Gerald McCoy, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, sat out two games due to a calf injury. One was an overtime win over Cleveland in which the defense failed to hold a two-touchdown lead in regulation. The other was a high-scoring loss in Cincinnati in which the Buccaneers initially went down by 21 points before a big rally.
In McCoy's return on Sunday, the Buccaneers faced a division rival in Carolina and again fell into a big early hole. A furious rally – which included a significant second-half improvement by the defense – failed to make up for a 35-7 deficit. The Bucs lost, 42-28, and hit the season's halfway point with a 3-5 record and defensive rankings of 29th in yards allowed and 32nd in points allowed. The Buccaneers have not been able to fully capitalize on the most explosive offense in team history, though that is also due to the offense's own issue with giveaways.
Whether he's watching this from the sideline or trying to do something about it on the field, McCoy admits that it has been a frustrating run. However, he also knows there is time to fix it and get the Bucs back in the postseason hunt.
"It's very frustrating," said McCoy. "I could go into all the negatives, but I'm not a negative person so I will speak on the positive. The positive is, it's only halfway through the season. We have a chance to turn this thing around. We've just got to come out and play, man. We've got to be more disciplined all of us, myself included – especially me – and we've just got to tackle better."
Indeed, while a lack of takeaways have been the most impactful shortcoming on defense, the more immediate issue on Sunday in Charlotte was a surprising series of missed tackles. Carolina came at the Bucs with an impressively creative raft of plays, most of them involving lateral misdirection more than downfield routes, and Buccaneer defenders were frequently isolated against ballcarriers with a chance to stop a big play before it could develop. The Panthers have talented playmakers and are going to break and elude tackles at time, but the Buccaneers also came up short in those matchups too often.
"Yesterday was just a game of not tackling," said McCoy. "We just watched film where we had a lot of plays that we're [possible to stop for] one-yard gains, could have been loss of yardage, and we just didn't tackle. I'm going to say it, I don't care: This is the best division in football. So if you play a division game in this division, you've got to bring it, play-in and play-out, especially with Carolina. We've just got to be better on that end."
Head Coach Dirk Koetter said the Buccaneers had plenty of opportunities to be better in this most fundamental part of playing defense. He recognized the multiple breakdowns on Curtis Samuels' winding, 33-yard touchdown on a reverse but said most of the other big plays by Carolina were more preventable.
"Except for that play, all those other plays we had a guy right there to tackle him on the line of scrimmage," said the coach. "I mean, look at the tape. There was a guy on the throwback screen – we had two guys right there. On both – they ran two little versions of that throwback screen – guy's right there on the line of scrimmage and we miss a tackle. Those could've easily been no gain – coulda, woulda, shoulda. And then we've got pursue better. When we do miss tackles, we have to have better effort in pursuit. You're not going to make 100 percent tackles. All you can do is have the guys there and then your pursuit has got to catch up."
McCoy said the Buccaneers also made assignment errors, not always forcing a player to go inside or bounce outside, as dictated by the specific defensive plan. That is an issue, he says, that can be addressed with a higher level of discipline. That's true, too, of getting more defenders in pursuit of the football. McCoy has actually seen much of this go well in practice but it has not been translating to game day, at least not until the Buccaneers have fallen into one of those large first-half deficits.
"We've been doing it every week, we've just got to play better," he said. "That's really all it is. We've been practicing hard – it's not a lack of practice or preparation, we've just to perform on Sunday. We've got another opportunity, coming home. What better time to get it right than at home in front of our fans."
As for the takeaways, that has been the most stark difference between the Buccaneers' encouraging 2-0 start and their subsequent 1-5 tumble. Tampa Bay's defense created five turnovers during the first two games plus the first quarter of game three. In the 23 quarters of play since, that defense has not come up with a single takeaway; the only turnover by the Bucs' opposition since has been a fumbled punt return in overtime against Cleveland.
Koetter says that is another thing that looks like it's going to be resolved in practice only for it to fail to show up on Sundays.
"Brent Grimes I think had two interceptions in practice last week," he said. "I think they've been making a conscious effort to do that, but we've got to do it in a game."
McCoy's optimism about a pending turnaround on defense probably won't be shared by many fans and observers until it starts to actually develop on the field, and that's fair. But McCoy knows that once a run of takeaways begins, it can snowball quickly. That's what happened in 2016, when the Buccaneers forced a league-high 18 turnovers over the last eight games of the season. It may be difficult to produce that big of a turnover wave for a second time in 2018, but some improvement in that area is almost certainly needed for McCoy's half-full glass to be topped off.
"In 2016, when we got on that run, in that span we took the ball away more than any team in the NFL," he said. "If we are going to make a run, that's going to have to be a part of it. That starts with a mentality in practice, going after the ball from every level – D-Line, linebackers, DBs. I believe it is [happening in practice]. I don't know why it's not translating."
View exclusive, behind-the-scenes photos of the Buccaneers' Week 9 matchup against the Carolina Panthers from Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker.