Monday Column: Can the Bucs Really Make the Playoffs?

The short answer to that question is….yes.

But you didn’t come here for a one-word response.  The long answer is the focus of this week’s column.

With five games remaining, the Buccaneers have a record of 5-6, having lost to Indianapolis on Sunday. Even though they’re a game under .500, the Bucs are only one game out of a wild card spot, currently held by Seattle, which beat Pittsburgh.

Tampa Bay plays three of its final five games at Ray-Jay, including the next two against division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans. Then the Bucs head to St. Louis for a Thursday night matchup, return home to host Chicago, and then finish the year at Carolina. I think the Buccaneers will probably have to win four of those games. Heck, they may even have to run the table, which is hard to even think about, given that they still have to go to Charlotte.

In order to do that, they can’t be making the mistakes that cost them against the Colts on Sunday. The stupid penalties need to be reduced dramatically. The secondary has to play much better. The pass protection has to improve. Receivers need to make the big catches (I’m looking at you, Mike Evans.) Jameis Winston needs to keep the number of turnovers at a minimum.

The Bucs’ playoff chances took a hit at Lucas Oil Stadium. But in the NFC, which features a couple of great teams and a lot of mediocre ones, Tampa Bay still has a chance. It’s been awhile since Bucs’ fans have even thought about the playoffs heading into December.

I’ll be heading down to Tampa next weekend to see the Buccaneers play the Falcons. A win would be huge, because it would mean sweeping Atlanta and owning the tiebreaker against them.

Photo courtesy: buccaneers.com

Bucs Revert To Old Form in Loss to Indy

After two straight wins to get back to .500, the Buccaneers suddenly look like the team we saw early in the season. You know – the team that drops passes, misses kicks, commits way too many penalties and lets the other team’s receivers get wide open down the field.

Tampa Bay lost to Indianapolis on Sunday, 25-12. The loss puts a dent in the Bucs’ playoff hopes with five games remaining.

There is plenty of blame to go around. In no particular order:

*Jameis Winston was sacked five times – four of them in the second half dominated by the Colts.

*The Bucs were penalized 12 times for 95 yards. One of them nullified a Doug Martin touchdown run.  Another came on a field goal by Adam Vinatieri, when they were penalized for “leaping.” Who gets flagged for that? The Bucs sure know how. Indy took the points off the board, and ended up scoring a touchdown that put the game out of reach.

*Mike Evans continues to have costly drops. In one of the key sequences of the game, he dropped a potential touchdown pass late in the third quarter. Connor Barth missed the ensuing field goal, and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave the Colts the ball in Tampa Bay territory.  Indy turned that into a field goal.

*The Bucs’ defense made 40-year old Matt Hasselbeck look like a superstar. We’ve seen that movie many times before.

*Martin had 90 yards rushing in the first half. So why the heck did he hardly touch the ball in the second 30 minutes? The game wasn’t out of reach until late in the fourth quarter, for crying out loud.

This was a missed opportunity for Tampa Bay. I know it’s hard to win on the road in the NFL, but I feel like the Buccaneers let the Colts get off easy, especially in the second half.

Photo courtesy: buccaneers.com

Monday Column: Doug Martin is Runnin’ Wild

Let’s flash back to the offseason for a moment. The Buccaneers decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on Doug Martin’s contract. That essentially meant 2015 could be his last year in a Tampa Bay uniform.

Dear Jason Licht: please re-sign this guy.

Martin is back and better than ever, showing the brilliance we haven’t seen since his rookie year. After Sunday’s performance in Philadelphia in which he rushed for 235 yards, No. 22 is one of the top running backs in the NFL – second-best, in fact.  In ten games, he has 941 yards on the ground. Only the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson has more.

And while Martin has only found the end zone four times, I believe his success – and the effectiveness of the entire running game – is a factor in Jameis Winston’s recent success. What quarterback wouldn’t like to have a running game like the Bucs have right now? They’re averaging 142 yards per game on the ground – third best in the league.

Hopefully Martin can keep running wild for the rest of the year, and be rewarded in the offseason for doing so.

Wow! What a Performance By The Bucs in Philly

I’m not going to lie to you.  I didn’t see this coming.  But I’m sure not complaining about it.

Who would’ve thought the Buccaneers would score 45 points in a victory over the Eagles in Philadelphia.  I’m not saying they couldn’t win this game, but to dominate the way they did – my goodness.

Who would’ve thought Jameis Winston would throw five touchdown passes – to five different receivers no less.  His performance tied an NFL record for a rookie; Matthew Stafford is the only other QB to throw five TD’s in his first season in the league.

Who would’ve thought the Bucs would go 9-for-12 on third down conversions.

