The Buccaneers won their first road game, but it was not convincing
On what was originally slated to be their bye week, the Buccaneers went into Miami on Sunday and won 30-20 over the Dolphins. It was their first road win of the season, and the first time all year in which the Buccaneers have won two games in a row. The win brings the team to 4-6 and drops the Dolphins to 4-6.
What does it all mean? Well, there’s plenty of good news and plenty of bad news.
The good news: The Buccaneers scored 30 points for just the second time this season.
The bad news: Few of those points could be attributed to strong offense. Jay Cutler threw three interceptions, those led to 17 Buccaneers points. Tampa Bay recovered a fumble in the end zone on the final play of the game.
Only one passing target had more than five balls thrown his way. That was Mike Evans, and just five of the ten passes to call his number were completed. Charles Sims was second on the team in targets, he had five. Desean Jackson was thrown to just three times, catching two and gaining just 28 yards. O.J. Howard, fresh off two weeks in apparent exile from Dirk Koetter’s offense, was thrown to four times and caught three of the four.
On the ground, the Buccaneers continued to demonstrate an offense that seems to only call run plays because coaches are supposed to occasionally call run plays. Doug Martin had 19 carries for 38 yards. By the way, Tampa Bay came out of halftime with a two score lead, which is where balanced offenses run the ball and run the clock. Instead, they left the game—and the lead—in the hands of backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
A controversial call on what looked like it could have been a safety late in the game gave the Buccaneers a chance to punt. Had the safety been called, the score would have been 20-15 with 9:36 remaining in the football game and the Dolphins receiving a safety punt. The referees marked the ball inside the one yard line instead, and Tampa Bay forced a turnover on downs on the ensuing Miami possession.
Fitzpatrick was a competent 22/37 for 275 yards on the afternoon. He did not turn the ball over. For his part it was the ideal backup game in that he put the Buccaneers in a position to win.
The good news: Tampa Bay’s defensive unit chased Jay Cutler from the football game at halftime, intercepting the quarterback three times in the first half with a defense the Dolphins simply couldn’t handle.
The bad news: When Matt Moore came in, Mike Smith’s unit stopped looking so great. In one half of NFL football, Moore was 17/28 for 282 yards. That is, he was the game’s leading passer despite not playing until the third and despite everyone in the building aware that the Dolphins would take to the air in the second half. Kenny Stills had 180 yards receiving. One would expect that a team would prepare itself to concentrate on a receiver with a captainship, but Tampa Bay left Stills open throughout the day. A 61 yard touchdown reception for Stills tied the score at 20 in the fourth quarter.
The phrase “splash play” is popular among Tampa Bay’s coaching staff. It might be less popular now, being that the Buccaneers gave up three of them on the day. The longest Buccaneers play from scrimmage was a pass to Mike Evans for 28 yards. Miami had three plays longer than that, including Stills’ touchdown catch. Damien Williams’ 69-yard first quarter run went for more yardage than the entire Tampa Bay running attack, which managed just 53 on a day where they led for the bulk of the game.
More good news: Up 20-13 in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers forced a turnover on downs from the Dolphins on a Miami drive that began in Tampa Bay territory. This was the series that took place after the non-safety. In just four plays, the Bucs stopped Matt Moore and company when the team needed it the most.
More bad news: Kenny Stills had his 61 yard reception on Miami’s next drive, tying the game at 20. Again, Stills was the one player that most defensive coordinators would come into the game imploring their teams to stop. He was the one guy that the team could not let beat them, and he beat them all day long.
That would mark the third time this season that Mike Smith’s defense has allowed a fourth quarter touchdown that erased a Buccaneers lead. It marks the seventh game this season in which Tampa Bay has surrendered a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Those fourth quarter touchdowns include an Arizona tally that prevented what would have been a memorable Ryan Fitzpatrick comeback, and a Jets score that made a game the Bucs never trailed into a nail-biter.
While it could be easily argued that Matt Moore should have been the Dolphins’ quarterback all season, he would not exactly be considered Pro Bowl Material. Being better than 2017 Jay Cutler is little accomplishment, but Moore handled the Tampa Bay defense throughout the second half, pulling Miami back in it and making the Buccaneers sweat out what started off as a potentially convincing win.
The good news: Being that this is professional football, and not the college ranks, margin of victory does not particularly matter for Dirk Koetter’s squad. They won ugly, but there is zero difference in the standings between winning ugly and dominating an opponent. Tampa Bay won their second straight game, bringing the record to 4-6 and bringing some silver linings to a very cloudy season.
Most importantly, it is clear that Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith still have support in the Tampa Bay locker room. There may be concerns with the staff, but the team has not quit on the coaches, and that should make people calling for pink slips think twice.
The bad news: In the first quarter on Sunday, Tampa Bay mustered three points off a Cutler interception. They then immediately allowed seven. The team has struggled in the first quarter nearly every week, and even when they show a glimmer of hope it tends to result in Patrick Murray walking out onto the field. It cannot be overstated: This is not the plan Buccaneers fans expected coming into the season.
It’s worth wondering if the Bucs are preparing well enough for their games. They have not scored a first quarter touchdown since week four against a reeling Giants team. Most of their offensive performance has come in the second half of football games, such as the second half at Buffalo where the offense looked like it was starting to meet potential.
This concern grows when one considers how many of the Bucs’ opponents have seen success with their star players. The guys that teams should gear up to stop have had their way with the Bucs. Kenny Stills is the latest in that line. Defensively, the Buccaneers’ best performance was week 5 against New England, which was a Thursday night home game in which Rob Gronkowski did not play.
Adrian Peterson ripped them apart in his first week with a new team. LeSean McCoy put home the Bills’ important points in their win over the Bucs. Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara put on a show against the Tampa Bay defense. They allowed Tom Brady to pass for over 300 yards when he had maybe half his normal offense and a line that had been struggling mightily. The aspects of opponents’ games that Mike Smith’s unit should be gearing up to stop consistently have been taking it to Tampa Bay, and Stills is the latest in the line. This is extremely notable since the Buccaneers face Matt Ryan and the Falcons in Atlanta next week.
The good news: Tampa Bay has won two straight games to ease a little of the pressure on Dirk Koetter and company.
There is a case that the Buccaneers aren’t necessarily a bad team. That case is as follows:
-Were it not for kicking woes, they would be 5-5 with a signature win over the Patriots.
-Many of the team’s offensive woes could be attributed to an injury to Jameis Winston that the quarterback will eventually recover from.
-The defense has fought injuries all year and has played generally better since the return of Lavonte David.
The opposite case could be made just as easily. Tampa Bay has lost multiple games that they came in expected to win. They’ve lost toss-up games to the kind of teams that “good teams” generally beat. They’ve blown leads, given up huge leads, lost in the last minute and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory throughout the season. They haven’t beat a single winning team all year. There’s also that matter of the elephant in the middle of the Uber.
For the season to have any chance of being salvaged, the Buccaneers need to win out. There is little, if anything, that they have done this season to indicate that they can finish the season on what would amount to an eight game win streak.
Still, the conversation on the team is starting to change. Dirk Koetter might not be Coach of the Year material right now, but he hasn’t lost the team the way Greg Schiano and Raheem Morris did and he seems to be more willing to do his job than The Somnambulist Lovie Smith. That means the jury is still very much out on Koetter, and it’s more believable every week that he will come back for the 2018 season. Set aside the “Grumors” for at least another week. The Buccaneers might have taken a step back. The good news is that the pirate ship might not be sinking after all.