Prior to Sunday's game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets, it was a dual quarterback reunion that took center stage. Once the ball was snapped, however, it was the Buccaneers' defense that stole the spotlight.
Led by an extremely active trio of linebackers, the Buccaneers snapped a five-game losing streak by defeating the Jets, 15-10. Neither team recorded a touchdown until there were six minutes left in the game but Ryan Fitzpatrick's six-yard scoring pass to Charles Sims late in the fourth quarter gave the Bucs the first two-score lead of the day, and that proved to be enough. Kicker Patrick Murray, three for three on field goal tries, provided the rest of the scoring as the defense and special teams routinely provided short fields. The Bucs average drive start on the day was at the 36-yard line, while the average start for the Jets was the 19-yard line.
"Everybody just did their jobs and had each other's backs," said linebacker Lavonte David, who led the defensive charge with eight tackles, two stops for loss and a fumble recovery. "We held each other accountable. We just came out there, played football, kept playing, kept playing, took it one snap at a time. We were feeding off each other and played great football, and you see the results when we do that. We've been really inconsistent the last five weeks, but we were able to put it together today. But it was just one win; now we have to start stacking them up."
Pictures from the Buccaneers' Week 10 matchup with the Jets.
The unusual quarterback matchup was Fitzpatrick against the Jets' Josh McCown. Fitzpatrick, starting for an injured Jameis Winston, spent the previous two seasons as New York's primary starter. McCown played for the Buccaneers in 2014 and was the last quarterback other than Winston to start for the team. McCown threw for 262 yards but most of that came on the last two drives after the Buccaneers had built their 12-point lead. Tampa Bay's defense, which had recorded just eight sacks through the first eight games, dropped McCown six times, by six different players. Meanwhile, the Jets' rushing attack was held to 56 yards on 29 carries.
"Six sacks and we stopped the run game," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "That's going to work most weeks."
Ironically, despite that good field position, the Bucs scored nine of their 15 points on two of their longest drives of the season. They opened the scoring with a 17-play field goal drive in the first quarter, then chewed up nearly eight minutes on the 81-yard march that ended in Sims's touchdown. Fitzpatrick helped the offense convert six third downs on those two drives and finished the game with 187 yards on 17-of-34 passing. He threw one interception but was sacked just once.
"That's what Ryan is," said Koetter of the veteran passer making his 117th career start. "He's a get-it-done kind of guy. He's going to make some plays maybe you don't expect him to and he might miss some plays you'd like him to make but he's a tough guy and he gets it done."
The Buccaneers' running game wasn't dynamic but the complementary play between the offense and defense allowed the team to keep the ball on the ground 31 times for 90 yards. That and the good protection of Fitzpatrick – a key contrast between the two offenses – spoke well for an offensive line that had three starters pushing through injuries. Left tackle Donovan Smith, right tackle Demar Dotson and right guard J.R. Sweezy were all part of a lengthy injury report for the Bucs this week.
"There's always adversity in the world and it can be as big or as small as you make it," said Koetter. [Outsiders] don't always know how hard some of the guys fought just to play today. We had multiple guys when I got the initial injury report that they weren't going to make it [back for the game]. I'm proud of those guys for wanting to make it, number one. That says a lot right there. That was not a work of art, but you don't apologize for wins."
The Bucs' defense allowed its lowest point total since a 29-7 season-opening win over Chicago and gave up just 275 yards of offense. Five of the six sacks were recorded by defensive linemen – Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald, Darryl Tapp and Will Clarke – while linebacker Kendell Beckwith got the sixth. Beckwith also had two tackles, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit, while linebacker Kwon Alexander had four tackles, two quarterbacks hits, a pass defensed and the forced fumble off RB Bilal Powell that David recovered. That led to the last of Murray's three field goals.
David, Alexander and Beckwith were all over the field and, notably, tackled much better than they had in recent weeks.
"I thought those three linebackers in the middle of the defense really played well, all three of them," said Koetter.
Added David: "That's been the main focus," said David. "After watching last week's film, we were not at our best as a group, missed a lot of tackles. We challenged each other to come out here and do this today, and we did."
Neither team could get much going on offense in the first half, which ended in a 3-3 tie. Despite being provided excellent field position on three occasions – one thanks to a 44-yard Bernard Reedy punt return and another after Brent Grimes's interception – Tampa Bay's offense scored only a 17-play, 73-yard field goal drive in the first quarter. The Jets countered with Chandler Catanzaro's 47-yard field goal as the second quarter expired. The two teams combined for 213 first-half yards, 116 by the Jets, countered by 59 combined penalty yards.
The Buccaneers came out in the second half and established a better tone with a field goal drive to break the tie. Rookie wideout Chris Godwin, playing for a suspended Mike Evans, caught two passes for 28 yards to start the drive, part of a 68-yard day for him. Godwin also recovered the Jets' onside kick attempt at the end of the game to seal it.
"I had the opportunity to step into a bigger role and take advantage of it," said Godwin. "Every time I go out there is to help the team in every facet of the game. I felt like I did that."
