Behind the scenes photos from the Bucs win against the Saints in New Orleans.
Lovie Smith met with the press on Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the New Orleans Saints, 26-19, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. In the interim, Smith and his team had an opportunity to review the tape from that game and gain a more detailed understanding of what unfolded in Week One of the 2015 season.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 Buccaneers' first win of the 2015 campaign.
1. The Bucs cleared one hurdle that had been plaguing them, but in the process highlighted another one they must get over.
After finishing the 2014 season with a 2-14 record, the Buccaneers believed that finish didn't accurately reflect the level of talent on their team. That belief was fueled in large part by the fact that so many of the Bucs' games went down to the wire and were decided by one or two big plays at the end. Nine of Tamp Bay's losses were one-score games, eight by six points or less and four by three points or less.
Of course, the Bucs also knew that this inability to make those big plays at the end of games was a critical shortcoming, and the reason they deserved their final record.
Sunday's game in New Orleans was the first such nail-biter of the season, and this time it was the Buccaneers who made the big plays when it counted.
"We needed to cross that hurdle because we haven't been able to," said Smith. "It's documented that we haven't finished the way we would like. We had a big lead in that game, but normally the home team is going to make a push at the end. You need to stand up and we stood up. [We] haven't done that in the past. We got it done yesterday. It should definitely give us confidence. Of course, [we] are going on the road again this week, in a hostile environment. Hopefully we can keep that momentum going."
A season ago, the Buccaneers took an 11-point advantage over the Saints into the fourth quarter in the Superdome. That lead slipped away and the home team won in overtime, 37-31. There were a number of potential game-changing plays for the Buccaneers down the stretching, including potential interceptions that weren't hauled in, but that 2014 team couldn't quite nail it down.
On Sunday, the Saints looked to be rallying again, and they did have two cracks at the end zone from the Bucs' 27 in the game's final seconds. This time, it was a 16-point third-quarter lead that was shaved down to an uncomfortable margin for the Saints. As much as the win in a tight game was a confidence booster for the Buccaneers, it would have been even better to avoid the late-game drama altogether. The Bucs know they can win a close one; now they need to get more consistent at putting games out of reach. They didn't do that on Sunday, most notably when a pair of red zone opportunities following takeaways in the third quarter resulted in field goals instead of touchdowns.
"When I say we left a lot out there, we had some opportunities offensively where we got field goals instead of touchdowns, though we had favorable positions a few times there," said Smith. "And then just some plays we actually missed, as much as anything. I thought our offensive staff did a good job calling plays and putting the guys in position. But it's always – when we say we left points out on the field, it's about us not executing a certain play a certain way. But we'll get more opportunities this week."
2. Special teams quietly made a big difference in Sunday's win.
One of the Buccaneers' biggest concerns of the preseason has sneakily turned into a strength, at least through two games.
Tampa Bay didn't do much right in its season-opening loss to Tennessee, but it did get good kickoffs from rookie Kyle Brindza, a strong 43.5-yard net punting average from Jacob Schum and several helpful returns from running back Bobby Rainey. All three of those players fared as well or better in Week Two, and the coverage units were strong once again.
Brindza made four of five field goal tries (missing only from 52 yards out), started the scoring with a 55-yard bomb and hit all seven of his kickoffs deep into the end zone. Statistically, he had one of the best performances by a Buccaneer kicker in years. The Buccaneers' offense had an average drive start of their own 36, while the Saints' average was their own 28 even after two Tampa Bay fumbles in their own territory in the fourth quarter. Eight of the Saints' first nine drives started at their own 20 or farther back.
READ: WEEK 2 STAT SHOTS
Tampa Bay's August 31 trade of tight end Tim Wright to the Detroit Lions for Brindza looks quite good so far.
"We're definitely fortunate to [get] someone like him late in the [preseason], just in general," said Lovie Smith. "For him, kickoffs too, we expect him to really knock it out of there and make them go at least 80 yards each time. It does help the game-planning. You have a spot, on when you can kick the field goal, we are trying to get the ball to, whether it be 37, 40 [yards], whatever. He's allowed us to push it back a little bit more. That has to help us. He's a likeable guy, kind of fit in with the group right away and we are counting on him to do some things for us."
Punter Jacob Schum got good hang time and location on his three punts, which is why he had a worse gross average than his Saints counterpart Thomas Morstead (38.7 to 43.8) but a better net (38.7 to 35.3). Morstead has been one of the best punters in the NFL in terms of net average over the last seven years.
