SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL:
FAB 1. BUCS ARE FADING DOWN THE STRETCH
Here are some of my initial reactions following the Tampa Bay’s 31-23 loss at St. Louis on Thursday Night Football. The defeat gives the Bucs a 6-8 record and eliminates the team from having a winning season and all but mathematically seals its fate when it comes to the playoffs.
• Tampa Bay started 2015 going 1-4 in the first quarter of the season, followed by a 2-2 stretch. A 3-1 run in the third quarter of the season gave the Bucs a shot at getting over .500 and into playoff contention.
But a crushing loss at home to New Orleans and a road loss on Thursday night at St. Louis has sent the Bucs into a tailspin as injuries are mounting in Tampa Bay.
“We lost two games – it’s nothing more than that,” Smith said after the loss to the Rams. “But overall, we’re heading in the right direction. We have a couple of spots where we are a little short-handed and we’re not playing as well as we need to.
“Being close just doesn’t do it. On a night like tonight that was the story. Close, did a few good things, but we didn’t play consistent football.”
Tampa Bay, which was without wide receiver Vincent Jackson (knee), middle linebacker Bruce Carter (ankle) and nose tackle Akeem Spence (ankle) against St. Louis, has now lost three of its last four games – all to teams with losing records. That shouldn’t be ignored.
“It’s very important on how we finish,” Smith said. “We still haven’t played our best ball. We get an opportunity to come home against the Bears and play our best ball.”
That’s not true. Tampa Bay played its best ball in a 45-17 demolition at Philadelphia. Since then the offense has averaged 18.75 points per game and hasn’t scored more than 23 points. Meanwhile, the defense has surrendered an average of 24.75 points per game.
“There is a lot for us to still accomplish,” Smith said. “As we finish up, we want to talk about the progress we made and all of the good things. We came up a little bit short in the end as we trend and go forward.”
If the Bucs don’t win at least one of their final two games – at home versus Chicago and on the road at Carolina – it’s hard to believe the Bucs are trending upward with four straight defeats to end the season and losses in five of the last six games. Ending the season 6-10 on such a bad note should put Smith squarely on the hot seat in 2016.
A 7-9 or 8-8 finish would keep Smith off it. He needs to win one of these two remaining games or the heat will be on all offseason.
• The Bucs defense is awful and needs to be completely overhauled. The worst kept secret in Tampa Bay is that general manager Jason Licht is gearing up for a defensive-laden draft, which is a necessity, especially after Thursday’s loss at St. Louis.
The Bucs have keepers at weakside linebacker in Lavonte David, at middle linebacker in Kwon Alexander and in under tackle in Gerald McCoy, but need a lot of help at defensive end and in the secondary.
Rams WR Kenny Britt – Photo by: Getty Images
Rookie cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah has given up three touchdowns in three of the last four games, including a 60-yard bomb to Kenny Britt.
“Defensively, you have to not be able to give up big touchdown passes,” Smith said. “Big, long [touchdowns], trick plays. You have to play some of those plays better.”
Speedy St. Louis utility player Tavon Austin made the Bucs defense look silly at times, bobbing and weaving his way into the end zone on a 17-yard reception and a 21-yard end around.
“We didn’t put much fight – I shouldn’t say much fight – we just didn’t challenge them on some of those throws,” Smith said. “Simple as that.”
Smith’s defense came into Thursday’s game allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 68 percent of their passes. That’s an obscene number, and completely unacceptable regardless of whom is playing in the secondary.
After allowing Drew Brees to complete 74 percent of his passes and throw two touchdowns on Sunday, Tampa Bay permitted third-string quarterback Case Keenum to complete 82.5 percent of his throws with a pair of TDs and a QB rating of 158.
Case friggin’ Keenum, folks.
Add his name to the list of dubious quarterbacks that have beaten Smith and his defense over the past two years.
Carolina’s Derek Anderson (twice). St. Louis’ Austin Davis. Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer. Minnesota’s Tedd Bridgewater (as a rookie). Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota (as a rookie). Houston’s Ryan Mallett. Washington’s Kirk Cousins. Indianapolis’ Matt Hasselback. And Keenum.
That’s 10 losses to backup quarterbacks or rookies over the past two years, folks. Pathetic.
I know that there are injuries on the defensive side of the ball and a short week doesn’t help – nor does middle linebacker Kwon Alexander’s four-game suspension. But to give up 31 points to an offense that came in averaging 16.2 points per game is ridiculous. At times Smith’s defense looked like the Keystone Cops, flailing around trying to get a hand on Austin and knocking each other out while trying to sack Keenum.
• There is a lot of optimism in Tampa Bay, but it’s primarily on the offensive side of the ball where offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has proven to be a better play-caller on his side of the ball than Smith has on his – despite the offense featuring as many as five rookies on the field at one time when personnel packages include wide receivers Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries along with quarterback Jameis Winston and offensive linemen Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith.
The Bucs accumulated 509 yards of offense against St. Louis, which ranks fifth overall in Tampa Bay history. The Bucs passed for 363 and rushed for 146, while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Earlier this year, the Bucs put up 521 yards at Philadelphia, which ranks second in franchise history.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Getty Images
“Whenever you have over 500 yards there are some things you’ve done fairly well,” Smith said. “We didn’t finish as much as anything.”
