Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally got the clean game they needed from the quarterback position on Sunday and the results were what they had been expecting all along: a 27-9 win over the San Francisco 49ers at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay's high-powered offense piled up another 412 yards – including 312 passing yards by Winston – and without turnovers to mute that effort that offense produced three touchdowns and the team's most lopsided victory of 2018.
Tampa Bay's final yardage total was actually a good bit below their league-leading average of 458.5 coming into the weekend but it was a different lower number that made the difference. The Bucs did not commit a single turnover for the first time since a Week One win in New Orleans, and they broke a streak of nine straight games with multiple giveaways.
"We played great football," said Winston. "When you execute and you protect the football and you get turnovers on defense, that's how you lead to a win."
Making his first start since Week Eight, Winston was sharp, completing 29 of 38 passes and hitting Cam Brate and Adam Humphries on touchdown throws, but he also had to work hard for his third 300-yard game of the season. Winston adeptly escaped pressure throughout the afternoon and made many of his best throws on the run, including both touchdown passes and a critical 34-yarder to WR Mike Evans on the drive that ended in Peyton Barber's two-yard touchdown run.
"Jameis played quarterback the way you really need to play it in the NFL until you get into desperation time, which we never did today," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Jameis wasn't perfect but he played a damn good game. I'm proud of him. It's been a difficult road and he sees what that looks like and he needs to consistently play like that and he can be one of the best."
Evans was Winston's favorite target, catching six passes for 116 yards – his sixth 100-yard game of 2018 – and in the process joining Randy Moss and A.J. Green as the only players in NFL history to open their careers with five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
"I think he's one of the best receivers in the game," said Winston of Evans. "I'm grateful to have him as a teammate and I'm grateful that I get a chance to throw him the ball because he's definitely made me better. I just hope I do my part to continue to allow him to shine and do his thing."
Not only did the Buccaneers curb their giveaway problems but they also ended a four-game takeaway drought when CB Ryan Smith intercepted a Nick Mullens pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter, essentially ending any hope of a 49ers comeback. That was the team's first takeaway since a recovery of a fumbled punt in a Week Seven overtime win over Cleveland; it was the first takeaway by the Bucs' defense since the first quarter of a Week Three game against Pittsburgh, a span of 35 quarters. They only had to wait a few more minutes to get their next one as S Isaiah Johnson intercepted a pass to end the 49ers' last possession. The Buccaneers came into the game with just six takeaways on the season, the second-lowest total in the NFL and one more than their opponents, the 49ers, who remain stuck on five.
Meanwhile, new Bucs kicker Cairo Santos hit on field goals of 41 and 39 yards and made all three of his extra points; he's perfect on 10 kicks in his two games with the team.
"Shoot, we made all our kicks, we got two takeaways and we didn't turn it over," said Koetter. "Life is good."
The takeaway came late in the game but the Buccaneers' defensive line pressured first-year QB Nick Mullens right from the beginning. Making just his third NFL start, Mullens was held to 18 of 32 passing for 221 yards and was sacked four times, once each by Jason Pierre-Paul, Gerald McCoy, Carl Nassib and rookie Vita Vea. Pierre-Paul's sack gave him 10.5 on the season and made him the first Buccaneer to hit double digits in the that category since Simeon Rice had 14.0 in 2005. Vea got his second sack of the season and put together his best game yet as a pro with four stops and three tackles for loss.
"It felt really good going out there," said Vea, the Buccaneers' first-round pick in this year's draft. "I wasn't thinking much, I was just going out there and playing."
Prior to kickoffs, the defensive line decided to mix up the pregame introductions, with all of the linemen waiting in the tunnel while the starters were announced before running out as a unit. It was a nod to their belief that a turnaround on defense would have to start with a team effort up front.
"We knew we had to come together," said Vea. "Gerald came up to us and told us, 'When we go out there, we're going out together.' That set the mood for everybody, not only us the whole team because I don't think anybody expected it because it was a last-minute thing. When we ran out there, everyone, the whole team, was pumped and hyped. It was a good call by Gerald."
