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. NO MORE MR. NICE GUY IN TAMPA BAY
It didn’t use to be like this. Fall behind by 24 points to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and you had better be calling a priest for your last rites because your chances of winning were all but dying.
It’s not like that anymore in Tampa. Not when the lowly Washington Redskins and struggling quarterback Kirk Cousins mount a stunning comeback and win 31-30, as was the case last Sunday.
It’s one thing to have Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark and the high-powered Indianapolis Colts offense in their prime rally from 21 points down to stun Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football in 2003 when the Buccaneers were still busy patting themselves on the back for winning the Super Bowl the year prior. It’s another thing for Cousins, Ryan Grant, Andre Roberts, Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed do it.
Legendary Buccaneers defensive end and potential Hall of Famer Simeon Rice watched Sunday’s loss, which sent Tampa Bay to 2-4 on the year, and he didn’t like what he saw. No Bucs defender stepped up to make a play to stop the Redskins’ momentum once the score was 24-14 or even 24-21.
And up by six points with Washington driving for a game-winning touchdown, there was no sack by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. No forced fumble by Lavonte David. No interception by Johnthan Banks.
Not one Buccaneer stepped up and made a play to stop the Redskins – when it counted. The same could be said of earlier losses this season to Tennessee, Houston and Carolina.
“The killer instinct is missing, but you need killers to have a killer instinct,” Rice said. “That’s a special, special kind of talent you need to show up consistently – not just one game. Anybody can have one game. You need to do with regularity. You have to develop that reputation, that attitude of being a killer.”
Bucs DE Simeon Rice and DT Warren Sapp – Photo by: Getty Images
Rice was a killer on a defense full of them in Tampa Bay during their Super Bowl and subsequent seasons. The Bucs had playmakers that didn’t just dare to be great – they achieved greatness with timely, signature plays in memorable moments.
In the 1997 season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson kneed quarterback Steve Young in the head and gave him a concussion. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp grabbed Jerry Rice’s facemask on an end round and tore the receiver’s ACL in the process. With two future Hall of Famers out of the game in the first half the Bucs would pull off the upset that would key Tampa Bay’s Wild Card playoff run that year.
In the 1999 Wild Card playoff game at Raymond James Stadium, strong safety John Lynch came up with a key interception against Washington and ran over to the Bucs’ sideline and spiked the ball to fire up the offense and swing momentum in Tampa Bay’s favor in the postseason victory.
In the 2002 NFC Championship Game cornerback Ronde Barber, who had been snubbed for the Pro Bowl by Philadelphia’s cornerback tandem of Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, picked off Donovan McNabb and returned the ball 92 yards for the game-clinching touchdown that would send the Bucs to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
“Pro Bowl my ass,” Barber said following the play, “I’m going to the Super Bowl!”
In Super Bowl XXXVII, Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks provided the dagger the Bucs needed to kill the Oakland Raiders’ comeback hopes. With Tampa Bay’s lead whittled down to 34-21 in the fourth quarter, Brooks, who was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, picked off Rich Gannon and raced 44 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.
“When you have guys that kill momentum and step up and be able to thwart situations – that’s unique,” Rice said. “When we took the field – and I’m speaking about days gone by – we knew that no one was going to march the ball downfield on us. We knew that was our time. Those critical moments – you have to know that these are your moments to shine.
“We were actually on offense. We played defense, but we were on offense looking to make big plays. The blood-rushing moments, the gut-wrenching moments are when you’re on defense and you take away something a team does so well. You have this sack-fumble or this interception – something that breaks their momentum. That allows you to put your stamp – your signature – on a game.”
Bucs DE Simeon Rice – Photo by: Getty Images
The Bucs don’t have any killers on defense. As good as the three-time Pro Bowler McCoy is, there are no signature plays or memorable sacks at the end of the game that have made a difference in his five years in Tampa Bay. David, who is often compared to Brooks in terms of stats and ability, doesn’t have a single Brooks-like moment that stands out in a meaningful game.
“They have veteran guys, but they are not dominant guys that are able to put their signature on games,” Rice said. “I don’t want to talk about history, but when you’ve had guys like myself who know what to expect in critical moments – you could almost wind your watch to it and say, ‘This is about to be a sack-fumble by Simeon.’ You could feel it in the air. You know great players by the way they play in the clutch, and you could feel a big play coming. You expected it.
“These guys just aren’t good enough. You can talk about are they too nice or are they this or that, but they’re not good enough right now. They have veterans and guys that play hard, but the talent isn’t there. Despite how hard they play they can only inflict so much on a game. You have guys in other great defenses that get double-digit sacks consistently. That’s the level to be it. It’s got to be consistent.”
