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 had a golden opportunity to score a big upset on the road at Lambeau Field with Jameis Winston’s return to action, but fell to 4-8 on the season after a 26-20 overtime loss to the Packers.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: Winston Has A Solid Return To Bucs’ Lineup
After a three-game absence due to an injured throwing shoulder, Bucs starting quarterback Jameis Winston returned to the lineup and had a fine day in a 26-20 overtime loss at Green Bay. Armed with a great game plan from head coach Dirk Koetter – perhaps the best of the year – Winston hit several screen passes to Peyton Barber and Charles Sims and hit all four tight ends on the roster with at least one pass, including Cameron Brate, who had two touchdowns on his two receptions, which covered 39 yards. Winston finished the day 21-of-32 for 270 yards and two touchdowns with a 112.8 QB rating.
Winston started the game looking poised, settled and confident while throwing 4-of-5 for 60 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown pass to Brate. Then the Packers brought pressure and that really befuddled Tampa Bay’s maligned offensive line, which was missing starters in center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson. After spending the week practicing with Joe Hawley at center, Evan Smith at left guard and left guard Kevin Pamphile at right tackle, Hawley became ill on Saturday and wasn’t able to play. That meant Smith had to go to center, Pamphile back to left guard and second-year player Caleb Benenoch stepped in at right tackle.
Winston was sacked seven times on Sunday and was hit 13 more times.
“I thought Jameis played good, I thought he did a good job except the one play,” Koetter said. “We didn’t protect Jameis nearly as well as we’ve protected this year. That was probably our worst protection game we’ve had all year. Some of that credit to things Green Bay did. And some of them – two that I can remember – we just flat turned guys loose. That’s communication. Jameis was under duress, but he did a great job of competing, as he always does. He did a great job scrambling. He really only had the one negative play.”
Unfortunately, that one negative play led to a Green Bay touchdown in the first half. Pamphile was beaten by defensive tackle Kenny Scott, who sacked Winston. But instead of taking the sack, Winston tried to do too much and throw the ball. As he was being slung to the ground, the ball flew up into the air and into the arms of defensive end Dean Lowry, who raced 62 yards for a touchdown to put the Packers up 17-7.
“I don’t even know how the ball came out,” Winston said. “I think when I ran back he hit a guy’s butt or something. I don’t even know. I know I was going out to the right and I was actually throwing it away.”
Tampa Bay Times Bucs beat writer Rick Stroud tweeted out a true, but damning statistic about Winston: QB Jameis Winston has 39 INTs and 11 lost fumbles in 41 games. That’s 50 turnovers in 41 games.
Winston certainly contributed to the Bucs’ point production with his two touchdowns, but he did give the Packers a key touchdown, too.
“I can’t turn the football over and give their defense, give their team free points,” Winston said.
“We’ve talked about this many times,” Koetter said. “Jameis is going to make some plays. He made a couple of really nice scramble plays today. That particular one there – and like I said he was under pressure all day – in a perfect world he would have gotten the ball out of his hands more. But they were on him quick. We have to remember that he’s 23 years old and experience is still the best teacher.”
Will Koetter be around next year to keep teaching Winston, or will Winston’s penchant for turnovers contribute to him being fired?
STATEMENT 2: Bucs’ Second-Round Pick Evans Was Worth It
It didn’t generate a lot of favorable buzz when it happened, but the second-round selection of safety Justin Evans has turned out to be a very good one for Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht. Fans and some pundits were hoping for a passing rushing defensive end, a running back or an offensive lineman, but the Bucs did need a safety, one that could make plays in the secondary against the pass, especially in a division that features some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks in New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Carolina’s Cam Newton and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, who is the reigning league MVP.
Evans got off to a slow start due to injuries that hampered him in the offseason during the OTAs and he was slow to make plays in training camp and during the preseason. But once he got his first start against New England, picking off Tom Brady, he’s become a much more confident player. Evans came into Sunday’s game at Green Bay with two interceptions and 52 tackles, which ranked third on the team. He added another interception against the Packers on an overthrown pass intended for Jordy Nelson, and finished with six tackles, which was second behind linebacker Lavonte David on Sunday. Now Evans is the second-leading tackler in Tampa Bay with 58.
