The Tampa Bay Buccaneers tried to make some sweet music in Nashville on Sunday but it seemed like every good riff ended in a sour note. Turnovers, penalties and failed red zone sequences kept the Bucs off the charts – at 2-5, the playoffs appear to be a long shot – by sending them to a 27-23 loss to the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium.
Head Coach Bruce Arians was clearly frustrated after the game, and he began his press briefing by pointing to a whistle that negated what could have been ruled a 72-yard fumble return by safety Andrew Adams. Arians also emphasized some key route-running mistakes by the Buccaneers receivers and the defense's inability to stop two late Tennessee drives. However, Arians didn't concede the Bucs' season or turn his attention to next week's trade deadline despite the team's record.
"I don't play for next year," said the coach. "Are you guaranteed next year? I'm not. I'm trying to win every damn game we play, so I don't give a [care] about next year. I don't give a [care] about trades; I want to beat Seattle."
The Bucs lost their third game in a row, the first time any team coached by Arians has done that. Yet he knew the team was still invested in the season after several players spoke up in the postgame locker room.
"[We have to] finish," said Arians. "Finish the game, finish the game. I didn't have to say a word when we came in [to the locker room]. The true leaders did all the talking. I didn't have to say a thing."
The Buccaneers overcame an error-filled start to take a 23-17 lead in the third quarter on the second of Jameis Winston's two touchdown passes to Mike Evans. Evans made a collection of acrobatic sideline catches – and also drew a 43-yard pass-interference call on the first drive of the game – as the Bucs racked up 389 total yards but were just two-for-four in the red zone. Evans finished with 198 yards on 111 catches. Winston completed 21 of 43 passes for 301 yards and those two scores but was also picked off twice and credited with two lost fumbles. The first fumble came on an early snap that hit him the facemask, and Arians didn't think the blame for the picks belonged to his quarterback, either.
"Everybody's going to say, 'Okay, Jameis threw interceptions,'" said Arians. "Jameis didn't throw one damn interception that was his fault. The receivers let him down today. Guys stopped on routes that were supposed to be going down the middle. The last was supposed to go down the middle, should have been a big play. He played his tail off. Not one of those interceptions was his fault, and it's a damn shame."
The final interception was on a deep ball intended for Breshad Perriman as the Buccaneers were in desperation mode in the closing seconds with no timeouts left. They had a much better scoring opportunity on the previous possession but saw it end when Peyton Barber's run on fourth-and-one was stopped short. Winston was in the shotgun on the play and Arians said the Buccaneers had both a run and a pass call ready depending on what coverage the Titans played. The coverage dictated a run but it failed due to a missed block on the back side, according to Arians.
The Bucs might have been able to win with a field goal on that fourth-down play if they had not had to kick on two early first-and-goal chances.
"We wasted some opportunities," said Arians. "The turnovers early in the game, we fought back. Anything that happens early in the game you can overcome it. The big drive and two interceptions that were called back – it's frustrating."
The Buccaneers were the first team to score more than 20 points against the Tennessee defense this year but it wasn't enough as Ryan Tannehill threw a trio of touchdown passes. Tannehill made his second start in place of former first-round pick Marcus Mariota, and the Titans are 2-0 in those games to improve to 4-4 on the season. The Bucs' defense, showing significantly improved coverage on the edges, made it hard for Tannehill to get the ball to his wideouts but they had no answer for tight ends Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser, who combined for 121 yards and a touchdown on nine catches.
Still, the Bucs had a six-point lead near the end of the third quarter. The Titans got within three on a Cody Parkey field goal and then drove 90 yards on 12 plays to set up Tannehill's eight-yard, third-down touchdown pass to rookie WR A.J. Brown. Winston fumbled on a sack on the next drive but the Bucs got it back when the Titans tried a fake field goal and failed. That was the play on which Adams picked up the loose ball and ran the other way, but the officials ruled that punter Brett Kerns was down before he lost the ball.
Linebacker Lavonte David, who led the Bucs with 12 tackles and a pass defensed, said the difference came down to "grit."
"Just grit, man. Just grit," said David. "Opportunities where we could stop them on defense down by the red zone. They scored twice on third down. There are things we've got to fill in. They made plays. That's a game we should have had, but that's like beating a dead horse. We're just tired of being in this situation."
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 8 matchup against Tennessee.
Added Arians: "It is very frustrating because that's how you win on the road. Your defense has to win it when you fight back from what we did early in the game. Your defense has got to when the game and we just didn't make some plays."
The Bucs' defense saw the return of outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul from the reserve/NFI list, and Pierre-Paul recorded a sack on the very first play he was on the field. Shaq Barrett and Carl Nassib also sacked Tannehill in the game, helping the Bucs hold the Titans to just 246 yards of offense.
"I kept asking him, 'Are you playing too much?'" said Arians of Pierre-Paul. "He said, 'No, I'm not playing enough.' It's amazing what he did early and it's great to have him back out there."
Throughout the first half, the Buccaneers tried repeatedly to grab the game's momentum, only to give it right back over and over again, often with self-inflicted wounds. A pass-interference penalty on the game's first drive made it first-and-goal at the four but the Bucs couldn't punch it in and settled for a field goal. Tampa Bay's defense then got a quick three-and-out keyed by a Pierre-Paul sack, only to commit a penalty on four of the next six plays, sandwiched around a Winston fumble on a premature snap. The next play was a Titans touchdown.
Still down just 7-3, the Buccaneers pinned Tennessee at its own one-yard line with a brilliant Bradley Pinion punt, only to have Derrick Henry burst through a stacked line for a 34-yard gain to erase the field position advantage. Rookie CB Sean Murphy-Bunting made a key pass breakup on third down to kill that drive, but the Bucs' offense immediately followed with a false start and then an interception when Winston missed Chris Godwin badly down the left seam. Arians said that Godwin ran the wrong route on the play. The Titans turned that turnover into another touchdown and a 14-3 lead before the first quarter was over.
