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When the Glazers made Lovie Smith the team’s head coach in 2014 he said he wanted to make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers relevant again.

A 2-14 record after going heavy in free agency with a lot of veteran additions was a huge surprise, and a big setback for Smith and general manager Jason Licht. The Glazers expected progress following a 4-12 season that led to Greg Schiano’s firing.

Twenty-six games into Smith’s tenure as Tampa Bay’s coach and progress has been a long time coming. But with a 5-5 record this year thanks to back-to-back wins – a close, 10-6 comeback victory over Dallas and a 45-17 blowout at Philadelphia – the Bucs’ progress is undeniable.

And Smith deserves a lot of credit.

“We’ve seen progress from our team for a while, but you want to see it on Sunday,” Smith said. “Most things came together today. Just an outstanding job by the group.”

I stated that Smith should be fired if Tampa Bay lost to Jacksonville, which would have dropped the Bucs to 1-4 heading into the bye week. That didn’t happen, as the Bucs won 38-31. The heat on Smith was cranked up after the bye following a 31-30 loss at Washington, which featured a monumental collapse after the Bucs built a 24-0 lead against the Redskins.

Bucs head coach Lovie Smith - Photo by: Getty Images

Bucs head coach Lovie Smith – Photo by: Getty Images

Talk of Smith being fired during or after this season seems quite premature now as this is clearly a Tampa Bay team that has turned the corner. Since that loss, the Bucs have won three out of the last four games, including back-to-back wins for the first time since the 2013 season. That’s a clear sign of progress.

“Whenever you go on the road and beat a good football team like we beat today – Philadelphia is a good football team – of course it’s the best for us,” Smith said. “It’s the best we’ve played in a while. This week we talked a lot about back to back wins. I know that’s small to everybody else, but for us it’s something we haven’t done in a long time. The guys really believed it and to get to .500 … we’ve talked a lot about being relevant again. I think we’re relevant again.”

For the time being, the 5-5 Buccaneers are relevant, and progress is evident.

• Tampa Bay has won back-to-back games after failing to do that in 2014.

• The Bucs have won two home games after not claiming a single victory at home last year.

• Tampa Bay is 2-1 in the NFC South after being 0-6 last season.

• The Bucs have won five games, which is more than double their win total in Smith’s first year as the head coach, and got a signature, blowout win against a good team.

• Tampa Bay is at the .500 mark, and is in playoff contention for the first time since Schiano’s first year in 2012.

Yes, you can use the words “playoff” and “Buccaneers” in the same sentence again.

“I’ve talked a lot about making progress,” Smith said. “The first game you want to play your best ball and everyone would like their team to peak the first week of the season. Normally that doesn’t happen. We’ve played a lot of young players. Guys are moving into their roles. It takes awhile. We’re not there yet. We’re excited about how we played today, but there are a lot of things we still need to clean up. But it’s tough going on the road and winning, especially in an environment like this.”

While Doug Martin’s 235 yards rushing and Jameis Winston’s five touchdowns garnered all the headlines in a record-breaking offensive performance against the Eagles, Smith and Tampa Bay’s defense deserve plenty of credit, too.

The Bucs had 3 INTs at Philly - Photo by: Getty Images

The Bucs had 3 INTs at Philly – Photo by: Getty Images

The fact that the Bucs offense put up 38 points on the Eagles defense is one thing. The fact that Tampa Bay’s defense held Philadelphia’s fast-paced, high-power offense to just 17 points and scored a defensive touchdown for the third time this season is quite something all together.

Smith took on the additional workload and pressure of calling the defensive plays this year, and trouble at the cornerback spot led to opposing offenses working over the Bucs defense pass defense time and time again, especially in the red zone early in the season. But Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s constant tinkering at the cornerback position and finally settling on Sterling Moore and undrafted rookie free agent Jude Adjei-Barimah outside and Alterraun Verner in the slot has worked.

A loose Tampa Bay defense that was allowing 27.5 points per game through the first six games of the season, has tightened considerably and has only surrendered an average of 17.5 points per game over the last four contests.

That’s 10 less points per game. That’s playing winning defense, and Smith and Frazier deserve credit for the turnaround.

The Bucs defense has gained a significant amount of confidence over the past month in beating Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in Atlanta by forcing a turnover on downs in overtime, and by winning in the trenches against a formidable Dallas offensive line and holding the Cowboys to just 216 yards and two field goals.

