Lovie Smith met with the press on Monday afternoon, approximately 24 hours after his Tampa Bay Buccaneers left Indianapolis with a 25-12 loss. 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 missed a chance to move above .500 on the year.
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. The loss to Indianapolis didn't end the Buccaneers' playoff hopes, but it did put it did put them in a position that can't survive many more miscues.
Lovie Smith's Buccaneers might be coming of age, but if they want to remain playoff relevant this year, they'll need to reach maturity in a hurry. Sunday's loss dropped the Bucs to 5-6 but didn't radically change their position in the overall NFC South standings. The biggest thing Tampa Bay lost in Indianapolis was time – time to make and recover from any more mistakes.
"There's no margin for error as we see it now," said Smith. "Yes this is the final stage of our growth, rebirth, whatever you want to call it is to finish on this back stretch. Right now, as you look at our season we went 1-3 the first quarter, 2-2 the second, we have an opportunity – no, it's a must – that we go 3-1 this third quarter finishing up with 4-0 in the last."
Smith has always liked to present the 16-game season to his players in four quarters, and the Bucs have indeed improved from the beginning of the first quarter to near the end of the third. Do the math on Smith's progression above and you'll notice that he believes a 5-0 finish may be necessary. He also thinks the Buccaneers are a team that is poised to make a season-ending run of that nature and rise out of the pack.
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"We are in position," said Smith. "In November you want to get in position and now it's who gets hot at the end. We think we're going to be one of those teams. There's not a whole lot of doom and gloom around here. The last thing we need to see is that when you don't take care of business late this is what can happen. I'm of the school of thought that we are going to be one of those teams that's going to do this now, right when we need to."
A 5-0 finish would put the Buccaneers at 10-6. Ten wins is usually enough to make the playoffs, but it's no guarantee; each of the last three years, one 10-6 squad has been left out of the postseason field (Philadelphia in 2014, Arizona in 2013 and Smith's own Chicago Bears in 2012.) On the flip side, the last non-division-winning team with nine wins or fewer to make the playoffs was Cincinnati in 2011. This might be a good year for a repeat of that occurrence, since only one non-division leading team has seven wins at this point, so the Buccaneers can take some optimism in still being just one game behind the last playoff spot at the moment.
Still, Smith's original point holds true: There's not much room for any kind of stumble. Specifically, the Bucs can't allow any of their major issues from the first three months of the season – for instance, too many penalty flags – to crop up in December.
"I think when you have made progress and you're a good football team you get to a point where you know and there's no room for error that those things don't happen anymore when they can't," he said. "It's a must that you get it right for the football team. I think that our players know that and they'll get it right for the football team.
"Now it's about the stretch-run. We have a five-game season, playing all NFC teams starting of course with Atlanta at home this week. [We] have an opportunity to sweep one of our division opponents. There's a lot on the line for us once we clean some things up and play the best ball we've played this year."
2. The Buccaneers will need big contributions from second-year wide receiver Mike Evans down the stretch, and they trust him to deliver.Mike Evans caught five passes for 64 yards on Sunday, and every one of his receptions produced a first down. He is the team's leading receiver by a healthy margin and he's usually the one targeted when Jameis Winston throws the ball deep. Following his superb rookie season, Evans is on pace for about 1,150 yards, or 100 more than he had in 2014.
Evans was targeted 10 times in Sunday's game, tying with Vincent Jackson for the most among Buccaneer players. A couple were deep shots that didn't come particularly close to connecting, but one was a beautiful third-and-six touch pass down the left sideline that could have given the Bucs a third-quarter lead or at least set them up inside the Colts' 10. Unfortunately, Evans couldn't quite haul it in and the Bucs had to settle for a 54-yard field goal attempt, which was ultimately unsuccessful.
That was one of a handful of painful missed opportunities for the Buccaneers on Sunday on both sides of the ball. On Monday, Lovie Smith acknowledged that it was a critical moment in the game but also stressed that he remains completely confident in Evans moving forward. Smith has shelved any early-season memories of Evans dropping passes as irrelevant.
"Mike Evans is a great wide receiver," said Smith. "We don't bring back all other games. That was a big pass he dropped yesterday. I'm not going to complain an awful lot about Mike. He would like to have one of those passes back yesterday, but [just] that one. Don't bring back all the other games, we don't go back that far."
Smith also knows that the Buccaneers had a chance to win Sunday's game even with that one pass unfortunately falling incomplete. Again, there were plenty of other opportunities left unfulfilled.
"There's going to be some days like that," said the coach. "We had one yesterday, but our football team is a good football team and every play we had yesterday wasn't bad. There were some critical times in the game yesterday that we didn't handle it the way we would like. We had the lead at the half, on the road, against a team that's leading their division. There were some good things happening – that third-quarter stretch. We had momentum going into the half, came out with the ball, penalty hurt us and we just weren't able to convert and get anything going right then. We had the one takeaway that we did get went against us with that penalty. That was a big change of events that happened during that time. I'm talking about we had some things like that that we didn't handle as well as we need to. I just don't think we are going to do that each week. Not where we are right now as a team."
3. The Bucs are playing the defensive backs they feel give them the best chance to win at this point.
Starting cornerbacks Sterling Moore and Jude Adjei-Barimah played every defensive snap for the Buccaneers in Indianapolis, and nickel back Alterraun Verner was on the field for 53% of those plays. Johnthan Banks and Mike Jenkins, both starters earlier in the season before the Bucs went to the Moore/Adjei-Barimah combination, were limited to special teams duty.
Those percentages are close to what the Bucs' cornerbacks have been putting up for the last month, since Smith went to the new starting pair in Week Nine. That has been the most successful stretch for the Bucs' secondary in 2015, even after the Colts' Matt Hasselbeck threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's game.
"The guys that we put out on the football field are the ones that we think we need to have out there that give us our best chance to win," said Smith, responding to the notion that the team could rotate in some of its reserve cornerbacks more frequently. "That's what we going on – just think about doing this for whatever reason. No, we're trying to have a successful play every down and if that guy is out there we think he gives us the best chance. Simple. Every position on our football team, that's how we look at it."