The Jets opened the game at their own nine thanks to a good tackle on the kickoff by Freddie Martino and a holding penalty on the return team. They ended up punting from the same spot thanks to a holding penalty on second down and a subsequent pass break-up by Brent Grimes. Lachlan Edwards hit a short punt but it rolled a long way, coming to rest at the Bucs' 41.
The Bucs failed to get a first down as well despite a seven-yard run by Martin on first down and an impressive scramble by Fitzpatrick on third down. It turned into a net loss in field position as Bryan Anger tried to angle his kick out of bounds inside the five and instead caught the corner of the end zone for a touchback.
The Jets got another field position gain on a 21-yard by Powell but eventually punted from midfield. The Bucs' initial first down of the game came on a crossing-route pass to Jackson, with the receiver eluding several defenders to extend it to a 17-yard gain. Jackson later added another 22-yard catch down to the Jets' 11 after Fitzpatrick converted three straight third downs with sharp completions. However, the drive stalled there and the Bucs' settled for Murray's 29-yard field goal.
Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back quickly and Reedy flipped the field position with a 44-yard return of Edwards' 59-yard punt. That set the Bucs up right at midfield but the subsequent drive went nowhere and Anger punted it down to the Jets' 20. Two turnovers followed in short order, with CB Brent Grimes starting it with a pick on a deep pass down the middle. Grimes returned it 28 yards to the Jets' 32, but the Bucs gave it right back as Fitzpatrick went straight for the jugular. His pass down the middle was intended for Godwin but CB Darryl Roberts got to it first at the five-yard line.
The Bucs' defense did salvage the situation to some degree by forcing a quick punt from the 10-yard line, though Edwards' punt was blasted 58 yards and Tampa Bay started at its own 35. Once again, the drive stalled quickly and the Jets got another possession before the end of the half. A 20-yard catch by Anderson helped get the ball into Buccaneers territory but a sack by Clarke, who burst through the line untouched put the Jets into a third-and-14. McCown converted that with another 20-yarder to Anderson, who made a sliding catch at the 25 as the two-minute warning arrived. The Bucs blitzed on the next two plays and McCown took advantage of the second one with a dump over the middle to McGuire for 13. Safety Chris Conte nearly intercepted a pass intended for Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Beckwith sacked McCown back at the 20. A holding penalty on third down pushed the ball back to the 30 with 19 seconds left. A draw play gained just a yard and the Jets finished the half on Chandler Catanzaro's 47-yard field goal.
Tampa Bay started the second half with a 44-yard field goal drive ending in Murray's 49-yard kick. Two consecutive play-action passes to Godwin over the middle produced 25 yards, and Fitzgerald converted a third-and-nine with a 19-yard pass to Jackson before the drive stalled.
Tampa Bay's defense countered with a three-and-out, completed when Kwon Alexander's perfect blitz up the middle forced a quick throw that Beckwith broke up. Edwards hit the ensuing punt off the side of his foot and it rolled 37 yards to the Bucs' 31. Jackson caught an eight-yard pass to start the next drive and absorbed a personal-foul hit on the sideline that tacked on 15 more. That was as far as the drive got, however, and Anger's punt was fair caught at the Jets' nine.
Another three-and-out ensued, with David making the key stop on Powell on a third-and-one power run. However, the Bucs got nothing on their end, either, and punted it right back after three plays. It still worked out for the home team, as David made another big play, recovering a fumble by Powell that was caused by Alexander on a short third-down pass.
The Bucs had to challenge the initial ruling that Powell was down in order to get the takeaway. The reserved ruling gave it to them at the 50-yard line, and Fitzpatrick immediately found Godwin on the left sideline for a gain of 20. A long third-down and an interception were both erased by an illegal contact penalty on the Jets, making it first down at the Jets' 27. Fitzpatrick hit Jackson for nine yards on third down but that left the Bucs' two yards short of a first down and Murray came on to kick his third field goal, a 37-yarder to make it 9-3 with 29 seconds left in the third quarter.
Tapp's sack on the first play of the next drive helped force a quick punt, and the Bucs used the ensuing possession to chew the clock and go up by two scores. Fitzpatrick directed a 15-play, 81-yard drive that took 7:25 off the clock and ended in his six-yard rollout pass to Sims for the score. Sims also converted two other third downs on that drive, one on a quick slant and one on a toss-sweep that he took 21 yards to overcome a third-and-15. Doug Martin carried four straight times before the touchdown to get it from the 27 down to the six. The Bucs went for two in order to make it a 14-point lead by Fitzpatrick was stopped just short of the goal line on a scramble up the gut.
The Buccaneers played a soft defense to make the Jets run the clock, and that allowed McCown to direct his longest drive of the day. One play after he was sacked for a five-yard loss by McCoy, McCown hit Seferian-Jenkins over the middle for 28 yards into Buccaneer territory. However, the Bucs held and Grimes kept Anderson from getting a second foot inbounds on a deep pass to the back of the end zone on fourth-and-six.
After taking over on downs, Tampa Bay ran three times to burn the Jets last two timeouts and the two-minute warning but came up a yard short of moving the sticks and ending the game. That and a roughing-the-passer call on Chris Baker minutes later gave the Jets a shot to score and McCown hit Anderson on a 38-yard touchdown pass. That set up an onside kick attempt, which Godwin recovered cleanly.