Lovie Smith met with the press on Monday afternoon, approximately 24 hours after his Tampa Bay Buccaneers kept their playoff hopes alive with a 23-19 comeback win over division-rival Atlanta. 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 got back to .500 and stayed relevant in the NFC playoff hunt.
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. More and more, Jameis Winston is making his presence felt on the team in a number of important ways, on and off the field. *
Noting that NFL quarterbacks are judged largely on how they perform at the end of closing games, Smith said that his rookie quarterback is starting to build an impressive resume in that regard.
"He's on record [with such performances] now and it's just not throwing," said the coach. "[It's] decision making of course, and if you need to run the football, he's done it all. Then [it's] just his presence on the sideline for the defense: 'Hey, get us the ball back. Get us the ball back, we're going to score.' And it gives everybody on the sideline hope that we can pull it out. Sixty minutes, whatever it'll take, we can pull it out now. That's what I saw on the sideline, we were down, but we are going to win this football game."
The Bucs did indeed win it on Winston's five-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Evans with 99 seconds left in regulation. After that game, in a wildly emotional locker room, several Buccaneers lauded their young teammate for his demeanor and drive in the game's closing moments. Doug Martin called Winston's passion "contagious" and Logan Mankins even agreed with a very flattering comparison with Tom Brady, regarding both quarterbacks' will to win.
On Monday, Smith said he wasn't surprised to see Mankins and other experienced Buccaneer veterans beginning to follow Winston's lead.
"I think if you deserve respect as a young player a veteran will give it to you," said Smith. "They don't go on what you come in saying. They watch closely and when you are on the football team you've been around each other for such a long period of time seeing guys in every imaginable situation. It does say a lot for a player like [Gosder Cherilus], for Demar Dotson, of course Logan Mankins. These are real men and Jameis has gotten a lot of compliments, but coming from these guys it really is a compliment."
Winston's incredible 20-yard, second-effort scramble on third-and-19 to preserve the game-winning drive was the kind of moment that leaves an indelible mark on his teammates. Winston has proved to be a good motivator in pre- and post-game speeches in recent weeks, but that would eventually fall on deaf ears if he wasn't backing his words up with his own total commitment to winning.
"I think all of our guys play with passion and that's good, but I think they are following Jameis because he's a good football player and he's making plays," said Smith. "They'll follow you and especially if it's in that leadership role like the quarterback is. Yes, they will follow you and as a quarterback they'll do what you ask them to do. They want to protect you as much as anything."
2. The Bucs continue to be pleased with their cornerback play in the second half of the season, after that was a serious area of concern in the early going.
Atlanta's Julio Jones came into Sunday's game as the NFL's leader in both receptions and yards, on a pace to finish with some of the best pass-catching numbers in league history. Jones had another fine day on Sunday, with eight catches for 93 yards, but he didn't find the end zone, averaged just 11.6 yards per grab and failed to break one longer than 25 yards.
Much of the credit for limiting the damage done by Jones belongs to cornerback Sterling Moore, who has consistently been matched up against the opposition's top receiver since he stepped into the starting lineup in Week Nine – just after Jones had caught 12 passes for 162 yards and a score against the Bucs in Week Eight.
"He's a smart player, he's in position, whether it be man, zone, pressing off, stripping the ball as he did a couple week ago," said Smith of Moore, who started the season as the team's nickel back and spent several weeks at midseason with a very limited role in the defense. "I think we've just gotten good play out of Sterling Moore since we've moved him to the starting lineup. Again, if you continue to do things right you'll eventually get an opportunity and then it's up to you to take advantage of it. He has that. We matched him up with Dez Bryant a few weeks ago, of course with Julio yesterday and he's meeting the challenge."
The Bucs switched both starting cornerback spots in Week Nine, inserting undrafted rookie Jude Adjei-Barimah in opposite Moore. Adjei-Barimah has also played well but he left Sunday's game in the second half with an elbow injury. Former starter Johnthan Banks stepped in and made sure the secondary's play didn't drop off with the game on the line.
"He did a good job," said Smith. "For Johnthan, just think about what we've asked him to do. Your roles change throughout [the season]. We've had a lot of different starting combinations and the roles have changed for a lot of our players, but they've accepted it. Yesterday – boom – a change where Jude went down and we needed [Banks] to step up and he jumped right in there like you would expect him to do."
Adjei-Barimah didn't sign with the Buccaneers until just before the start of training camp, and he spent the first three weeks of the season on the practice squad. It was not a particular surprise, however, when he eventually found himself in an important role, as it generally takes quite a bit more than 53 players and 22 starters to get through an NFL season. Adjei-Barimah's promotion made Johnthan Banks a part of the team's depth in the defensive backfield, and now the Bucs are leaning on that depth.
REACTION: WHAT THEY'RE SAYING ABOUT JAMEIS WINSTON
"First off, it has to be that mentality of [knowing that] guys go down for whatever reason throughout the course and you're constantly developing your full roster, not just the one you start with or your starters early on," said Smith. "And the guys you keep have to have potential to play for you someday and that's the case for them."
*3. There was a playoff atmosphere at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, and that's something the Buccaneers have been trying to recreate for a while. *
On his way to work very early on Monday morning, Smith says, he drove past a bus stop with three people waiting and two of them were wearing Buccaneers jerseys. He ran into several other excited Tampa Bay fans while enjoying a postgame meal with his wife, MaryAnne, on Sunday. Smith enjoyed those reminders of how passionate Buccaneer fans can be when meaningful football is on the menu for December, but he had already received that message loud and clear on Sunday afternoon.
"I didn't really have to see that [to know], I saw it in the stadium yesterday," said Smith. "I don't know exactly how many fans were there, a lot, but I know at the end that was old Raymond James Stadium, after we scored, the excitement there. Then the crowd knowing we needed them to be as loud as possible when Atlanta took the field. Our fans have done their job for a long period of time – the two years we've been here. We're just starting to step up to the plate now and it's good to see."