The charismatic and energetic Koetter has been an amazing hire by this franchise and done wonders developing Winston along with quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian. Winston, who had a career-high 363 yards against the Rams, has been as good as advertised, becoming the youngest player in NFL history to throw for over 3,000 yards. He set a franchise rookie record with his 20th touchdown pass of the season, which came on Thursday night.
• How about Winston’s grit and fight? You’ve got to love the way this kid battles to the end. Winston shook off a very slow start, throwing for just 49 yards in the first half, to finish with 363 yards and two touchdowns and an interception. That’s 314 yards in one half.
“First half, I didn’t play good enough for us to win,” Winston said. “They were throwing a lot of different things at us. We were protecting good enough. I just have to make throws.”
Winston was under siege and was getting blitzed from everywhere and pressured often from Rams Pro Bowl defensive tackle Aaron Donald in the first half. He deftly avoided getting sacked and helped put 17 points on the board in the second half.
“The first half and the interception late hurt us,” Winston said. “It’s one of those days. We had plenty of opportunities. The offense – Doug Martin still did what he does. Mike Evans showed up to play. Adam Humphries showed up to play. In these situations your quarterback has to show up and play.”
Although Winston had two red zone touchdown passes to tight end Luke Stocker and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, two drives stalled in the red zone as a result of some of his errant throws. Winston started the game too emotional and too erratic, completing 1-of-6 passes for 10 yards before settling down at halftime and leading a second-half charge.
“Lesson learned,” Winston said. “You’ve got to learn a lesson and move forward. The season’s not over yet. What we wanted – our playoff hopes – are probably done. But the season’s not over. We’re still going to go out there and compete. We’re going to go out there and fight and try to go 8-8.
Bucs WR Mike Evans – Photo by: Getty Images
• Helping Winston have a big second half were wide receivers Mike Evans and Adam Humphries and running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims. Evans had nine catches for 157 yards (17.4 avg.), while Humphries also helped move the chains, catching a career-high six passes for 60 yards (10 avg.).
Evans went over 1,000 yards for the second straight season and now has 1,046 yards and three touchdowns on 66 catches. Last year he had 68 catches for 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Martin rushed for 91 yards on 18 carries (5.1 avg.) with 68 of that coming in the first half. He currently leads the NFL in rushing with 1,305 yards and five touchdowns on 256 carries (5.1 avg.).
Sims was more effective in the second half, rushing for 42 of his 50 yards, which came on seven carries (7.1 avg.). Sims had a big 35-yard gain on a sweep and also caught three passes for 22 yards in the game.
• The final point to make about Thursday night’s loss at St. Louis is how penalties continue to cripple Tampa Bay’s efforts to win games. As expected, the Bucs played to their season average and were flagged nine times for 56 yards with some of those infractions coming at very inopportune times.
Winston was flagged for a delay of game on second-and-goal from the St. Louis 9-yard line in the second quarter. That pushed the ball back to the 14 and three plays later the Bucs had to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Connor Barth.
In the fourth quarter tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was flagged five yards for throwing the football after getting tackled inside the 1-yard line. After three incompletions by Winston the Bucs were not able to punch the ball in for a touchdown and had to settle for a field goal – although Smith should have gone for it.
Seferian-Jenkins’ penalty was stupid, as was defensive end Will Gholston kicking a Rams player after a play. Gholston did have a game-high and career-high 11 tackles, which was the most by a Bucs defensive lineman since Warren Sapp had that many against San Francisco in 1997.
The same could be said for the stupid encroachment penalty on defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and 31-year old Gosder Cherilus, who is tied for the third most penalties in the NFL, getting flagged for illegal formation. How does a veteran offensive lineman get flagged for illegal formation this late in the season? Just ridiculous.
Bucs head coach Lovie Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Although Smith has yet to have a foul called on him, his football team is the most undisciplined in the NFL and leads the league with 134 penalties for 1,083 yards, which is embarrassing. That reflects poorly of the head coach. Penalties have been a problem since he took over the Buccaneers last year and Smith has yet to find a way to stop them.
“Everything is hurting us,” Smith said. “Not scoring enough on defense, or not scoring enough on offense. Not being able to stop them on defense – and penalties that we can’t make. It’s all a part of the bad plays we had tonight.”
The Rams were only penalized five times for 35 yards on Thursday night and seemed to be getting all of the calls and the non-calls despite being the third-most penalized team in the NFL. Once again the refs called a lopsided game in favor of Tampa Bay’s opponent, and seem to have it in for the Bucs.
The refs blew two targeting calls after Humphries got drilled in the head after a catch in the second half, and Winston was hit with a forearm to the head on a 5-yard scramble in the first half to set up a fourth-and-1 that the Bucs would fail to convert. While Winston was complaining to the officials he was shoved twice in the back by defensive tackle Aaron Donald right in front of the refs, who did nothing.
I will say that it’s quite damning that the mild-mannered Smith doesn’t work over the officials much and lobby for calls – certainly not like former Bucs coach Jon Gruden did. Gruden would do that and there would often be “make-up calls” shortly after the refs missed a call that “Chucky” would go ballistic over. Having Smith chew the officials out like other head coaches do would certainly help the Bucs’ cause in getting some more favorable calls against their opponents and perhaps some less calls against his own team. That kind of stuff works in the NFL.
FAB 2. SMITH IS GETTING OUTCOACHED IN CRITICAL LOSSES
I know Tampa Bay just played St. Louis on Thursday night on a short week, but I want to revisit one of the most critical games of the 2015 season – a 24-17 letdown loss at the hands of a four-win (now five-win) New Orleans team. This deflating defeat cost the Bucs a real shot at the playoffs and a chance to have a winning record for the first time since Tampa Bay was 6-5 during the 2012 season.
