The Buccaneers are off to a disappointing 3-5 start in the second year of the Lovie Smith era. Poor play and poor coaching cost the team a victory at Washington where Tampa Bay choked away a 24-point lead to lose 31-30. PewterReport.com reviews the individual efforts from the first eight games and analyzes the Buccaneers’ performances in its 2015 Midseason Awards.
BUCS 2015 MIDSEASON OFFENSIVE MVP – RB Doug Martin
There’s nothing that helps rookie quarterbacks develop sooner than a strong running game. Being able to turn and hand the ball off to Martin has greatly helped rookie Jameis Winston be effective in the play-action passing game. Martin’s production has kept Winston from having to shoulder the load on offense and that has led to four straight turnover-free games for the young passer.
Martin is Tampa Bay’s leading rusher with 643 yards and three touchdowns on 143 carries (4.5 avg.) and he’s already surpassed his rushing total from the last two years – with eight games remaining. Martin, who is in tremendous shape this season, is in a contract year after the Bucs refused to pick up his fifth-year option and is making the most of it as he’s on pace for 1,286 yards rushing and six touchdowns this year.
He also has 17 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown, which is the most production he’s had through the air since his rookie season. Martin, who leads the league in 26 runs that have resulted in missed or broken tackles, caught 49 passes for 472 yards and a TD that season.
BUCS 2015 MIDSEASON DEFENSIVE MVP – LB Kwon Alexander
It’s a blessing and a curse that a rookie like Alexander is the midseason MVP on Tampa Bay’s defense. It means that he’s playing well – evidenced by the fact that he beat out veteran Bruce Carter for the right to start in Week 2 of the preseason – but it also means that defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David, the Bucs’ high-paid defensive stars, aren’t playing as well.
Alexander, the Bucs’ fourth-round draft pick, is the team’s second-leading tackler with 59 stops, four tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He’s also progressing quite nicely in pass defense, too. Alexander leads the team with seven passes defensed and two interceptions.
Alexander won the NFC Defensive Player of the Week award after the Atlanta game when he produced a career-high 11 tackles, one interception and stripped Julio Jones of the ball in the middle of a big catch-and-run. That performance came on the heels of the murder of his younger brother on Friday, October 30.
Bucs K Connor Barth – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
BUCS 2015 MIDSEASON SPECIAL TEAMS MVP – K Connor Barth
Barth, who played for Tampa Bay from 2009-13 was brought in for one week during the preseason, but was released in favor of rookie Kyle Brindza, which was a huge mistake. Brindza made only 6-of-12 field goals during the first four weeks and also missed a few extra points. The Notre Dame product missed three field goals and an extra point at Houston and then two field goals and an extra point against Carolina, which led to the Bucs bringing Barth back.
Barth, an eight-year veteran, has brought stability back to Tampa Bay’s special teams. He’s never missed an extra point in his career, and he’s connected on 82 percent of his field goals in the NFL. This year, he’s made 12-of-13 (92.3 percent) field goals, including his first 11 with the Buccaneers. His lone miss was a 43-yarder against New York last Sunday.
MOST IMPROVED OFFENSIVE PLAYER – RB Charles Sims
Sims missed the first eight games of his rookie season due to a torn ligament in his foot that occurred during the preseason. He finished last year rushing for 185 yards and one touchdown on 66 carries with a long of 20, while catching 19 passes for 190 yards with a long of 24. This year Sims is bigger, healthier and more experienced and he’s making bigger plays.
Sims has rushed for 284 yards on 61 carries and his 4.7-yard average leads Tampa Bay, and his 59-yarder against New York was a career long. The second-year runner has also made more of an impact as a receiver, catching 20 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns, with a long of 56 yards on a screen pass against Jacksonville. Sims has become a better tackle-breaking runner and has shown more explosiveness.
MOST IMPROVED DEFENSIVE PLAYER – DE Jacquies Smith
Smith, an undrafted free agent waiver wire claim, was a big surprise last year as he came on during the second half of the season when Tampa Bay benched free agent bust Michael Johnson and recorded 6.5 sacks to finish second on the team. This year, Smith leads the Bucs with five sacks thanks to a career-best three-sack game against New Orleans in Week 2.
Smith has also forced three fumbles, including two at New Orleans and one against Washington that was returned for a touchdown by fellow defensive end Howard Jones. Smith had his own fumble recovery for a touchdown in a 38-31 win against Jacksonville, which proved to be the difference in the game. Smith missed the New York Giants game with an ankle injury, but is on pace to finish with double-digit sacks for the first time in his career.
Bucs TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
MOST DISAPPOINTING OFFENSIVE PLAYER – TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
Seferian-Jenkins missed seven games during his rookie season in 2014 due to ankle and back injuries and ended the season on injured reserve after having back surgery. After a promising training camp and start to the season in which he had five catches for a career-high 110 yards and two touchdowns, Seferian-Jenkins suffered a shoulder injury at New Orleans in Week 2 and has missed the last six and a half games.
Players can’t help get injured, and Seferian-Jenkins is on the verge of returning to action. But it has certainly been disappointing not having him in the lineup, especially since Mike Evans missed the season opener with a hamstring injury and Vincent Jackson has missed the last two and a half games with a knee injury. The Bucs sure could have used his production, especially in the red zone where the team has bogged down often lately.
