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
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 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
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
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.
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: email@example.com
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