So when Philadelphia’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense marched the ball down the field with ease on its first touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead, Smith and his defense didn’t flinch.

“After that first drive we were kind of able to settle down quite a bit,” Smith said.  “They put us on our heels a little bit and we were still trying to figure out that first call [Jacquies Smith’s fumble on his own fumble recovery] of not getting that. After that they kind of caught us in man coverage a couple of times. We didn’t play well defensively that first series. After that … our guys have come back from adversity all year. We figured out how to keep a 24-point lead, too. So we’re making progress with that also.”

Smith has not always done a great job with timeout usage, managing the clock, and determining when to go for it on fourth down this year, but he has been flawless with those calls the last two games and needs to keep making the right decisions from the sidelines down the stretch. While Sunday was a blowout in Tampa Bay’s favor, the Bucs will have some close games down the stretch where good coaching and game management can be the difference between winning and losing.

Smith had the added pressure of getting his defensive play calls in even quicker this week against Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense, and he rose to the occasion after the first series. Two of Smith’s star playmakers on defense also stood tall after drawing some criticism for not making enough splash plays since the bye week.

After recording just two sacks in a three-game stretch against Washington, Atlanta and New York, Tampa Bay’s defense has recorded three sacks apiece in back-to-back wins over Dallas and Philadelphia.

Bucs defensive tackle and team captain Gerald McCoy ended his sack-less slump of four games with 1.5 sacks of Philadelphia’s Mark Sanchez on Sunday. McCoy now has six sacks this year and took over the team lead from Jacquies Smith, whose shared sack of Sanchez gave him 5.5 on the season.

After notching just four interceptions in the first seven games, Smith’s defense, which features a revamped secondary, has intercepted six passes in the last three games, including three against Philadelphia on Sunday.

Bucs LB Lavonte David - Photo by: Getty Images

Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Getty Images

Two of those picks came from linebacker Lavonte David, who has come under fire for not making the splash plays that earned him a five-year, $50.25-million contract extension this summer.

“I’m just letting the game come to me,” David said after beating the Eagles. “You know being patient, playing within the scheme, doing what I’m supposed to do. That’s basically it. As I study myself, I noticed that I was trying to do too much when normally I don’t. But now, I trust all of my teammates to do what they are supposed to do and I’ve definitely been able to capitalize off of that while also holding everybody accountable and making sure everybody does their job.

“I think we just had to calm down. I think in that first series, we had a couple of guys scrambling around, everybody is trying to get the calls real fast, and as a result, we had a couple of miscommunication calls here and there. But as we settled down throughout the football game, we started communicating better, and we were able to play our style of defense.”

It’s taken a while, but Smith’s style of defense is finally working – and just in time. It will be Smith’s defense combined with Dirk Koetter’s explosive offense that will propel the Bucs into playoff contention over the final six weeks of the 2015 season. One side of the ball just won’t do it.

After all, defense still wins championships in the NFL. Just ask Seattle, whose defense shut down Peyton Manning and Denver’s record-breaking offense and won the Super Bowl two years ago. Ask New England, whose defense made a goal line interception to beat Seattle and win the Super Bowl last year.

“With what we did offensively, we were going to be tough to beat today,” Smith said. “Throw the defense in there, too. Lavonte David is an outstanding player. You just kind of keep making tackles until you have a game like he had today. Defensively throughout, they were a tough offense to defend.”

And after Philadelphia’s first possession, Tampa Bay’s defense made it look easy.

When looking at the Bucs’ schedule prior to the start of the season, November looked like a murderer’s row of opponents with Atlanta, New York, Dallas, Philadelphia and Indianapolis. Instead, the Bucs have a chance to go 4-1 this month with a third-straight win on Sunday, this time at Indianapolis.

That would mean a 6-5 record for the Bucs, which would put Tampa Bay in the hunt for not only a wild card playoff spot, but also keeping the team’s hopes for winning the NFC South title alive.

“There’s no doubt we believe that,” Smith said. “I think anybody that knows football can see that we have a bright future. We have good young players, but it’s not about that for us right now. We feel like we’re a good football team right now. There’s a lot of football left to go. All of our goals we set at the start of the season are there for us, but it’s one game at a time.”

