The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a relatively productive day on offense in Jameis Winston's return to the lineup on Sunday in Green Bay, gaining 395 net yards and 25 first downs and converting nine of 16 third-down tries. A robust running game helped, with Peyton Barber leading the way to a team season-high 165 rushing yards, but Winston also threw for 270 yards and two touchdowns as the Buccaneers lost in overtime, 26-20.
Surprisingly, only 57 of those 270 yards were compiled by the dangerous starting-wideout duo of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, on a total of four catches. Evans didn't make his first reception of the game until the fourth quarter, in fact.
Instead, the offense went through the running backs and tight ends on Sunday…all of the running backs and tight ends. In addition to his 102 rushing yards, Barber led the team with 41 receiving yards. Third-down back Charles Sims had several key receptions – including another one late in the fourth that was critically erased by a penalty – and all four tight ends on the roster caught at least one pass. Tight end Cameron Brate scored both of the team's touchdowns, and the one wideout who was frequently involved was the slot receiver, Adam Humphries. Ten different Bucs caught a pass in the game, but none more than four, and none for more than 41 yards.
That was a function of Green Bay's defensive approach to the game, and also an example of what the Bucs believed they had as a passing attack when the season began: An answer for any opposing strategy, and a quarterback who can make the answer work. If the opposition wants to focus on limiting Evans and Jackson, the Buccaneers have enough talent elsewhere to move the ball in other ways. It hasn't always worked that way this season, but it did in Green Bay.
"Their game plan so to speak was that they played a lot more two-deep-five-under zone and two-deep-man-under zone," explained Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Usually when teams do that, in essence, they're trying to double your wideouts, so you've got to do something else. We got O.J. [Howard] down the middle once. We got Cam a couple times.
"The other thing in zone coverage is your screen game and on your outside screens – we got a third down on an outside screen to Humphries. We got two first downs on outside screens to Chuck [Sims]. We always have somewhere between five and eight screens in a game plan. I thought we even left some out there. In that drive right before the half, we had first down on about the 17 or 18-yard line and man, it was set up nice. They were in zone and we got like one yard out of it and we had two guys out there to block one. That's the best our screen game has been in recent weeks and we work hard on it. We try to be a good screen team, but that is one of the byproducts of them trying to take away your wideouts."
Of course, we call that a relatively productive day because, as has been the case in several games this season, the Bucs were not able to convert a high yardage total into a correspondingly high number on the scoreboard. A blocked punt and a fumble-return touchdown helped Green Bay build a 17-7 advantage before the Buccaneers came back to take the lead in the fourth quarter, 20-17. Unfortunately, the home team had the last laugh, putting together a field goal drive to tie the game and taking the only possession of overtime in for the winning touchdown.
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Before those last two Green Bay scoring drives, the Buccaneers had a massive edge in total yardage, 397 to 136. Better work in the red zone could have turned that edge into a bigger lead, so that Green Bay's late-game comeback was moot. The Bucs converted just one of three drives inside the 20 into a touchdown, settling for a field goal on the other two. A botched snap on third-and-goal at the three led to one of those field goals, though the team did overcome a fumbled handoff later to score on third-and-11. The promising but unfulfilled screen pass that Koetter describes was a short pass to Barber out to the right, with two Buc linemen pulling to block linebacker Blake Martinez, the Packers' leading tackler. Martinez beat the double-team and stopped Barber for a gain of just one on what looked like a potential touchdown. Instead, it gained one yard to the Packers' 18, two incompletions followed and the Bucs settled for a field goal just before halftime.
The Buccaneers' target in red zone play is to score a touchdown 60% of the time, but a recent run of struggles in that area – six TDs in 16 trips over the last four weeks – has seen the team drop to 24th in the league in that department, at 48.7%.
"We had a nice drive right before half, had a good opportunity to get a touchdown right before half [and] didn't," said Koetter. "Had to kick a field goal. There is another four points. Then at the end of the game – before the touchdown drive – the drive before that we had to settle for a field goal. Again, a couple good opportunities. Those two back-to-back series in the third quarter and our defense had very little to do with that. That's how you can have all those numbers – time of possession, first downs, third downs – you can have a lot of numbers. It shouldn't have added up to 21 points. That's a game where you need to be scoring in the 30s and then it's not an issue at the end."
When the Buccaneers did find the end zone, it was through Brate, who now leads the team with six touchdowns on the season. One of those was on a play snapped in the red zone, one on a play just outside the red zone. It probably is no coincidence that Winston's return coincided with Brate scoring again after six games without a touchdown.
"There is something about Jameis and Cam in the red zone," said Koetter. "To be honest, that drive right before the half when we had to kick the field goal, we had a great chance of hitting Cam on another touchdown and Jameis overthrew it a little bit. There is just something – Cam and Jameis have a good feel for each other down there."
At 4-8, the Buccaneers are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff hunt, but the final month of the season is an opportunity to find an offensive rhythm that had started to develop early in the season before Winston's first shoulder injury. The Bucs still need to find better answers when they get inside the 20 – and they likely will – but it's clear that the range of offensive weapons the team believed it had assembled heading into the season is there and capable of countering any defensive strategy.