Monday Column: The Bucs Were in Playoff Contention, and Then….

Let’s flash back to November 22 for a moment. The Bucs were in Philadelphia, and turned in their best performance of the season, a 45-17 thrashing of the Eagles. Tampa Bay improved to 5-5, and was very much in the playoff hunt in the NFC.

Today, the Buccaneers are 6-9, and will miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.

So what happened? Since that impressive performance at Lincoln Financial Field, the Bucs have dropped games to the Colts, Saints, Rams and Bears. We’re not talking Patriots, Panthers or Cardinals here. We’re talking about games that were winnable, and yet Lovie Smith’s team didn’t get the job done, aside from a victory over a Falcons’ team that just knocked off Carolina.

The biggest disappointment down the stretch has arguably been the biggest one all season: the play of the defense. Now we know why Smith says he needs his defenders to force turnovers. When they don’t, the other team seems to march down the field at will, particularly through the air, regardless of whether the quarterback is Drew Brees or Case Keenum. The secondary is awful, regardless of who’s back there. There’s no question the suspension of Kwon Alexander hurts. But I can’t picture the loss of one player having that much of an impact.

Tampa Bay is -4 in the turnover ratio. Somehow it feels worse than that. Over the past five games, the Bucs have forced a grand total of one takeaway.

Should Lovie Smith be fired at the end of the season? I think he should, but my gut says he won’t. The team did triple its win total from a year ago. But consider this: Smith is calling the shots on defense this year, and I have seen absolutely no improvement in this unit from 2014. None.

Smith is 8-23 in two seasons in Tampa. His predecessor, Greg Schiano, went 11-21 before receiving his pink slip. If Schiano got fired for that record, then why should Smith get a free pass? There’s a growing “rumbling” (for lack of a better term) on blogs and social media that the fans would like to see offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter promoted to head coach. He has done a nice job this year with an offense that includes a rookie quarterback, and Jameis Winston wouldn’t have to learn a entirely new offense. So why not give Koetter a shot? You’d keep the rhythm on offense, and it would allow them to give the other side of the ball a much-needed shakeup. There is talent on defense (Lavonte David for one) but the scheme is not working out.

One final note: the Bucs’ season finale against Carolina is now scheduled for 4:25 p.m. instead of 1 p.m.   Carolina is coming off its first loss of the year, and needs to win to clinch home-field advantage.  Why can’t they just play the game at 1:00 and get the torture over with?

 

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…..and the Bucs Lose Again

In football, when you turn the ball over more than your opponent, you generally lose.

On Sunday, the Buccaneers turned it over three times. And Tampa Bay lost to Chicago at Ray-Jay, 26-21

All of the miscues were costly. The first turnover was Doug Martin fumbling after catching a pass. That led to a Bears’ field goal. The second was Jameis Winston throwing a pick down by the goal line, ending a long drive in which the Bucs could’ve extended a one-point lead. Then late in the third quarter, Martin coughed it up again. Chicago went on to score the go-ahead touchdown, and the Bears never trailed after that.

Then there was the bad shotgun snap that meant a longer field goal attempt for Connor Barth, which he missed. The kicking situation is suddenly starting to look like it did at the beginning of the year.

Lovie Smith prides himself on winning the turnover battle. Consider this: the Bucs only have one takeaway in the past five games. Tampa Bay’s defense came into the game allowing the opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 70% of their passes. On Sunday, Jay Cutler was successful on 74% of his attempts (20-for-27.)

More rants coming in the Monday Column.

Photo Courtesy: buccaneers.com

 

My Trip to Tampa: Thoughts on Bucs/Falcons and Playoffs

By now, you know the result of the Buccaneers/Falcons game on Sunday. Tampa Bay won it, 23-19. This was also the game I chose to make my annual trip south for, and it was worth it. Here are my thoughts on what I heard and saw, followed by some playoff talk:

This game had it all: key plays, turnovers, lead changes, drama in the fourth quarter, you name it.