The Bucs will be facing their third straight backup quarterback in the Colts’ Matt Hasselbeck, who is 40 years old, but he’s not the pushover that Dallas’ Matt Cassel and Sanchez proved to be. Hasselbeck is 3-0 since replacing the injured Andrew Luck and has helped Indianapolis to a 5-5 record.

Bucs head coach Lovie Smith - Photo by Cliff Welch/PR

Bucs head coach Lovie Smith – Photo by Cliff Welch/PR

A looming, four-game suspension of rookie standout middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, will force Smith and Frazier to do some more tinkering with a starting lineup that was just beginning to gel. Smith will have to make the right call as to whether Bruce Carter or Danny Lansanah replaces Alexander as the quarterback of the defense over the next month, and he will have to get great play out of Alexander’s replacement.

Sunday’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium will be the biggest game of the season for both the Colts and the Bucs, and once again Smith and his defense must continue to rise to the occasion.

“This week we hadn’t won two in a row,” Smith said. “Hadn’t won three [in a row] in a long time. Three in a row is what we’re trying to get.”

Getting three wins in a row would definitely lead to Smith deserving a third year in Tampa Bay to continue oversee the evident progress of this young, improving Buccaneers team.

A Buccaneers team that is finally relevant again.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

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: sr@pewterreport.com
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macabee
macabee
6 years ago

A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them. – John C. Maxwell

I could be talking about Scott Reynolds here or I could be talking about Lovie Smith. Doesn’t matter, I love’em both – two men I have much respect for and glad they’re both trying to make the Bucs a better team!

cheveliar
cheveliar
Reply to  macabee
6 years ago

+1 Very well said!!!!

ayron54
ayron54
6 years ago

Big ups to pewter report being big enough to apologize and realize how prematurely they were wanting our head coach fired! We understand habits are hard to break! Hopefully we continue to see progress in our young football team. We definetly have lots to be excited about moving forward! Go bucs!

macabee
macabee
6 years ago

The Little Caesar, Chip Kelly also thinks Lovie is doing something right. In his comments to the press today following the 45-17 beatdown his team suffered at the hands of the Buccaneers, Kelly admitted, “We were out-coached.” First time I’ve heard that said about the Bucs!

fredster
fredster
6 years ago

I’ll eat some crow here. I’m shocked after how long we have waited for actual improvement on defense we actually have it the last few weeks finally. I still think some huge mistakes have been made. I still think we would be 7-3 with better coaching, but have to give credit where credit is due. The Eagles game was just a fantastic win! I will not however change my position about there being enough to talent to win now if players are used to their strengths and the scheme is right, and that has been proven without a doubt. We… Read more »

e
e
6 years ago

Patience is starting to pay off for the Glazers and Bucs fans. I’m glad that they’re not heading down that “fire the coach every two years” road for a while. I still expect Jameis to have an up and down season, but the overall trend of the team is steady and upward. I was predicting 7-9 for this team at the beginning of the year and I think that’s a fair bet. I wasn’t thinking playoffs, but that is the magic of having a QB is this league; anything is possible. It’s been a 40 year drought, but I think… Read more »

Brandonges
Brandonges
6 years ago

This team is winning in spite of Lovie. These back to back wins were against the combination of Matt Cassell and Mark Sanchez. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. The reason this team is winning is the Koetter led offense and Lichts ability to plug holes (particularly along the oline). Unfortunately, I think this team will be just good enough this year to narrowly miss the playoffs, retain Lovie, lose Koetter to a HC gig, and promptly fall apart again next season. Hopefully I’m wrong.

jongruden
jongruden
6 years ago

When our defense beats or plays well vs a starting qb and not back ups like Cassel, Mallet,and Sanchez I will give him credit

buddah
buddah
6 years ago

Then give them credit, Jon Gruden. Matt Ryan is a legitimate quarterback.

martinii
martinii
6 years ago

Drew Breez is not exactly chopped liver. I agree the Bucs are looking better in this weaker NFC conference and overall schedule. I’m taking it a game at a time and crediting the coaches and players when they play well. This high flying offensive production is a lot more fun than Buc ball. Good defense has got us through a lot of our better years, but 5 TD’s and 233 rushing yards from Martin is fun to watch. It would be nice going into an offseason without a threat to our coaches and with a franchise quarterback. Go Bucs

