A carrot’s finally dangling in front of Tampa Bay in December.
Buccaneers fans accustomed to just getting the stick at this point have plenty to cheer for in the season’s final quarter and none of it involves climbing up next year’s NFL Draft board.
Tampa Bay owned an identical 6-6 record at this point in 2012, but there’s a different sense of optimism surrounding Version 2015 and its prospects moving forward. That team in 2012 peaked in November before plummeting to a 7-9 finish.
Battered and beat up, the Bucs found a way to wrestle victory away from defeat Sunday and get back to .500. A lot will change in four weeks but Tampa Bay has its hat in the ring heading into Week 14 and that’s miles ahead of where the organization was just one season ago.
LEARNING TO WIN
Little by little, yesterday’s game started to have a familiar feel to it.
Running back Doug Martin’s third-quarter fumble turned into a lead-grabbing, fourth-quarter touchdown for Atlanta. The Bucs responded with a quick three-and-out on offense that put the Falcons near midfield with an opportunity to go up by two possessions late in the game.
But rather than finding a way to lose, Tampa Bay knuckled down, stopped Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense cold and went on an exciting 12-play, 80-yard, game-winning drive.
However this season concludes and if this year’s momentum extends to 2016 and beyond, Sunday’s victory over Atlanta may be looked back upon as a pivotal point in the Bucs’ transformation.
It’ll be impossible to reminisce on that game without mentioning quarterback Jameis Winston’s 20-yard scramble that kept hope alive.
Confidence that the team made the right choice last spring is building each week and that gritty third-and-19 effort epitomizes the energy, enthusiasm and will to win that Winston’s injecting into Buccaneers football.
Teammates and coaches have said from day one that the rookie is a natural born leader who has the ability to inspire and elevate those around him despite his 21 years of age. Doing things like that on the field in crunch time will just take Winston to another level.
“I think if you deserve respect as a young player a veteran will give it to you,” Lovie Smith said during his Monday afternoon press conference. “They don’t go on what you come in saying. They watch closely and when you are on the football team you’ve been around each other for such a long period of time seeing guys in every imaginable situation.
“It does say a lot [coming from players] like [Gosder Cherilus], for Demar Dotson, of course Logan Mankins. These are real men and Jameis has gotten a lot of compliments, but coming from these guys it really is a compliment.”
Pre-game optimism took a big hit yesterday for anyone peeking at Tampa Bay’s inactive list. It showed a defensive line decimated by injuries just hours away from having to attack quarterback Matt Ryan and contain running back Devonta Freeman.
Yet when the game ended and all those happy-go-lucky songs pumped through Raymond James Stadium speakers, it was easy to forget that the front four featured a patchwork of backups for 60 minutes.
Defensive ends William Gholston, Howard Jones, Kourtnei Brown and Josh Shirley and tackles Henry Melton, Akeem Spence and Tony McDaniel combined to bury Freeman and the Falcons running attack for just 64 total yards on 18 attempts while also generating three sacks.
Gholston, who picked up praise from both head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier this week, got his ninth consecutive start and managed to produce the first two-sack game of his career.
“Guys go down for whatever reason throughout the course [of a season] and you’re constantly developing your full roster – not just the one you start with or your starters early on – and the guys you keep have to have potential to play for you someday and that’s the case for them,” Lovie Smith said.
“Talking defensive line, Joe Cullen and Paul [Spicer] have both done a great job of developing players but [the players] have been waiting for these opportunities and yesterday they stepped up. Will Gholston, of course, has been around a while and he played well again yesterday. Henry Melton. Those are two guys that have given us good, solid play throughout the season. Getting Akeem Spence back, Howard Jones, Kourtnei Brown – some of those guys – Josh Shirley, [they all] answered the bell yesterday.”
JECKYLL AND HYDE
As of right now, Bucs fans need to deal with the two faces of Mike Evans.
One moment he’s dropping a catchable ball that could move the chains and the next he’s dragging his feet and holding on to an eventual game-winner.
While a catch-rate of 54.5 percent (54 receptions on 99 targets) leaves more to be desired, Evans’ upside is undeniable. At 22-years-old, Evans is still a developing pro coming off a 1,051-yard rookie season and on pace to exceed that number this season.
As Winston and Evans continue to mature and grow together on the field, the duo will keep cannons firing for years to come.
That’s not exactly the catchiest nickname for a defense, but defusing opponents’ explosive potential has been one of the Bucs’ strong points throughout 2015.
Nobody in the NFL has surrendered fewer plays of 20 yards or more than Tampa Bay and that trend continued Sunday against Atlanta. The Falcons managed three passing plays of 20 yards or more (25, 23 and 21) and their longest rush went for 14.
Tampa Bay may allow teams to move the football and put together lengthy drives, but getting beat over the top for home runs and giving ball carriers too much room to maneuver are situations the Bucs do not allow to occur.
On the year, Tampa Bay’s given up only three rushes of 20-plus yards and none for 40-plus. The pass defense is just as stingy, allowing 33 completions of 20 yards or more (less than three per game) and two of 40 or more.
Speaking of snuffing out game-changing athletes, how about the job cornerback Sterling Moore did corralling the league-leader in receiver yards and receptions?
Moore and the entire Bucs secondary needed to bounce back from last week’s lackluster performance in Indianapolis and they delivered.
Jones torched Tampa Bay last month in Atlanta for 12 catches on 13 targets, 162 yards and a touchdown. Moore was on the field for just five of the Falcons’ 80 offensive snaps that day.
Coaches slid the fifth-year veteran into the starting lineup the next week against New York and he hasn’t relinquished the role since. During that time, Moore’s been tasked with handling the bulk of coverage duties against the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Dez Bryant, T.Y. Hilton and Jones.
Sunday was perhaps his best effort yet. Jones caught just eight passes on 17 targets for 93 yards and no touchdowns as Moore finished with two pass breakups and five total tackles.
“He’s a smart player,” Lovie Smith said. “He’s in position, whether it be man, zone, pressing off, stripping the ball as he did a couple week ago. I think we’ve just gotten good play out of Sterling Moore since we’ve moved him to the starting lineup. Again, if you continue to do things right you’ll eventually get an opportunity and then it’s up to you to take advantage of it. He has done that. We matched him up with Dez Bryant a few weeks ago, of course with Julio [Jones] yesterday, and he’s meeting the challenge.”