Photos from the Buccaneers vs. Rams game at the Edward Jones Dome.
The 2015 Tampa Bay Buccaneers got their first opportunity to play in prime time on Thursday in St. Louis, but unfortunately they got started too late.
A furious rally in the fourth quarter led by rookie QB Jameis Winston wasn't enough to avoid a 31-23 loss to the Rams that all but extinguished the Buccaneers' playoff hopes. Tampa Bay scored 17 points and rang up 283 yards of offense in the final period but were unable to make up for a sluggish start that saw the home team build a 21-3 halftime lead and a 28-6 edge through three quarters.
In the end, the Buccaneers had 509 yards of offense and a team record-tying 30 first downs despite converting just three of 10 third-down attempts. Winston completed 29 of 50 throws for 363 yards – all career highs – and threw fourth-quarter touchdown passes to tight ends Luke Stocker and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but he took little satisfaction in his first NFL 300-yard performance.
"We just got back to playing like we usually play," said Winston of the Bucs' fourth-quarter explosion. "The first half was definitely my fault. I didn't play good enough in the first half for us to be successful in the second half. I've just got to play better. I can't put us in that predicament."
Indeed, the Buccaneers had just 130 yards at the intermission and Winston had completed just six passes for 49 yards. Their only consistent offensive weapon for the first three quarters was RB Doug Martin, who finished the game with 91 yards on 18 carries but was once again marginalized in the second half due to the scoreboard imbalance. Winston was not sacked but he did face intense pressure throughout the first half.
More surprising was the 319 yards and 31 points put up by a Rams offense that ranked 32nd in yards and 31st in points coming into the game. The Bucs were playing without several defensive starters, including middle linebacker Bruce Carter and defensive tackle Akeem Spence, but still expected to generate more pressure on untested QB Case Keenum. Keenum was sacked just twice and generally had plenty of time to complete 14 of 17 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. The Rams opened up a quick 14-3 lead thanks to a perfectly-executed screen pass to WR Tavon Austin and a 60-yard touchdown to Kenny Britt in the first quarter.
"We let them get behind us in situations where we shouldn't," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "It's a good job by them, but we just didn't challenge them enough on some of those [plays]. It's kind of simple as that."
After winning three of four games to get to 6-6 and open December in the thick of the playoff race, the Buccaneers have dropped two straight to sub-.500 teams. While they have not been officially eliminated from postseason contention, it would take an unlikely confluence of events to extend the Buccaneers' season. Smith had hoped the Buccaneers would continue their upward momentum in the fourth quarter of the season but the team will likely have to wait another year to achieve its playoff goals.
"Whenever you lose, of course, it hurts, but so much was at stake you just want to play better football," he said. "I thought we would play better start to finish. We had opportunities, did a few good things along the way, offensively a lot of yards and all that, but not enough points. Defensively, you've got to be able to not give up big touchdown passes, trick plays. You've got to be able to play some of those plays better. It's a disappointing loss for us. We've made a lot of progress throughout, but tonight we didn't see a whole lot to be excited about.
"The message tonight is that it's a disappointing loss. That happens when you play like that. Long-term message a little bit, we've come up short. We're headed in the right direction but we're not there yet. Along the way to becoming a championship team we have to keep building. We're not there yet but we'll get there."
Tampa Bay's defense did effectively bottle up standout rookie RB Todd Gurley for much of the night, allowing him just 48 yards on 21 carries, though Gurley did score the Rams' third touchdown on a three-yard run in the second quarter. They had worse luck against Austin, who also scored on a 21-yard end-around in the third quarter and accounted for 73 yards from scrimmage. The Bucs also gave up several big plays on special teams, including kickoff returns of 44 and 101 yards by Benny Cunningham. The latter runback, in the fourth quarter, set up a short Greg Zuerlein field goal for the Rams' final points.
Will Gholston led the Bucs' defense with 11 tackles, including one for a loss. What the Bucs did not get was a single turnover. After taking the ball away at least once for 17 straight games, dating back to the 2014 season, the Buccaneers' defense has forced just one turnover over the last four contests.
The Rams needed just three minutes to start the scoring, driving 57 yards on the opening possession for a touchdown on a 17-yard screen pass to WR Tavon Austin. The Bucs' first score was a 53-yard field goal by Connor Barth on their second drive of the game. Unfortunately, the Rams immediately countered with another seven points on Keenum's 60-yard touchdown pass to WR Kenny Britt.