It looked like the Bucs came out flat, falling down 14-0 early at home, but head coach Lovie Smith dispelled that notion.
“They played better than we did,” Smith said. “You can give the adjectives to it. They played better ball than us. It’s a simple approach. I wish I can tell you exactly why we didn’t convert on third down or fourth down or whatever it was. I can’t. Don’t have a lot of time to think about it either. We played bad. They won today. We’ll play better next week.”
I agree with Smith to an extent. The Bucs didn’t come out flat. If you watched Jameis Winston’s pre-game speech on the field to the team on Buccaneers.com and if you watched the players running out of the tunnel, they were very much up for this game.
Bucs head coach Lovie Smith – Photo by: Getty Images
Smith’s motivational ability is held back by his rather bland personality – he’s more Tony Dungy than Jon Gruden – but Winston is a firebrand. He’s become the Bucs’ emotional leader like he was for the Florida State Seminoles. That was desperately needed in Tampa Bay.
Smith is right in that the Bucs played bad. Smith is also right in suggesting that he and his staff coached poorly because they did.
“Nobody played well today,” Smith said. “It’s kind of simple as that. There were plays to be made out there today that we did not make. I wish I could sit up here and tell you someone played well. We didn’t. Maybe the video will say something else. Right now, a day like today – just being real – no one, none of us, of course starting with the head football coach. That’s as bad a job as I have done.”
Smith is not a very good game day strategist. That’s ultimately what led to his dismissal in Chicago after a 10-6 season. The Bears had built a championship defense during his tenure and were adding weapons on offense, but were being held back by poor game management.
We’ve seen that in the 30 games Smith has coached in Tampa Bay. The St. Louis and Cincinnati games from 2014 immediately come to mind, in addition to games at Washington and Indianapolis, and most recently at home against New Orleans and on the road in St. Louis. Let’s take a closer look at the loss to the Saints and analyze some serious shortcomings on Smith’s part.
Heading into Sunday’s game there were some clear “givens.”
1. Drew Brees was healthy. Tampa Bay won in New Orleans largely because Brees was hurt on a sack early in the game and had trouble throwing, evidenced later in the game by an underthrown pass in the second half that would be picked off by safety Chris Conte in Week 2. Brees would be healthy on Sunday.
2. Brees was hot and was going to throw to win. Despite losing four straight, Brees was averaging 322 yards per game over the last five games and was completing 68 percent of his passes during that stretch with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Brees was held to 63 percent by Tampa Bay in Week 2, largely because he was injured. Brees was averaging 40 passes per game, and with running back Mark Ingram out with an injury, the Bucs were going to get at least 40 throws from Brees.
3. Brees has had a lot of success versus the Tampa 2 defense. Brees has seen a ton of the Tampa 2 defense in his career, and beat Dungy’s Indianapolis defense to win New Orleans’ only Super Bowl. Smith should know from his won experiences in losing to Peyton Manning and Dungy’s Colts in the Super Bowl that elite QBs like Brees can go on 12-play drives and not mess up.
4. Tampa Bay’s pass rush would be lacking. The Bucs benefited from three sacks by defensive end Jacquies Smith and a sack from defensive tackle Gerald McCoy against the Saints in a Week 2 win. Smith was out with a hamstring injury, while McCoy was playing with a broken hand and was ineffective. Brees gets rid of the ball quickly and the Bucs were going to have trouble mustering a pass rush.
5. New Orleans was going to control the ball – and the clock. Because Brees is such an accurate thrower and due to the fact that the Bucs would be playing a good deal of Cover 2 and Cover 3 in an attempt to keep the receivers in front of the team’s defenders and limit big chunks of yardage through the air, the Saints would have a good chance of dinking and dunking the ball down the field and playing keep away in Tampa Bay. The Bucs defense was allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 68 percent of their passes coming into the game, and that was with some average QBs factored in. Brees is still an elite quarterback so that percentage could be higher on Sunday.
The Saints don’t need to run the football to move it, so forget the Ingram injury. That was a nuisance for them, but not a huge problem and Tim Hightower is a workmanlike back that can move the chains.
Bucs head coach Lovie Smith – Photo by: Getty Images
The game played out largely the way you would think it would have. Brees was hot and threw two touchdowns and was not intercepted. Smith relies on takeaways for his defense, but that is a variable the Bucs really can’t control. There weren’t many opportunities to take the ball away because Brees and the Saints protected it so well.
What a defense has much more control over is yards gained and getting off the field on third down by minimizing gains on first, second and third down. It’s easier and more common to bat a pass down on third down and force a punt than it is to pick it off.
The Saints had 26 first downs and held the ball for over 37 minutes – largely because Brees threw the ball 41 times, which was expected, and completed 75.6 percent of his passes. The only reason the Saints didn’t blow the Bucs out is because they had a dozen penalties of their own and kept shooting themselves in the foot.
Let’s examine two critical fourth downs in the second half with the Bucs trailing in both instances. The Bucs are down 17-10 and facing a team with a hot quarterback, knowing that you need touchdowns – not field goals – to beat the Saints. Smith calls for a 47-yard field goal on a very windy day instead of going for it on fourth-and-2 from the New Orleans 29.