MOST DISAPPOINTING DEFENSIVE PLAYER – DT Gerald McCoy
McCoy had a strong start to the 2015 campaign by racking up 4.5 sacks in the first five games and he had another sack and forced fumble called back due to a penalty. But McCoy has only produced four tackles over the last three games and hasn’t recorded a sack since notching 1.5 against Jacksonville before the bye week.
McCoy has been hampered a bit by a sore shoulder, but he suffered that injury in New Orleans in Week 2 and had 2.5 sacks shortly there after. Both head coach Lovie Smith and McCoy have voiced frustration over his recent poor, and McCoy has acknowledged that his production needs to pick up, especially in one-on-one situations. McCoy, who is a team captain, the team’s highest-paid player and its best pass rusher, had 12 one-on-one passing situations against New York and didn’t produce a sack.
BEST ROOKIE – QB Jameis Winston
Winston has been as good as advertised and has already emerged as a vocal leader on offense, as well as a playmaker. After throwing seven interceptions in the first four games of the season, including four against Carolina, Winston vowed to be better. Since the win over Jacksonville, Winston has gone four games without a turnover and helped the Bucs to a 2-2 mark over that span and has ignited the offense.
Winston has completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 1,897 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven picks. What’s been even more impressive is his ability to scramble, especially inside the red zone. Winston, whose speed and mobility were questioned prior to the draft, has rushed for 115 yards on 27 carries (4.3 avg.) with a long of 21 and three rushing scores. Winston is on pace to throw for 3,794 yards with 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, in addition to six rushing touchdowns this season.
Bucs SS Chris Conte – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
BEST FREE AGENT ACQUISITION – SS Chris Conte
The Buccaneers needed to upgrade the play at the safety position this offseason and Conte has done just that. With Bradley McDougald disappointing over the first half of the season, and the oft-injured Major Wright failing to make any impact plays when he is in the lineup, Conte has been a steady force at safety for Tampa Bay.
He’s the third-leading tackler with 49 tackles with four tackles for loss, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles and an interception. More importantly, Conte has stayed healthy this season outside of an ankle sprain during the second half of the Jacksonville game. Conte battled injuries during his career in Chicago, including a concussion last year, but has been a solid upgrade over the team’s play at the safety position last year.
WORST FREE AGENT ACQUISITION – MLB Bruce Carter
Carter was signed to a four-year, $17-million contract after the Bucs did not re-sign four-year starting middle linebacker Mason Foster this offseason. Carter’s $4.25 million salary this year ($3 million base plus $1.25 million roster bonus) was guaranteed, but the team can part ways with him in the 2016 offseason without a cap penalty.
That could be an option as Carter was first beaten out by Alexander, a rookie, for the starting middle linebacker spot after the first preseason game, and then for the starting strongside linebacker spot by Danny Lansanah. Carter has been relegated to special teams duty and plays some occasional downs at the Sam linebacker spot. With just six tackles and a pass breakup, Carter is one expensive backup.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Getty Images
BEST PLAY OF THE YEAR (SO FAR) – Winston’s 10-yard TD run vs. New York Giants
With apologies to Alexander’s dramatic strip of Julio Jones, which counted as a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, in a 23-20 overtime win at Atlanta, Winston’s high-flying 10-yard touchdown run against the New York Giants was absolutely spectacular. Winston has scored three rushing touchdowns this season, but his leaping TD against the Giants was by far his best.
That play displayed Winston’s win-at-all-costs mentality and brought the Bucs to within a two-point conversion of tying the Giants in the fourth quarter. That type of daring play not only excites the fan base, but it shows the team he has a take-charge mentality and will courageously lay his body on the line for a win. Winston has already made some dazzling plays during the first half of his rookie season, and there will be more to come. But his 10-yard touchdown leap against the Giants really stands out.
BUCS’ RECORD DOWN THE STRETCH – 3-5 record to finish 6-10
Tampa Bay really needs to win on Sunday at home versus a battered Dallas team that has lost six straight without starting quarterback Tony Romo. If the Bucs don’t win they virtually have no chance of finishing with a winning record this year, as they will fall to 3-6 on the season. Tampa Bay has yet to win back-to-back games in the year and a half that Smith has presided over the team, and the schedule over the second half of the season looks somewhat daunting.
After facing Dallas (2-5), Tampa Bay travels to Philadelphia (4-4) and Indianapolis (4-5). If you are feeling good that the Colts are without Andrew Luck, we’ll remind you that the Bucs lost to backup quarterbacks three times last year (St. Louis and Carolina twice), and backup Matt Hasselbeck is 2-0 as a starter this year and has played well. The Bucs then travel host Atlanta (6-3) and New Orleans (4-5) before visiting St. Louis (4-4), hosting Chicago (3-5) and ending the season at Carolina (8-0). Games against the Cowboys and the Bears appear to be the most winnable, and it will be difficult to sweep the Falcons and Saints – even after capturing road wins against those teams earlier this year. Yet anything less than a 6-10 finish for the Buccaneers would be unacceptable and should lead to Smith’s firing if the team’s record is 5-11 or worse come January.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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