Vea was part of the defensive effort that started the critical sequence of the game, a goal-line stand at the end of the 49ers' opening third-quarter possession. The Buccaneers got stops of RB Matt Breida and Mullens on two plays from inside the one-yard line, then got off the field when the 49ers committed a false start on fourth down and chose to kick a field goal instead. Not only did that keep San Francisco from tying the game but it was followed immediately by a 75-yard touchdown drive. The 49ers didn't score again.
"I thought that was a huge turning point in the game to stop them," said Koetter. "It's hard to stop a team three times from the one-yard line. That was great and then we were able to take that thing down [and] Jameis made a beautiful scramble play on the one to Mike. That was just a methodical-type game, and in the NFL part of winning is not losing, not beating yourself."
Winston thought the goal-line stand energized the offense and he gave Barber credit for another fine performance in the backfield with him, including his touchdown run that ended the ensuing drive. Barber finished the game with 63 yards from scrimmage.
"I think that was great for our momentum," said Winston. "The defense had done a great job of holding them to three on the previous drive. That was a very, very long drive that they had, and we came up on the good side, so we've got to credit that to the defense for giving us the ball and only allowing them to score three points. And Peyton Barber, he just keeps showing up all week because of our hard work and our relentless offensive linemen.'
The Bucs got the ball first to start the game but were stopped without a first down when Barber couldn't find a lane up the middle on a third-and-one run. A booming 56-yard punt by Bryan Anger forced San Francisco all the way back to their own 10-yard line.
The 49ers' offense got off to a great start when Breida broke his first-down carry around left end and dashed 33 yards before being pushed out of bounds. However, the Buccaneers' defense turned up the pressure on the next series, with Nassib getting an eight-yard sack on first down and Mullens taking hits on incompletions on second and third down. Humphries caught the ensuing punt at the Bucs' 27.
Barber made several sharp cuts to start the next drive with an 11-yard run, but a false start and a loss of two on Barber's next run put the offense in a hole. Two plays later, however, Evans got deep down the right sideline and Winston hit him in stride for a gain of 42. Barber broke several tackles on his next run to get 14 yards and a first down at the Niners' four-yard line, setting up Winston's scrambling six-yard touchdown pass to Brate two plays later.
Good run-stop tackles by Riley Bullough and Jordan Whitehead put the 49ers into an early third-and-seven on the next drive and tight coverage by Carlton Davis on Dante Pettis led to an incompletion and a punt, with the Bucs starting anew at their own 16. That drive died quickly thanks to a first-down sack by DT DeForest Buckner and the 49ers got it back at their 30 after another punt. That drive got a quick first down on a 12-yard crossing route by Kittle but Nassib forced an incompletion with a hit on Mullens and tackled Breida for a loss of six on consecutive plays and the drive went nowhere.
The exchange of punts continued into the second quarter. Winston converted two third downs on the next drive with third-down completions to Evans and Jacquizz Rodgers, but a 15-yard personal-foul penalty on center Ryan Jensen put the offense into a hole from which it was unable to climb out. The punt gave it back to San Fran at its 21.
The 49ers used that start to launch a 79-yard touchdown drive, beginning with a rare tight end end-around by Kittle for 10 yards. Kittle also had an 11-yard catch over the middle and Breida also ran three times for 37 yards on the march, including a 21-yarder around right end that got the ball down to the 13 and set up Mullens' 13-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Pettis. Robbie Gould hit the right upright with his extra point to leave the Bucs a one-point lead with eight-and-a-half minutes left in the half.
The Bucs chewed up five of those minutes on a 12-play, 53-yard field goal drive. Jackson got a first down on a six-yard end around, though a subsequent deep shot in his direction was overthrown. Winston then kept the drive alive with a 10-yard laser to Evans down the right season on third-and-nine and got the ball into the red zone with his own 15-yard scramble. However, LB Fred Warner nearly made a leaping interception on a third-down pass to Evans and the Bucs settled for Santos's 41-yard field goal.