The play of the day (and of the Bucs’ season so far) was the run by Jameis Winston on 3rd and 19 on the game-winning drive. I was sitting at the opposite end of the field, so at first I didn’t realize how great it really was. It wasn’t just picking up the first down; it was running into a group of Falcons and refusing to go down. Judging by the reaction of those around me, Jameis is indeed famous right now down in Tampa. He also ran for a touchdown in the first quarter.

Mike Evans is still having a serious problem with dropped passes. One of them went off his hands and into the waiting arms of an Atlanta defender. The Falcons turned that into a field goal just before the half. But wouldn’t you know: Evans also caught the game-winning TD pass. It’s funny when it happens down at the other end of the field; you sort of have to rely on the crowd reaction to know whether it was a catch or not.

Speaking of drops, Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed an easy touchdown in the third quarter. The Bucs had to settle for a field goal instead.

Doug Martin continues his resurgence with another strong game, including a TD run (which I did have a good look at.) He also lost a fumble early in the fourth quarter, which Atlanta turned into six. That took all of the air out of Ray-Jay. I mean, the place was dead for a good ten minutes until the drama of the Bucs’ final drive.

I’m still trying to figure out referee’s Ed Hochuli’s train of thought in the third quarter. With Tampa Bay up by a point, he called Matt Ryan for intentional grounding, and because it happened in the end zone, it was a safety. But while we were all celebrating, Hochuli came back a few seconds later and said it wasn’t a safety. After seeing the replay, we were screaming for Lovie Smith to challenge it. No sale.

After the Bucs missed a two-point conversion, I listened in to a nice conversation behind me about when/when not to go for two. Ah, the power of alcohol.

And then there was the older guy sitting next to me, who told me about all the jello shots he had while tailgating. Don’t let me hold you back, brother.

One more note about the crowd: what was up with all the empty seats, especially on the Atlanta side of the field? The Bucs were playing their first meaningful December game in years, and the place isn’t sold out? Oh well, can’t blame the weather, either. It was sunny and 80 down there.

The Bucs are now 6-6, and have exceeded a lot of people’s expectations, not to mention mine. Here we are, eight days into December, and the Bucs are in the playoff conversation. At this moment, they are at the top of the “in the hunt” category, one game behind the Seahawks for the No. 6 seed. Tampa Bay’s win over Atlanta was huge because it gives the Buccaneers the tiebreaker over their division rivals. All they can do is keep winning, and get some help. For starters, they’ve got to beat the Saints on Sunday.

It’s going to be a wild ride to the finish. I’m ready.

Follow me on Twitter @briwillwerth

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

Bucs Win in Overtime: Amazing!

For a moment, I was getting to write about how the Buccaneers blew another double-digit lead and suffered a devastating defeat.

Well, they did blow the lead. But instead of losing, they found a way to a win the game this time. The Bucs beat the Falcons in overtime, 23-20. Connor Barth kicked the winning field goal on the first possession of OT, and the Bucs defense followed that up by doing something they hadn’t done the entire second half: stop Matt Ryan.

Jameis Winston had another solid day in which he did not turn it over. He threw for 177 yards and a touchdown, and also ran for a score on a broken play in the third quarter. He hasn’t turned the ball over in three straight games now.

Sure, Tampa Bay’s defense still stinks. Besides blowing another big lead, they let Ryan throw for nearly 400 yards. The Falcons were just shy of 500 yards in total offense on the day. But – and this is a big “but” – they turned it over four times. The Buccaneers turned those mistakes into points, and that was the key.

The bright spot in this unit was rookie Kwon Alexander, who picked off Ryan and also recovered a fumble. It turns out he had just lost his brother a couple of days earlier to gun violence. Man, for him to play like that after what happened…..what an inspiring story that should not be overlooked.

The bottom line is, the Buccaneers improved to 3-4 with their second road victory over an NFC South opponent. Instead of talking about the awful secondary, or why in the world Lovie Smith went for it on 4th down on his side of the 50 late in the fourth quarter, I choose to focus on the end result.