He’s still missing some tackles, taking a few poor angles and needs to work on his run fits. Evans is also not a finished product in pass defense, either. He’s given up some touchdowns and big plays, but out of the Bucs’ three other safeties – Chris Conte, T.J. Ward and Keith Tandy – he’s the only one making splash plays, like Sunday’s pick of Brett Hundley, or his diving interception in the end zone against Miami three weeks ago.
Evans had five interceptions and 11 pass breakups in two seasons at Texas A&M, and his junior season saw him as the top safety in the country against the pass with four picks and eight pass breakups. That’s why the Bucs pounced on him midway through the second round.
Evans’ big plays aren’t just limited to interceptions, either. Near the end of regulation, Evans came flying in and tackled Nelson just short of the first down marker to force a fourth-and-1 situation and a game-tying field goal. The Texas A&M product appears to be on his way to having a bright future in Tampa Bay.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Why Did The Bucs Think This Offensive Line Was Good?
During the entire offseason both Licht and Koetter used every available opportunity to sing the praises of the existing personnel along the offensive line, which we reported, while others were calling for the Bucs to upgrade their line in the draft. The thinking was that moving Marpet to center and inserting J.R. Sweezy in at right guard following his return from back surgery was going to boost the play of the O-line.
That hasn’t happened. The pass protection has been decent this year, but the running game has been absent on a consistent basis – until Sunday in Green Bay.
That’s when the Bucs’ make-shift offensive line surrendered seven sacks, yet powered a ground game that had a season-high 165 yards and a 4.7 yards per carry. Sweezy was still at right guard, Donovan Smith was still at left tackle and Pamphile was at left guard full time. The only two changes were putting Evan Smith at center and Benenoch at right tackle.
I don’t get it.
How did that unit help Peyton Barber rush for a career-high 102 yards?
“We did great from an offensive line standpoint – we dominated the line of scrimmage,” Winston said. “They were in a new situation. We found out the day of the game that we weren’t going to have Joe, so hats off to those guys. They’re resilient and did a great job.”
That’s Winston being Captain Hyperbole. The offensive line did great run blocking. In pass protection? Not so good. Winston was sacked twice on two missed assignments. Donovan Smith doubled down to help Pamphile on one play and allowed Clay Matthews to record one of his 2.5 sacks. Sweezy doubled a Packers defender with Evan Smith and allowed Lowry to come free on a sack.
Here comes Captain Hyperbole again.
“Evan played an amazing game,” Winston said. “We just had a miscommunication there.”
No, Smith didn’t have a great game, and Winston was talking about a fumbled snap inside the red zone. Smith’s rough return to Green Bay, where he played for five years, also included two fourth quarter penalties – a holding call and a very costly illegal block above the waist penalty that negated a 20-yard gain on a screen pass to Charles Sims.
“That was a double cadence and Evan snapped it on the wrong snap count,” Koetter said. “Evan just missed it.”
As for Smith’s penalty on Tampa Bay’s final drive before overtime, Sims’ 20-yard reception set the Bucs up at their own 40-yard line, needing just 30 more yards to get into Pat Murray’s range to possibly kick a game-winning field goal to break a 20-20 tie. Instead, the Bucs faced first-and-20 from their own 10-yard line.
“That one would have been about a 50-yard penalty,” Koetter said. “To have the drive start there, then all of a sudden you’re first-and-20, backed up and the crowd is at its loudest right there. That was a tough call that went against us right there.”
“If the guy calls it, he calls it,” Winston said. “I know Evan was distraught from that because he knew he didn’t do anything.
“I think we had like two miscommunications,” Winston said. “They just found out today that this was going to be our offensive line. I don’t think it’s right to be able to say that they did sub-par when they overcame so much.”
The Bucs offensive line was both good and bad, but in the end, it wasn’t good enough. Had Winston had more time in the pocket, he wouldn’t have lost the fumble that was returned for a touchdown, and the Bucs might have scored more than just 20 points.
Marpet, Dotson, Donovan Smith and Benenoch will be back next year. The team will have to decide the fate of Evan Smith and Pamphile, who will unrestricted free agents, as well as Sweezy, who hasn’t come close to playing up to his $6.4 million salary this year. Sweezy is due to make $5.25 million next year.