After a promising Buccaneer drive ended in a failed fourth-down run by Martin inside the Rams' 25, St. Louis drove 75 yards for a third touchdown, this one on a three-yard run by Gurley, giving the home team a 21-3 lead at halftime.
Winston drove the Bucs into the red zone on the opening possession of the second half, but the drive stalled there and the Bucs settled for another Barth field goal. Once again, the Rams countered immediately with seven points, driving 83 yards on seven plays to set up Austin's second score on a 24-yard end-around.
After a fumbled exchange between Winston and Martin got the ball back for the Rams at midfield, the Bucs' defense forced a punt that was downed at their own two-yard line. Winston suddenly got hot, driving the team the full 98 yards on four plays, all completions. Two went to Evans for a total of 50 yards and the third hit WR Donteea Dye down the middle for 47 yards to the Rams' one. Dye didn't realize the play had not been ruled dead, and instead of walking into the end zone he flipped the ball away for what was technically a fumble. TE Luke Stocker fell on it for the Buccaneers and Winston rewarded Stocker with a three-yard touchdown pass on the next play.
However, Benny Cunningham took the ensuing kickoff 101 yards to the Bucs' three, setting up a 19-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal to make it 31-13 with 11 minutes to play. Tampa Bay rallied but an onside kick in the game's final two minutes failed and the Rams were able to run out the clock.
Additional notes and in-game details:
- RB Doug Martin took over the NFL's rushing-yardage lead in the first quarter on a 12-yard run. He entered the game 37 yards behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and made that up on his first six carries. Martin eventually finished with 91 yards to give him 1,305 on the season.
- Those 1,305 rushing yards now stand as the third-highest single season mark in franchise history, behind Martin's own 1,454 in 2012 and James Wilder's team-record 1,544 in 1984. On Thursday, Martin moved past Wilder's 1,300-yard season in 1985 and Ricky Bell's 1,263-yard performance in 1979.
- Martin's 91-yard day also advanced him up the Buccaneers' career rushing list. He now has 3,709 yards in four seasons, fourth-most in team history, moving past Cadillac Williams (3,677) into fourth place.
- Connor Barth gave the Bucs their first points of the game with a 53-yard field goal in the first quarter. That was his 15th field goal of 50 or more yards as a Buccaneer, tying Martin Gramatica for most in team history.
- Jameis Winston's three-yard touchdown pass to TE Luke Stocker in the fourth quarter completed a four-play, 98-yard scoring drive. That equaled the longest scoring drive in franchise history, marking the fourth time the Bucs have done that. The other three: vs. Seattle on Dec. 26, 2010, ending in Josh Freeman's 21-yard TD pass to Kellen Winslow; at New Orleans on Dec. 27, 2009, ending in Cadillac Williams' 23-yard run; and vs. Carolina on Dec. 30, 2007, ending in Luke McCown's 23-yard TD pass to Michael Bennett.
- St. Louis started the game with a 44-yard kickoff return by RB Benny Cunningham. That was the longest kickoff return allowed by the Buccaneers in 2015 until Cunningham got to the Bucs' three on a 101-yard return in the fourth quarter.
- The Rams got off to a good start with a 44-yard return by Benny Cunningham on the game's opening kickoff. Starting at their own 43, the Rams got across midfield on an 11-yard catch by TE Lance Kendricks, then into the red zone on a 19-yard catch-and-run by Gurley. Two plays later, a perfectly blocked screen pass to Austin put the Rams into the end zone just three minutes into the game.
Tampa Bay started with two handoffs to Martin, after a touchback, and netted 11 yards and a first down. His third run went for nine yards, his fourth and fifth for five each. After a first-pass incompletion for Winston, the Bucs faced third-and-five at the midfield stripe. A seam pass to Evans missed and the Bucs had to punt.
After a fair catch at the 15, William Gholston stopped Gurley on a two-yard run and the Rams committed a false start penalty. Gurley's second-down run got the ball back to the original line of scrimmage. The Bucs brought a big blitz on third-and-10 and forced a desperate throw-away by Keenum, followed by a punt.
