Three first half turnovers, including two Jameis Winston interceptions from former Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib lead to Denver’s 27-7 win at Tampa Bay. The loss, which featured an hour and a half rain delay, dropped the Bucs to 1-3 on the year while the Broncos remained undefeated at 4-0. 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: WINSTON IS IN A SOPHOMORE SLUMP
Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston is severely hurting Tampa Bay’s chances of winning games. No, he’s not blowing coverage or getting flagged for pass interference, but he’s certainly done his part to contribute to the Bucs’ disappointing 1-3 record.
It’s official. Winston is in a sophomore slump. It’s no coincidence that this started after the loss of Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin to a hamstring injury in Arizona.
Winston started off the 2016 season red hot as the NFC Offensive Player of the Week in a 31-24 win at Atlanta with four touchdowns and one interception. Since then, Winston has slumped badly, tossing four touchdowns and seven interceptions, including two to Denver cornerback Aqib Talib, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2008, on Sunday. He’s also fumbled twice and accounted for nine turnovers in the past three weeks – 10 total in the first four games.
Last year, Winston threw 22 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions with three lost fumbles en route to throwing for over 4,000 yards and making the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Those 18 turnovers were somewhat understandable in his first year in the NFL and in Dirk Koetter’s system. But Winston already has 10 turnovers with 12 more games to go. If Winston continues his disturbing average of two picks per game he’s on pace to throw 32 this year. Vinny Testaverde set the Tampa Bay franchise record with 35 picks in his second year in the league in 1988.
Winston started last season with seven interceptions, including a pick-six, against just six touchdowns before significantly reducing the number of picks over the last 12 games, throwing just eight over that span. Will Winston reduce his number of turnovers beginning next week? Winston feels added pressure without Martin in the lineup, so he’ll continue to force plays that aren’t there due to his competitive nature and his sophomore slump will likely continue.
STATMENT 2: BUCS CANNOT RUN THE BALL WITHOUT MARTIN
What helped Winston have a 4,000-yard Pro Bowl season as a rookie was the play-action passing game due to the help of Martin, who was the second-leading rusher last year with over 1,400 yards. Martin’s hamstring injury has hamstrung Tampa Bay’s offense as Winston is at his best in the play-action passing game.
Without Martin in the lineup, Winston can’t take advantage of enough one-on-one match-ups in the passing game because teams aren’t committing a safety to the box to stop the Bucs’ ground game. Charles Sims isn’t close to being the running back that Martin is, and that has stymied Tampa Bay’s offense. Sims came into Sunday’s game against Denver with 88 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries (3.3 avg.).
Against the Broncos, Sims was ineffective, rushing 15 times for 28 yards (1.8 avg.) with one ill-advised fumble as he was trying to pitch the ball back to Winston after getting stopped for no gain on third-and-1 at the Denver 26 with Tampa Bay trailing Denver, 14-7, with 5:54 remaining in the first half. The Bucs had driven down to the Denver 26 and were in field goal range to possibly cut the Broncos’ lead to four points. That was the turning point in Sunday’s loss.
Meanwhile, Jacquizz Rodgers has proven to be the more effective runner, posting 25 yards on six carries (4.1 avg.) against the Broncos. Rodgers has 12 carries for 69 yards (5.7 avg.) on the year, while Sims has rushed for 116 yards on 41 carries (2.8 avg.). Rodgers, who hits the holes harder and more decisively, is definitely worthy of more carries.
Sims should be benched for dancing too much in the backfield, in addition to that awful fumble that cost the Bucs a chance for three points when the score was more manageable. It’s time for Koetter to send a message that those type of bone-headed mistakes won’t be tolerated.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS QUESTION 1: IS IT A SCHEME ISSUE OR A TALENT ISSUE FOR BUCS D?
Backup-caliber players and rookie quarterbacks beat Tampa Bay’s defense during the Lovie Smith era, and unfortunately that awful trend has spilled over into the Dirk Koetter regime. On Sunday both a backup-caliber player, Trevor Siemian, and a rookie, Paxton Lynch, combined to beat Tampa Bay’s defense, which is now under the guidance of Mike Smith.
Siemian was 5-of-7 for 68 yards with one touchdown before injuring his shoulder in the second quarter and giving way to Lynch, Denver’s first-round pick, who completed 14-of-24 passes for 170 yards with one touchdown. Despite the changing of the Smiths, the pass coverage hasn’t proven to be any better, although it’s just four games into the Bucs’ new scheme. So is it the scheme or is it the players?