A field goal makes the score 17-13 with the Saints still leading with six minutes left in the third. Connor Barth misses the kick in the swirling winds and New Orleans takes over at its own 37-yard line. Brees marches them down the field on a 10-play, 63-yard drive that results in a touchdown to give the Saints a 24-10 lead.
Everything about the way the game was playing out midway through the third quarter – Brees was hot, the Saints were controlling the ball and hadn’t turned it over, Winston wasn’t as sharp as he usually is, wide receiver Vincent Jackson was out with an injury, the Bucs were lousy on third downs on offense and defense – screamed to go for the first down and continue to try for a touchdown. There was plenty of evidence that was the right call, but Smith didn’t see it.
Look at the math and you would instantly say “No way” should the Bucs kick a field goal in that situation – whether Barth makes it or not. If he makes it, the Bucs are still down four points. They still need to score a touchdown regardless – or two field goals. Given the way the game was going, is it likely Tampa Bay was even getting two more possessions to kick field goals? If so, they would have to capitalize on both and hold the Saints scoreless, which was a tall order. The Bucs had already had two three-and-outs, and another five-play drive that only gained 13 yards that led to another punt.
Since the Bucs still needed at least a touchdown to tie the game, why not go for it on a fourth-and-manageable situation from the Saints end of the field? If the Bucs didn’t make it, the Saints would need to go nearly 10 more yards to score a touchdown. That’s a reasonable risk for the reward to continue to try to get seven points instead of the chance for just three.
Bucs WR Donteea Dye – Photo by: Getty Images
Now with 4:21 left in the game after Donteea Dye’s drop made it fourth-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 44, do you punt trailing 24-17? Absolutely not.
The Saints were moving the ball all day. They had two drives that ended in three-and-outs, but New Orleans also had clock-chewing drives with eight plays, 10 plays, 10 plays, 10 plays and 17 plays. And the Saints would wind up completing 71 percent on third downs.
Smith, who is a conventional wisdom kind of coach, looked at fourth-and-10 with his three timeouts and the two-minute warning and figured his defense could go make a stop and get the ball back.
“I thought we could back them up there and stop them,” Smith said. “That’s why I did that. [You] can second-guess it right now. I would make the same decision 10 out of 10 times on that.”
And that’s where Smith falters as a game manager. Smith followed conventional wisdom in an unconventional game that he failed to identify.
Where was the evidence that the Bucs were going to be able to make a stop – because Smith coaches that side of the ball?
The Saints converted three third downs and chewed 4:13 off the clock to win the game. Why? The Saints were converting 71.1 percent on third downs against the Bucs. Seventy-one percent, folks.
If Smith thought that Tampa Bay had less than a 50-50 shot at converting on fourth down, the stats sheet said the Bucs had a 29 percent chance of stopping the Saints. So why not go for it? Don’t you have to try to win the game right there? That’s what New England’s Bill Belichick – a very unconventional coach, and a legendary coach to boot – likely would have done given all of that information.
In thinking through Sunday’s loss, it’s really clear that Smith just doesn’t get it.
Even if the Saints stopped the Bucs they would have had to go nearly 50 yards for a touchdown and about 20 to get a decent shot at a field goal on a windy day. The Bucs would have just as good of a shot getting the ball back and if they score on that possession, they could try an onside kick.
It’s hard to come up with a scenario in which Smith was right on those fourth down calls. Brees doesn’t turn the ball over without pressure, and there wasn’t any pressure outside of two or three plays.
Points per possession were at a huge premium, and the Bucs only had nine possessions because the Saints controlled the clock with a 37:14 to 22:46 time of possession advantage. New Orleans had 78 plays to Tampa Bay’s 52 – a difference of 27 plays. Therefore the Bucs needed to be aggressive and score touchdowns whenever they could to have the best chance to win.
Smith doesn’t go for wins. He tries to avoid losses, and in today’s NFL that’s a recipe for losing. Smith did the same thing in St. Louis, opting to kick field goals on a fourth-and-goal from the Rams’ 14 in the third quarter to make the score 21-6, and on fourth-and-goal from the St. Louis 6, trailing 31-16.
Saints head coach Sean Payton and Bucs head coach Lovie Smith – Photo by: Getty Images
It’s not like Smith is a dumb coach. He’s not. There are several others that would have tried the field goal and punted in those fourth down situations against New Orleans and St. Louis. I don’t think Belichick would, and I don’t think New Orleans’ Sean Payton would have, either.
Payton outcoached Smith on Sunday, and that’s concerning because the six-win Bucs have just as much talent as the five-win Saints do. A head coach’s job is to get his team prepared to play and put his team in position to win games.
Smith didn’t put them in position to win, and the Bucs weren’t flat against the Saints. They were simply unprepared.
Smith had to have known that inside the red zone that Brees and Payton like to run pick plays against zone and man coverage, as they did on Willie Snead’s touchdown against Tampa Bay in the first meeting. So what did Smith call in the red zone? Cover 2 on the first score with no one jamming Marques Colston and giving him a free release coming off the ball.
When play-action froze middle linebacker Bruce Carter and he didn’t get any depth into his drop in coverage it was too easy for Colston to run to the middle of the end zone between the safeties for a “gimme” touchdown. Brees could have thrown that -3-yard pass with his eyes closed.
Smith opted for man coverage on Colston’s 1-yard touchdown, which again came on a pick route. Rookie cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah was lined up in the slot against Colston, but slipped and fell down when beginning to trail Colston. With New Orleans at the 1-yard line and the Bucs only having a depth of 11 yards to defend, playing zone and making the necessary switches in coverage would have made sense against that trips formation.
