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Upon Further Review: Bucs-Vikings

Posted Sep 25, 2017

After reviewing the game tape of the Bucs' loss in Minnesota on Sunday, Head Coach Dirk Koetter shared some thoughts on the team's linebacker depth, O.J. Howard and more

Dirk Koetter spoke with the press on Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the conclusion of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week Three loss at Minnesota. Koetter had an opportunity to review the tape from that game and gain a more detailed understanding of how the Vikings were able to get well up on the Buccaneers early and hold off a rally for a 34-17 win.

So, upon further review, here are a few things Koetter and the rest of us learned from – and/or what new questions were raised by – the Buccaneers' Week Three loss to Minnesota.

1. The Buccaneers' linebacker depth is getting an early test.

Tampa Bay began the 2017 offseason with a pair of star-caliber linebackers in the middle of their defense, and not much in the way of certain depth after those two.

Set in the middle and on the weak side with Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, the Buccaneers drafted a potential strongside starter in the third round in Kendell Beckwith. However, Beckwith's ACL tear while playing at LSU last November cast a bit of doubt on how quickly he could begin his pro career. Another possible starting candidate, Devante Bond, was coming off his own hamstring injury that had put him on injured reserve for his rookie season. Adarius Glanton and Cameron Lynch were returning linebackers but, up to that point, mostly special teamers. The undrafted ranks brought the likes of Riley Bullough and Richie Brown. Jeff Knox came from the CFL to give it a shot.

READ: DeSean Jackson Shows Long-Range Touch

From the draft on, the Buccaneers got nothing but good news about their linebacker depth. Beckwith was not only ready to go full-speed at the start of training camp, he quickly proved capable of handling both the strongside and middle spots. Bond looked good to start camp before he sustained a knee injury. Glanton and Lynch showed late in the preseason that they could step in on defense if needed. Bullough impressed in camp, though he ended up on the practice squad after a star turn in Hard Knocks. The Bucs chose to keep six linebackers – they usually ran with five in 2016 – and felt good about their two-deep at all three spots.

Well, the Buccaneers are about to find out if they were right about that depth. Their two stars, Alexander and David, have gone down with injuries in the first two games, successively. Alexander didn't play on Sunday against Minnesota due to the hamstring injury he suffered against Chicago, and David left the Vikings game on a cart near the end thanks to an ankle injury.

Beckwith played about half of the opener in the middle after Alexander went down, then started at that spot on Sunday against the Vikings. That opened up the strongside for Glanton, who made his first start as a Buccaneer. Tampa Bay's coaching staff has layered contingency plans for every position in the event of urgency, but it's unlikely they were expecting to need one for a dual Alexander-David absence. David missed only two games in his first five seasons; Alexander did not miss any contests due to injury in his first two campaigns.

"Kendell Beckwith and Adarius both did a good job in this game and we are fortunate that we do have depth," said Koetter. "I don’t think we would ever be talking about having the possibility of both Kwon and Lavonte out. They both [have been durable], especially Lavonte has been an ironman at his position. We might be facing that, hopefully not for too long if we are. Kendell and Adarius have both done fine."

David is obviously one of the linchpins of the Bucs' defense, and his wide array of tackling, pass-coverage and pass-rushing skills are difficult to replace. He's already given the team a scare twice this season, as he was temporarily floored by cramps in the opening win over Chicago and then carted off the field in Minnesota. Fortunately, his current injury, while more serious than cramps, may not be quite as big of a blow to the season as many had feared.

"It’s not as bad as it looked, number one – and it looked bad," said Koetter. "X-Rays were negative. We don’t know exactly what it is yet, but knock on wood it’s not as bad as it looked or as was previously reported."

Koetter said he was hopeful that some of the missing defenders from Sunday's game would be ready to go by the time the Bucs take on the Giants this coming weekend, though Monday afternoon was a bit early to know for sure. Bond already made his return from injury to make his debut on Sunday, though primarily on special teams. Now he may have to combine in some fashion with Glanton, Beckwith and Lynch to cover for the (hopefully short-lived) absences of Alexander and David.