The reason why former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris had Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ranked ahead of McCoy in the 2010 NFL Draft was because of Suh’s nasty attitude and demeanor. Both tackles were dominant forces in college with impressive stats on great teams, but it was Suh’s edge and desire to be the best that set him apart.
Most NFL teams, including Detroit, which had the No. 2 overall pick that year, agreed, and the Lions drafted Suh. The Bucs had the third overall pick and took McCoy, who has been a three-time Pro Bowler, a two-time All-Pro and one heck of a nice guy in Tampa Bay.
Bucs DT Gerald McCoy and Redskins QB Kirk Cousins
Much was made over a photo of McCoy laughing it up with Cousins after the Redskins rallied from a 24-0 deficit to crush the Bucs with a 31-30 victory in the final minute of the game.
I have no problem with McCoy shaking hands and hugging opponents after games –win or lose. Most NFL players do it, and some even swap jerseys and pose for pictures with former pro or college teammates. The NFL is a fraternity.
I also don’t have a problem with McCoy helping opponents up off the ground. Although I didn’t cover the Bucs in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I’ve been told that Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon was that way. Selmon, who also played at Oklahoma, was a gentle giant, and if McCoy wants to follow in his footsteps and be a good sport so be it.
Because of the position he plays – the three-technique defensive tackle – many Bucs fans want McCoy to be the next Sapp, who lived up to his QB Killa nickname. McCoy doesn’t have to act like Sapp, who was a moody, foul-mouthed jerk in addition to being an absolute terror on the football field. But given the fact that he cashed in on a six-year, $95.2-million deal last year it’s time that McCoy started playing like Sapp.
Sapp made plays when it counted in the clutch, with a big, momentum-changing sack or a QB pressure that forced an interception. He took over games and you could feel his presence, which is something that McCoy has yet to do in his fifth year in the league.
“Is he too nice? Nice is opening doors and walking old ladies across the street,” Rice said. “Just because you see a guy talking after the game with another guy – it’s kind of an indication, but it doesn’t mean it’s problematic. It’s just two comrades talking. Everybody internalizes things differently.
“The real consequences come with your approach to the game and the way you play the game. I don’t think this defense is good enough this year. Sometimes you just have to say that the talent level of the guys they put out on the field last week wasn’t good enough. To be up 24-0 and not to be able to get that done, I just don’t think they have the bodies to make the plays in that moment. If they were a great team they wouldn’t have allowed [the Redskins] back in the game when the game was on the line. They’re just not at the point in their careers where they can exert their wills and break another team.”
Sapp willed his team to win. He ruled with an iron fist in the locker room, in the meeting room, on the practice field and in the huddle on game day. McCoy doesn’t have to be that guy, but if he’s not going to be, then the Bucs need someone to step into the role.
I fear that someone is not on the current Bucs roster.
Like Selmon, former Bucs fullback Mike Alstott and running back Warrick Dunn were good guys and good sports. So were Lynch and Brooks, who is the greatest Buccaneer of all time. But those Bucs legends played with some nasty players who brought some much-needed balance to Tampa Bay’s roster with their cutthroat attitudes.
Former Bucs defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, Nickerson, Sapp, Rice and Barber all had an edge to them. The current Bucs roster doesn’t have balance. It’s got a roster full of nice guys that don’t have a killer mentality, especially in the fourth quarter. The proof is a 4-18 record over the last 22 games, including a 3-10 mark in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Bucs head coach and defensive play-caller Lovie Smith admitted it on Monday.
“Yes, I agree,” Smith said. “No matter what we call it, we had a 24-0 lead. But, 24-0, that’s early in the game and, really, it was 17-0, they were driving and we got a defensive touchdown. So it was a little bit closer [than it seemed]. But 24-7 in the second half. Now, I’m going to go all the way down to a six-point lead at the end of the game. One stop. So, what it takes – that’s what we’re missing right now. That’s what we’re trying to find.
“Composure or just somebody stepping up and making a play in the situation. As you look throughout [Sunday’s game], they made some tough catches on that last drive. And they were almost perfect with what they did. Eventually we are going to get to a place where, yes, where we want that situation, our defensive line wants that. That’s the time when you get sacks, strip-fumbles, all of that, and a chance to get some picks. We’re not there yet.”
Tampa Bay cornerback Mike Jenkins, who was targeted four times on Washington’s final drive and allowed 42 yards on four catches, indicated that the Bucs defenders weren’t focused enough to rise to the occasion when the game was on the line.
