Lovie Smith met with the press on Monday afternoon, approximately 24 hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the Carolina Panthers, 37-23, at Raymond James Stadium. 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 Four of the 2015 season.
So, upon further review, here are a few things Lovie Smith, linebacker Lavonte David and the rest of us learned from – and/or what new questions were raised by – the last game of the first quarter of the season.
- The turnovers on offense obviously determined the outcome but the Bucs could have overcome them if they had taken advantage of their own turnover opportunities.**
Carolina scored 27 of its 37 points in Sunday's game off turnovers, including one pick-six and four other drives following takeaways, none of them longer than 45 yards. As we mentioned in this week's Stat Shots, Tampa Bay finished four down in the critical turnover ratio category, and the team has never won in that situation. The Bucs had 167 more yards than Carolina, seven more first downs and much better results on third down but none of that was enough to overcome the turnover differential.
After the game, rookie quarterback Jameis Winston repeatedly noted that a team can't win when it commits five turnovers, and that is generally true. However, the Bucs might have proven him wrong if they could have secured more takeaways of their own. Five giveaways is undeniably bad, but a turnover ratio of negative-one or even negative-two might have been survivable.
Smith pointed to two turnover opportunities in particular on which the Bucs couldn't capitalize. Early in the second half, safety Chris Conte caused a fumble by running back Jonathan Stewart at the end of an eight –yard run up the middle. Unfortunately, the loose ball deflected directly to Panthers tight end Ed Dickson, who caught it on the run and dashed another 57 yards for a touchdown. It was technically a fumble-return score, and technically not points off a turnover, since Carolina never lost possession. It appeared to be a bit of bad luck for the Bucs' defense, and while that's probably a fair assessment, Smith thinks his team can do more to get to loose balls of that nature. Opposing teams have fumbled against the Bucs 11 times already through four games, but the Bucs have recovered only four of them.
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The other play in question was a pass intended for Dickson near the goal line in the third quarter that David got to first. The Bucs' standout linebacker had the ball in his hands but lost it when he brought it down, turning an interception into a pass defensed. Carolina scored its final touchdown two plays later.
"We did a lot of things well yesterday," said Smith. "I mentioned third down and all of that, but it's just not a good defensive day for us unless we can take the ball away. We did have a couple of opportunities. Chris Conte, good play by him to take the ball away. We need people around it. We need to be able to get that ball. That would be plus-one. Lavonte David will tell you that's a typical interception for him. Those are two of the one that we have to be able to [get]…should of at the very worst been a three-takeaway day. You can live with a three-takeaway day unless the opponent has a five-takeaway day. It's always defense versus defense, offense versus offense and we didn't get that done yesterday."
David has shown moments of brilliance in pass coverage this season, as evidenced by his three passes defensed. Fellow linebacker Kwon Alexander leads the team in that category with four and linebacker Danny Lansanah has one as well. With those three roaming the field, the Buccaneers expect to get some takeaways in the passing game from the middle layer of their defense. David says that needs to happen for the Bucs to get the results they want on defense.
"Our M.O. on defense is to take the ball away," he said. "When you have the opportunity, you've got to get it. We didn't get it as much as we wanted yesterday and it cost us big-time. We've just got to do a better job on that aspect and own it."
Tampa Bay's defense did a good job against standout tight end Greg Olsen (two catches for 28 yards), held Cam Newton to 124 passing yards and sacked him twice, allowed only three third-down conversions and gave up just 244 yards in total. But the deciding numbers were on the scoreboard; Newton's crew did enjoy short fields most of the day thanks to the Bucs' turnovers, but David said the defense still could have done better to keep the Panthers out of the end zone.
"Obviously it's frustrating," said David of the Bucs' missed scoring chances. "When you get an opportunity to score points you want to score points. But defensively we can only control what we can control and that's us getting out there on the field. Whenever we go out there on the field we want to prevent the other team from scoring points. We go by the motto, 'If they're going to score, they're going to win.' And they got a chance to get in the end zone a couple times on us, so that's frustrating on our part and disappointing on our part. We've got to do a better job of that."