The reason why this is so important to illustrate and analyze is because the Glazers fired Dungy because he couldn’t get the Bucs offense right and was squandering a talent-laded defensive squad, and he couldn’t beat Philadelphia. The Glazers fired Gruden the year he became the franchise’s all-time winningest coach and shortly after signing a four-year contract extension because he and general manager Bruce Allen couldn’t draft worth a damn and they wasted a lot of money in free agents that didn’t pan out.
Gruden could manage a game, though. He might not have had the most talented team on the field due to poor drafts, but the Bucs weren’t unprepared, and he was a heck of a game day coach.
The Glazers need to recognize Smith’s shortcomings and decide whether they want to tolerate them. He’s not a brilliant play-caller on defense, which is one thing. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 70 percent of their passes against Smith’s defense. Tampa Bay has made Washington’s Kirk Cousins and St. Louis’ Case Keenum, who completed 14-of-17 passes for 234 yards with two touchdowns and a QB rating of 158 on Thursday night, look like Pro Bowlers – Hall of Famers, actually.
Bucs head coach Lovie Smith – Photo by: Getty Images
And Smith is not a good game manager, which is a head coach’s primary job. Is Smith calling plays taking away from his game management?
Head coaches need to determine which players are active on game days, manage the clock, direct the tempo on offense, throw the red flag to challenge plays, and determine whether to punt, kick fields or go for it on fourth down.
The Glazers wanted a big name coach to replace Greg Schiano and they got one in Smith, whose record is 8-22. But the honeymoon is over in Tampa Bay. Poor coaching and game management have cost this team too many close games over the past two years.
St. Louis wanted a big-name coach too when it hired Jeff Fisher in 2012 – the same year the Bucs hired Schiano. Fisher has yet to post a winning record with the Rams, who have gone 7-8-1, 7-9, 6-10 and 6-8 over the last four years (26-35-1).
Fisher, who like Smith has lost a Super Bowl, hasn’t produced a winning record since 2008 when he was in Tennessee. How does this guy still have a head-coaching job?
Tampa Bay has improved this season. There’s no doubt.
But how much of it has been a stellar rookie class that features four starters in Winston, left tackle Donovan Smith, right guard Ali Marpet and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and a bona fide offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter, and how much of it has been due to Smith?
Can Smith become a better game day manager or is he stuck in his ways and limited in that respect? How far can Smith take the Buccaneers?
Is Smith is Dungy’s league? Is he a coach of Gruden’s caliber?
These are question the Glazers need to seriously ponder this offseason. Otherwise the Bucs might have another Fisher on their hands – a guy that hangs around due to his past reputation but doesn’t win in the present.
Fisher, you know. The guy that will finish with a non-winning record for the seventh straight year – and the guy that just beat Smith and the Bucs.
FAB 3. DEEP DRAFT FOR DEFENSIVE ENDS HELPS TAMPA BAY
Unless Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy or defensive end Jacquies Smith picks it up in the final two games of the 2015 season, the Buccaneers will go 10 years without a double-digit sacker. The last time Tampa Bay had a pass rusher reach 10 sacks or more was in 2005, Simeon Rice’s last year as a Buccaneer.
Legendary Bucs DE Simeon Rice – Photo by: Getty Images
A few Bucs have come close. McCoy had a career-high 9.5 in 2013, and defensive end Michael Bennett had nine in 2012. But McCoy is an interior lineman, and in an era that features the quick passing game, it’s difficult for defensive tackles to reach double digit sacks. That’s why St. Louis’ Aaron Donald, who has 11 in his second season, is so special.
Bennett, a self-made defensive end that was originally undrafted, wasn’t re-signed by the Bucs in 2013 and the team has paid the price ever since. Bennett has since gone on to appear in the last two Super Bowls with Seattle, winning a championship two years ago.
Bucs head coach Lovie Smith inherited two franchise building blocks ideally suited for his Tampa 2 defensive scheme in McCoy, a three-technique defensive tackle, and weakside linebacker Lavonte David. But the position that has been lacking since Rice’s abrupt departure on the eve of training camp in 2006 has been a dominant right defensive end.
The Bucs have tried in vain to upgrade that position through the draft and free agency. Tampa Bay used the fourth overall pick in 2007 to select Gaines Adams, a soft player who didn’t develop any counter moves to complement his outside speed rush. He recorded 13.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions, including a pick-six, in Tampa Bay before the team traded him to Chicago during the 2009 season. Adams died of an enlarged heart in January of 2010.
The Bucs doubled up on the defensive end position in 2011, drafting Adrian Clayborn in the first round and Da’Quan Bowers in the second round. Clayborn is a try-hard player with limited athletic ability that had a career-high 7.5 sacks as a rookie but has only had 7.5 sacks over the past four years, including two this season in Atlanta.
With just seven sacks in five years, including a career-high three in 2012, Bowers is a bust. He lacks a passion for football and has had trouble staying in shape throughout his career. Bowers was signed this week by Tampa Bay to help with defensive tackle depth.
When Lovie Smith was hired to replace Greg Schiano as head coach in 2014, one of his first priorities was to sign defensive end Michael Johnson, who was a colossal bust. Johnson was a prima donna that lacked instincts and toughness, and produced just four sacks last year before walking away with $14 million of the Glazers’ money, which in one of the biggest robberies in the state of Florida’s history.
