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. GIVEN HOW BAD TAMPA BAY’S DEFENSE IS, WILL SMITH SURVIVE?
How bad has the Buccaneers defense become under first-year head coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith?
So bad that the Atlanta Falcons didn’t even punt in their 43-28 demolition of Tampa Bay on Thursday Night Football. The Bucs fell to 3-5 and are now 2-1 in the NFC South.
The Falcons didn’t even punt and scored points on a stunning eight out of 11 possessions. One of Atlanta’s possessions came with 1:46 left before halftime and another came with just 59 seconds left in regulation after recovering an onside kick.
I’ve covered the Buccaneers for 22 years and I can’t remember the last time Tampa Bay’s defense didn’t force a punt. And it wasn’t like there was an avalanche of takeaways by the defense, either.
The Falcons fumbled once when Gerald McCoy sacked Matt Ryan and linebacker Daryl Smith recovered. Outside of that fumble, Ryan was nearly flawless as he did his best Derek Carr impersonation, completing 25-of-34 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns.
Had this game gone to a full overtime like Sunday’s loss to the Raiders did, I have no doubt that Ryan would have hit 500 yards passing like Carr did.
The depleted Bucs offense wasn’t the culprit in this loss. It put up two touchdowns in the first half without the benefit of a running game due to the absence of Doug Martin (again) and Jacquizz Rodgers.
Predictably, it was the Jameis Winston and Mike Evans Show, and it was fun to watch. Evans had a career-high 11 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns before leaving to be evaluated for a concussion. Winston fumbled a handoff to Antone Smith and fumbled himself on an extra effort play trying to pick up a first down on third-and-1, but as a passer he was quite good. Winston completed 23-of-37 passes for 261 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. That should be good enough for most quarterbacks to put up a win on most game days in the NFL.
It was the defense that continues to let Tampa Bay down. Already gassed from playing 93 plays on Sunday in an overtime loss to the Raiders, the Bucs defense wilted after halftime. Leading 20-14 at halftime, Smith’s troops couldn’t get off the field as Ryan marched the Falcons 86 yards on 11 plays to increase Atlanta’s lead to 26-14.
A fateful three-and-out by the Bucs offense on its next possession as Winston couldn’t connect with Evans on first down or Cecil Shorts on third down gave the ball right back to the Falcons, who went on a 10-play, 82-yard drive that ended in another Ryan touchdown to increase Atlanta’s lead to 33-14.
The Bucs held possession for just 4:02 in the third quarter compared to the Falcons, who controlled the ball for 10:58 while putting two touchdowns on the board and essentially putting the game away before the start of the fourth quarter.
“That third quarter, we just couldn’t get off the field,” Koetter said. “[Smith] tried a lot of different defenses, we just couldn’t get a stop.
“We didn’t stop them the whole second half. I’m not sure exactly why. We’ll have to check it out tomorrow. We definitely couldn’t stop them in the second half.”
It wasn’t just the second half. In the second quarter, Koetter had such little faith in the Bucs defense that he declined a 15-yard penalty that would have created a third-and-22 for Atlanta at the Tampa Bay 38-yard line. Koetter didn’t want to give Ryan another down to work with and settled for a Matt Bryant 41-yard field goal.
Somewhere Monte Kiffin had to be shaking his head in disgust.
On John Lynch night in Tampa Bay, Lynch probably was disgusted, too.
“We talked about it,” Koetter said. “It would have pushed them back right to the edge of Bryant’s range and they would have had another down so we thought it was probably going to end up about the same way and possible worse. So we figured we’d just take our chances right there.”
In hindsight it was probably the right call by Koetter. If the choices are “same” and “worse,” the answer is worse with this defense because it is worse. It’s regressing.
The story for the second half of Tampa Bay’s season isn’t going to be about a playoff push for the 3-5 Buccaneers. That’s not happening as long as this defense is playing as crappy as it is.
“Something has to give, something has to change,” McCoy said. “I don’t know. If I knew, we would do it. I don’t know.”
It was sad to see John Lynch get inducted into the Bucs Ring of Honor on Thursday night. It’s supposed to be a happy night, reliving the glory days of playoff years and a Super Bowl championship on the new huge BucVision video boards, but it was actually quite somber.
The last time the Bucs played really good defense was probably when Lynch wearing pewter and red. It’s been so long I’ve forgotten.
The story down the stretch isn’t even going to be about who the Bucs will spend their top 10 draft pick on (again). It’s going to be about the fate of Smith and his scheme.
There are whispers that it is too complicated for his players to absorb and perform in. The Bucs are asking a lot from their rookie cornerback on one side and an aging vet who is no longer elite on the other.
Do the Bucs need smarter, better defenders across the board next year? You bet.
But will Smith get the chance to coach them?
Or will this season spiral so out of control to the point where Koetter and general manager Jason Licht need someone to fall on the sword in order to save their jobs?
One of the many reasons why former Bucs head coach and defensive play-caller Lovie Smith was fired was because he wouldn’t fire his son, Mikal, who was the team’s safeties coach.
Lovie deserved to be fired, but I was certain that Koetter would find a better replacement.
Will Koetter be forced to fire Smith, and if push came to shove, would he actually do that to his friend and mentor? Or would Koetter take a stand to keep Smitty around?
Or does this Tampa Bay defense need time and continuity – along with some better players – to gel, which means that Smith would get another year?
Is it the scheme or is it the players – or both? Unfortunately, the same questions about the Bucs defense that lingered under Lovie Smith are continuing under Mike Smith.
The same kind of play is lingering, too.
Tampa Bay has just four interceptions this year through eight games, along with the inability to stop the pass. The Bucs can’t regularly get to the quarterback, either.
“Definitely pass rush and coverage go hand in hand,” Koetter said. “We’re not getting the pass rush and we’re not covering very well either.”
By the way, Drew Brees has yet to have the chance to carve up this bad Buccaneers bunch. That fun begins in December.
Can Tampa Bay schedule Jacksonville anytime soon? Maybe Cleveland? Remember when the Bucs sacked the Browns eight times in the preseason?
Where did that style of defense go? Where did all of the interceptions and the promise of tighter coverage this year go?
Remember when Lavonte David was a really good linebacker that made plays? Where did he go?
“We’ve still got to change,” said Bucs middle linebacker Kwon Alexander. “The mentality is that everybody needs to have the same mentality as themselves, that nobody can stop them. If you have that mentality, then nobody can stop you. I don’t think people really have that mentality right now that we can stop anybody we hit.”
The Falcons certainly weren’t stopped. They didn’t even punt.
Does Smith and his complex scheme get the boot after this year? That is thequestion over the final two months of the season.
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