“Lack of focus,” Jenkins said. “We have to hold ourselves to a [higher] standard and look in the mirror and get right. It’s a lack of focus. We just have to focus and be more mentally focused. It’s just a lack of focus on our part. That’s something we can correct.
“That was a time when we needed to drop everything and ball out, but that was one of those opportunities that we let slip away. Hopefully if this opportunity comes again we will be able to man up.”
Rice still follows the Buccaneers and bleeds pewter and red. Like most Tampa Bay fans he was sick to his stomach over what he saw from his former team, especially on the defensive side of the ball, against Washington.
Bucs DE Simeon Rice – Photo by: Getty Images
“When I played against the Redskins and was getting four sacks a game, it’s about when are they coming and in what fashion?” Rice said. “You don’t have guys that show out right now. You have guys that are continuing to develop. There’s nothing wrong with that, but time is of the essence. [The fans] don’t want to see a developmental squad. They don’t want to see that. They want to see big plays and in a game like that when you are up 24-0 – you have to win. Not only do you allow a team to come back in that game, but win the game? That’s pathetic, but that’s where they are right now. They could have put their stamp on that game, but they didn’t. Unfortunately, that’s where they are right now as a team.”
Rice did like what he saw from rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, who played his best game in the NFL to date, and Tampa Bay’s offense, as it rolled up 497 yards and 23 points at Washington.
“They don’t have those guys that are capable of making those kind of plays on defense, but they do on offense,” Rice said. “They have that receiver Mike Evans, who showed out this weekend. He did his thing. You have that young quarterback and those running backs that went nuts. They have some pieces in place that even [our Bucs teams in the 2000s] didn’t have offensively.
“Once they get going – and they will – they’ll turn this thing around. But it’s not going to be quick. It’s going to be a marathon. The Bucs are a team in flux – a team in development. They had a bad game last week – an incredibly bad game.”
It’s time for David to consistently make splash plays. It’s time for Banks to consistently make interceptions, especially for a cornerback unit that doesn’t have any through the first six games of the season.
After two drafts that focused all but one draft pick on the offensive side of the ball, it’s time for general manager Jason Licht, director of player personnel Jon Robinson and director of college scouting Mike Biehl to have a defensive-driven draft and find some defenders that are not only talented, but have a killer instinct to make big plays in clutch situations in big games.
But perhaps more importantly, it’s time for McCoy to decide he wants to be a defensive tackle more like Sapp than Santana Dotson. It’s time for McCoy to be great, and for his next 31.5 sacks to become way more meaningful than his first 31.5 sacks were.
“You had a culmination of guys on our team, myself included – because no one on the planet could block me – with that sense of urgency,” Rice said. “It starts there. Nobody led me. I wasn’t led by anybody other than my own emotions and my own spirit. I was able to play and perform amongst guys that were on the same page as me. We fed off each other, but you can’t compare these Bucs to that defense. That was one of the greatest defenses in the history of the game.
“This is a new chapter. This is a new beginning, but it looks promising. They are going to go through a rough patch, though. This team is ascending. This is not the end product. This is the beginning of something that is going to be unique for a very long time. That quarterback is a very unique player. Those young guys are growing. They are about three or four players away defensively from being good.”
Whether it’s McCoy and David finally ascending to the point where they can consistently take over games and become dominant, or whether it’s Licht and the front office having to draft some killers, Tampa Bay’s defense won’t get much better until the mental toughness of the current players changes or new players arrive next year. No more Mr. Nice Guy in Tampa Bay.
Bucs DT Gerald McCoy – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“There are a few guys that can develop into dominant players,” Rice said. “I think McCoy can. He has all the tools. But will he be able to show it to the world? Having it is one thing. Showing it is another. That’s what we’re excited to see. That’s why we watch the game – to see if these guys can live up to their talent.
“You have to have that innate desire to be better than what you are or to become what you want to see yourself as. You are constantly in pursuit of something that is unique inside of you that you want to showcase to the world. Each game provides a platform for you to deal with that. Someone has to step up and show the team that this is the direction we are going in. Then everyone will start following. It excites you. It was like that when I played in Arizona and it was like that when I came to Tampa. It was one of those infectious things. The more players you have like that the better you are, the more unique you are, and it’s a status unlike anything the league has ever seen. But they don’t have that right now.”
FAB 2. LICHT AND CO. HAVE DONE A GOOD JOB OF ADDING RECENT TALENT
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht knew he couldn’t do it all this offseason. He couldn’t fix Tampa Bay’s offense and defense and fill the roster with Pro Bowlers in free agency and the draft. Adding talent each year is always a game of hit and miss, and every team’s G.M. always tries to hit more than he misses.
