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Bucs Stick Together After Team Loss

Posted Dec 23, 2013

Monday Notes: A struggling offense has reduced the margin of error for Tampa Bay’s defense, but no one in the Bucs’ locker room is pointing fingers...Plus, a Week 17 flex, and some new injuries

  • Recent offensive struggles have reduced the Bucs' margin for error on game day
  • Tampa Bay's season finale in New Orleans has been flexed to a later start due to playoff implications
  • The Bucs' linebacking corps absorbed a series of injuries on Sunday in St. Louis
Early in the second quarter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 23-13 loss at St. Louis on Sunday, running back Bobby Rainey caught a short pass on third-and-four and, by sheer willpower, fought through a Rams defender just enough to extend the ball past the first-down sticks.  Moments earlier, the Rams had matched Tampa Bay’s opening touchdown with a score of their own, and now the Buccaneers were trying to re-establish control of the game.  Rainey’s play was an uplifting moment and the Bucs were confidently expecting to follow their 85-yard touchdown drive with another extended march.

On the next play, however, linebacker Alec Ogletree ripped the ball out of Rainey’s grasp and the Rams recovered at Tampa Bay’s 27.  That was a rather sudden change of momentum and emotion…and that’s exactly what NFL players and coaches call such a moment – a “sudden change.”  After the game, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said that Buccaneer defenders are taught to expect their opponents to go for a home-run play right after a “sudden change.”

And the Rams did just that, but in a way that was obviously unexpected.  Rather than throwing a deep pass into the corner of the end zone, quarterback Kellen Clemens handed the ball off an apparent end-around to wide receiver Chris Givens…who promptly flipped the ball to wide receiver Stedman Bailey on a reverse.  Bailey sprinted towards the left sideline and saw nothing but blue-and-yellow jerseys.

The play was well-timed and well-executed, and was likely to get some good yardage.  However, it became that “home run” play because the Bucs made an error on defense.  One can give credit to the Rams for calling a play that led to a Buccaneer breakdown, but Head Coach Greg Schiano still believes his team, in most instances, would have kept the football out of the end zone.

“We make a mistake on a double reverse…is it going to score?” said Schiano on Monday, after reviewing the game tape.  “No, it’s not going to score.  It’s going to gain some yards but you know what, you line up and make them kick field goals the way they did all game.   They were 25 percent in the red zone. You play that kind of red zone defense, you usually win the game.”

- Tampa Bay held the Rams to 277 yards and played strong red zone defense on Sunday but wasn't satisfied with the end result
Indeed, St. Louis scored only nine points on three field goals in the second half, in a contest that was separated by a single point midway through the third quarter.  The problem for the Buccaneers was that the offense’s recent struggles meant any mistake in handling the Rams’ attack was magnified.  Until the offense finds a way to get back on track, there simply isn’t much room for error.

“Right now, we’re not scoring a lot of points,” said Schiano.  “That’s what’s tough.  We had chances, we had opportunities.  It’s not ideal, it’s not an ideal set up right now but that’s too bad – find a way to win and we didn’t and that’s on me.”

Defensive end Adrian Clayborn drew a roughing-the-passer penalty early in the Rams’ first touchdown march, on a play in which Clemens didn’t even go to the ground, and those 15 yards were the biggest play on a drive that was mostly six and seven-yard gains.  Linebacker Lavonte David nearly had a forced fumble on TE Jared Cook on a third-down conversion, but Cook was ruled to be down and the evidence wasn’t strong enough to challenge.  The Bucs couldn’t quite stop a Zac Stacy run up the middle on a critical third-and-one play in the fourth quarter, and the Rams ended up with the field goal that made it a two-score game.

Whether breakdowns or simply bad breaks, these kinds of moments are enough right now to keep the Buccaneers from winning.  Statistically, Tampa Bay’s defense is faring pretty well in the second half of the season, but football is a team sport and when put together, it hasn’t been a winning formula lately.  McCoy was the first one to say in the postgame locker room that the defense’s effort wasn’t good enough on Sunday, even if the more glaring problems appeared to be on the other side of the ball.

“Certainly we’re struggling offensively, it’s not a secret,” said Schiano. “Our defense as a football team knows they have a job to do and they need to do their jobs. When we don’t do our job or we don’t execute our job or when we don’t coach it correctly or when I don’t coach it correctly, that’s when we evaluate and try to correct. There’s not a lot of margin of error to win. Looking at it from pure production though, most of the injuries and most of things have happened to the offensive side. That’s what a team does, they pick each other up.”

Obviously, with a maximum potential of five wins, the Buccaneers won’t be claiming that the 2013 season was a success.  And while it certainly won’t satisfy anyone hungry for more victories, inside our outside the organization, this can be said in a positive light: The team has stuck together through its various struggles, with no fingers being pointed from one unit to another.

