Once a season, the bye week offers each NFL team a chance to bask in the glow of victory or lick the wounds of defeat for a little longer than usual. Unfortunately, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fall into that latter category in 2019.
The Buccaneers began their 2019 bye week on Monday, not long after arriving back in Tampa at 3:00 a.m. at the end of a transatlantic flight. The team held meetings to review its turnover-marred 37-26 loss to Carolina at London's Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, but that will be the only day of work for the players until next Monday.
At its most basic, whether a team is coming off a win or a loss, the bye week is a time to rest, recover from injuries big and small and clear the mind for the long remaining regular-season grind – in the Buccaneers' case, 10 more games. But the Bucs are coming off two straight losses, one in New Orleans that killed the momentum of a rousing win in Los Angeles and the latest in London in which the specter of Jameis Winston's turnovers reared its head again.
Asked if this bye week came at a good time for Winston, who has season take a downturn after three very strong performances in Weeks 2-4, Head Coach Bruce Arians said that was the case for all of his players.
"I think the Bye Week helps a bunch of us," said Arians. "This travel has been tough. We need the rest because we've got two more [road games in a row] – and one long trip again – against really good football teams. So, yeah, we needed this right now."
The Bucs are halfway through an unprecedented 48 days away from their home stadium. They are 1-2 on a six-week, five-game road swing (including the London contest, which counted as a home game), with two more away games coming at Tennessee in Week Eight and Seattle in Week Nine. The first thing the bye week will do will allow the players to shake off the fatigue of an overseas trip and give the coaches a little extra time to prepare for the Titans.
There is more that can be accomplished during this bye week and then the extra-long week of preparation for Tennessee, however. That includes looking at potential personnel changes that could help the team get back on track. One of those will not be at quarterback, despite Winston's five-interception, six-turnover day against the Panthers. Arians was asked on Sunday if he considered a mid-game change at quarterback and answered with a flat no. Posed the same question with the rest of the season in mind, Arians was just as direct: "Not at all."
However, there is a likely depth chart change that is among the points of emphasis for the Buccaneers during this year's bye week. Those include:
1. Find an answer at the punt return spot.
Bobo Wilson muffed two punts in the row in the fourth quarter, and while he recovered the first one himself the second one ended up in the Panthers' possession at the Bucs' 17. Tampa Bay would have had the ball down by a two-score margin (34-18) with 10 minutes to play; instead, the Panthers kicked a field goal and went back up by a three-score margin with eight minutes left.
That turnover hurt but Arians said his motivation had more to do with what the Bucs weren't getting out of the punt return unit: Yards. Wilson is averaging 2.8 yards on 15 punt returns so far.
"The biggest thing right now would be just punt returner," said Arians of his potential lineup musings. "It's not as much the muffs as it is the lack of production."
Arians noted after Sunday's game that nobody had yet stepped up to take the punt return job away from Wilson, but it seems like at least three players are going to get more of an opportunity to do so in the next two weeks.
"I've got a couple of candidates – T.J. Logan, Vernon [Hargreaves], Scotty [Miller], maybe," said Arians. "Bobo's fearless, but he hasn't dropped them [in previous games]. He also hasn't been productive with his fearlessness – he's only averaging about three yards – so that's something we have to look at."
Arians will have to rely on what he sees in practice if he's going to pick a new punt returner, because those three candidates have a combined five NFL punt returns, all belonging to Hargreaves back in his 2016 rookie season. Logan is the team's kickoff returner but hasn't tried his hand at punts yet. Miller, the sixth-round rookie receiver who has recently become more involved on offense in Breshad Perriman's absence, has been alternating reps with Miller on punt returns in practice but obviously has yet to get a shot on Sundays.
2. Fix a lack of preparation.
Other than the therapeutic affects a full week off, this will have to be addressed when the players return for a bonus practice on Monday. Arians spoke with the players on Monday morning and let them know that the mistakes that are costing them games they could have otherwise won are the result of not being adequately prepared. That's the message he wanted to leave them with during the long bye.
"Learn how to prepare better," said Arians. "We're still making way too many mental errors in critical situations."
In the bigger sense, those errors are synonymous with the seven turnovers the Bucs committed against the Panthers, a number that virtually assures a team of taking a loss. But Arians made it clear that there were a number of parties involved in creating those turnovers, so that a smaller error (for example, a missed blitz pick-up by a running back), leads to the obvious mistake (an interception when the quarterback is hit while throwing).
