The roller coaster ride that is the start of the Jameis Winston era continued Sunday in Atlanta. Fortunately for Bucs fans, the train cars stayed on the tracks throughout and Tampa Bay staved off a second collapse in as many weeks.
It’s been five long years since Tampa Bay and its fan base enjoyed a winning season.
Last year’s rock-bottom, two-win campaign earned the Bucs the No. 1 overall draft pick and their hopeful quarterback of the future in Jameis Winston.
There’s been the good, the bad and the ugly, but as Tampa Bay nears the season’s midpoint it’s already surpassed last year’s win total.
The last two weeks have brought plenty of promise watching the Bucs race out to double-digit first-half leads – a refreshing sight for a team that is so often stuck trying to escape those early deficits in recent years.
Tampa Bay didn’t make enjoying victory easy yesterday. One week after squandering a 24-point lead at Washington, the Bucs nearly did it again in Atlanta. The 17-point lead did evaporate but Winston was able to wrestle back the win in overtime.
Everything from play calling to execution has left much to be desired the past two weeks once the Bucs jumped out to their sizeable leads. Even though there are plenty of new pieces that haven’t been around during the past four turbulent years, Tampa Bay is still playing like a team in the process of learning how to win and play with leads.
MAKE IT HURT
Head coach Lovie Smith loves talking takeaways and nothing’s better than the ones that result in points on the board.
The Bucs have been doing both all year and yesterday was no different. Tampa Bay turned Atlanta over four times and nearly had a fifth, but linebacker Kwon Alexander had what would have been a second interception on the day wiped out because of a penalty. Granted the Bucs did little to actually cause two of Atlanta’s fumbles, defenders pounced on the opportunities and the offense stepped up by making the Falcons pay for their mistakes.
Tampa Bay scored points after all four of Atlanta’s turnovers – two touchdowns and two field goals – and that continues a positive trend that’s been taking place all season. Of 13 total turnovers, the Bucs have scored points on all but one. The only failure came against Carolina when former kicker Kyle Brindza missed his last and final field goal attempt as a Buccaneer. In total, the offense has produced five touchdowns and five field goals off turnovers. Two fumble recoveries resulted in defensive touchdown returns.
Speaking of guys creating turnovers yesterday, there’s not enough that can be said about the performance turned in by Alexander.
The tragic story of his younger brother’s murder less than 48 hours prior to kickoff and Alexander’s spirited, inspired play has been widely and justifiably highlighted since Sunday afternoon.
These unfortunate instances pop up from time to time in sports, with an athlete’s family member, close friend, etc. passing away and the player deciding to honor their loved one’s life with their game on the field.
As hard as it is to imagine performing through something like that, especially as a young man just two years removed from being a teenager, it’s even more astounding how incredibly Alexander played. He led all players in tackles with a career high 11, caught up to All-Pro receiver Julio Jones and ripped the ball away in the first quarter and picked off Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the second. Alexander also intercepted Ryan during the game’s first drive but defensive end Jacquies Smith was whistled offside.
“Sometimes when you are going through tough times like that you need to be around your other family and it’s something that will allow you take your mind off of what is going on at home,” head coach Lovie Smith said after the game. “For him, an outstanding game.”
Seeing receiver Mike Evans writhing in pain on multiple occasions in the second half had to elicit plenty of concerned, four-letter outbursts among Bucs fans Sunday afternoon.
Following the game, Evans put minds at ease for the moment by saying he had a lingering cramp in his side.
With No. 3 receiver Louis Murphy out for the year and starter Vincent Jackson’s status uncertain after sitting out in Atlanta, the Bucs cannot afford Evans missing more time. Tampa Bay dressed four receivers again Sunday. Two were rookies (Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries) and third-year pro Russell Shepard is known more for his special teams prowess than contributing in the passing attack.
Whether or not tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins can actually stay healthy for an extended period, the Bucs and Jameis Winston need him back in the fold. Dye and Humphries may develop into quality receivers but they’re not there yet and shouldn’t be seeing the field as much as they are.
The lack of receiving options resulted in Tampa Bay incorporating its three other tight ends into the passing game. Brandon Myers caught all three of his targets for 32 yards, Cameron Brate hauled in both balls that went his way for 48 yards, including his first career touchdown, and Luke Stocker dropped his lone target during the game-winning overtime drive.
KEEP IT IN FRONT
Through seven games, Tampa Bay’s overall defensive performance has been receiving mixed reviews.
The Bucs entered Sunday ranked sixth in the NFL in total yards surrendered, but criticism hasn’t quieted down in terms of pressuring quarterbacks, the play of the secondary and limiting touchdowns.
The team’s total defense ranking plummeted to 15th following Atlanta’s 496-yard output, but even while ceding so much yardage the Bucs made the Falcons work for it.
Not allowing ball carriers and potential receivers to get behind it in the open field has been a strength of this year’s defense.
Tampa Bay’s given up just 20 passing plays of 20 yards or more (tied for seventh in the NFL) and two of 40 yards or more (T-3rd). Only three ball carriers have taken handoffs 20 yards or more downfield and nobody’s hit for 40-plus.