EastEndBoy
EastEndBoy
6 years ago

I think Lovie has grown as much as JW or anyone else as the year has gone on…really since the Washington game I have noticed a lot more blitzing (not just leaving 4 guys to try and beat 5 all the time), a lot more press man coverage (not giving WRs 7 yards to start the play), and a lot better coverage from our LBs (Lavonte saw that last screen pass and jumped the play – the first time I’ve seen that all year)…I think Lovie’s mistakes up until Washington were real (he sat back way too much, he blew… Read more »

pinkstob
pinkstob
6 years ago

I agree there is no question the Bucs are trending up versus last season. I do think this place has gotten too prone to knee jerk reactions over the past couple of years as I think we shouldn’t seriously consider firing or keeping anyone until the season is over. We could realistically lose or win the rest of our games (we don’t play the Patriots) so let’s get that data first and just enjoy any wins we get along the way until then.

plopes808
plopes808
Reply to  pinkstob
6 years ago

True, the remainder of our schedule looks very winnable. Carolina is the biggest threat and we played them pretty tight before our defense turned the corner. Things are definitely looking up for us!

macabee
macabee
Reply to  plopes808
6 years ago

plopes808,
You just gave me an idea. Look for my comments on Afterthoughts.

plopes808
plopes808
6 years ago

I’ll admit, I blamed Lovie and his playcalling for our defensive woes. As it turns out, the talent was there all along, he just took a while to realize it. We will continue to improve and we will be close to playoff contention this year, maybe even earn a wildcard spot. A defensive draft will fill some needed gaps and shore up our roster. Next year we will compete for the NFC South. Go Bucs!

Horse
Horse
6 years ago

I’m just taking one game at a time. I said it before and I will stand by my statement:anything over 6 games in this season is all gravy. We still need DL help and the draft will fit it. Why wouldn’t David call the Defense like he did last year as the fill in for Alexander? I’m not sure if we can replace Alexander with Carter as he appears to be way slow to play our defense; my opinion. Maybe we should keep that Nickel in place and just use it for the entire game?

drdneast
drdneast
6 years ago

Although I’m still basking in the warm glow of the humiliation of the Eagles, unlike Brandonges who sounds like a troll, I realize the Bucs will only stay relevant if they continue to win. Every QB who starts in the NFL is an NFL starting QB. It doesn’t matter who it is Brandonges. When teams were beating up on us last year when we had McClown and Glennon starting, nobody said, “Oh yeah, they beat the Bucs but McClown or Glennon was starting.” With logic like yours, the Bucs won’t be NFL worthy until they beat the Patriots. And as… Read more »

jongruden
jongruden
Reply to  drdneast
6 years ago

Drdneast- NO, every qb thats starts is not a NFL starting qb, thats your first innaccurate statement, and Mallet, Cassel at least now and Sanchez are not in the top 25 of starting qb’s, yes, we beat Ryan and Brees but we also made Mariota look like Marino and Can was laughing the entire game as I think it really was that easy for him. Yes, teams were saying when they beat us with McClown and Glennon “well it was with those qb’s” because they know there is a huge drop off from Glennon to Luck Palmer, Roethlisberger, I can… Read more »

jongruden
jongruden
Reply to  jongruden
6 years ago

*Cam not Can

Brandonges
Brandonges
Reply to  drdneast
6 years ago

I’m not trolling, I’m giving credit to two of the top three people in charge of the Bucs, Koetter and Licht. But I don’t think the turnaround is due to Lovie. The defense has looked good due to a favorable schedule that sees Tampa play three backup QBs in a row (including the Colts this weekend). This is a defense that is only a few games removed from letting Kurt Cousins lead the greatest comeback in Redskins history. Tampa is an improved team – and they are relevant – but it’s not due to Smith.

jongruden
jongruden
Reply to  Brandonges
6 years ago

^ I agree, most fan only about the wins even if its vs the worst teams in the league just like the “Youngry Team” with Morris we weren’t as good as our record, I believe our defense has looked better than it is because of the opposing qb’s, that being said I do see tremendous improvement with our offense the o-line, qb and “Dougernaut” is playing out of his mind right now after a few low games. Evaluating your team SUBJECTIVELY and “OBJECTIVELY” is what we should do instead of being “homers” and just wave the Bucs Flag like mindless… Read more »

warren
warren
Reply to  jongruden
6 years ago

I think our defense is better because Lovie replaced two slow CBs who couldn’t cut it with two young CBs that are playing their arses off. That also allowed Lovie to put Verner in the slot.