If you like fantasy stats, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones probably got you some serious points. But I don’t play fantasy football. The Bucs won the game. In the end, that’s all that matters.

Photo Courtesy: buccaneers.com

Monday Column: It’s Time For Lovie Smith To Go

Bucs fans: have you had enough of Lovie Smith?

I know I have.

Sunday’s devastating collapse at the hands of the Redskins was the final straw. It was a game in which the Buccaneers blew a 24-0 lead.

When a game like that happens, the head coach has to be the fall guy. There are no exceptions. Smith cannot coach. His team is undisciplined. He is supposedly a defensive guru, but consider the quarterbacks he’s lost to so far this season: Marcus Mariota, Ryan Mallett, Cam Newton and now Kirk Cousins. Ignore Newton, and focus on the other three.  Tampa Bay beat Blake Bortles, but even he put up impressive numbers against this sieve of a defense.

Please don’t tell me how the Bucs’ defense is in the top ten, in terms of total yards allowed. As I mentioned in a previous column, look at the points they’re giving up. Tampa Bay is giving up almost 30 points a game on average. The Buccaneers are tied for dead-last with the Bears in that category.  The secondary, in particular, has been awful.

But let’s get back to Lovie’s bad coaching. The debacle began to unravel in the third quarter. After Washington scored to make it 24-14, the Redskins pulled off a successful onside kick. The Bucs were not ready for that. That’s bad coaching. The ‘Skins went on to score another touchdown to make it a three-point game.

Let’s skip ahead to late in the fourth quarter. Doug Martin, who had another big game, had just ripped off a big run to the Redskins’ five-yard line. On 3rd and goal from the 1, the Bucs run….a toss sweep….to Charles Sims? Are you serious? When Sims took the ball, 3rd and 1 just became 3rd and 5. Washington wasn’t fooled. Why does Sims even get the ball in that situation? Why not throw one up in the end zone for Mike Evans, who broke out of his slump in a big way? Anyway, Lovie’s team ended with a field goal and a six-point lead with about 2:20 to go. When Washington got the ball back, I knew the Redskins would march right down the field, with receivers running wide open, and get the game-winning score.

There’s one more thing that dawned me overnight: it was so nice of the Bucs to burn all of their timeouts before the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter. That’s bad coaching. What if they had one timeout left on that final desperation play? Instead of Sims trying a desperation lateral that resulted in a fumble (the clock would’ve run out anyway), Tampa Bay would’ve had the ball on the Washington 39. It’s possible Connor Barth could’ve saved the day with a 56-yarder at the gun. Who knows?

And then there are the penalties – 16 of them for 142 yards. Many of them were 15-yard personal fouls. That’s lack of discipline. That’s bad coaching. Lovie deserves the blame for that.

Lovie Smith has been Tampa Bay’s head coach for 22 games. His record is 4-18. After yesterday’s debacle, I don’t think he deserves to coach his 23rd game in Atlanta next Sunday. We’ll see if the Glazers feel differently.

Photo Courtesy: USA Today

An Inexcusable Loss For the Bucs

This is the type of game that often costs the head coach his job.

The Buccaneers, up 24-0 at one point against the Redskins, gave it all away. You can add Kirk Cousins to the list of so-so quarterbacks that the Bucs’ defense makes look like a superstar. The clinching score came with just 24 seconds left.

Washington 31, Tampa Bay 30.

Blowing a 24-point lead is bad enough. Then there were the penalties: 16 of them for 142 yards, including more than handful of personal fouls. Then there is the defense, which once again failed to close out a game in the second half. If there is a worse secondary in the NFL, I’d like to see it. Then there is Lovie’s awful clock management at the end of each half. What the heck was up with that play call on 3rd and goal from the 1, late in the fourth quarter, clinging to a three-point lead?

All of that spoiled an otherwise great day for Jameis Winston, Mike Evans and Doug Martin. Don’t blame those guys.

Blame the head coach.

I’m calling for Lovie’s head, and I know I’m not the only Bucs’ fan who feels that way.

Photo Courtesy: AP