2. The new yard line for extra point attempts is affecting the game more than Lovie Smith had expected it would.
The Buccaneers have missed two extra points through the first quarter of the 2015 season, as many as they had missed in the previous nine years combined. It's clear that the new NFL rule moving the line of scrimmage for PATs from the two to the 15 is having a significant effect.
That effect has been exacerbated in Tampa by the struggles of rookie kicker Kyle Brindza, who was released on Monday after misfiring on two of three field goal tries and one of three PATs against Carolina. But there have been 17 missed extra points across the league already as opposed to five all of last year. In just one year the success rate of the play has dropped from 99.6% to 94.3%, league-wide.
Of course, that issue is playing out somewhat according to plan. The NFL didn't specifically want its kickers to miss more often, but they wanted to add a level of difficulty to what they viewed as a play that had become too routine. Smith has been surprised, however, at how big of a difference it has made, given that NFL kickers have become nearly automatic on field goals from around 33 yards.
"I did not think it would have this type of impact," he said. "I thought moving back to the 15 is still a fairly short field goal to make. Now it's really being discussed and we're talking an awful lot about the kickers, putting more pressure on them each week. I didn't [think it would be an issue] at the time."
The Bucs will soon sign a kicker to replace Brindza and hopefully get better results on short kicks. However, that might not be the only way the team changes its approach to the extra point.
"Now, of course, we, unfortunately, really have to deal with it and we'll find a way to deal with it a little bit more," said Smith. "We can deal with the extra point a little bit better. We can go for two more, but eventually you have to be able to make some field goals and we'll find someone to do that."
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Smith also conceded that NFL kickers in general seemed to be having a tougher time early in this season than in recent years. The Pittsburgh Steelers also released their kicker, Josh Scobee, after their last game. However, the overall success rate of kickers on field goals so far this year is 83.5%, down just a bit from last year's rate of 84.0%.
"I think something has happened," said Smith, who has been witness to more placekicking issues than most coaches in the league this year. "Of course it's harder moving the ball back, but it shouldn't be that much harder."
3. Smith did not consider pulling Jameis Winston from Sunday's game in an effort to preserve the young quarterback's confidence.
Winston threw four interceptions in Sunday's game, one more than in his first three games combined, and that helped put the Buccaneers into a hole in the second half. However, Winston also threw for 287 yards and two scores and directed three drives of 80 yards or more. Smith stayed with the rookie for the full 60 minutes, even when the Bucs' chances of winning had dwindled considerably. He was not at all concerned about the game affecting Winston's confidence moving forward.
"It doesn't [affect his confidence]," said Smith. "Jameis had a tough day yesterday. When you have a quarterback that's going through a tough situation you try to run the football, get your running game going, which we were able to do. Maybe lean on it a little bit more, but when you get behind you can't do that either. Jameis will be fine. Tough day at the office yesterday. He'll bounce back this week."
Smith said the Buccaneers are learning a little more each game about what they can and can't do on offense at this stage of Winston's development. He also noted that the rainy conditions on Sunday raised the level of difficulty for both quarterbacks.
"It was a wet day yesterday, so you have to take that [into consideration]," said Smith. "There were tough conditions yesterday, so that's not defining who Jameis is, yesterday. There were tough circumstances. Their quarterback fumbled the ball first snap of the second half. There were a lot of things that came into play. We don't want to overreact, but at the same time we are reacting to a bad performance that we had yesterday.
"We made some bad decisions at the beginning of the game [in] the two games we've had here, but I just don't think that will continue. It's part of the process, it's as simple as that. Jameis is a good football player. It's just not all on Jameis, believe me. We say those turnovers [are to blame] and they had a lot to do with it, but there are other areas we need to improve also and we will."