“I don’t want to say it’s a burden or anything like that,” said defensive end William Gholston of the recent offensive struggles.  “We just get extra opportunities to be able to showcase what we can do on defense. We can only control the defense. I know we trust that the offense gets out there and they do the best that they can do. They put up points and we try to get them good field position.”

* The Buccaneers won’t have a playoff berth on the line when they finish the regular season in New Orleans on Sunday.  They might still have something to say about the postseason field, however.

The tool of flex scheduling, first introduced in 2006, allows the NFL to put the games most critical to the playoff race in front of the largest audiences.  During the final seven weeks of the season, some games are moved from 1:00 p.m. ET time slots to either the late-afternoon slot or Sunday Night Football on NBC.  While games are usually “flexed” 12 or more days in advance during Weeks 11-16, contests in Week 17 can be moved as little as six days before-hand.  The Buccaneers got seven days notice.

Because the Saints’ 17-13 loss in Carolina kept New Orleans from clinching the NFC South title and set up a variety of potential playoff scenarios for the team – even the still-remaining possibility of no postseason berth at all – their final game has the potential to be critical.  Cue the flex: originally scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET on December 29, the Bucs-Saints game in the Louisiana Superdome will now kick off at 4:25 p.m. and be played before a wider national audience.

The league waited to see how the action would unfold in Week 16 before choosing three games to play later on the 29th.  In addition to Bucs-Saints, the Buffalo-at-New England contest will start at 4:25 while the Philadelphia-Dallas showdown for the NFC East title gets the evening NBC slot.

Cam Newton’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds to play Sunday at Bank of America Stadium is what has changed the Buccaneers’ final-week travel plans.  Had the Saints instead held on to the win, they would have clinched the division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs, which likely would have left them little to play for in Week 17.  Instead, they’ll be trying to win a game that, at best, will give them another shot at the division crown and, at worst, will be a must-win scenario to get into the dance.

The Saints will know by kickoff if they’re division-title hopes are still alive.  Carolina plays at Atlanta at 1:00 p.m., and if the Falcons can pull off the upset than the Saints will just need a win over Tampa Bay to get back into first.  However, if the Panthers win, the Saints will only have the Wild Card option open to them.

The Saints can still make the playoffs without beating the Buccaneers, but they’ll have to start the game under the assumption that they still need a win.  A loss by Arizona in Week 17 would also put the Saints into the postseason, but the Cardinals’ home game against San Francisco kicks off at the same time as the New Orleans-Tampa Bay tilt.  And, after Arizona became the first visiting team in two years to leave Seattle with a victory on Sunday, there is certainly reason to worry that the Cardinals could also upend the 49ers.

However, the Falcons also have a chance to help out the Saints on Monday Night Football in San Francisco, the last game of Week 16.  The Saints can also clinch a playoff spot without winning in Week 17 by having San Francisco lose each of its last two.  If Atlanta were to beat the 49ers on Monday night, that would mean the Saints would clinch with a loss by either Arizona or San Fran in Week 17, and those two teams play each other.  So if Atlanta does indeed win on Monday night, the Bucs will have been flexed to later in the afternoon in Week 17 for, in the end, nothing.

* Tampa Bay’s defense has held up well for much of 2013 – both statistically and on the major injury front – but it may encounter some difficulties in the season finale.

First, it’s not yet certain if starting strong safety Mark Barron will be able to return from the hamstring injury that kept him out of Sunday’s game in St. Louis. Second, the Buccaneers’ linebacking corps absorbed a series of hits that will need monitoring during the week of practice.  Schiano reported on Monday that Dekoda Watson (groin), Lavonte David (elbow) and Ka’Lial Glaud (knee) all sustained injuries that will bear watching.

Schiano said that the absence of the hard-hitting Barron had an effect on the team’s ability to slow down the Rams’ rushing attack.  While Tampa Bay did hold St. Louis to 3.3 yards per carry, they gave up enough ground to let the Rams’ offense keep drives moving.  Barron’s presence might have changed that, and the Bucs are hoping they have that presence next Sunday in New Orleans.

“Obviously not having him in that kind of game was costly,” said Schiano.  “He’s a force coming down out of the [secondary].  “He’s the guy who comes down into the unit and can knock some of the those [runners back], make some of those four[-yard gains] into twos the way he hits. Hopefully we’ll be able to get him for this last week”

The Buccaneers will hit the practice field on Tuesday, which is generally the player’s day off during a typical in-season week.  However, with Christmas falling on Wednesday this year, the team has simply flipped its schedules for those two days, allowing players to be home with their families on the holiday.