In the NFL's regular season, a win is a win and a victorious locker room is a joyous locker room no matter how the final score was achieved.
Things are a bit more complicated in the preseason, as was the case with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' last-minute 17-16 downing of the Miami Dolphins on Saturday night. To be sure, the Buccaneers were enjoying their victory in the postgame locker room, but there were concerns from the game as important as the score, some that will need to be addressed in practice and film study in the coming days.
But there were also bright spots, and it is those that gain a little more luster in the light of victory. Trevor Scott's three sacks are less of a statistical anomaly and more of a key to a three-point defensive effort in the second half. Akeem Spence's night in Miami's backfield shakes out not as a sidenote to defeat but more as a heady sign of things to come. David Douglas' second touchdown in as many weeks isn't just a point in his favor when it's time to make roster cuts, it is seven points, and the game-winners at that.
And, more than anything else, Tampa Bay's impressively stingy red zone defense suddenly looks like the deciding factor in Saturday's game, and a great sign for an up-and-coming team.
"It's important if you want to be a dominant defense to be stingy with points," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who had a key stop on Miami running back Lamar Miller at the four-yard line on the game's first drive. "We have a lot of stuff to work on defensively, but the positive we can take from it is that when it got down to crunch time and it was time for them to score we held them out. That's all that matters. If a team can't score, they can't win. We can work on everything else, but that's one positive we can take from the game."
Sometimes one big play is all a team needs to deny a touchdown in the red zone, and for a moment on Miami's first drive it looked like that play was going to belong to rookie defensive tackle Akeem Spence. On third-and-one from the Bucs' 10, Spence knifed through the Dolphins' line and trapped running back Daniel Thomas in the backfield for a loss of two. However, Miami went for it on fourth down and converted, and between that and a subsequent third-down penalty, Tampa Bay's defense was forced to turn back 10 straight snaps from inside the 20. Fortunately, they were able to come up with more than just one big play, starting with Spence's tempo-setter.
"Just being on the defensive front, the defense goes as we go," he said. "They drove down the field, but when they got in the red zone it was time to tighten up. Me coming off and making that play kind of got everything going, and then Gerald making [his] play, everybody started to feed off each other and we stopped them."
The last play of that drive was a third-down throw from the Bucs' four-yard line, with wide receiver Brian Hartline running a quick slant into the back middle of the end zone. Hartline was Johnthan Banks' man on the play, and the rookie cornerback stuck with him, extending a hand at the last moment to knock away Ryan Tannehill's pass and force a field goal try.
"We played big in the red zone," said Banks. "Coach puts in those situations every day in practice, and like he says, things that happen in practice will carry over in the game, and they carried over. We played tough and we fought and we held them to field goals."
On the night, Miami outgained the Buccaneers by a nearly two-to-one margin in total offense, 312 yards to 160. However, the Dolphins made four incursions into Tampa Bay's red zone and came away with only one touchdown. The starting defense came up with another enormous stop in the second quarter and the reserves did the same in the final period. That one proved to be decisive. After defensive end Da'Quan Bowers broke up a third-down pass from the Bucs' 10 early in the fourth quarter, Miami settled for a third Caleb Sturgis field goal and increased their lead from three points to six, instead of 10. Thus, when S Sean Baker put the Bucs in position to score with a 55-yard fumble return late in regulation, the ensuing touchdown catch by Douglas was a game-winner.
"That was awesome," said Banks. "I wanted to win this game bad. I don't like losing. We came back in the second half and fought hard. The guys who were in there, they fought the whole game and we came out with a win, a team win. It was a good team win."