The Bucs got the ball back with 1:37 left despite having to overcome a pass-interference call on S Andrew Adams on a third-down breakup of a ball meant for Kittle. The Bucs responded with consecutive sacks by Pierre-Paul and McCoy and got the punt when the Niners ran Breida on a draw to make the Bucs use their second timeout. Humphries took a short punt back to Tampa Bay's 41.
That was enough time for the Bucs to restore their lead to seven points with a 38-yard field goal drive. Winston made a scrambling throw to Chris Godwin, who fought out of bounds for a first down at the 49ers' 35, stopping the clock with 38 seconds left in the half. The 49ers brought a big blitz on the next play but Winston delivered an 11-yard strike over the middle to Godwin and the Buccaneers used their last timeout with 32 seconds left. A short Winston scramble on the next snap forced the Bucs to hurry up and get a snap off and an attempted pass to Brate in the end zone was well-contested and incomplete. Santos came on to hit a 39-yarder with six seconds left.
The Bucs' cover team stopped return man Richie James at the 16 to start the second half and then the defense forced three straight incompletions with constant backfield pressure, but a third-down defensive holding penalty rescued the drive. Two plays later, Mullens found Pettis deep down the middle for a gain of 25 to the Bucs' 43. A perfectly set up screen to Breida got 24 more, with Isaiah Johnson making an open-field tackle to prevent the touchdown. That proved important when an apparent nine-yard touchdown run by Jeff Wilson was reviewed and placed a few inches shy of the goal line. The Bucs' defense then held against a Breida run up the middle and a Mullens sneak, prompting the 49ers to go for it on fourth-and-goal. However, after losing five yards on a false start the 49ers brought on Gould to hit a 23-yard field goal to make it 13-9.
The Bucs answered right back with a 75-yard touchdown drive, which began with a 34-yard catch-and-run by Evans after Winston scrambled to buy time and find him. The Bucs got another big chunk when Winston looked deep down the left sideline for Jackson, who drew a 23-yard pass-interference penalty on CB Ahkello Witherspoon. Three plays by Barber got it in from there, including a two-yard touchdown run over left tackle. Santos drilled the extra point to make it 20-9 with 8:25 left in the third quarter.
San Francisco got into Bucs territory on the next drive after Mullens hit Pettis over the middle to get across midfield. The 49ers got another first down at the Bucs' 37 but rookie DT Vita Vea got instant penetration on first down to drop Wilson for a loss of three and LB Adarius Taylor broke up a pass over the middle intended for Breida. The 49ers punted and the Bucs got the ball back at their own 15.
The ensuing drive went 85 yards on 10 plays, in the process taking the game into the fourth quarter. It started with a sharp play-action pass over the middle to Godwin for 15 yards, and Winston then converted a third-and-six near midfield with a scrambling 14-yarder to Jackson near the sideline. After Godwin got another first down on an 11-yard catch-and-run, Winston once again scrambled out of the pocket to his right, eventually throwing back over the middle to a wide-open Humphries. Humphries whirled and raced toward the end zone, eventually powering over a defender and into the end zone.
A sack by Vea helped end the 49ers' next drive quickly, and the Bucs got the ball back at their own 22 with an 18-point lead and 12 minutes to play. Rodgers got 20 yards on a run up the middle to start the drive but it stalled after that and the Bucs punted it back. Mullens got the 49ers well into Bucs territory on the ensuing drive but turned it over when he tried to hit Pettis in the end zone and had the ball intercepted by Smith.
The Bucs were able to drain the clock down to three minutes before punting it back to the 49ers. Mullens moved the team across midfield with a series of underneath throws but his last pass down the middle was tipped by a diving Andrew Adams and hauled in by Isaiah Johnson.