Top DE Sack Producers In Tampa Bay Since 2006 2006 – Greg Spires & Dwayne White – 5 2007 – Stylez G. White – 8 2008 – Gaines Adams – 6.5 2009 – Stylez G. White – 6.5 2010 – Stylez G. White – 4.5 2011 – Adrian Clayborn – 7.5 2012 – Michael Bennett – 9 2013 – Adrian Clayborn – 5.5 2014 – Jacquies Smith – 6.5 2015 – Jacquies Smith – 6
Bucs DE Jacquies Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Since 2006, the Bucs’ top pass-rushing defensive end has averaged 6.5 sacks per season, which is what Smith registered last year in his first NFL season. In order for the Bucs to reach the playoffs the team needs a Pro Bowl threat off the edge with double that production. Rice had 15.5 sacks in 2002, which was the year the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII.
Finding that defensive end proved to be problematic over the years under former general managers Bruce Allen and Mark Dominik. Now it’s Jason Licht’s turn.
After spending all but one draft pick – used on middle linebacker Kwon Alexander – on offensive players over the last two drafts, the Bucs are expected to heavily address the defensive side of the ball in 2016. Tampa Bay’s first-round pick will likely be a defensive end due to the importance of generating a pass rush by rushing four defensive linemen in the Tampa 2.
It’s shaping up to be a solid group of defensive ends if a few highly-rated underclassmen forego their senior seasons and enter the 2016 NFL Draft as expected. Here is a look at the players expected to contend for first-round consideration:
1. DE Joey Bosa – Junior – Ohio State – 6-5, 275
Bosa helped the Buckeyes win the national title in 2014 with 13.5 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He’s got 26 sacks in his college career, including five this year after being double-teamed so often. Bosa is widely regarded as the first defensive end off the board and will be a top 5 pick.
2. DE DeForest Buckner – Senior – Oregon – 6-7, 290
Buckner is a massive, five-technique defensive end in Oregon’s 3-4 scheme. He’s had a great year in 2015 with a career-high 9.5 sacks to give him 17 in his Ducks career. Buckner is a powerful pass rusher, and not an ideal fit in the Tampa 2, which favors quick-twitch athletes off the edge. Buckner could be a top 10 pick.
3. DE A’Shawn Robinson – Junior – Alabama – 6-4, 312
Robinson is a tremendous athlete for a 300-pounder and is a terrific run stuffer. He has some pass rush ability, evidenced by 5.5 sacks as a freshman and 3.5 sacks as a junior, but relies on power more than speed to win battles in the trenches. Robinson has the size to play defensive end in a 3-4 or defensive tackle in a 4-3 and is likely a top 20 pick.
OSU DE Emmanuel Ogbah – Photo by: Getty Images
4. DE Emmanuel Ogbah – Junior – Oklahoma State – 6-3, 275
The Nigerian-born Ogbah led the Big 12 with 13 sacks this year after recording 11 in a breakout sophomore campaign in 2014. Ogbah’s motor never stops as this quick, strong defensive end gets after quarterbacks from the left or right side. Ogbah has 28 sacks and 37 tackles for loss in his career, and is an ideal 4-3 defensive end. He’s slated to be a top 20 selection and would look awfully good in red and pewter.
5. DE Jonathan Allen – Junior – Alabama – 6-3, 283
Like Buckner and Robinson, Allen is more of a power rusher than he is a quick-twitch athlete, but he is effective at getting to the quarterback. Allen leads the Crimson Tide with 10 sacks this year and has 16 in his career. Allen is better suited to play defensive end in a 3-4 scheme or as a strongside defensive end in a 4-3 defense. That versatility will land him in the top 20.
6. DE Shaq Lawson – Junior – Clemson – 6-3, 270
Lawson is attempting to break the streak of absolutely mediocre Clemson defensive linemen that have entered the NFL over the past 15 years. After notching 7.5 sacks in his first two years for the Tigers, Lawson burst onto the scene in 2015 with 9.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss, which leads the nation. Lawson is a good athlete, but not an upper echelon end. He’ll likely be over-drafted due to the need for pass rushers and end up in the top 20.
7. OLB Leonard Floyd – Georgia – 6-4, 230
Floyd played outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense at Georgia, but he was often used as an edge rusher on passing downs where he recorded 17 sacks in his career. Floyd’s sack numbers are down in 2015 to 4.5 because the Bulldogs had him drop in coverage much more. While he’s an ideal fit as a 3-4 rush linebacker in the NFL, Floyd is ultra-athletic and has the juice off the edge a Tampa 2 team the Bucs looks for. Floyd is a top 20 pick.
MSU DE Shilique Calhoun – Photo by: Getty Images
8. DE Shilique Calhoun – Senior – Michigan State – 6-5, 252
Calhoun is a very athletic, twitchy pass rusher that has had a very productive career for the Spartans, racking up 27 sacks and 43.5 tackles for loss in his career. His motor doesn’t always run high and he can disappear in stretches during games – or sometimes disappear for stretches of games, which is problematic. Calhoun has four forced fumbles in his career and five fumble recoveries. He scored three defensive touchdowns in 2013 as a sophomore – two on fumble recoveries and one on a 56-yard interception. Calhoun’s athleticism could get him to the bottom of the first round.
