Lovie Smith met with the press on Monday afternoon, approximately 24 hours after his Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell short in their comeback attempt in a critical game against the New Orleans Saints, falling 24-17. 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 lost a game they felt they were well-prepared to win.
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. Defensive takeaways are the missing part of the Bucs' formula for greater success at this point.
Whether or not the Buccaneers make the playoffs after falling to 6-7 on Sunday, the season will likely be viewed as a mild success by outside observers. Tampa Bay has already improved significantly on a 2-14 season, and could end up with a jump of as many seven wins, which is a relatively rare season-to-season accomplishment.
Within the walls of One Buccaneer Place, of course, the 2015 campaign won't be particularly satisfying if that playoff berth eludes the team. Rather, Smith and the Buccaneers will take heart in the team's improvements but focus more on what still needs to be improved. And one thing that Smith definitely wants more of – not only next season but in the next three weeks – is takeaways.
The Buccaneers did not force a turnover by the Saints on Sunday, marking just the second time all year they've been shut out in that department. The other occurrence was two weeks prior in Indianapolis, a game that also ended in defeat. In between the Buccaneers won a close one against the Falcons, but only after getting their lone takeaway on Atlanta's last offensive snap. One turnover forced by the defense in three weeks does not fit into Smith's formula for success.
"The emphasis on how important it is hasn't gotten through yet," he said. "As we build our program, this is what we would like to do and this is how eventually I think you have to win, but we're not there yet. Our record says we're not there. We're making progress toward it, but we're not there. On days like yesterday – you see what happened – no turnovers offensively, correct? You have to take the ball away. It's as simple as that and we didn't. It would have helped an awful lot in only a seven-point game."
As Smith points out, the Buccaneers offense also did not turn the ball over, which is just as important. It's also seriously impressive, given that there is a rookie quarterback at the helm. After a typical rookie start that included seven interceptions in his first four games, Winston has been picked off just four times in the last eight contests. Winston missed a few passes early in the game but helped the team rally in the second half and never put the defense in a bad situation.
"It's very seldom after we review the tape that we have not liked what Jameis Winston has done," said Smith. "The same thing yesterday. There were a couple balls that were a little off. There were a few reasons why – at least on one of them – why it happened. Jameis made good plays right up until the last pass he threw to have a chance to get us back in it. Again, I like something I've seen from him. He's still growing, too. It's fun to watch a player like that compete each week."
Winston only figures to get better in the years to come, and he's one reason to be optimistic about the Bucs' chances over the next three weeks. Still, if Tampa Bay is going to run the table to end the season, they will likely need more turnovers from the defense.
2. Doug Martin tied a season low with 11 carries but the Bucs weren't trying to minimize his role in the offense.
Martin, the NFL's second-leading rusher, had his fourth straight game with at least 80 rushing yards on Sunday against the Saints. However, his 11 carries equaled his lowest total in any game this season, and the Buccaneers have lost all four times he's had fewer than 15 totes.
Of course, as one must always remember when it comes to rushing yards and victories, the cause-and-effect arrow doesn't always point in the same direction. Teams with leads tend to run the ball more in the second half, pushing up their ground-game totals. Teams facing a two-touchdown deficit, as the Bucs were at several points on Sunday, often need to maximize their offensive opportunities by throwing more.
On Sunday, the sneaky contributing factor was third-down conversions, on both sides of the line. The Buccaneers converted just four of 11 tries, their second-lowest percentage in the last 10 games, while the Saints were good on 12 of 17 attempts, the best by any Tampa Bay foe this year. The result was a season-low 52 plays for the Bucs' offense, as well as a nearly 15-minute discrepancy in time-of-possession. The Buccaneers didn't run the ball enough, but they also simply didn't run enough plays.
"I think that just happens," said Smith of Martin's 11 carries, which still produced 81 yards and a touchdown. "First off – how many plays? time of possession? – there are a lot of things instead of just Doug didn't get the ball that many times. When you don't convert on third downs it can stop drives. I think you have to look at the full context of it all and you end up getting the results we did."
The Buccaneers got the ball back with just over five minutes remaining in the game, down by one touchdown. The first thing they did was give it to Martin, who broke of a 24-yard run to get the ball close to midfield. That's the last time that Martin touched the ball because the next three plays were passes, all incomplete. That sequence is easy to question in hindsight, but the actual play calls were pretty strong. RB Charles Sims beat his man on the outside and was open deep on second down but Winston threw it just a bit too far. On third-and-10, Winston threw a perfect pass to rookie WR Donteea Dye that would have moved the sticks but Dye couldn't quite hold on.
"We had opportunities to complete those pass-pass-passes," said Smith. "Yes, you can look at that. It's so easy to second-guess afterwards, but when you are trying to win…and we completed some passes. That last touchdown that we had was a pass. You can complete passes too and we had good matchups with this defense against the pass. Today, after we lost like we did, yes easy to say."
3. The Bucs are disappointed in Sunday's game but not yet ready to give up on their playoff dreams.
Smith and the Buccaneers went into the final quarter of the season believing their best shot at making the playoffs was to run the table over the last four weeks. That obviously won't happen after Sunday's loss to the Saints. In essence, Tampa Bay still needs to win out but now needs two losses instead of one from either Minnesota or Seattle in the last three weeks.
Given that the playoff picture is now a lot cloudier, it's tempting to take a wider view of the season and wonder if meaningful games in December, even if ultimately unsuccessful, can be important for a young and growing football team. That experience might indeed be helpful in the long run, but that's an issue for later consideration.
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"I think it is a part of our growth as a football team, but the same goals we had are still there," said Smith. "Nothing has been decided, so we are still talking about the same thing. We have three games left to go and the team that's ahead of us has eight wins. You don't get into the playoffs with eight wins. Everything that we said before we started yesterday's game, we're talking about the same things. In order for those things to happen though, we have to play our best football so it all goes hand-in-hand.
"It was disappointing yesterday. When you are disappointed you want to make it right and get a chance to come back. We've had some disappointments this year and what I've seen from my football team is we have bounced back."