Licht is quickly learning that free agency is not a trustworthy avenue for upgrading talent, but stockpiled the defense with players like linebacker Bruce Carter, safety Chris Conte, cornerback Tim Jennings and defensive tackle Henry Melton that were familiar with the Tampa 2 scheme in an attempt to help that side of the ball. He had to do that because the Bucs had planned to address the offense – specifically the quarterback position and the offensive line – with a heavy emphasis on the draft for a second straight year.
Bucs SS Chris Conte – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Conte and Melton have proven to be free agent hits, while Carter and Jennings have been misses – in addition to Licht’s trade for defensive end George Johnson, who was acquired via a trade with Detroit. With four rookie starters – including quarterback Jameis Winston, offensive linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet and linebacker Kwon Alexander – this year’s draft has been tremendous for Licht and the Buccaneers.
I recall former Bucs general manager Bruce Allen telling me that the most helpless feeling for a G.M. is in September when most teams’ rosters are finalized and there aren’t typically any saviors on the street. Yet Licht, Robinson and director of football administration Mike Greenberg did a tremendous job in August and September with some key late-season free agent additions.
When right tackle Demar Dotson went down with a knee injury, Licht and Greenberg were quick to sign veteran Gosder Cherilus on August 17 before Minnesota or Kansas City could meet with him. Cherilus has played well in Dotson’s absence.
On September 7, Licht and Robinson also had the foresight to sign wide receiver Donteea Dye, defensive end Howard Jones and cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah to the practice squad. Dye and Adjei-Barimah had impressed during training camp and the preseason, while Jones was a pass rusher that intrigued the scouts the way Jacquies Smith had during the same time a year ago.
Bucs head coach Lovie Smith and the front office liked their effort and the strides they were making in practice and they were signed to the active roster after a few weeks on the practice squad. All three contributed in last week’s game at Washington with Jones scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery, Dye scoring a touchdown on his first NFL reception and Adjei-Barimah making a special teams tackle, getting a pass breakup at the goal line and recording two tackles in extended action on defense.
Buccaneers like Dotson are impressed with the quality of talent – sometimes unknown – the front office brings in.
Bucs WR Donteea Dye – Photo by: Getty Images
“I heard that Dye was an undrafted free agent – a walk-on try-out,” Dotson said. “I didn’t know that, but that made me feel good because I came from that same background as a walk-on here. Lovie always stresses it doesn’t matter where you come from or how you get here. He’s going to put the best guys on the field and give everyone a chance.
“This is definitely the place where you can say it’s the land of opportunity. If you work hard … and you see a guy like Dye, he’s out there on a Tuesday, which is his day off, out there with the JUGGS machine catching balls. He’s got guys from the equipment room throwing to him. He has the mentality that he’s hungry and it’s paying off for him. He had his first touchdown last week. They can find a diamond in the rough, an undrafted guy that started from the bottom – those are usually the hungriest guys.”
In addition to some of the unknown rookie talent, Licht and Robinson also found some more familiar names in defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, who had played with nose tackle Clinton McDonald in Seattle, on August 11 and center Joe Hawley, who had played for offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in Atlanta for the past three seasons, on September 14. Hawley saw action in Week 2 at New Orleans when starter Evan Smith went down with an ankle injury and has been the starter ever since.
“Joe is a starter,” Dotson said. “Joe has started a lot of games in the NFL for the Falcons. When you have a guy like that who has been through the fire you can have him step him when a guy like Evan goes down. Joe stepped in and kept this train going. When Evan got hurt there was no drop off.
“It shows what kind of G.M. we got and what kind of personnel people we’ve got. To find guys like Gosder and Joe, who have experience, to step in like savvy veterans and keep the train moving is great. This organization has done a great job with personnel, especially along the offensive line. We just have to show it with some wins.”
Jon Robinson and Jason Licht – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Hawley and Cherilus have been great finds and have helped Tampa Bay’s offense put up 54 points and 966 yards over the past two weeks. Without Vincent Jackson this week in Atlanta, Dye will be counted on to score more touchdowns, while Adjei-Barimah and Jones will need to do even more to help the Bucs defense prevent the Falcons from scoring touchdowns and holding them to field goals.
Saddled with a 2-4 record, it’s obvious that the Buccaneers need to acquire more talent to right the ship and make a playoff push in 2016. But with some late additions in the preseason and at the start of the regular season, Licht, Robinson and the team’s scouts aren’t waiting until next year to try to improve the roster.