Bobby Rainey helped swing that difference, too. He gained 34 yards on three punt returns while the Saints' Marcus Murphy had zero yards on his only attempted runback. Rainey also got 37 yards on a kickoff return late in the first half, giving the Bucs good field position for a successful two-minute drill that put them in the lead at halftime.
"Bobby's return gave us a boost: 'Hey, we're more likely to get something going now,'" said Smith. "We depend on Bobby for that. Bobby can make people miss and he's going to put us in favorable position this year, whether it be kickoff return or punt return. [I] just really believe he's going to embrace that role and give us some good play from it."
Smith said he was "very pleased" with the special teams as a whole, and for good reason. He specifically called out one play that, in form, was more like a defensive snap but technically fell under the "teams" umbrella. After the Buccaneers opened up a 23-7 lead in the third quarter, the Saints began their ultimately unsuccessful comeback with a seven-minute, 80-yard touchdown drive. That the possession chewed up so much time probably would have been less damaging to the Saints if they could have followed Austin Johnson's one-yard scoring plunge with a successful two-point conversion. That would have made the score 23-15 and pulled the Saints to within one score.
Brees threw a short pass to wide receiver Willie Snead near the goal line and the left pylon. Only a quick reaction and perfect tackle by cornerback Johnthan Banks kept it from producing those two critical points.
"Initially when he caught the ball, we said, 'Hey, he's getting in,'" said Smith. "Just a great play [by Banks]. We had so many individual plays like that throughout the day – so many guys. But, yes, special teams are important and we have to keep that going."
3. Jacquies Smith was Tampa Bay's biggest defensive star on Sunday, but safety Chris Conte also had his first big game as a Buccaneer.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed four veteran free agent defenders during the spring as unrestricted free agents, and all of them were familiar with the type of defense Lovie Smith teams run. In fact, two of them – safety Chris Conte and defensive tackle Henry Melton – had played under Smith in Chicago. (The other two were linebacker Bruce Carter and cornerback Sterling Moore; the team also brought defensive end George Johnson back, but that was via trade.)
That familiarity extends not only to the Xs and Os in the Bucs' playbook but also to the specific things that Smith and his coaching staff like to emphasize. One of those is hustling to the football and aggressively going after every loose football. Conte showed that off during an important moment early in Sunday's game.
On third-and-four from the New Orleans 23 in a scoreless game in the first quarter, Drew Brees dropped back to pass but Smith hit his arm from behind just as he tried to throw. The result was a loose ball that tumbled forward as if it were a wobbly pass, deflected off a Saints player and then began bouncing in the other direction, towards the Saints' goal line.
A good number of men on both teams stopped playing, assuming the play was over, but Brees chased after the loose ball, and Conte was the first to react on the Bucs' side, chasing Brees. Although the Saints QB got to the ball first, Conte was there to tackle him at the two-yard line. The play was ruled a fumble, the Saints lost 23 yards on the play and Tampa Bay's next possession began at the Saints' 40. The offense got only five yards from there but still got points out of on Brindza's 55-yarder.
"In practice we run to every ball," said Conte. "Honestly, from past experience, we had a play in Chicago against the Packers where the ball hit the ground and they picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. So whenever the ball is on the ground you've just got to run. You never know until the whistle is blown, so you kind of learn from past experience."
Melton did the same thing late in the fourth quarter, as his backside pursuit of running back Mark Ingram on a short pass had him in the vicinity to make a difference when Ingram fumbled. Melton just got on top of the loose ball inches before he hit the sideline. That turnover netted three more Buccaneer points and drained the Saints of clock time and timeouts.
That fumble was caused by none other than Conte, who also set up another Buccaneer field goal in the third quarter with his first interception of the season.
"Chris Conte was outstanding also," said Lovie Smith. "[He] played well, impactful plays. Whenever, as a safety, you can have an interception, cause a big fumble, 20-yard tackle for a loss, made a play on a halfback pass – good play from him at the safety position."
Three takeaways, four sacks and a string of big third-down plays helped the Buccaneers hold off a Saints team that had a roaring crowd at its back and a chance to win late in the game. Tampa Bay's defense wasn't perfect, but it turned in the game's biggest moments.
"We knew we would have to play well on defense and get some turnovers going to get some momentum and start feeling ourselves on defense," said Conte. "Those momentum plays were really big for us."