bucfannc
bucfannc
6 years ago

I’ve been with you since Bucmag. If there is anything you always are it’s honest and egoless. Compliments

ELBUCCS
ELBUCCS
6 years ago

Koetter is key to Buccs near future, if need be “Pay the Man!” Jameis maturation may be stunted if he leaves. As a Bucc fan who lives in Cleveland, I know first hand watching my hometown Browns suffer from poor QB play from coaching changes every other year. A good organization would be developing Koetter’s succesor and trying to retain him for as long as possible. All good coordinators dont need to be head coaches!

drdneast
drdneast
6 years ago

Brandonges, you are the typical Lovie hater. You want to blame him for everything bad but not give him credit for anything good.
When you put those blinders on, you not only lose your objectivity, but also your credibility

stone1
stone1
6 years ago

i am was a lovie basher, but i see a coach who finally looks like he can change with the times, a lot less cover two, and using man coverage and blitzing that is what works in todays nfl, my only thing is the questionable roster moves not keeping barth cost us one game and not playing the two corners earlier, now they could have not been ready but they are ten times better than jenkins,jennings, and banks

drdneast
drdneast
6 years ago

I am a homer jongruden, I admit it, but I do try to look at the team objectively. However, you are wrong about your argument about what qualifies as a starting QB in the NFL If a QB is in the NFL and he starts a game, then he is an NFL starting QB. The same would go for any other player in any other position. It’s pretty simple. Kurt Cousins was a backup before the season started. Now he is an NFL starting QB. The QB we will face this week has a better starting QB record with the… Read more »

1sparkybuc
1sparkybuc
6 years ago

The Bucs slaughtered a poorly coached team that played with no heart. They could have played a bad game and still won easily. It was no real test, but it was great fun to watch. I am Soooo thankful Chip Kelly backed out of his agreement to coach the Bucs.

scubog
scubog
6 years ago

I’m not putting an asterisk on the win as if it’s tainted by the opponent not having it’s starting QB, any more than I’d put an asterisk on one of our losses for not having one of our key players. Why do some people have to insert a “Yeah but” instead of enjoying the victory? I guess the habit of looking for the scapegoat is a tough one to break. I’ve seen enough over the years to know that just because our team dominated another or got dominated doesn’t predetermine the outcome of the remainder of the season. I didn’t… Read more »

seat26
seat26
6 years ago

We have finally seen what Tampa can do when the Defense starts to play well. With a couple of Defensive drafts we are going to have a really good team. But for me it still all about Winston. He has surpassed everything that I had imagined for his rookie year. And he did it with out our starting TE, and Evans looking like a dud for the first 6 or 7 games. Jackson is back, Martin is looking like his rookie form is back. Better buy Season tickets. There may not be many around after this year.

stlbucsfan
stlbucsfan
6 years ago

Lovie has done a better job against backup QBs but I agree with jongruden that I’d like to wait and see how we have improved against higher quality QBs. Drew Brees had a shoulder injury and prob shouldn’t have been playing. Matt Ryan carved us up to the tune of over 500 yards total O but turnovers kept us in it. Coaching has improved but we still have moments like in Dallas were we are up 4 late in the 4th and decide to squib kick it and give teams a shorter field. I’m man enough to acknowledge growth but… Read more »

drdneast
drdneast
6 years ago

Stlbucsfan, Drew Brees got the shoulder injury during the game to the Bucs and because of a Jacques Smith sack.
What’s next, do the Bucs have to let the QB remain upright through the entire game to qualify as a credible win.
Geeeeeh. Some of you people.

warren
warren
6 years ago

After last year’s 2-14 record, I didn’t hear anyone say “if we had just played against 2nd string QBs, we’d have had a better record! In the recent past, the Bucs have made 2nd string QBs & rookie QBs look like all-pros. So, I’m not going to tarnish ANY win with a “well we only beat a crappy team with crappy players”! As Lovie has said, “it’s hard to win in the NFL”. From here on out, I don’t see any of our opponents marking an automatic “win” on their boards before playing the Bucs.

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