FAB 3. TAMPA BAY’S O-LINE IS READY TO FIGHT
Buccaneers center Joe Hawley’s nickname is “Brawly Hawley” because the feisty, undersized lineman doesn’t back down from anyone. The reason why he’s fit in so well and has overtaken Evan Smith as the starter is because his approach to blocking is exactly what Tampa Bay offensive line coach George Warhop wants.
Warhop came under fire last year as the Bucs offensive underachieved and was full of turmoil brought on by Anthony Collins’ laziness and petulant attitude. Oniel Cousins and Patrick Omameh also underperformed, while right tackle Demar Dotson became the most penalized Buccaneer.
Due to the fact that Dotson started the season on injured reserve with a designation to return after suffering a preseason knee injury, Tampa Bay currently has four new starting offensive linemen, including rookie guard Ali Marpet and rookie tackle Donovan Smith. Only left guard Logan Mankins remains as a starter from a year ago.
“Inside this building nobody ever questioned Hop,” Dotson said. “Nobody questioned the line coach that he is and the experience he has in this league. We just needed to get the continuity we have now going. You can point fingers all day because the offensive line didn’t play well last year.
Bucs C Joe Hawley – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“Hop stressed that we weren’t going to have the same performance that we had on the field last year or you weren’t going to be here. We’re not going to put up with some of the stuff that went on last year. We got rid of the guys that weren’t willing to buy in and we got a whole new group of offensive linemen that have bought into Hop’s system and are willing to compete.”
And compete they do. Over the last three games, Tampa Bay’s offensive line has helped the Bucs average 425 yards and 25.6 points per game.
“I think our offense has been clicking a lot better and we’ve been playing a lot harder,” Hawley said. “When one or two guys start playing like that the others take notice. You don’t want to be the guy just standing around the pile, especially with our backs because they fight for extra yardage. They break tackles and make guys miss like I’ve never seen before. You never know when you’re going to throw the block to spring them an extra five, 10, 15 yards downfield.”
Here is how Tampa Bay’s offense has performed over the last three games:
Tampa Bay vs. Carolina 411 yards, 23 points
Tampa Bay vs. Jacksonville 369 yards, 31 points
Tampa Bay at Washington 497 yards, 23 points
Bucs RT Gosder Cherilus was protecting C Joe Hawley – NFL.com
The Bucs offensive line did more than compete against the Redskins. It fought. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus was flagged 15 yards for pulling Redskins off a pile to protect Hawley, who was getting roughed up by a Washington defensive lineman on the ground. That led to some pushing and shoving on the first play of the second quarter.
“I thought we did a good job of playing really hard and not backing down,” Hawley said. “It definitely got chippy there for a bit. I’m glad they have my back and I have their backs. When you play like that – you can’t cost the team penalties, but knowing that we’re all sticking together and it’s much harder to have to deal with all five guys instead of just one.”
When Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston was hit late by Redskins safety Dashon Goldson in the third quarter after a scramble, Marpet stepped in and yanked Goldson up and then proceeded to push him around. Goldson flopped to the ground fter a final push, which drew a 15-yard penalty against Marpet.
“Anytime someone is taking cheap shots on your teammates you have to help them out,” Marpet said. “We’re all teammates and we are here to support each other, especially our quarterback. When someone takes a cheap shot we are all there, swarming and helping our guy.”
Winston, who is just six games into a very promising NFL career, appreciated Marpet coming to his aid.
Bucs RG Ali Marpet defends QB Jameis Winston – NFL.com
“We fight for each other,” Winston said. “Fight is a strong term, but we battle for each other. Not only are we playing with each other, we’re playing for each other. I love my teammates. We love each other and we don’t want anyone to try and intentionally hurt one another. As an offensive lineman, that’s the mentality, ‘I’m trying to protect my quarterback’. Me and Ali came in here together. Me, Ali and Donovan better have a tighter bond than anybody. It’s just competing. Some of those calls can go any way, it’s just who they see. I believe it was a flop [by Goldson], but Ali is going to fight for me.”
There is a fine line between doing what is necessary to defend a teammate and crossing the line and getting a 15-yard penalty, which hurts the offense and stymies drives. Yet after getting pushed around too much last year, it’s a welcome sight to see Tampa Bay’s new offensive line showing some toughness and muscle on Sundays.
“The best teams I’ve been a part of the offensive line fights together and plays hard together and protects each other,” Hawley said. “If one of us gets into a scuffle, all of a sudden, all of us are going to be flying in. If they mess with our quarterback we’re going to be right there in their face.
“You can tell when you watch film that offensive lines that play hard and back those guys up the defenses can tell and they don’t want any part of it. Then you can watch a team where the QB gets hit and the offensive linemen are about 10 feet away and they are just moseying over – it just says a lot about what kind of guys they are.”