And who would’ve thought Doug Martin would run wild at Lincoln Financial Field for a whopping 235 yards.  OK, so we’ve seen him do that before, in his rookie year at Oakland.  But still, that was sweet.  Tampa Bay set a franchise record with 283 yards on the ground, and their 521 total yards were the second-most ever.

Let’s not forget about the defense, which held the fast-paced Eagles’ offense in check.  Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy, who have both taken some heat for not making enough big plays, stepped it up.  McCoy had 1.5 sacks.  David had two interceptions, returning one of them for an icing-on-the-cake score late in the fourth quarter.

Most importantly, the Buccaneers are back at .500.  What looked like another rough season just a month ago….now has some hope.

Photo Courtesy: buccaneers.com

 

 

 

Monday Column: It’s About Time the Bucs Caught a Break

Sometimes, being lucky is better than being good. Heck, I’ll take luck any day of the week.

That was the case in the Buccaneers’ 10-6 victory over the Cowboys on Sunday. It was ugly.  The Bucs did not play well offensively. Neither did the Cowboys. But Tampa Bay finally saw a break go its way for a change.

There was Jameis Winston, five yards away from a potential game-winning touchdown. He scanned the field. He couldn’t find anyone open. So he took off for the goal line, leaping high into the air. The problem was, the ball didn’t stay with him the whole time. It was a fumble. Dallas recovered in the end zone.

But hold on – what’s that yellow thing on the field in the end zone? Nah, it couldn’t possibly be a penalty on the Cowboys, because these are the Bucs, and they find every way imaginable to lose games. But a funny thing happened: the referee signaled holding against the defense.

It’s about time Tampa Bay caught a break.  And on the next play, Winston took advantage of the second chance on a brilliant play-call: a bootleg that saw him walk into the end zone untouched.

But the final outcome still hadn’t been settled. There was that final heave into the end zone, intended by that Dallas receiver who seems to be known more for his temper these days than his pass-catching ability. The pass was picked off by Bradley McDougald, who was playing the ball the whole way, although it looked like he gave Dez Bryant a slight push.

That was break number two. Can you imagine if the refs had called pass interference on that play? Dallas would’ve had the ball at the 1, with a few seconds left to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Instead, the Bucs have already doubled their win total from all of last year. Their next two games are on the road, at Philadelphia and Indianapolis. They may not have to face either Sam Bradford or Andrew Luck. I’m not suggesting they’re going to win either one of those games, but their chances are better than they were before Sunday.

I hope that ends up being another break.

Photo Courtesy: AP

 

Bucs Win! It Wasn’t Pretty, But We’ll Take It

For a moment, it looked like another agonizing defeat for the Buccaneers. Instead, they beat the Cowboys in a game that made you wonder, “how the heck did they pull that out?”

Tampa Bay beat Dallas, 10-6, with Jameis Winston scoring on a bootleg in the final minute.

All of the action happened in the final half of the fourth quarter because….well, there isn’t a whole lot to talk about otherwise. The Bucs were driving late in the fourth quarter when Winston threw behind his intended receiver, and was picked off for the second time in the game. He hadn’t committed a turnover in four games until now.

But the Bucs got the ball back, and marched down to the Dallas 4-yard line. On 3rd and goal, Winston sprinted toward the goal line and leapt through the air, much like he did last week against the Giants. But this time, he lost the ball, seemingly on his own, and Dallas recovered in the end zone.

Game over, right?  Wrong. The Cowboys’ Jeff Heath was flagged for defensive holding, giving the Bucs a second chance. Winston walked into the end zone untouched on the next play to give the Buccaneers the lead.

Gave over, right?  Nope – these are the Bucs. A personal foul penalty against the Buccaneers on the kickoff (they ALWAYS seem to get flagged on special teams!) gave the Cowboys the ball with decent field position. They marched into Bucs territory when Matt Cassel threw one deep for Dez Bryant in the end zone. But Bradley McDougald came up with the game-saving interception. Did McDougald give him a little push? Yes. But on the other hand, he was looking back at the ball the whole time. Geez, it’s about time Tampa Bay caught a break.

With the win, the Buccaneers improve to 4-5. In the Monday Column, I talked about the defense needing to step it up. This was, by far, their best performance of the season. They held the Cowboys to two field goals and 216 total yards. Yes, they caught a break with Tony Romo being out with an injury. But still, this unit has let so-so quarterbacks light them up this season, so it was nice to see them come up big in the clutch.

Photo courtesy: buccaneers.com

Monday Column: Tampa Bay’s Defense Needs To Step It Up

We have reached the halfway point of the season, and the Buccaneers have a 3-5 record. They’ve already eclipsed their win total from all of last year, and there are signs of optimism, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

Still, this team has more losses than wins. That means there are problems that still haven’t been fixed. The biggest one involves Lovie Smith’s supposed calling card: the defense.

