Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Coach Smith Recaps Bucs vs. Bears

After reviewing the tape of Sunday's loss to the Bears, Head Coach Lovie Smith had some new thoughts on momentum, the defense and close losses.

Lovie Smith met with the press on Monday morning, roughly 24 hours after his Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the Chicago Bears, 26-21. In the interim, Smith and his team had an opportunity to review the tape from that game and gain a more detailed understanding of how the Bucs let another close game slip from their grasp.

So, upon further review, here are a few things Lovie Smith and the rest of us learned from – and/or what new questions were raised by – the Bucs' most recent contest.

1. The Buccaneers obviously haven't handled the season's stretch run as well as they expected to, but an opportunity still exists to build momentum for 2016.

Behind-the-scenes photos of the Buccaneers vs. Bears game at the Raymond James Stadium on December 27th.

Tampa Bay beat division-rival Atlanta on December 6 to get to 6-6 and leap-frog the Falcons in the NFC playoff hunt. At the time, the Bucs were seventh in line for a postseason field of six and contemplating the thought of extra football if they could win out in December.

Clearly, that did not come to pass. The Buccaneers have lost three straight since, and the second defeat in St. Louis eliminated them from playoff contention. After that game, the team hoped to climb back to .500 by knocking off Chicago and the then-unbeaten Carolina Panthers. That goal, too, slipped away with Sunday's loss to the Bears.

Carolina also lost on Sunday, to the Atlanta Falcons, which means their hopes of an undefeated season have been dashed. Still, the Panthers will remain motivated in next Sunday's regular-season finale because the first overall seed – and home field advantage throughout the playoffs – is still on the line. If Tampa Bay still wants to play spoiler, that's the one thing they can deny their division rivals.

However, Smith still thinks there's value in his team's final outing beyond that spoiler role. The Bucs won't finish the season with four straight wins, or even two, but they can still erase some of the disappointment of the last three weeks with a strong showing in Charlotte.

"I think yes, we can put something into this last game," said Smith. "It's an important football game for us and if we don't play well, that's leaving a bad taste in our mouth. I think as we leave, you're going to remember the last thing that happened. I said that last week, I'm saying that again this week. We play one of the best football teams in football right now and we get one more chance to make a lot of these things look a lot better than they do right now.

"But it's a bottom-line business, we realize that. Our football team has made progress this year. We have a better record, but we have an opportunity to add to that this week and that's why this is our playoff game, all the words you want to use. This is it for us and we're looking at it that way."

Behind-the-scenes photos of the Buccaneers vs. Bears game at the Raymond James Stadium on December 27th.

Smith also understands that his players have pride in their craft, and every chance they get to play is extremely important to them. Some of the players on the current 53-man roster won't be around next season, but what happens in Charlotte on Sunday could help the Bucs decide who sticks around in the long run. Tampa Bay has a very youthful roster, and those young players know they are being evaluated every Sunday.

"Now we're down to one opportunity, period, to see what we'll look like in the future," said Smith. "Even though the roster does change quite a bit, the core remains the same and it is big. I'm going based on experience. I think for every football player that we have, they want to play their best their last opportunity [they] get, period."

2. As Smith and General Manager Jason Licht try to build a winning team, there are still some missing pieces on defense.

Photos of Charles Sims' 4 carries for 45 yards, 3 receptions for 72 yards, and 1 touchdown performance against the Bears.

Tampa Bay's defense ranks 10th in the NFL in yards allowed per game and has been one of the better crews in the league at limiting big plays, particularly in the running game. But points are obviously more important than yards, and the Bucs have allowed 379 points this year to tie for 23rd in scoring defense. Game-changing plays on defense have been too scarce – particularly during a current five-game stretch in which Tampa Bay has just one takeaway – and the pass-rush is still a work in progress. Obviously, these things must be addressed in the months to come.

"It's not a finished product," said Smith of the Bucs' defense. "When I say it's not a finished product, the way you get a finished product is, first off, you have to have the type of player that you are looking for in every position. We're not there yet. When I talk about not being able to rush one-on-one and beat someone or cover, it's that. You continue to build and you strengthen some positions and we need to strengthen more. After 15 weeks that's the conclusion I've come to."

Tampa Bay's defense actually ranks in the middle of the pack (14th) in sacks produced per pass play, but pressure on opposing quarterbacks has been sporadic. The team boasts a premier pass-rusher in the middle in four-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy and has a still-developing young talent in Jacquies Smith on the edge, but overall it needs a more consistent rush in order to make the defense work.

"We played a lot of games this year and there are certain areas we're just not there yet," said Smith. "It's as simple as that. Coach it up, play hard and all those things…we're not a finished product right now. We've made a lot of strides, but there are some areas that we need to improve. Eventually it comes down to a situation where you have to be able to cover man-to-man and you have to be able to rush and win one-on-one battles. We haven't won enough of those, period."

3. The narrow losses that hurt during the season can actually provide some optimism moving forward.The 2015 Buccaneers went 3-5 during the first half of the season and that included a handful of games that were in doubt well into the fourth quarter. A 3-1 start to the second half of the season put the team back into playoff contention before the current three-game losing streak. Each of the last three losses were by a single score, and they all could have turned in either direction at the end.

That the Bucs let so many games slip away in crunch time was painful at the time, but in retrospect it was encouraging that the team was almost always competitive on Sunday, no matter the opponent. As noted above, there are issues to be resolved, but there are also plenty of reasons for optimism.

"I'm looking at it from a positive approach, yes," said Smith of his team's close games. "I can probably add a few more to that that we had a great opportunity to [win]. I think when you're a young football team, too, it doesn't happen right away. You keep building, there are a lot of – not necessarily "rookie" – but "young-team" mistakes that we've made. We haven't handled situations as well as some more veteran teams will have, but that's a part of it, too. As we go forward, yes, there is a lot to build on, but I'm going to go back. We're building, we're not quite there yet. That's what our record says. When you're 6-9 it says you've made progress. You're not there yet, but you see signs and that's where we are."

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