The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit the mat in their 2020 opener at New Orleans Sunday, but as Head Coach Bruce Arians said, the season is a 16-round fight and the Buccaneers plan to come out swinging in Round Two. They may have lost the opening round – specifically, a 34-23 defeat at the hands of the Saints – but they weren't completely shut out on the scorecard.
There were miscues for the Bucs in the Superdome, to be sure, and some of them led directly or almost directly to Saints touchdowns. Arians also expressed some disappointment on Monday with the inconsistency of left tackle Donovan Smith, the team's tackling in punt coverage, the blocking of his tight ends on the edge and the receivers' inability to win enough of their one-on-one matchups with Saints defensive backs.
But there were also some bright spots, beyond the obvious 85-yard Tom Brady-led drive to start the game and touchdown catches by O.J. Howard and Mike Evans. Among the players who will have a chance to build on strong opening-game efforts are a pair of 2018 second-round draft picks, running back Ronald Jones and cornerback Carlton Davis.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Week 1 matchup against New Orleans.
In his first career Week One start, Jones was the ballcarrier or targeted pass-catcher on a team-high 20 plays. He ran 17 times for 66 yards (3.9-yard average) and caught two of his three targets for another 16 yards. Those 82 yards from scrimmage were the most by any player on either team in what was a far less explosive matchup than many expected. Those certainly aren't overwhelming numbers for Joseph, but they also included three successful attempts to convert a third-and-one. On such plays, even one yard is a good result.
The Bucs also incorporated Leonard Fournette into the offense to some degree, just five days after he joined the team. Arians said he expected Fournette's role to continue to increase after the fourth-year back ran five times for five yards and caught a 14-yard pass, but Jones did not do anything to lose his hold on the starting job.
"RoJo, I thought, had a really decisive day," said Arians. "He ran hard and made yards when there were no yards to be made a couple of times. Leonard's role will increase and we'll just see how much."
The Buccaneers' offense used "12" personnel packages on 24.6% of their plays Sunday which, as expected, was up a bit from its 20.0% usage last year. With Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Cam Brate and Antony Auclair available to use in a variety of sets, the Bucs expect that to be a strength for them, but they need more than big receptions out of that group. Tampa Bay's rushing attack didn't have as much success getting to the edge as Arians had expected. If Jones and Fournette continue to run the way they did Sunday, bigger days are likely ahead if the blocking on the edges improves.
"I thought RoJo was very positive, and Leonard," said Arians. "They both ran the ball well. Negative, our tight ends did not block the edge very well. That was a big part of our gameplan and we got beat at it. We were out-physicaled. I thought our defense was more physical than their offense, but their defense was more physical than our offense. We can't allow that to be happening."
On defense, inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White filled up the statsheet with 22 tackles and three tackles for loss between them. As for Davis, what's more impressive than his four tackles and one TFL are the numbers that can't be found on that sheet.
Davis spent most of the day shadowing the Saints' top receiver, Michael Thomas, whenever Thomas lined up wide on either side. His tight coverage helped hold Thomas to the second-lowest single-game output of his career, three catches for 17 yards. One of those was a quick eight-yard slant out of the slot on which CB Sean Murphy-Bunting had coverage.
After finishing the 2019 season with very strong outings against DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones, Davis starts 2020 with a very good representation against the league's leading receiver from a year ago. That Week One outing lent credence to Arians' assertion during training camp that Davis is a "top-10" NFL cornerback. Arians also mentioned during camp that Davis gave the Bucs' defense a corner it could use to stifle one particular receiver throughout a game if they chose that strategy.
It wasn't a perfect game for Davis. He was flagged for pass interference on a play on which he deflected a pass that was then intercepted by a diving Sean Murphy-Bunting. Davis had outstanding coverage on Thomas on the play but may have just had a bit too much contact with his other arm. Later, Davis was flagged for a facemask penalty on an Emmanuel Sanders touchdown, which led to a disastrous kickoff result a few moments later.
"I thought [there were] two [bad] plays for him," said Arians. "He played an outstanding game other than [when] they ran what we call the 'Jerry Rice motion.' He comes over and goes back and he missed the tackle and got the facemask. The other one was when he had Michael Thomas covered really well [but] he just had his back arm around him when he batted the ball up and we got the interception. Other than those two plays, I thought he played great."