Aqib Talib was ready for his return trip to Tampa Bay, but the Bucs and Jameis Winston weren’t prepared for him.
Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2008 picked off Winston’s first pass of the game and victimized the second-year quarterback again a quarter later. Both interceptions came in Bucs territory, handed Denver possession at the Tampa Bay 11 and 27, respectively, and resulted in Broncos touchdowns.
Talib’s assists proved to be the difference maker in a 27-7 defeat that began getting away from Tampa Bay in the second quarter and only got worse from there. Adding to the agony for Bucs fans in attendance was a fourth-quarter weather delay that cleared out Raymond James Stadium for over an hour.
Moments of Winston looking sharp were few and far between Sunday as he tried to lead a Doug Martin-less offense devoid of a capable rushing presence. Winston finished with an unattractive 40.1 passer rating after completing 17 of 35 attempts for 179 yards and no touchdowns. He bounced back after the first interception by marching the Bucs 75 yards in 13 plays to tie the game at 7-7 with 6:40 left in the first quarter. The drive was capped by his 7-yard scramble up the middle.
The deepest Tampa Bay would move into Denver territory after Winston’s touchdown came during a late second-quarter sequence that began at the 50 following Adam Humphries’ 15-yard punt return. That ended at the Broncos 26, however, with a Charles Sims fumble. Trailing 14-7 after Denver running back C.J. Anderson’s 1-yard run earlier in the quarter, Sims was hit in the backfield on first down and coughed up his first fumble of the year.
“Three turnovers in the first half,” Koetter said “You’re not going to beat the defending Super Bowl champions turning the ball over [like that].”
The third-year running back again proved incapable of carrying the rushing load in Martin’s absence, picking up just 28 yards on 15 carries. Jacquizz Rodgers nearly outgained Sims on fewer than half the touches (six for 25 yards) and Winston picked up 19 yards on five scrambles.
There weren’t many bright spots to single out Sunday and a few more injuries added to the gloom. Chief among those concerns came early when defensive tackle Gerald McCoy exited with a calf injury. Two other first-half losses were tight end Brandon Myers (hip) and Noah Spence (shoulder).
Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald put together a big day with a team-high eight tackles, 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss, but he, too, appeared to injury himself during warmups after the weather delay. Trainers led him back to the locker room before play resumed.
The day began with Tampa Bay preparing for a young, up-and-coming, second-year quarterback in Trevor Siemian. After completing 5 of 7 for 68 yards and a touchdown, Siemian was slung to the turf by McDonald late in the second quarter. The sack resulted in a left-shoulder injury that knocked him out of the game.
Replacing Siemian was an even younger signal caller – rookie Paxton Lynch. Making his NFL debut, Lynch threw for 170 yards and his first touchdown on 14 of 24 passing attempts. The touchdown – a 5-yarder to receiver Emmanuel Sanders – capped the game’s scoring in the fourth quarter.
4TH AND 43
The game was over well before this moment, but the fourth-and-43 Tampa Bay faced during its abysmal final drive pretty much summed up things up.
The Broncos’ pass rush obliterated the Bucs’ pass protection again and again, and Winston got away with a potential pick-6 dropped by cornerback Bradley Roby.
Ugly. Just like the late weather and much of the game, for that matter.
As unlikely as coming back from a 27-7 fourth-quarter deficit seemed, it became borderline impossible when head coach Dirk Koetter opted to punt on fourth-and-6 with 7:30 remaining.
The Bucs were just across midfield – unfamiliar territory Sunday – and had little to lose at that point. The weather delay came one play after the punt and Denver eventually ran off more than three minutes before the Bucs got the ball back. At their own 19. With 4:19 left. To score at least 20 points.
“I’ve been watching our offense the whole game, all right?” Koetter said of the decision. “I don’t know why anyone expected we would make it on [fourth-and-6] if they’d been watching our offense the rest of the game. I sure didn’t expect us to.”
Well, okay then.
SACKS, BUT NO TURNOVERS
Tampa Bay did manage to record a season-high four sacks and hit Siemian and Lynch eight times, but it still didn’t result in any momentum-swinging moments.
The Bucs failed to turn their opponent over for the fourth time in three games. Two would-be, first-half interceptions weren’t capitalized on, either. Cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves III let passes slip through their hands.
SPEAKING OF QB HITS
Winston took quite a few.
According to the NFL’s official stat keepers, the Broncos made contact with him a whopping 16 times and sacked him on five of those occasions. The main culprit terrorizing the Bucs backfield was defensive end Derek Wolfe. The fifth-year pro hit Winston five times and picked up 2.5 sacks.
MISERY LOVES COMPANY?
If that statement’s true, the Bucs should be feeling comfortable in the NFC South right now.
So they’ve got that going for them.
Sunday’s loss coupled with Atlanta’s 48-33 barnburner win over Carolina and New Orleans’ 35-34 win at San Diego leaves Tampa Bay (1-3) in a three-way tie for last place with the Panthers and Saints. Atlanta sits all alone atop the standings at 3-1.
Speaking of those wounded Panthers, that’s who Tampa Bay has scheduled next week. The Bucs travel to Charlotte for a Monday Night Football game before taking a Week 6 bye.
Last year’s Super Bowl runner-up had to finish the Falcons game with Derek Anderson at quarterback after Cam Newton exited in the fourth quarter with a concussion.
The Bucs will be going for the first win over Carolina since sweeping the two-game series in 2012.