Lovie Smith met with the press on Monday afternoon, approximately 24 hours after his Tampa Bay Buccaneers rallied to defeat the Dallas Cowboys, 10-6, at Raymond James Stadium. 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 pulled out the 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 victory.
1. Another good outing by a recently-shuffled secondary allowed the Buccaneers to stick closer to their preferred defensive game plan on Sunday.
Tampa Bay's defensive front faced a tough challenge in Week 10, as the Cowboys brought what is widely considered the NFL's best offensive line to town. All things considered, the Bucs' big men more than held their own, limiting Dallas to 42 rushing yards and 2.0 yards per carry and sacking quarterback Matt Cassel three times.
While congratulating the Bucs' front seven, though, we should also reserve some kudos for a defensive backfield that has been a frequent target of criticism this season. Some of that criticism has been fair, but a change to the lineup two weeks ago seems to be bringing about better results. Jude Adjei-Barimah and Sterling Moore started again at the two cornerback spots on Sunday and helped hold Dallas to 216 total yards of offense and no plays longer than 24 yards. Moore in particular drew a tough task, matching up for much of the day with his former teammate, wide receiver Dez Bryant, and he helped hold the Cowboys' most dangerous weapon to 45 yards on five catches.
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"Dez [was] going against Sterling of course last year; you go against somebody in practice every day you know a little bit about him, but you still have the make the play on that day," said Smith. "We matched Sterling up [with Bryant] quite a bit. I thought he was pretty good, whether it was man coverage [or] zone coverage. He played a smart football game."
Behind-the-scenes photos of the Buccaneers vs. Cowboys game at Raymond James Stadium on November 15th.
Meanwhile, closer to the line of scrimmage, the Buccaneers frequently showed a potential blitz in the A gaps from linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, and often one of the two actually rushed the quarterback while the other dropped into coverage. Both Alexander and David would finish the game with a sack of Cassel. The blitzes were designed to help crack that solid Dallas front, but the Bucs might have had to abandon the tactic if Moore and Adjei-Barimah – plus nickel back Alterraun Verner and safeties Bradley McDougald and Chris Conte – hadn't played as well as they did.
"When you have good play in the secondary it allows you to do everything you would like to do," said Smith. "As a general rule we just don't play Tampa Two every snap. We would like to blitz about a third of the time in an ideal world. We love playing man coverage and mixing in zone. We were able to do all that yesterday. Improved play will allow you to do that. Good play by the front allows you to do that. Total effort yesterday."
Adjei-Barimah and Moore got their opportunities to start in Week Nine because the Buccaneers were continuing to look for the right combination in the secondary. That was no guarantee of continued playing time, however; those two would need to produce to keep the coaching staff from trying something else. So far, they've earned the right to stay on the field.
"You give guys an opportunity, they play well, they continue to play," said Smith. "If not, you keep looking for answers on your roster. I always tell the players if you deserve to play and think you should start, think you should get more time, circumstances will work itself out where you get that opportunity. Then it's what you do with it. For the last two weeks I've talked about our corner play, we've liked what we've seen back there."
2. The Bucs' unsung pass-catchers are helping, even if their numbers aren't overwhelming.Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (shoulder), safeties D.J. Swearinger (toe) and Major Wright (hamstring), wide receiver Vincent Jackson (knee), defensive end Jacquies Smith (ankle) and guard Ali Marpet (ankle) all sat out the Dallas game due to injuries. It was the seventh straight missed game for Seferian-Jenkins, the third straight for Swearinger, Wright and Jackson, the second straight for Smith and the first for Marpet.
On Monday, Lovie Smith said there was "reasonable optimism" that some of those injured players would be able to return to face Philadelphia next Sunday, though he did not specify which ones. He said that several players on that list were "close" to being cleared to play against the Cowboys.
The Buccaneers have won two of three games since Jackson was injured but would obviously be better equipped to move the football with the services of a receiver boasting four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Seferian-Jenkins looked like he was going to become a significant factor in the offense during the first two weeks of the season before he was injured. The Bucs look forward to giving rookie quarterback Jameis Winston more options in the passing attack, but Smith said the team is finding a way to produce without Jackson and Seferian-Jenkins. They definitely did on the game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter on Sunday.
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"Yeah, we're going to be better when we get those players [back], but Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye – that drive we talked about – both of them came up with big plays throughout," said Smith. "Yeah it's hard [missing players], but let's give them a little bit of credit too. They played well yesterday."
Winston tried to get the ball to his top target, Mike Evans, twice on the game-winning drive but both fell incomplete. He did complete four passes before running in the game-winning score on his own, one each to Dye, tight end Brandon Myers and running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims. Evans and Humphries turned in a couple big plays of their own on other drives that reached scoring range but were ultimately turned away.
"It would be easier to think about something I didn't like about it," said Smith of the game-winning drive. "Play-calling – good, starts with that – line-wise, we need protection when we threw the ball. We spread it around. It went to Mike, like anyone would, quite a bit. Just a good mix throughout. I think everyone felt like they had a part in us moving the ball down there."
3. The Buccaneers are still thinking about the playoffs.If the NFL were to create a playoff field off the current standings, the Buccaneers would be one of six NFC teams fighting to move up one spot and join the dance. Atlanta and Green Bay, sporting 6-3 records but a combined one win in their last six outings, would take the Wild Card spots to which the 4-5 Buccaneers, Eagles, Redskins, Bears, Rams and Seahawks all aspire.
So that latter group of teams has seven weeks to make up a two-game deficit. In the Buccaneers' case, it's worth noting that they still have games remaining against Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis and Chicago, so one way or another they should factor into the outcome of this wide-open playoff race. The Bucs also haven't given up on a division title, though that would obviously be a much more significant challenge given their five-game deficit to the undefeated Carolina Panthers.
Smith and his team aren't thinking in terms of those numbers right now, however. The task at hand is to put together a winning streak for the first time all season and see where that takes them. In a larger sense, though, the Buccaneers do not believe that any of the objectives they set before the season are as yet out of reach.
"This is how we set up our goals at the start of the season: We have the goal of beating our next opponent, so beat Philly, win the NFC South, win the Super Bowl," said Smith. "What can't we accomplish? We talked about being relevant. We are. We are in the mix. Everything that we set in front of us is there. That's the* *carrot. Yeah, it would be great to win two in a row, it would be great to get to .500. All of those things though, are automatically built in to what our goals are weekly. Our main goal weekly is to improve on last week's effort."