QUESTION 2: Why Not Start Barber The Rest Of The Year?
I’ve seen enough of Doug Martin. You know, the guy that hasn’t rushed for 100 yards in the past two calendar years?
Martin missed the Packers game with a concussion, which gave Barber his first chance to start in the NFL. He responded with a career-high 102 yards rushing and also led the Bucs with four catches for 41 yards on screen passes. His 143 total yards also represent a personal best, as well as the most combined yardage any Tampa Bay running back has produced all season. Barber’s 100-yard game was also the first time any Bucs back has topped the century mark all season.
“Peyton Barber played an amazing game – he was magnificent,” Winston said. “When you are running the ball and you are able to get yards off screens, your offense has success.”
Barber runs with power and decisiveness, which Martin lacks. Barber doesn’t dance around in the backfield. He fights for yardage and knows that a two-yard gain to set up second-and-8 is much better than second-and-12.
“When you can run the football everything opens up,” Winston said. “We were able to get some screens off the play-action and we would get in empty and get some screens. Coach Koetter called a great game, but when Peyton Barber and that offensive line is dominating the running game, you can do anything on offense.”
Barber reminds me of a young Earnest Graham. We’ll see what this outing does to his confidence and his overall game. I’m not sure how high his ceiling is, and I know that Martin is a more talented back, but I’d rather have a north-south runner like Barber starting for me down the stretch if I’m Koetter.
I’ve already gone on record in saying that the Bucs need to blow up on their backfield next year – except for Barber. So with the season essentially over at 4-8, it just doesn’t make any sense to start Martin down the stretch. At age 29, Martin shouldn’t be in the team’s future plans at running back.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: The Bucs Win Their Last Game Of The Year Next Week
Tampa Bay beats the visiting Detroit Lions next week at Raymond James Stadium. The Lions are 6-6 after losing at Baltimore and Matthew Stafford suffered an injury to his throwing hand in the game. The Bucs play better at home than they do on the road, so I think they’ll upset the Lions next week.
But that will be Tampa Bay’s final victory of the year. I don’t expect the Bucs to beat the Falcons at home on Monday Night Football the next week. What a crazy atmosphere that will be with Jon Gruden in the house to call the game for ESPN and to be inducted into the Bucs Ring of Honor.
I wonder how the pre-game production meeting will go between Koetter and Gruden with all of the Grumors flying? Can you say “awkward?” If the Bucs lose that game, as I expect them to, can’t you see the Glazers and Gruden having a “chance encounter” in the bowels of Ray-Jay after the game?
I don’t see a strong motivation for the Bucs to board a plane and fly to Carolina to play a Panthers team that will need a win to stay in playoff contention on Christmas Eve, do you? I also don’t see how they can beat the juggernaut that is the New Orleans Saints – even at home – the following week. The prediction here is a 5-11 record for Tampa Bay.
PREDICTION 2: Winston Plays Even Better Next Week
I said the Bucs are going to win, and Winston will be a big reason why. I really like how he came out focused in his first game back from a three-week hiatus due to his injured shoulder. I think that continues.
“We played great, we just came out on the short end of the stick,” Winston said after the loss to the Packers. “Sometimes that’s how football works, but when we look back on that film we’re going to say, ‘Dang, we could have done this better or that better.’ It felt good. It felt good as an offense. It felt good as a team.
“Offensively, we have to build off this game. The running game was impeccable. Peyton Barber did an amazing job and our offensive line was very dominant in that aspect.”
I like the game plan that Koetter armed him with at Green Bay and didn’t feel like Winston was really out of rhythm at any point in the game. There was a strong running game for Winston to lean on and he was able to work the play-action passing game off that. Winston had some bad throws under duress, but didn’t miss open receivers.
I have no idea why, other than a gut feeling, that Winston has a three- or four-touchdown game against the Lions. The biggest thing he has to do is avoid turnovers, of course, because Detroit can make you pay. Although the Lions only have 11 interceptions, they have three pick-sixes, and two fumbles returned for touchdowns on eight fumble recoveries.
They’re an opportunistic defense. Winston needs to make sure he creates scoring opportunities for the Bucs – not the Lions.