9. DE Shawn Oakman – Senior – Baylor – 6-8, 276
Oakman, who is a chiseled, athletic freak, returned for his senior season, but has been a big disappointment, recording just 4.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss after notching a career-high 11 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Oakman looks like Tarzan and plays like Jane. The Bucs have already had that guy on their roster and his name was Michael Johnson. Most NFL scouts wouldn’t touch him before the third round, but there could be one foolish team that will fall in love with his measurable and athleticism and make him a late first-rounder. It won’t be the Bucs, though.
Cornerback is also a pressing need for the Buccaneers, but currently there are only two top-flight players in this draft – Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves III and Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey. After Thursday night’s loss in St. Louis, the Bucs probably have the 12th or 13th pick in the draft depending on how other teams fare this weekend. Hargreaves and Ramsey are top 10 players, so right now it’s logical to assume Tampa Bay would be drafting a defensive end in the first round. Ogbah would be a solid selection.
FAB 4. SMALL SCHOOL PASS RUSHERS TO WATCH
With defensive end being such a position of need in Tampa Bay, don’t be surprised to see general manager Jason Licht, director of player personnel Jon Robinson and director of college scouting Mike Biehl double up on the position, grabbing a pass rusher early and late in this year’s draft. Here is a look at some under-the-radar edge rushers from small schools to keep an eye on.
Eastern Kentucky DE Noah Spence – Junior
Spence was once a blue-chip recruit at Ohio State where he starred as a sophomore in 2013, recording 50 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, one forced fumble and two passes broken up. He was suspended during the 2014 season for failing drug tests and testing positive for ecstasy. Spence was kicked off the team due to his addiction, but went to rehab to become clean.
Spence transferred to Eastern Kentucky where he had a big junior season, notching 63 tackles, 11.5 sacks, including 1.5 sacks vs. Kentucky, and one vs. North Carolina State, 22.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He had four multi-sack games for the Colonels. Between Eastern Kentucky, where Spence was named the Ohio Valley Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 and Ohio State, he recorded 125 tackles, 38.5 tackles for loss, 20 sacks and forced four fumbles.
Despite being a junior, Spence will play in the Senior Bowl and is being discussed as a possible second-round draft pick. After a public intoxication arrest this past May, NFL teams, including the Buccaneers, need to really research Spence’s background and character. The fact that he has passed multiple drug tests at EKU and has been open about his past struggles with ecstasy helps Spence’s cause. If Spence’s athleticism and character shines in Mobile, Ala. he could work his way into the late first round.
Southern Utah DE James Cowser – 6-4, 258 – Senior
Cowser has been a force for the Thunderbirds and the Big Sky Conference for years, recording double-digit sacks for the past three years and recording at least 60 tackles in each of his four seasons at Southern Utah as the model of consistency. Cowser had 7.5 sacks as a freshman, 10.5 the next year, 11.5 as a junior, and 13 quarterback captures as a senior, including five multi-sack games in 2015.
Cowser had a whopping 280 tackles, 80 tackles for loss and 42.5 sacks in his Southern Utah career. During his junior campaign, Cowser broke the Big Sky Conference tackles for loss record originally set by Jared Allen with 28.5. He also has an interception, several blocked kicks, nine forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, including one he returned 100 yards for a touchdown in 2015.
The knock on Cowser is that he dominated a lower level of competition and lacks upper-end athleticism. He’ll get the chance to show what he can do against FBS talent in St. Petersburg in mid-January as he accepted an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game. Cowser could be drafted anywhere from the third to fifth round depending on how he fares in the postseason and how well he performs athletically at his pro day.
Montana DE Tyrone Holmes – 6-4, 250 – Senior
Holmes had a breakout year in 2015, recording the most sacks in the FCS (and FBS) with a career-high 18 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss, 87 tackles and three forced fumbles. He had four multi-sack games last year.
Holmes finished his Grizzlies career with 214 tackles, 34.5 sacks, 47 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles. He had big shoes to fill, stepping in for Zack Wagenmann, Montana’s all-time leading sacker (37.5), who notched 17.5 sacks last year before signing with the Arizona Cardinals. Holmes did just that with a school-record 18.
Holmes has accepted an invitation to play in the East-West Shrine Game, which is played in St. Petersburg, Fla. to help boost his draft stock. Former Ole Miss star pass rusher Greg Hardy played in the East-West Shrine Game. Holmes is currently slated to be a Day 3 draft selection.
Stony Brook DE Victor Ochi – Photo courtesy of Stony Brook
Stony Brook DE Victor Ochi – 6-2, 255 – Senior
Ochi was tied William & Mary cornerback DeAndre Houston-Carson, who accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl, for the Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year award. He finished 2015 with 13 sacks, including five multi-sack games, 16.5 tackles for loss and 47 tackles in addition to a forced fumble.
Ochi is a high-motor player built like Tampa Bay defensive end Jacquies Smith and has a similar burst. He’s got 32.5 sacks, 51.5 tackles for loss and 182 tackles in his career to go along with four forced fumbles.
Look for Ochi to get a late invite to the East-West Shrine Game, which he deserves after the career he’s had with the Seawolves. He’s a real sleeper in this draft and could be a Day 3 steal for a team like Tampa Bay.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston is the ultimate teammate. In last week’s 24-17 loss to New Orleans, Winston could have ran the ball in for a touchdown on a bootleg, but opted to throw the ball to a wide open Adam Humphries.
“You could have run it in,” Humphries said to Winston on the sidelines.
