As time goes on, Lovie Smith's Tampa Bay Buccaneers will need to develop more big-play ability in all three phases of the game. On Sunday, as the Buccaneers opened their 2015 season with a home game against the Tennessee Titans, it was the visitors who had all the big plays, and it didn't take them long to break them out.
A 52-yard touchdown catch by Kendall Wright on the game's opening drive was followed quickly by Coty Sensabaugh's 26-yard pick-six, an interception that came on Jameis Winston's first regular-season pass in the NFL. That began a 21-point run that put the Buccaneers into a serious hole before the game was 10 minutes old.
The end result was a 42-14 loss that represented the most points allowed in a season opener in franchise history. The Bucs allowed 41 points to Philadelphia in a 41-14 Week One Loss in 1988. Obviously, it dropped Tampa Bay to 0-1 on the young season, but the emphasis is on young. Smith's team has plenty of time to rebound from its surprising start, beginning with its first division game next Sunday in New Orleans.
"It was disappointing to us, but we have to keep this in perspective," said Smith. "We're very disappointed, embarrassed and all of that, by today's performance, but it is just one game. That's the only thing we can hang our hat on right now."
READ: BUCCANEERS FALL, 42-7
Even when the Buccaneers' defense made good plays to potentially cause a turnover, they couldn't quite get the ball back to the offense. After the Titans opened up their 14-0 lead, rookie LB Kwon Alexander jumped a short pass and nearly intercepted it with nothing but open field in front of him, but couldn't haul it in. In the third quarter, Tennessee's first scoring drive was nearly stopped when DT Henry Melton forced a fumble by RB Bishop Sankey, but the Titans managed to recover in the scrum. A third-down pass-interference call on Alterraun Verner in the end zone meant that drive, too, ended in points.
"There were a few big plays in the game, but on days like today the ball wasn't bouncing our way," said Smith. "What we can't do is let this one game beat us the next week. We'll take the shots right now and we should, but we'll bounce back."
Winston and Tennessee's Marcus Mariota squared off in the NFL's first-ever opening-day battle of rookie quarterbacks taken first and second in the draft. Winston finished with 16 completions in 33 attempts for 210 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He was sacked six times and hurried often. Mariota hit on 13 of his 16 passes for 209 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a maximum passer rating of 158.3. Winston actually ran more often than Mariota, with six carries for 18 yards to Mariota's two for six, but the threat of Mariota's legs seemed to help on a number of successful Tennessee plays out of the read-option and other play-action looks.
The play-action game, yes, gave us trouble today," said Smith. "It's one thing to stop the run but you've got to be able to make some plays when it is a play-action pass. Good throws on their part. You can't say that it's just how we played throughout the day. There were good passes on their part, as well."
The statistics, in the end, weren't overwhelmingly lopsided. Tennessee gained 309 yards to the Buccaneers' 273 and had 20 first downs to Tampa Bay's 16. Tampa Bay's defense didn't come up with any stops in the red zone on four tries, however, and the first touchdown of the game was an uncharacteristic one up the middle against a Cover Two look.
"Defensively, of course, we couldn't stop them, didn't get takeaways when it really counted," said Smith. "Offensively, we didn't get off to the start we wanted to, whether it be turnovers or not being able to move the football. Red zone, couldn't stop them. Gave up the first touchdown, shouldn't give up the big play and our coverage is designed not to. Nothing was good tonight."
And, of course, the Buccaneers lost the turnover battle, 2-1, with their lone takeaway coming in the fourth quarter long after the game was decided. Winston's interceptions were part of the reason the offense failed to find a groove, although it did look efficient on two long drives that led to Seferian-Jenkins touchdowns.
"I can't turn it over on the first possession; that's just something for me to learn from," said Winston. So I put us behind the eight-ball a little bit. But we bounced back. When we're playing Buccaneer football, we play well. Obviously, I've got to protect the football. But the guys played great; it was just a learning experience for me.
"It's just one game, that's the main thing. But for myself, like Coach Lovie Smith preaches, you've got to win the turnover ratio and tonight I put us behind the eight-ball but we're going to bounce back."
Alexander, starting at middle linebacker in his first regular-season NFL game, tied for the team lead with five tackles and added a tackle for loss and a pass defensed. DT Gerald McCoy and DE Jacquies Smith, the Bucs' two leading sack artists last year, had the team's two takedowns of Mariota. LB Lavonte David also had five tackles and the forced fumble that led to Tampa Bay's lone takeaway. The team's key defenders had some strong moments, as expected, but altogether it did not add up to a satisfying performance.
And while Winston's debut was not satisfying for him or the team, either, the Buccaneers don't feel any differently about their potential franchise quarterback than they did when the day began. As impressive as Mariota and the Titans were, the Buccaneers still expect great things from their own rookie passer.
"Their quarterback played better today," said Smith. "Their football team played better today. Their coach did a better job of coaching their football team than I did today. But it's today. This is one game. Let's not overreact to a bad performance. We're going to feel bad about this one and give them all their due credit, but it's no more than that. We have a guy that's perfect for us going forward."