It’s both. Mike Smith’s defense deploys more man-to-man coverage, including the safeties, and that is Tampa Bay’s weakest position in terms of talent. Chris Conte was flagged three times against Denver, including a questionable pass interference call on a pass in the end zone that seemed to be uncatchable. Safety Bradley McDougald was also flagged for pass interference. Neither made any splash plays.
Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks, the Bucs’ starting cornerbacks in 2014, didn’t play a down of defense on Sunday and were relegated to special teams action. Banks played 10 plays and Verner played nine plays on Sunday. Free agent signing Josh Robinson was also strictly a special teamer against Denver, logging 22 plays, but not playing a down on defense.
Tampa Bay’s starting cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves have played okay. Grimes broke up three passes against Denver, but dropped another interception and had trouble with his footing as he was slipping in coverage all day. It’s clear he’s on the downside of his career, while Hargreaves is still learning as a rookie.
The bottom line is that the talent isn’t as good as we thought, and because of that, Smith’s scheme asks some of the players to do things that they aren’t capable of due to the lack of talent.
QUESTION 2: WHY DID KOETTER PUNT DOWN 20 IN THE FOURTH QUARTER?
Trailing by 20 points, 27-7, with a fourth-and-6 situation at the Denver 46, Koetter elected to punt the football. It seemed as if he was waving the white towel of surrender at that point, but he refuted that after Sunday’s game.
“I’d been watching our offense the whole game,” Koetter said. “I don’t know why anyone expected we could make it on fourth-and-7 if they’d been watching our offense the rest of the game. I sure didn’t expect us to.”
When pressed for a further explanation because it looked like he was resigned to the fact that the Bucs were going to lose the game, Koetter reiterated his point matter of factly.
“I’m playing the percentages, guys,” Koetter said. “When we don’t make it on third-and-7 and we’ve got the guy wide open on third-and-7, what makes you think you’re going to make it on fourth-and-7? We’re not going to come back and run the same play again. We were struggling all night. At that point, why would we give them the ball at midfield instead of putting them back inside and hoping we could get a turnover?
“We’re hoping our defense could come up with the ball. We weren’t playing well enough on offense. That’s my decision. You guys can all tell me that I’m full of crap. That’s fine. Shoot, I’ve seen a lot of offensive football. We were going to have a hard time making it on fourth-and-7. If we gave them the ball right there, what good was going to happen then? I made a decision.”
If Koetter punted to really try to send a message to his pitiful offense, the move should be applauded because it is embarrassing to punt on the other team’s side of the field with 7:30 left with all three timeouts remaining. Drive the point home.
But if he truly did it because he was playing the percentages, the Bucs defense hadn’t forced a turnover all day and had given up three touchdowns and two field goals. Why on Earth did Koetter think the defense would actually produce a takeaway?
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS PREDICTION 1: BUCS’ PASS RUSH GRINDS TO A HALT
Heading into the 2016 season the Bucs’ pass rush appeared to be improved with the addition of free agent defensive end Robert Ayers and defensive end Noah Spence, Tampa Bay’s second-round pick. But the Bucs lost defensive end Jacquies Smith, the team’s second-leading sacker the last two years, to a season-ending injury in Week 1, followed by Ayers’ high ankle sprain in Week 2, which has kept him out the last two weeks and likely through the bye week.
In Sunday’s 27-7 loss to Denver, Tampa Bay also lost defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to a calf injury and Spence to a shoulder injury. After recording a game-high eight tackles and 1.5 sacks, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald was injured in the warm-up after the hour and 27-minute rain delay and missed the last 7:22 against Denver. If McCoy, Spence, McDonald and Ayers can’t play next Monday night, the Bucs will have no pass rush against Carolina.
PREDICTION 2: NO MORE 4:00 PM STARTS IN TAMPA BAY
In years past the Bucs have lobbied the NFL for 4:00 p.m. starts for their fan base to try to limit the stadium patrons’ exposure to the sun. After two straight rain delays lasting nearly an hour in last week’s game versus Los Angeles and an hour and half rain delay against Denver, expect the league to say “no” to any more future requests for late starting times early in the season.
The late starts are also done to accommodate fans on the West Coast in Pacific time or in the Midwest in mountain time, as a game starting at 1:00 p.m. ET, such as the Bucs’ upcoming home game against the Oakland Raiders, would mean starting at 10:00 a.m. on the other coast. But the rain delays are disruptive to the league and to television network schedules, so in the future I suspect Tampa Bay will have nothing but 1:00 p.m. games due to the afternoon weather patterns in summer and early fall of afternoon rain from 4:00 – 7:00 p.m.
However, the Bucs will have one more 4:05 home game this year when Seattle comes to town on November 27.
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