries in place of the injured Doug Martin and Charles Sims. Rodgers, a former Falcon, is the same kind of quality street free agent Licht was able to find last year with the addition of center Joe Hawley, who was signed in early September and went on to become the starter after Week 2. With Sims on injured reserve, he’ll play a large role on offense the rest of the season for Tampa Bay.
Defensive tackle John Hughes was also signed this week and played 17 snaps on defense, recording one tackle. It wasn’t necessarily a star-studded affair in the Bucs’ 17-14 win over the Panthers, but in a battle of the back-ups, Tampa Bay’s back-ups played like starters and we up for the challenge.
One more personnel note, cornerback Brent Grimes and linebacker Daryl Smith, who were big-name free agent signings in the offseason, each recorded their first interceptions of the season on Monday night. Grimes was in the end zone in the third quarter, which proved to be huge.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS QUESTION 1: WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR AGUAYO?
Simply put, the Bucs are married to their 2016 second-round pick for the rest of this season, despite the fact that he’s missed four field goals, including two against the Panthers, and an extra point thus far during his rookie campaign. Tampa Bay won’t win a lot of games with a 50 percent kicker, and that is what Aguayo is right now after making his last kick, which was a 38-yard game-winner.
Had Aguayo missed that field goal, he would have missed three of five attempts versus the Panthers and the Bucs may have had to consider releasing him. A 50 percent field goal percentage is unacceptable – even for a rookie. Instead, Aguayo will get the rest of the season to prove himself due his high draft status, but he has to make some real progress and become more reliable.
Sebastian Janikowski, a first-round pick in 2000, connected on 68.8 percent (22-of-32) of his kicks before hitting 82.1 percent (23-of-28) the next year. Stephen Gostkowski, a fourth-round pick, hit 76.9 percent (20-of-35) of his kicks as a rookie in 2006 before improving to 87.5 percent (21-of-24) the following season.
It is possible for a rookie kicker to go through some growing pains and then catch on the next year and show real improvement. The Bucs hope that is the case with Aguayo, especially with a second-round draft pick invested in him.
The key is for Aguayo to reach at least 72 percent of his kicks as soon as possible and stay at that percentage – at least – through the end of the 2016 season. Former Bucs kickers Steve Christie (77.9 percent) and Martin Gramatica (76.4 percent) made more than three quarters of their kicks during their NFL careers, while Michael Husted (71 percent) was still above the 70 percent mark.
The difference was that Gramatica began his NFL career hitting 84.4 percent (27-of-32), and Christie started off hitting 85.2 percent (23-of-27) in Tampa Bay. Husted’s rookie season saw him hit just 72.7 percent (16-of-22). In order for Aguayo to get close to that mark, he needs to make his next six field goals in a row. That would have him connecting on 10-of-14 field goals for 71.4 percent. Can he do that?
QUESTION 2: WAS THAT A QUALITY WIN ON MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL?
The Bucs beat the Panthers and ended a seven-game losing streak, and extended their winning streak on Monday Night Football to three games, but was that 17-14 victory really a quality win? The 1-4 Panthers are a shell of their former self. This is not the 15-1 NFC championship team from a year ago.
Not only has Carolina missed cornerback Josh Norman, the Panthers offensive line hasn’t improved much from a year ago. Missing Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton, who was the NFL MVP last year, running back Jonathan Stewart and left tackle Michael Oher due to injury was one thing, but the Panthers also missed their pass rush from a year ago.
Defensive end Jared Allen retired and was replaced by Kony Ealy, who was kept at bay by left tackle Donovan Smith. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short was limited by injury and was stonewalled by guards Kevin Pamphile and Ali Marpet, and center Joe Hawley.
Winston was pressured at times, but usually when the Panthers brought the blitz. Carolina sacked him twice, but that was from the secondary on blitzes.
Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly had a game-high 11 tackles, but didn’t make any splash plays. Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen had nine catches for 181 yards, averaging 20.4 yards per reception. But that wasn’t enough for the Panthers to come away with the victory.
Not taking anything away from the win, but this wasn’t as great as the Week 1 triumph at Atlanta, especially since the Falcons are 4-1. The Panthers are a different – and better team – with Newton, Stewart and Oher in the lineup. But the Bucs had a favorable plus-four turnover margin and still only won by a last-second field goal. Something is very wrong with that picture.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS PREDICTION 1: RODGERS WILL LEAD TAMPA BAY IN RUSHING IN SAN FRANCISCO
There is a good chance that Martin returns from a hamstring injury for Tampa Bay’s next game in two weeks in San Francisco. Martin, who was the league’s second-leading rusher last year, has rushed for 85 yards on 25 carries (3.4 avg.) in the five quarters he’s played in this season.
Yet, don’t be surprised if the Bucs protect his healing hamstring and ease him back into the lineup by splitting carries with Rodgers, who is running the ball so well right now. Rodgers rushed for 101 yards against Carolina and has 170 yards on 43 carries (4.0 avg.) to lead the Bucs right now. He’s running hungry and has Tampa Bay’s longest run, a 24-yarder against Arizona. Martin and Rodgers will each top 50 yards rushing against the 49ers, but Rodgers will be leading the way – even if it’s with less carries.
PREDICTION 2: DAVID MISSES THE PRO BOWL
There is a lot of football left in the season and still time for him to make up ground, but right now it doesn’t look like Bucs linebacker Lavonte David will make the Pro Bowl this year. David looks hesitant on the field and has disappeared for stretches like never before for some reason. David is tied for third on the team with safety Bradley McDougald with 26 tackles, but that’s behind safety Chris Conte’s 34 stops and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander’s 43 tackles. He failed to record a tackle at Arizona.
More importantly, David has seen some inexplicable lapses in coverage, especially Monday night against Olsen, and has just one sack and one forced fumble through five games and no interceptions. David is capable of making more splash plays, but they haven’t been there thus far in 2016. Is this due to David, who had five tackles in Carolina, being slow to learn his place in Mike Smith’s new defense? Or is David not a great stylistic fit in the scheme? David will be productive this year, but he won’t be the force he was in the past in Tampa Bay unless he really picks it up.
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