The Bucs talked about having a must-win mentality this week and backed it up on the field.
Tampa Bay booted the Bears out of Raymond James Stadium with a 32-10 victory that represents the team’s first home win since Week 13 last year. The Bucs improved to 4-5 overall and 1-4 at home.
Combined with the second-half meltdowns of the three other NFC South foes, Sunday’s win proved to be enormous in significance. Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina all went down, meaning the Bucs are now tied with the Saints in second place behind the front-running Falcons (6-4).
The 26-point win was Tampa Bay’s largest of the season and biggest beatdown since stomping Philadelphia on the road last Nov. 22.
Bucs fans finally had more to cheer than jeer at Ray Jay and quarterback Jameis Winston led the charge. The second-year signal caller threw for 312 yards on 23 of 33 passing with two touchdowns and an interception.
It was the first drive of the second half that not only got fans on their feet but put Tampa Bay back in full control. Facing a third-and-10 at their own 23, Winston scrambled and spun around in reverse all the way to the end zone before somehow escaping and hitting receiver Mike Evans deep for 39 yards to the Bears 38. Following a delay of game penalty, Winston scanned the field and hit rookie Freddie Martino for a 43-yard touchdown that put Tampa Bay up 24-10.
“I’m thinking, ‘How can I get out of here,’ ” Winston said of the hectic play. “The linemen, they just kept blocking. They didn’t give up. There was one time I was running around at the end zone. [They] continued to block, had a nice cutback, Mike wide open. It was just a great play.”
The spectacular, momentum-grabbing drive couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Tampa Bay looked to be taking a comfortable, 17-3 advantage into the locker room at halftime but watched Bears quarterback Jay Cutler heave a 50-yard Hail Mary touchdown to receiver Cameron Meredith as time expired.
That tipped touchdown pass proved to be the highlight of Cutler’s afternoon in Tampa Bay. Playing in his second straight game after missing five with an injury, the oft-criticized veteran completed 16 of 30 pass attempts for 182 yards and two interceptions.
Cutler’s second throw to a Bucs defender gave Tampa Bay a lead it would not relinquish. Safety Chris Conte jumped a pass intended for tight end Logan Paulsen and took it 20 yards to the house.
Cutler’s second throw to a Bucs defender gave Tampa Bay a lead it would not relinquish. Safety Chris Conte jumped a pass intended for tight end Logan Paulsen and took it 20 yards to the house. That was Cutler’s second interception in as many throws after cornerback Brent Grimes victimized him to end the previous drive.
Tampa Bay dominated the turnover battle 4-1, adding a pair of fumble recoveries to the mix. A third forced fumble came with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter. Defensive end Robert Ayers capped his high-impact performance by strip-sacking Cutler in the end zone on a play that resulted in a safety. Ayers finished with six tackles, one behind Conte for the team lead, and was also credited with a sack and a half, three quarterback hits and the forced fumble.
The Bucs finished with four sacks of Cutler. Defensive end Noah Spence and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald got one each and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy got in on the sack with Ayers.
“I thought our ‘D’ was a lot more aggressive today,” Bucs head Dirk Koetter said. “That’s one of the things that we identified during the little mini-bye that we just had. We were sitting back a little too much, we needed to pressure more … and I thought our guys did a heck of a job with that today. It started with that first sack with Clinton. That was a pretty vicious hit, he came down hard. I don’t know how much that affected [Cutler] the rest of the game but you could tell that took something out of him.”
Nine different targets caught passes from Winston and the 22-year-old set an NFL record in the process. His first touchdown pass – a 10-yarder to tight end Cameron Brate – made Winston the youngest player to throw for 40 touchdowns in league history.
Brate set a pair of career highs, with seven receptions for 84 yards, and caught every ball thrown his way. Chicago emphasized locking down Evans, but the third-year receiver still managed to secure four of five targets for 66 yards, including the wild 39-yarder that set up Martino’s touchdown.
“We were nervous that they were going to do a couple things the way they did it and double Mike, and they did that,” Koetter said of multiple Bucs pass catchers stepping up Sunday. “So it was huge for Jameis [spreading the ball around successfully].”
Sunday’s game was Tampa Bay’s first with running back Doug Martin in the lineup since Week 2 in Arizona. Not helping matters were injuries to starting center Joe Hawley and left guard Kevin Pamphile. Reserves Ben Gottschalk (center) and Caleb Benenoch (left guard) filled in for the majority of the game with mixed results. Gottschalk had to go in after backup Evan Smith left with a knee injury in the first quarter.
Shaky offensive line play didn’t create many running lanes and led to Winston getting sacked four times and Bucs ball carries getting taken down behind the line seven times. Martin finished with 33 yards on 16 carries (2.1-yard average). He did manage to ice the game, however, when he punched in a 1-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.