The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won their season-opener in Atlanta last Sunday, 31-24, which at the very least puts them ahead of where they were a year ago…or in any of the previous three seasons, for that matter. They also logged an early division victory, which could prove critical down the line, and proved they could handle a hostile road environment and a stressful end-game situation.
The Bucs definitely savored the victory in the hours after the game's conclusion, but by Wednesday Head Coach Dirk Koetter was invoking the "24-hour rule" and sending out reminders that the NFL is a "week-to-week" league. As much as those points would apply to any post-win week, they seem particularly relevant in this case because of what looms next on the schedule: a second straight road trip, this one to face a talented and irritated Arizona Cardinals squad.
Last year's Cardinals won 13 games, advanced to the NFC Championship Game and were the only team in the NFL to rank in the top 10 in all four categories, run and pass, offense and defense. They came into the 2016 with well-deserved Super Bowl hype and a schedule that started with two games at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
And then they lost their home opener to a New England Patriots team that was without Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and starting left tackle Nate Solder. Arizona fought to the end but came up short in a 23-21 decision when Chandler Catanzaro's last-second field goal try veered left. In a radio appearance the next morning, Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said his team was, "angry, disappointed, embarrassed" and promised they would use the loss as a chip on their collective shoulder.
Pictures of the Top 10 Cardinals in week 1, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.
In other words, Tampa Bay is about to face a very highly-motivated Arizona team. That, in turn, gives the Bucs an even greater opportunity to show they can be a serious contender in 2016.
"If you look at our schedule coming up, we've got a lot to prove," said McCoy. "Our tests are coming, starting with Arizona. Arizona just lost on opening day at home after being in the NFC Championship [Game]. The head coaches and the GMs don't typically speak out about their own teams; they talk internally. They spoke out in the media about their team. If you think that arguably the best team in the NFL is going to go 0-2 at home and go lightly, you've got another think coming."
The process of moving on from either a win or a loss is not just emotional. It also involves reviewing the game tape and identifying areas that need improvement. One of those is the pass-rush, which McCoy said was "not good enough" despite the three sacks it generated against the Falcons' Matt Ryan. McCoy got Ryan on the ground early in the third quarter and new Buccaneer end Robert Ayers took him down in the first half, but the only sack during Atlanta's furious comeback attempt was by linebacker Kwon Alexander on a delayed rush.
That, too, represents an area in which the Bucs still have a lot to prove, both in general after an offseason maker of the D-Line, and in particular against a very good Arizona front wall. The Cardinals have invested heavily in free agents for their O-Line in the last three years, first with left tackle Jared Veldheer in 2014, then with left guard Mike Iupati in 2015, and now with right guard Evan Mathis this season. The right tackle, D.J. Humphries, was a first-round pick a year ago, and even the new starting center, A.Q. Shipley – a former seventh-round pick who has already changed teams four times in five years – impresses McCoy.
"One, they work together," said the Bucs Pro Bowl defender. "Take a guy like A.Q. Shipley. He was an extra lineman last year and now he's a starting center. Obviously, they have a group of guys that work together."
Last year, quarterback Carson Palmer put up the best numbers of his career and nearly helped three different receivers hit the 1,000-yard mark (Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown did so, while Michael Floyd hit 859). He was sacked only 27 times. Meanwhile, running back David Johnson emerged as a rising star in the second half of his rookie year and the Cardinals ranked eighth in the league in rushing yards. That all started up front, according to McCoy.
"What makes Carson so good is his O-Line and the time they give him," he said. "Johnson, the running back, man, he's a very dynamic player, but those holes they open for him, it gives him a chance to be patient. The things they do as a scheme, obviously they've been very successful because of how good they've been [up front] the past couple years. We've got our work cut out for us but we know that and we're putting in the work."
In addition to a boost of confidence and an early leg up in the division, the Buccaneers' win in Atlanta in Week One gave them one other thing they wouldn't have had otherwise: A chance to be 2-0. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they do not have that same opportunity…and unfortunately for the Buccaneers they're none too happy about that. McCoy says the Bucs still have a lot to prove, and they won't find a better opportunity than this Sunday in Glendale.
"So this is going to be a real test for us," said McCoy. "Atlanta is a great team and it's tough to win in the Georgia Dome, but now we've got to see if we can be consistent."