"Receivers, offensive line, running backs and quarterbacks all had a hand in every single one [of the turnovers]," said Arians. "Running back, protection-wise, might have been the worst it's been. We'll do a better job of finding our guys and blocking them next time, but it's not all on the quarterback. A lot of it is [on the quarterback] – I'm not going to shy away from that either."
Winston's improved preparation would seem to be a matter of honing his decision-making. He seemed to be headed in the right direction during a three-game stretch in which he threw eight touchdowns and two interceptions and the Bucs came within a missed 34-yard field goal of winning three straight. Arians even praised him after the win in Los Angeles for a specific instance of throwing the ball way. But Winston regressed in London in that regard. He was under duress for sure behind an offensive line that had replacements at right guard and right tackle, but Arians though three or four of the seven sacks he took were the quarterback's fault for not getting rid of the ball sooner.
"Incompletions don't get you beat – sacks and sack-fumbles get you beat," said the coach. "We've been working and working, and this was one of those games where we try and make a play out of nothing and it comes back to bite you.
"The biggest thing is holding onto the ball and getting sacked. First of all, you don't want him to get hurt. When you make one guy miss, or you scramble to the side of the field [and] there are no receivers, throw it away. It's very simple."
Still, Arians does not put the entire issue on Winston. He wants a better prepared squad around his quarterback so that little mistakes don't turn into big problems, as they did in London. Arians said he thought he would be able to tell on Monday, when the team returns to action after its much-needed break, if leaders had stepped up and were ready to lead the way in that preparation.
"I think [it's] just him playing better, the guys around him playing better, coaching better – the whole thing," he said. "I think as we continue to grow together, I think it will get better and these games will be one in a million – not one every five."
3. Get players closer to being ready to play, including pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul.
The Bucs won't practice as a team during the bye week but the fields behind the AdventHealth Training center won't get the whole week off (sorry, groundskeepers). That's because outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul is ready to begin practicing and the Bucs don't want to lose any time in his potential return from a neck injury.
Pierre-Paul sustained that injury in a car accident in May and subsequently ended up on the reserve/physically unable to return list to start the season. That meant he had to be sidelined for at least six weeks, after which the Bucs would have a three-week window in which Pierre-Paul could work with the team but not count against the 53-man roster. At or before the end of that window, the team will have to make a decision whether to activate him or leave him on the reserve list for the rest of the year. Arians has maintained since the spring that Pierre-Paul would be on pace to return to action around midfield.
That window opened on Monday, so Pierre-Paul will get some field work in over the next two days, under the watch of the training staff and Outside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote. Offensive Line Coach Joe Gilbert will also be on hand because a couple of his charges will be involved.
"He'll have pads on, going one-on-one with a couple offensive linemen who will stay – practice squad guys – and he'll practice tomorrow and Wednesday," said Arians of Pierre-Paul.
The Buccaneers would also like to see progress in the hamstring and forearm injuries suffered, respectively, by starting linemen Demar Dotson and Alex Cappa in Week Five. Since Cappa's injury is a fracture, he's unlikely to be ready for the Titans game even after an extra week off, but Arians said he "hopes" Dotson could return. If not, the bye will still give both a better chance to be ready for a very tough assignment in Seattle.
Jack Cichy (elbow) and Breshad Perriman (hamstring) also missed the last two games and safety Mike Edwards was active but did not play after aggravating a hamstring injury late last week. Other stalwarts like Chris Godwin (hip), Ndamukong Suh (knee) and Shaq Barrett (oblique) have been playing through injuries and surely will welcome the chance to get back to closer to 100% for the long road remaining.
In Perriman's absence, the Bucs have been giving more snaps to Miller and Wilson, with middling results.
"We could use Breshad back, hopefully soon – a bigger, stronger and faster guy," said Arians.
All told, the Bucs hope to come back from the bye week, refreshed, healthier and, perhaps more importantly, ready to hone in on the details of preparation. Arians declined to call the next game, at Tennessee, a "must-win" for his slumping team, but it is definitely a big game for a team trying not to fall to the fringes of the playoff race during a long swing away from home.
"We need to win, but I don't use that term, 'must-win' very often," he said. "Just like everybody else, we'll have our game plan set ready to go, take a little time off and come back ready to go."