Bucs Start With A Flash Of Greatness

So Far, The 2017 Buccaneers Have Lived Up To The Hype

It’s been a while, to say the least, since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drew a lot of national attention from NFL fans. Out of the playoffs for ten seasons now, the team is briefly recognized occasionally for bright spots, but for the most part the organization had become an afterthought. Now, coming off a 9-7 2016 season, a great draft, and Hard Knocks, it’s safe to say they’ve fought their way back onto the football radar.

That, then, made the belated debut of the 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers a nervous moment for people who follow the team. It can be hard for a fan to get their hopes up for a team that hasn’t been particularly good in a while, but all the signs coming into the season were so good. Winston has been coming along nicely, the offseason acquisitions were just what the doctor ordered, and O.J. Howard was in the running for the best player on some people’s draft boards. Still, it’s nothing until you see it on the field.

On that note, fans can rest easy and resume being excited. There is a long way to go, and there are a lot of good football teams out there, but the Buccaneers did everything they wanted to do against the Chicago Bears on Sunday. They routed their former division rivals 29-7, with 26 of their 29 points coming in a dominant first half in front of a crowd that really needed the good day.

Fans cheer as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lead the Chicago Bears at the end of the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Photo: AP Photo/Jason Behnken.

The first big takeaway from this game for the Buccaneers is that, when Plan A is working, the Bucs are a very good football team. Their first half was dominant, a bend-but-don’t-break defense creating turnovers and a loaded offense turning those opportunities into touchdowns. In that first half, Tampa Bay showed their high-end potential.

The defense featured a variety of looks, going from aggressive to conservative without any trouble on either end. As anyone might have guessed, the linebackers were the playmakers. Early on, the Bears actually were able to move the ball freely between the twenties, but those drives ended when Kwon Alexander forced a fumble and when Lavonte David ended up with the pigskin after a strip sack. New acquisition T.J. Ward did not get too much on his shoulders, allowing him to ease into his role in the defense while Gerald McCoy, David, and Alexander starred. Robert McClain’s second quarter pick six put an exclamation point on the first half performance.

Offensively, the Buccaneers could be best described as a team rich with options. Dirk Koetter and his coaching staff have a lot of room to be creative with this bunch. Mike Evans caught a touchdown pass, Desean Jackson caught a few big first downs, Cameron Brate helped move the ball, and O.J. Howard proved every bit as capable a blocker as he is a receiver. Between them, Jameis Winston’s desire to throw the ball a long way about once per drive, and three different running backs splitting touches, the pewter pirates kept Chicago’s defense guessing all day long.

Jacquizz Rodgers had the lion’s share of carries, leading both the Bucs and the football game in rushing yards while sharing the ball with Peyton Barber and Charles Sims. Barber proved himself useful in the second half, helping move the line, move the chains, and most importantly to move the clock. Without Doug Martin and with a rearranged offensive line, the running game was a concern for many coming into the Buccaneers’ belated opener. In all, the Bucs gained 117 yards on the ground, led by 67 from Rodgers.

Jameis Winston might not have put together the greatest fantasy football game you’ll ever see, but in this case numbers really fail to tell the whole story. 18/30 for 204 yards and a touchdown might not look impressive, but Winston kept himself on the right track with his performance. The major concern about Winston throughout his career has been the potential for carelessness, and he showed positive signs in that regard on Sunday. There were errors, but with the notable exception of a second half pass in the end zone that could have and probably should have been picked off, those errors put the football in places where only a Buccaneer could possibly have caught it. He overthrew receivers that managed to get behind the defense, but those are acceptable misses.

O.J. Howard only caught one pass, but his impact on the team’s offense was obvious. It was rare to see the Buccaneers line up with fewer than two tight ends, giving them added room to run when they kept it on the ground and up to four viable passing targets every time Winston dropped back.

Just about the only drama in the second half was whether the Bears would score at all or if the Buccaneers would finish off the shutout. Mike Glennon had a statistically pleasing day, all in all, given how badly Chicago lost. He threw for over 300 yards and connected on a touchdown, granted the touchdown came well after the game had been decided.

The difference between the good football team and the great football team often comes down to converting opportunities. By opportunities, I mean those times when an offense is given an unforced error, such as a turnover or a defensive penalty on a third down. Good teams settle for field goals, if they get those. Great teams turn those opportunities into touchdowns.

In the first half, the Buccaneers’ three touchdowns off of turnovers were a great sign that this version of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was not going to leave points on the field the way previous teams would stall in the red zone. Those last twenty yards proved especially difficult for the 2016 Buccaneers, but they were little obstacle on Sunday against Chicago.

This may be where the Bucs’ offensive variety comes into play. With an assortment of running backs and passing targets, this is going to be a tough team for defenses to key in on with a short field behind them. In years past, they have lacked the kind of depth that keeps teams guessing. Specifically, it was too easy to focus in on Mike Evans and force Winston to use his other weapons. Now, such a strategy will leave a man open.

Next week, Tampa Bay’s football team will head north to take on the Minnesota Vikings. Presuming they will have Sam Bradford back for the game, Minnesota could provide a difficult but important test for the Bucs. Like Tampa Bay, Minnesota considers its football team a possible contender, and coming off a loss they’re going to be a tough draw for the Buccaneers.

The Vikings have a stingy defense in particular, which can help add to the benchmark to find out whether this week’s performance was the real Bucs, or assisted by a Bears team still trying to figure things out. The improved blocking on display Sunday will be faced with a much tougher challenge in its first road game.

The defense, meanwhile, will be facing a game preparation test. Sam Bradford sat out this weeks game at Pittsburgh due to an injury. The injury is minor enough that he should be back, but with that uncertain Mike Smith’s defense is going to have to prepare for two different quarterbacks.

It can be easy to forget that the Buccaneers’ history isn’t all creamsicles and getting beaten to a pulp and the long shadow of Hugh Culverhouse. It’s an organization that has gone through a couple of long playoff droughts, including the current ten season long ordeal. Only two NFL organizations have been out of the playoffs longer than the Buccaneers.

Children old enough to stop believing in some of the stories told to children have never lived to see the Bucs in the playoffs, which is remarkable in a league that insists on telling everybody about parity at every turn.

What I’m saying is, the Bucs need to get on top of the world again. They made a big statement on Sunday, taking the Bears apart and winning 29-7. With fifteen more uninterrupted weeks to go in what will be a grueling Buccaneers season, that kind of feeling might be a bit fleeting.

Still, after a win like that, the fans can start talking about the better parts of Bucs history again.

 

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.