Behind-the-scenes photos of the Buccaneers vs. Falcons game at the Georgia Dome on November 1st.
Lovie Smith met with the press on Monday afternoon, approximately 24 hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Atlanta Falcons in overtime, 23-20, in the Georgia Dome. 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 managed to finish off a game that was hanging in the balance for a long time.
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' second intra-division road win of the season.
1. Better defensive results in the red zone were a matter of both strategy and execution.
Heading into Week Eight, the Buccaneers' defense ranked fifth in the NFL in yards allowed but tied for last in points allowed. One of the main factors in that discrepancy was the team's struggles in the red zone and in goal-to-go situations. Tampa Bay ranked last in the NFL in touchdown percentage allowed on red-zone drives through the first seven weeks, at 75.0%. That was a particularly troubling issue in the Bucs' one-point loss at Washington in Week Seven, in which the Redskins turned five red zone trips (and five goal-to-go situations) into four touchdowns and a field goal.
There were better results right from the beginning in Atlanta. The Falcons took the game's first possession down to the Buccaneers' six-yard line and had a first-and-goal to work with, but the Bucs successfully turned away three shots at the end zone (plus a fourth play that resulted in a Kwon Alexander interception erased by an offside penalty). The next time Atlanta earned a first-and-goal – again at the six-yard line in the second quarter – the Buccaneers again denied the Falcons the end zone, and even took the ball away on a fumble recovery by Jacquies Smith. That marked the first red zone trip and goal-to-go situation all season against the Buccaneers that did not result in points scored.
"Believe it or not, we've been trying to keep [our opponents] out of the end zone, especially down in the red zone," said Smith with a laugh. "Each week we've been working on things and that's what we did last week. Yeah we tweaked it and played some different things, but the execution part was a lot better this week."
Overall, Atlanta made five trips into the Bucs red zone but only came away with 20 of a possible 35 points (assuming no two-point tries). Tampa Bay's defense successfully defended a number of run and pass plays near their end zone, and notably did not give up a score on a quick slant, a particular glitch in the system for the Buccaneers in the season's first two months.
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And all of that is even underselling it a little bit because the Falcons had another drive in the third quarter that got to the Bucs' 20-yard line exactly before the Buccaneers again recovered a Falcon fumble. That one didn't technically qualify as "inside the 20" but it was certainly the same sort of situation. Smith was particularly pleased with those two threatening drives that came up completely empty.
"It's one thing to get stops down in the red zone, but to take the ball away in the red zone is just really big," he said. "[We] mixed in a lot of things, but in the end it's just guys making some individual plays in the right position."
That said, the Buccaneers' defense did not get a red zone or goal-to-go stop at the end of regulation, when Atlanta needed a touchdown to force overtime. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan worked a marvelous pump-fake to running back Devonta Freeman underneath, freeing up wide receiver Julio Jones for an eight-yard TD pass in the back of the end zone. Tampa Bay still won the game in overtime, but could have saved some stress with one more stop in the red zone. Still, Week Eight was a significant step forward for the Buccaneers in that regard.
"What a difference a week makes," said Smith. "You have to fight through adversity a lot of times. Things kind of hit you in the face that make you take a step back, but it's how you respond. Our team really went to work last week."
2. The rookies are getting the job done…with the help of some veteran leadership.
Out of the 22 players the Buccaneers started against the Falcons on Sunday, five were NFL rookies, including four on offense. Quarterback Jameis Winston, guard Ali Marpet and tackle Donovan Smith have started every game this season, but wide receiver Donteea Dye joined them Sunday when the team had to go into battle without veterans Vincent Jackson and Louis Murphy. On defense, Kwon Alexander started once again at middle linebacker.
In addition, three other rookies saw extensive action for the Buccaneers on Sunday: wide receiver Adam Humphries , cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah and defensive end Josh Shirley. Three other first-year players were involved, including two – defensive end Howard Jones and punter Jacob Schum – who had never played in a regular-season game before this season. The third first-year player was tight end Cameron Brate, who saw action in five games last year but didn't have an NFL touchdown until his 20-yard scoring catch in the second quarter.
That's 11 out of the 44 players who saw action on Sunday for the Buccaneers, 10 of whom are seeing their first real action in 2015, and that makes the team's road win over a 6-1 Falcons team even more impressive. Smith's team didn't necessarily head into the season expecting to rely so much on inexperienced players, but they knew it was a possibility given the makeup of the roster and some injuries along the way.
"I just know that when you're part of a team and you put a group together, you just have to realize that if you put the group together and you have some young players on there, odds say that you're going to have to call on them," said Smith. "And for our rookies, I don't think that crossed our minds, 'You know, I'm just kind of a first-year player out here.' No, they were just stepping in there, whether it was Donteea Dye, Adam Humphries, Josh Shirley getting reps yesterday, Howard Jones, and all these guys taking center stage. Nowadays, rookies can handle those situations."
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Winston led an offense that didn't commit a single turnover and has only given the ball up once in the last three weeks. He completed a combined six passes to Humphries, Brate and Dye, including Brate's TD and a key third-down conversion by Humphries in overtime. Shirley had a third-down stop on Freeman inside the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter and Jones got the Bucs' only sack at a key moment in overtime. Marpet and Smith helped the Bucs' O-Line allow just two sacks (one on Winston's scramble for no yards in overtime) and block for 117 rushing yards against the league's second-best run defense. Schum averaged 42.3 yards per punt and dropped two of three inside the 20, without a touchback. Alexander was simply the star of the game, with an interception and a forced fumble/fumble recovery combo that set up 10 points.
Every single rookie or first-year player who suited up for the Buccaneers on Sunday made an important contribution to the win. That wasn't just happenstance – they succeeded in those spots in part due to great guidance from their older teammates.
"I think it says a lot about our veteran players, too, where they can keep bringing in young bodies and be that perfect example on how you get things done," said Smith. "And I've talked so much about our veteran leadership that we have, but you do need to go through times like this."
3. The Bucs' response to Kwon Alexander's personal tragedy revealed a very close-knit team.
In an emotional postgame locker room scene, veteran guard Logan Mankins presented a game ball to Alexander and held his rookie teammate tight against him as the rookie linebacker struggled with his emotions. Alexander's tears were more than understandable, given the death of his younger brother earlier in the weekend.
The news of that tragic incident didn't become public until Sunday's game was already underway, but it was common knowledge on the Bucs' sideline. As Alexander continued to play through his grief – and provide some of the game's biggest moments – his teammates shared his emotions and offered all the support they could. The outpouring of care in the locker room didn't surprise Smith.
"I thought what you saw in that locker room is what was real, unscripted," he said. "Sometimes when you go through something like Kwon is going through, for him to find out just how much he really means to the group … and Logan asked me if he could do that. It wasn't just Logan. [He] of course handed him the ball and presented the ball to him, but all of his teammates were feeling for him the entire game."
It's possible those emotions helped the Buccaneers stand up at the end of Sunday's game and get the win for their rookie teammate, but that's obviously not anything quantifiable. It's also possible that Alexander's tragedy and his teammates' response will have a galvanizing effect on the team moving forward. However, that would be incidental to the genuine feelings that Alexander's teammates had for him before Sunday's game. Smith said the incident didn't pull the Bucs closer together but rather it revealed how tight they already were.
"Before any of this happened, this was a close team," he said. "The team doesn't need anything else to bring them closer. It's just sometimes, as a man, you don't let it out how you feel about someone, always. It's no more than that. I don't think this team can get any closer. They like each other. They know that there's a responsibility that you feel to do your job for your teammates, so I think we're already there."