The Buccaneers had a chance to tie it up in the second quarter after Matt Gay hit a 48-yarder for the second of his three field goals and T.J. Logan took a punt return 40 yards to the Titans' 34. However, gaining another first-and-goal at the five the Buccaneers once again gave that momentum back when Perriman went in motion and ran into Dare Ogunbowale right after Ogunbowale took a draw handoff from the four. The Bucs settled for another Gay field goal and the Titans immediately got to midfield on a 45-yard kickoff return by Khalid Raymond. That resulted in a 51-yard Cody Parkey field goal that restored the Titans' eight-point lead, though the Bucs responded with a quick 75-yard touchdown drive to make it a two-point game at the half. Even that momentum swing – felt most when Evans made another dazzling catch on a broken play – ended with a two-point conversion try that just missed tying the game.
The Buccaneers opened the game with a 71-yard drive ending in Matt Gay's 22-yard field goal. The three-pointer was set up by a 43-yard pass interference penalty on CB LeShaun Sims after Evans beat him off the line and Winston went for the big play. That put the ball on the four-yard line, but one Barber run and two incompletions failed to get the ball over the line. Before the deep shot, Winston directed an up-tempo quick-hitting attack that produced two first downs on the first four plays, the last a short strike over the middle to Godwin on which the receiver broke a tackle to get 12.
Tampa Bay's defense followed with a quick three-and-out, aided greatly by a four-yard sack by Pierre-Paul on his very first play of the season. However, after a holding penalty on the ensuing punt pushed the ball back to the Bucs' 18, Tampa Bay then committed the game's first turnover on a fumbled snap, which appeared to come a moment earlier than expected, hitting Winston in the facemask. Isaiah Mack recovered for the Titans at the Bucs' 10, and after an offsides penalty, Tannehill needed just one play to get the ball in the end zone on a five-yard pass to TE Jonnu Smith.
The Bucs' next drive crossed midfield but stalled at the 45, followed by a Pinion punt that special teams ace Ryan Smith downed at the Titans' one-yard line. Unfortunately, big-play specialist Henry started the ensuing drive by breaking through a scrum in the middle for 34 yards. The Bucs forced a punt but quickly committed the game's second turnover when Winston sailed a pass far over Godwin's head. It was easily intercepted by Malcolm Butler, who returned it to the Bucs' three-yard line. Three plays later, Tannehill lobbed a fade over Carlton Davis and into the hands of Tajae Sharpe, who got two feet down for the Titans' second touchdown.
The Buccaneers answered with a scoring drive of their own but again settled for three points. Winston managed much of the 45-yard drive with his feet, beginning with a great third-down scramble play on which he directed Cam Brate into an open spot for a 12-yard throw to midfield. After overcoming a holding penalty and a first-and-20 with a 15-yard strike to Evans and his own fourth-and-one QB sneak, Winston got another first down with two more scrambles. However, the drive ended on a sack by Jurrell Casey and the Bucs settled for Gay's 48-yarder to make it 14-6 with eight minutes left in the first half.
Logan provided a spark moments later with his 40-yard punt return to the Titans' 34-yard line. Evans made a spinning contortionist catch for 29 yards down to the five but the Bucs once again failed to punch it, most notably on the third-and-goal play on which Perriman ran into Ogunbowale. Gay's third field goal made it a five-point game. The Titans got that back before halftime on Parkey's long shot following Raymond's kickoff return, though Shaq Barrett's third-down sack kept it from being worse.
Even better, Winston used the last minute of the first half to drive the Bucs 75 yards on eight plays for their first touchdown. The big gain was another stunning sideline catch by Evans for 46 yards on a scramble play. The Bucs fell into third-and-goal from the nine but Winston once again ran away from pressure and found Evans for the score. The Bucs went for two and a halftime tie but Perriman couldn't quite get his feet down at the edge of the end zone sideline.
After the Bucs' defense forced a quick punt to start the second half, Winston once again engineered a quick-strike touchdown drive, and once again the bulk of it was gained on a deep throw in Evans' direction. This one was a nifty 43-yard catch over Kenny Vaccaro on the left sideline, taking the ball down to the Titans 13. After a well-executed middle screen to Peyton Barber made it first-and-goal at the two Winston threw a perfect fade to Evans for his second score. The Bucs went for two and Godwin hauled it in just over the goal line to give the Bucs a six-point lead, 23-17.
Evans' second score was the 47th of his career (46 receiving, one fumble recovery), moving him past James Wilder (46) on the Bucs' all-time list. Only Mike Alstott, with 71, has more. That same catch was also the 431st of Evans' career, moving him past Wilder for first place all-time on that franchise chart.
The Titans scored next to make it a three-point game just before the end of the third quarter. Parkey's 42-yard field goal ended a 68-yard drive that included two Carlton Davis interceptions overturned by penalties, the second his own defensive pass interference call that Arians unsuccessfully challenged. Davis also broke up a potential touchdown pass in the end zone just before the Titans had to settle for the field goal.
However, Tennessee took its next possession all the way, driving 90 yards on 12 plays to set up Tannehill's eight-yard touchdown pass to rookie A.J. Brown. Moments later, Harold Landry swatted the ball out of Winston's hand as he was starting a throw, resulting in a fumble that Landry recovered himself at the Bucs' 36. The Bucs' defense forced a fourth down at their own 28 and the Titans sent out their field goal unit but then attempted the fake. Rookie LB Devin White got to punter Brett Kern short of the sticks as Kern tried to run it around left end.