Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians sounded the alarm bells at the AdventHealth Training Center two weeks ago before the team made the trek to London to face a red hot Carolina team. The Bucs were coming off a road loss to the Saints and had dropped to 2-3 on the year and 1-1 in the NFC South.
“If we truly have leadership, we don’t lose two in a row,” Arians said. “That’s when your leaders show up, so this is a big game.”
So did Tampa Bay’s leaders show up last Sunday in London?
And the Bucs lost two games in a row as a result.
Of the five players that wear C’s on their chest, only outside linebacker and defensive captain Carl Nassib and running back and special teams captain Dare Ogunbowale had decent games.
Nassib recorded six tackles, which was second on the team against the Panthers, in addition to two quarterback hits and a sack, which was his second of the year. Ogunbowale had a three-yard touchdown run, the first of his career, and three catches for 22 yards, including a 21-yard screen pass.
Inside linebacker and defensive captain Lavonte David had a rather pedestrian game with six tackles and no splash plays, but the other three captains – quarterback Jameis Winston, wide receiver Mike Evans, left guard Ali Marpet – played poorly.
Winston had a disastrous performance with a career-high five interceptions and a fumble. He managed to throw for 400 yards, but only had one touchdown and two successful two-point conversion attempts.
Winston is 2-1 in games in which he has completed over 60 percent of his passes this year, but he’s 0-3 when completing less than 60 percent. In fact, in losses against San Francisco, New Orleans and Carolina, Winston has completed an identical 55.6 percent of his passes versus all three of those opponents.
After suffering six sacks the previous week in New Orleans, Winston was sacked six times in the first half alone by Carolina, and was harassed all day by former teammate Gerald McCoy, who had 2.5 sacks, including the Panthers’ seventh and final sack in the second half.
“There were three or four sacks [where] he sacked himself,” Arians said. “Incompletions don’t get you beat – sacks and sack-fumbles get you beat. We’ve been working and working, and this was one of those games where we try and make a play out of nothing and it comes back to bite you.”
McCoy’s first sack of the game came against Marpet, who was beaten one-on-one. Marpet had a hand in allowing sacks by Malcolm Brown and Carl Granderson last week in New Orleans, and also passed off Carolina’s Dontari Poe to center Ryan Jensen a little prematurely to help Donovan Smith with a double team block on Mario Addison, while Poe beat Jensen for the Panthers’ second sack of the game. Marpet also had a holding call on Poe that negated a 13-yard completion to Evans in the first half.
Evans admitted that he “played like sh*t” after the Bucs’ loss in London, and was lackadaisical on both of James Bradberry’s picks, which came on Winston’s first and last throws of the game.
On Tampa Bay’s first offensive play of the game, Bradberry knifed in front of Evans, who didn’t run a great route, according to Arians, and stole the ball to set up Carolina’s first field goal. On the last play of the game, Winston went to Evans, who was matched up on Bradberry one-on-one, but failed to turn around quick enough in the end zone to either catch the pass for a touchdown or break up the interception.
Evans finished the game with nine catches for 96 yards on 17 targets, along with a two-point conversion catch, but bobbled and dropped a perfectly thrown deep pass from Winston at the Panthers’ 25-yard line right before halftime that could have helped cut into Carolina’s 17-7 lead.
During Monday’s press conference, Arians was asked what his message was to the players during the bye week.
“Learn how to prepare better,” Arians said. “We’re still making way too many mental errors in critical situations.”
That sounded like a direct message to his team captains, who need to fix their own play first, and then the play of their respective units, in advance of Tampa Bay’s next game, which is in Nashville next Sunday against Tennessee.