The Bucs started at their own 30 and got a quick 10 yards on a play-action rollout pass to Adam Humphries. Martin burst up the middle for 12 more on the next snap to get to the Rams' 39, but after another four-yard run the next two passes were incomplete. The Bucs brought Connor Barth out to try a 53-yard field goal and he booted it through to cut the Rams' lead to four points.
St. Louis answered immediately with an 82-yard scoring drive, most of it coming on a 60-yard bomb from Keenum to Kenny Britt down the left sideline. Unfortunately, the Bucs followed with a three-and-out, with Martin getting seven yards on two carries but a third-down pass immediately falling apart in the face of a massive rush. Winston was flagged for intentional grounding, making the Bucs punt from their own 17.
Tampa Bay's defense got a three-and-out on the ensuing Rams possession but Johnny Hekker rolled his punt down to the Bucs' four-yard line. An illegal formation moved the ball back to the two but a four-yard run by Martin and a quick slant to Mike Evans made it third-and-one. Martin moved the sticks with a five-yard run, but a downfield pass in the direction of TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins was well-covered and incomplete. Martin took a toss for eight yards and Winston converted the short third down with a throw over the middle to Evans for 10 yards. Another 19-yard strike to Evans got the ball into Rams territory, and Sims ran 13 yards down to the 32. A third-down scramble by Winston came up just short of a first down at the St. Louis 23 and the Bucs chose to go for it on fourth down. Unfortunately, Donald broke through the line and caught Martin for a loss of two yards, ending the drive.
On the Rams' ensuing possession, Keenum converted a third-and-five with a precise 17-yard sideline pass to TE Jared Cook at the Bucs' 40. A screen to Gurley picked up 12 more, and a personal foul on Gholston after the next snap put it at the Bucs' 13. Three plays later, Gurley scored on a third-and-one run from the three to make it 21-3 with two minutes left in the half.
The Bucs went nowhere with their next possession and a short punt by Jacob Schum gave the Rams another shot from midfield with 1:10 left before the break. Lansanah nearly intercepted Keenum's next pass and Howard Jones and Gerald McCoy combined for a 12-yard sack on the next play. A Cunningham run brought the half to a close.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half and a personal foul on Rams CB Janoris Jenkins helped get the ball close to midfield. A downfield completion to Evans was then wiped out by an illegal formation penalty, and another sideline pass to Evans was challenged by the Rams. This one stood for a gain of 16 to the Rams' 37, and Humphries got another 14 when he dived for a catch then got up and ran another five yards to the 23. Two plays later, Winston barely escaped a sack and found Stocker for 14 yards to the Rams' six. A loss of three by Martin and a delay-of-game penalty moved the ball back to the 14 and two incompletions followed. Tampa Bay had to settle for another Barth field goal, this one a 32-yarder that cut the Rams' lead to 21-6.
A 25-yard vertical seam pass to Cook got St. Louis into Buccaneer territory on their first possession of the second half and two plays later Austin got 11 yards and a first down at the Bucs' 24. Austin finished the drive with his second touchdown, a 24-yard end around.
Winston converted a third-and-six with a 20-yard pass to Mike Evans, and Martin got the ball across midfield with a 17-yard breakaway. However, Winston fumbled on the next snap and the Rams recovered at their own 46. The Buccaneers' defense forced a punt after that takeaway but it was downed inside the five-yard line once again.
From the two-yard line, Winston faked a handoff and hit Evans for 20 yards on the right sideline. Winston went right back to Evans for 30 yards on the next play, then fired deep over the middle to Dye for 47 yards to the Rams' three. That play nearly ended in disaster when Dye, not realizing he hadn't been touched down, got up and flipped the ball away. That was a fumble, but fortunately a hustling Stocker fell on it at the three. Stocker was rewarded on the next play with a quick pass from Winston for his first touchdown of the year.
The good feelings from that drive lasted only a few seconds as Cunningham raced 101 yards on the ensuing kickoff to the Bucs' three. The Rams tried Gurley three times to try to put it in the end zone but the Bucs held and the home team settled for a 19-yard field goal and a 31-13 lead with 11 minutes to play.
Two completions to Humphries and a 35-yard run by Sims got the ball to the Rams' 13 in short order. Seferian-Jenkins caught a pass in the middle and extended the ball to the one-yard line to make it first-and-goal, but he also flipped the ball away and earned a delay-of-game penalty. That moved the ball back to the six, and two incompletions made it third-and-goal.