2. O.J. Howard's time will come.

Actually, Howard's time is already here, if that refers to "time on the field." The Buccaneers have five tight ends on the roster and through their first two games they have given the largest chunk of playing time among those five to the player they drafted 19th overall this past April. The rookie has led his position group in snaps in each of those two contests and has been a fixture in any two or three-tight end combinations, of which the Bucs are fond.

Of course, "snaps played" isn't the type of statistic that gets much recognition, especially when compared to "receptions" and "yards" and "touchdowns." Tight ends taken in the middle of the first round are expected to produce all of those, and Howard's first two games have included exactly two catches for 29 yards, with one reception in each contest.

READ: Bucs Thwarted by Vikings' Case Study

Still, that first stat – e.g. consistent playing time – plus the type of field-stretching skills that made Howard such a coveted prospect are a sure formula to produce those receiving numbers in time. As of now, Howard is helping the team quite a bit with his blocking skills, but he's a threat to produce a big play on any Sunday.

"He is in the game plan," said Koetter. "I mean we didn’t have the ball a lot [against Minnesota]. He got a nice catch there in the first drive. We’ve also got Cam Brate in there at tight end. We’ve also got DeSean [Jackson] and we also have Mike [Evans]. I think O.J. will continue to grow. He is doing a nice job at the point of attack. O.J. is going to be a fantastic player. He is getting better all of the time."

It's noteworthy that on the first drive of each of the first two games, where plays are more likely to be tightly scripted in advance, Howard has been targeted. He was the intended target for Winston's very first pass of the season in Week Two, in fact. So far, however, Winston has gone more often to Brate, including once for a 15-yard touchdown in Minnesota. That's unsurprising, given the outstanding red zone connection Winston and Brate forged last year. No tight end in the NFL has scored more touchdowns than Brate since the start of the 2016 season.

Brate paid heavily for his most recent foray into the end zone. He made his 15-yard scoring grab while leaping and turning his back to the goal line. That left him vulnerable for a hard hit to the head-and-neck area from safety Andrew Sendejo. No flag was thrown on the play, but Koetter said Sendejo should have been penalized. That wasn't just the coach's opinion; he got the word from a member of the crew of officials in Minnesota.

Fortunately, Brate appears to have escaped a concussion from the play.

“He is not in the [concussion] protocol that I know of and yes, it should have been a penalty," said Koetter on Monday. "The official told me afterwards that he just flat missed it and he saw it on the replay. I appreciate his honesty because I was asking him about it. It looked like it to everybody that was watching it and, of course, Cam thought it was. The official came right over and said he missed it when he saw it on the replay."

3. Ali Marpet's first exposure to an extremely loud crowd while playing center may have affected some of his snaps, but it didn't change the team's view of his value at the pivot.

The Vikings have moved into a new home, U.S. Bank Stadium, but they still produce one of the loudest environments for NFL teams in the NFL. When the home team got up big on the scoreboard on Sunday, the crowd responded and made it more difficult for the Buccaneers' offense to operate at the line of scrimmage.

That may have played a part in a small handful of shotgun snaps from Marpet that Winston had trouble handling. After two years at guard, he was playing his first regular-season road game at the new position, so a few hiccups weren't terribly surprising. The Bucs' first scheduled road game, against the Dolphins, was postponed by Hurricane Irma.

"He went through a little stretch there where he had like three in a four-play sequence right there in the second half and then it was fine," said Koetter. "Maybe this all would have happened in the Miami game had we played. First game on the road in a loud stadium – I thought for the most part we handled the noise okay. Other than that, it did throw us off a little.

"We are still 100 percent onboard with moving Ali to center. He is going to be an excellent center and [he is] doing a lot of things well."