The Tampa Bay Buccaneers stretched their winning streak to three games in Week 14 but also saw their quarterback, Pro Bowl receiver and starting left tackle incur injuries that have Week 15 started off on an uncertain note. Head Coach Bruce Arians addressed Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, Donovan Smith and their injuries on Monday during his weekly day-after-game press conference. He also touched on a number of other topics, including:
1. The Buccaneers may look back on their comeback win over Indianapolis as a very important game in seasons to come.
Since most new head coaches inherit teams coming off at least one season of struggles, if not more, they generally arrive with the goal of affecting a "culture change" at team headquarters. But even if a culture change can eventually lead to more success, it's hard to get that change without first stringing some wins together.
The Bucs appear to be finishing their first season under Bruce Arians in strong fashion, winning four of five so far in the second half, including the last three in a row. The most recent win coincided with a Minnesota victory that officially ended Tampa Bay's playoff hopes, but it also might be the one with the most significant long-term impact. Arians compared it to an important win for his Arizona Cardinals in his first season at that team's helm.
The 2013 Cardinals had a 3-4 record near midseason but went on to win seven of their last nine to finish 10-6 and barely miss the playoffs. In Week 16, they went on the road to beat a Seattle team that had a 12-2 record and would go on to demolish Denver in that season's Super Bowl. The Cardinals were trailing 10-9 deep into the fourth quarter but won the game on a 31-yard Carson Palmer-to-Michael Floyd touchdown, followed immediately by Karlos Dansby's clinching interception off Russell Wilson.
Arizona made the playoffs the next season and won the division in 2015 with a 13-3 record. The Bucs' win over Indianapolis, which included two comebacks from double-digit deficits and some clutch plays down the stretch, could prove to be the same sort of springboard for the Buccaneers.
"Oh, I think this will be a huge one for us," said Arians. "When we finished that season beating Seattle, who were division champs, it led into a hell of an offseason. For us to possibly win four in a row, then five in a row…that's building blocks. The culture is set because the other guys aren't accepting it anymore. They don't accept losing anymore. That's kind of what the guys stood up and said in the locker room [at halftime Sunday. I didn't have to say much – we ain't accepting this [stuff] anymore. You know it's getting across."
If there is a new culture in the Bucs' locker room, it's key attribute may be resiliency.
"I actually like this win better [than the previous two] for that reason," said Arians. "It shows the growth of this football team. It's easy to be front-runners and win when everything is going your way. Hardly anything was going our way during this one, but we hung in there and found a way to win. I like that at this stage of where we're at in the season. I like that win a whole lot more.
"The resiliency of the team, the we're-not-quitting, the fact that we are now mathematically eliminated from the playoffs is not going to change anything. We're going to come, we're going to work. We're going to try to win four in a row, five in a row, and then six in a row."
2. Justin Watson stepped up in a big way, and not just on offense.
Wide receiver Justin Watson has spent most of his second NFL season providing a lot of value on the kick-and-cover teams. Watson is third on the team with 254 snaps on special teams and is second with four kick-coverage tackles. On Sunday against the Colts, however, Watson logged a season-low 12 snaps on special teams.
There was a good reason for that…two of them actually. First, Watson took on a new role on special teams, inheriting the punt return job after T.J. Logan suffered a broken thumb in practice on Friday. More significantly, in terms of playing time, Watson also played by far his highest snap count on offense after Mike Evans was lost to a hamstring injury in the first quarter. That left the Bucs with just three healthy wideouts and Watson played 43 snaps of offense after being on the field for just 27 offensive plays through the first 11 games. It only made sense in that situation to relieve him of some of his special teams duties in order to keep him fresh for Jameis Winston.
Watson finished with a career high five catches for 59 yards and scored his first career touchdown during the Bucs' second-half comeback. He also caught a third-and-10 pass right at the sticks to give the Bucs a first down at the Colts' three-yard line just before halftime. Winston hit Cam Brate on a touchdown pass one play later.
In the return game, Watson went back for five punts and smoothly fair caught three of them. He returned the two others for three yards, and while that number doesn't seem significant it is also a bit misleading. Rigoberto Sanchez's first punt of the game landed short and Watson positioned himself to potentially field it on a bounce if it came up clean which it did. Watson got seven yards to the Bucs' 39 but it was almost surely a bigger net gain because Watson's other option was to let it bounce past him towards the Bucs' goal line.
"One man's injury is another man's opportunity and some fail at it because they can't handle the moment," said Arians. "I mean Justin's never caught punts in a game in his life, and he went out there and did an unbelievable job on a ball that was bouncing and got 10 yards and made a huge third-down catch, touchdown catch. Yes, those are the guys you're really, really happy for after games like that."
3. Meanwhile, Breshad Perriman's recent production has proved worth the wait.
After losing Adam Humphries to free agency and trading DeSean Jackson to Philadelphia, the Buccaneers signed former Raven and Brown Breshad Perriman to be their number-three receiver. And, in fact, he did fill that role right from the start of the season. In the first half of the season he saw by far the most snaps of the receivers behind Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. He just didn't catch many passes.
Perriman missed two first-half games due to injury but was otherwise healthy and still had only three catches for 16 yards through the Bucs' first seven outings. Since then, Perriman has caught 16 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns, and he has 157 yards in just the last two games.
After the win on Sunday, Arians was asked about Perriman's recent play after that first-half lack of production and he cut off the question before it was finished to clarify that the receiver had simply had a lack of opportunities. The football didn't come his way early, but it is now, and Arians is pleased for Perriman because he never let the lack of opportunities change his approach.
"He had such a great spring, had a great camp, lit it up against the Dolphins [in the preseason] – it's just going to be opportunities," said Arians. "Tom Moore said a long time [ago], he had [Lynn] Swann, [John] Stallworth and Frank Lewis, I think it was. [Moore said], 'One of you, come Monday, is going to have your lip poked out because you ain't getting the ball enough.' That's just the life of being a three, four or five receiver. One and two are getting theirs. Who gets the other ones – somebody is probably going to have their lip poked out. [Perriman] has never done that. He just comes to work ready for his chance. The last two weeks, it's been there."