“That’s not what it’s about,” Winston replied.
After the game, Winston revealed how dead set was to get Humphries, an undrafted free agent out of Clemson, his first NFL touchdown. This guy is going to be a real special quarterback – and his teammates love him. Winston became the emotional leader of the team after the Jacksonville game heading into the bye week.
• Kudos to former Bucs safety Mark Barron for making an impact with the Rams at weakside linebacker. Barron had seven tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup against his former team on Thursday night. That gives him 105 tackles on the year to go along with a sack and two forced fumbles.
Tampa Bay traded Barron to St. Louis last year for fourth- and sixth-round picks. The sixth-rounder became return specialist Kaelin Clay, who was waived in August and is now in Baltimore. But the fourth-round pick helped Tampa Bay draft guard Ali Marpet and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, as Tampa Bay Times reporter Greg Auman recently pointed out. Both Marpet and Alexander are starters.
The Bucs traded up four spots with the Colts in the second round to get Marpet, using the fourth-rounder from the Rams. Tampa Bay got Indianapolis’ fourth-rounder and paired that pick with a seventh-round selection to move up four slots in the fourth round to draft Alexander.
Both teams have made out in this trade, but the Bucs have Barron to thank for landing two future stars.
Rams DT Aaron Donald – Photo by: Getty Images
• The player I wanted the Bucs to draft in 2014 was Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald. I even said that on a pre-draft edition of the Pewter Panel on Buccaneers.com on the eve of the draft with Scott Smith.
But with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in a contract year and due for an extension, it wasn’t in the cards and the team took wide receiver Mike Evans instead. I have nothing against Evans, who topped 1,000 yards for the season against St. Louis on Thursday night, but he’s not a Pro Bowl-caliber player (yet) and Donald is.
Donald is a special player and his ultra-quick moves and physical skill set would be ideal in Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defense. It’s much harder to find elite three-technique tackles than it is to find wide receivers.
Donald has 11 sacks on the year, and had five tackles, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hits against Tampa Bay on Thursday night. Donald was virtually unblockable and made a huge tackle for loss on Doug Martin on a run on fourth-and-1.
Right now Donald, who has 64 tackles this season, is better than a healthy McCoy, who has 27 stops and did little on Thursday night outside of splitting a coverage sack with defensive end Howard Jones. McCoy has 7.5 sacks on the season, which is good, but he’s never gotten to double-digit sacks in his six-year career. Donald, who had 10 sacks last year as a rookie, has done it twice.
I can understand why the Bucs didn’t draft Donald. The team followed conventional wisdom, which is to actually draft for need and not take the best player available.
It’s the same type of twisted conventional wisdom Tampa Bay used when it passed on future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson in the first round in 2007 to take defensive end Gaines Adams because the team had already spent a first-rounder in 2005 on running back Cadillac Williams, who had just one 1,000-yard season. Draft the best player available from now on, Jason Licht.
• Speaking of the draft, here’s a quick look at who some of the more notable draft gurus around the Internet have Tampa Bay drafting in their early mock drafts with my analysis of their selections for the Bucs:
Bleacher Report’s Joe Pantorno: Baylor DT Andrew Billings
First of all, Billings has said he’s returning for his senior season. Second, the Bucs need a pass rusher and Billings is a defensive tackle with 7.5 career sacks. He’s a good player, but not better than some of the defensive ends that will be available.
OSU DE Emmanuel Ogbah – Photo by: Getty Images
WalterFootball.com: Oklahoma State DE Emmanuel Ogbah
Ogbah’s a stud and I really like the pick. Walter has the Bucs taking Iowa cornerback Desmond King in the second round and Southern Utah safety Miles Killebrew in the third. This is winning draft for the Bucs and three needs are met with talented players.
WalterFootball.com’s Charlie Campbell: Penn State DE Carl Nassib
I think Nassib has some upside, but I don’t think he’s a first-rounder. He’s a one-year wonder who had 15.5 sacks this year to lead the FBS, but I think he’s more Margus Hunt than J.J. Watt. Campbell has the Bucs taking Samford cornerback James Bradberry in the second round and Oklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper in the third round. Those picks make sense from a need standpoint, but I think there will be better corners and edge rushers available.
Draft Breakdown’s Luke Easterling: Iowa CB Desmond King
I like King, who fills a need at cornerback, but not in the first round. Not yet. I need to see how he times before putting him in the top-20. He’s got ball skills, though.
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller: Clemson DE Shaq Lawson
I’m not a fan of Lawson, who reminds me too much of Da’Quan Bowers, another notable Clemson flop. Miller had the Bucs taking Duke safety Jeremy Cash in the second round and Florida safety Marcus Maye in the third. I like the Cash pick, but where’s the cornerback the Bucs desperately need?
CBS Sports’ NFLDraftScout.com Rob Rang: Oklahoma DE Emamanuel Ogbah
I love the pick. I think Ogbah has the chance to be a perennial double-digit sacker in the NFL. Great ability, great motor, great attitude and fits a need.
CBS Sports’ NFLDraftScout.com Dane Brugler: Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander
I’m not a fan of Alexander. I would rather see the Bucs draft a defensive end in the first round and then come back and draft King – if he leaves for the NFL – in the second round.
• And finally, there WILL be a new SR’s Fab 5 next Friday on Christmas. Consider it my present to you, loyal Buccaneers fans and PewterReport.com visitors. You won’t want to miss this one! Happy Holidays!
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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