Tennessee took the opening drive 89 yards for a touchdown, despite what appeared to be a strong start from the Bucs' defense. An unnecessary roughness call on S Major Wright got the Titans out of an early hole and a 22-yard Delanie Walker catch converted a third-and-10. Wright then split the Bucs' safeties on a play-action pass over the middle on the next play, racing 52 yards for the game's first score.
Sensabaugh's 26-yard pick-six three plays later put the Titans up by 14, and Tennessee got the ball back quickly on a three-and-out. Mariota then led the Titans on a 63-yard scoring drive that ended in a 12-yard swing pass to RB Bishop Sankey. The Bucs answered with a 12-play, 68-yard march that started with four straight Martin runs and ended with a bobbling 21-yard catch by Seferian-Jenkins followed by the tight end's five-yard score on third-and-goal.
The Bucs had two more chances to swing the momentum in the first half of the second quarter but saw consecutive close calls go against them. First, a safety on a Mariota fumble was disallowed when the quarterback was ruled in the grasp at the two. When the Bucs' offense got the ball back near midfield on the ensuing punt, a fourth-and-one conversion by Martin was overturned by a challenge that moved the ball back about half a yard.
Instead, Tennessee used the next drive to regain control of the game, driving 57 yards for a fourth touchdown on a four-yard catch by WR Harry Douglas. The big play was a third-and-six conversion on a 22-yard pass to Wright that appeared to be the result of a coverage mix-up in the Bucs' secondary. After a leaping interception by rookie LB Deiontrez Mount, the Titans managed to tack on another first-half touchdown on Mariota's two-yard TD pass to Walker.
Tennessee didn't relinquish control of the game's momentum in the third quarter, taking its first drive of the half 54 yards and a touchdown on Sankey's one-yard run. The Buccaneers didn't answer until the fourth quarter, after the Titans had pulled Mariota in favor of Zach Mettenberger. Tampa Bay's 72-play drive took eight plays, the last of which was a fourth-and-one conversion from the Tennessee 41. Winston got the first down with a quick-hitter down the seam to Seferian-Jenkins, and the second-year tight end turned it into a scoring play by breaking away from two Titan defenders.
Additional In-Game Details:
The Bucs' special teams got off to a great start with Brindza hitting a high kickoff six yards into the end zone and Bruce Carter stopping Sankey at the Tennessee 11. However, a hard hit by Major Wright on first down drew an unnecessary roughness call and gave the Titans 15 yards. Tampa Bay's defense quickly forced a third-and-10 but Mariota found Walker over the middle for a gain of 22, nearly to midfield. On the next play, Mariota faked a draw play and hit Wright on a seam pass for a 52-yard touchdown.
The Bucs ram on their first two plays, with Martin getting a total of seven yards on two carries. Winston's first pass in the regular season couldn't have gone much worse, as he failed to get enough air under a lob to Adam Humphries on third-and-three, allowing it to be picked off by Sensabaugh and returned 26 yards for a touchdown.
After a Bucs' three-and-out, Mariota needed six plays to drive his team 63 yards for a third score, this time finishing on Sankey's 12-yard TD catch. Tampa Bay responded by giving the ball repeatedly to Martin, who gained 36 yards on four consecutive carries. Then, facing a fourth-and-one at the Tennessee 26, the Bucs faked a handoff and had Winston look downfield. When nothing opened up, Winston took off on a five-yard run that kept the drive alive. Seferian-Jenkins' amazing bobbling catch of a tipped pass made up for a seven-yard loss on a botched exchange and made it first-and-goal at the seven. Three snaps later, on the first play of the second quarter, Winston escaped pressure, scrambled up and to the right and lobbed a five-yard touchdown pass to Seferian-Jenkins.
McCoy's first sack of the 2015 season killed Tennessee's next drive. It actually appeared to lead to a safety, as McCoy popped the ball out of Mariota's hands and it was recovered by Tennessee in the end zone. However, the officials ruled that Mariota was in the grasp at the two and placed the ball there. The Bucs stopped a third-and-28 run and got the ball back near midfield after the ensuing punt.
Tampa Bay quickly faced a fourth-and-one on the other side of the midfield stripe and went for it with a simple run up the middle by Martin. He got just enough to move the sticks, or so it seemed. Tennessee challenged, the officials moved the ball back a half-yard and the resulting measurement went in the other direction.
After the Titans drove 57 yards for another touchdown, the Bucs got their next drive started with an 18-yard catch by WR Vincent Jackson and Winston's eight-yard scramble. However, on third-and-two, Mount slipped as he began his pass-rush and was thus in position to leap up and pick off what was supposed to be a lob to RB Charles Sims. The Titans turned that into another score, Walker's two-yard score on a third-and-goal pass.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half and immediately struck with a 15-yard pass to Jackson, but went backward from there. After a holding call on Gosder Cherilus, Winston suffered back-to-back sacks and Tampa Bay faced a third-and-42. A third-down incompletion led to a punt.
Tennessee continued its onslaught thanks in part to a poorly-timed penalty against the Bucs. On third-and-six from the 17, Mariota overthrew WR Justin Hunter in the end zone but Verner drew a pass-interference call and Sankey ran it in from the one on the next play.