This unit does not appear to be much better than 2014, if it all. You can look at all the stats you want. The Bucs are allowing nearly 29 points per game. That’s a lot. They have not shown the ability to come up with the big play late in the game. The most glaring examples came when they blew double-digit leads in the second half to Washington and Atlanta (they did beat the Falcons in overtime.) Then in yesterday’s game against the Giants, Tampa Bay could not stop New York from chewing up precious time off the clock after the Bucs had pulled to within two points.

In the past month, we haven’t seen much of a pass rush. From what I’ve read, Gerald McCoy is taking a lot of heat from the media down in Tampa for his lack of production. He is one of the leaders on this defense, yet he does not have a sack in 2015. And he only has 18 tackles through eight games. Those numbers are staggering, given what the Bucs are paying him.

But the worst part of this defense has to be the secondary. Maybe someday they will learn how to defend the slant. Maybe one of these they will fight receivers at the line of scrimmage. Maybe one of these days they will stop allowing the opposition to get wide open in the middle of the field and beyond.

Lovie Smith is supposedly still calling the plays on defense, unless I’ve missed something. Who knows what defensive coordinator Leslie Frazer is doing these days, or whether he would even be able to make a difference. Smith benched starting cornerbacks Jonathan Banks and Mike Jenkins against the Giants. It’s about time.

On to Dallas next Sunday….

Photo Courtesy: buccaneers.com

A Frustrating Loss For the Bucs

If you’re a Bucs’ fan, you’re shaking your head over what could have been.

Instead of pulling out a game that was arguably winnable, Tampa Bay fell to the Giants at Ray-Jay, 32-18. The game was much closer than the final score indicates.

There is a lot to talk about in this one. Perhaps the biggest headline coming out of this loss was the performance of Mike Evans. If you didn’t see (or listen to) any of the game, you’d think he had a great game: 8 catches for 152 yards. And yes, those are very good numbers. But – oh, those dropped passes. I lost count of how many he had. And a number of them would’ve given the Buccaneers a third down conversion. Doug Martin – who lost a fumble in the first half – also had a big drop in the third quarter that could’ve gone for a touchdown.

Jameis Winston did everything but put the team on his back. If you didn’t see him leaping through the air and into the end zone in the 4th quarter, you should. At the time, it cut the Giants’ lead to two. Tampa Bay missed the potential game-tying, two-point conversion when Russell Shepard couldn’t get the second foot in-bounds. Winston looked like a budding star against New York. Imagine how good his numbers would’ve been if his receivers had hung onto the ball a bit more.

And then, there is the undisciplined nature of this team. It’s a story just about every game, and it was a factor in this one. The penalties continue to kill them. The biggest one was the personal foul on Akeem Spence late in the fourth quarter when the Bucs were trying to get the ball back. You just can’t make undisciplined plays like that. You also can’t keep lining up in the neutral zone. That’s bad coaching.

Another problem: burning two of your precious timeouts way too early. The Buccaneers would’ve had a bit more than 20 seconds (or whatever it was) to mount a last-gasp drive. The Giants’ final touchdown came on a desperation lateral that was fumbled and scooped up by the defense.

The three turnovers (including the last desperation one) all led to Giants’ points.

This was a frustrating game for Tampa Bay. The Bucs had a chance to get back to .500, playing a pseudo-road game at Ray-Jay with tons of Giant blue in the crowd. But it didn’t happen.

Photo Courtesy: buccaneers.com

Monday Column: Kwon Alexander’s Inspirational Performance

There are always storylines that emerge from every NFL game, every Sunday. Some make you jump for joy. Others make you want to fire the head coach. And there, there are the inspirational stories, like the one involving Buccaneers’ rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander.

The first-year pro from LSU had the game of his life on Sunday against the Falcons. He was responsible for two turnovers, and had a third called back by a penalty. His eleven tackles led Tampa Bay.

And he did it all under heartbreaking circumstances.

Alexander’s 17-year old brother was shot on Friday night, and died the next day. Kwon said he wanted to play, because that’s the way his brother would’ve wanted it. And to do what he did in the Georgia Dome is nothing short of remarkable.

Kwon was given a game ball after the overtime win. If you haven’t seen the video yet on the Buccaneers’ official website, you should. It will bring a few tears to your eyes. Here’s the link. It’s just over a minute long.

http://www.buccaneers.com/videos/videos/Watch-Kwon-Alexander-Gets-the-Game-Ball/bfd10859-f573-4922-abd6-889f08bda231

God bless you, Kwon. I am so sorry for your loss.  You’ve earned a lot of respect, and not just from Bucs’ fans.

Photo Courtesy: AP