The Tampa Bay Buccaneers survived the first test of their attempted title defense last Thursday, but they had to hurry to get some answers in under the wire in order to get a passing grade. Kicker Ryan Succop's clutch 36-yard field goal with two seconds left gave Tampa Bay a 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL's 2021 Kickoff Game.
According to Head Coach Bruce Arians, the Buccaneers wouldn't have had to sweat it out at the end if they had just held onto the football a little bit better. Asked what his team needed to improve in Week Two in order to stay undefeated, Arians didn't hesitate with his answer.
"The biggest thing is turnovers – just protect the ball better," he said. "If we don't turn the ball over in that game, it's not that close. Correct the turnovers and play a little better in space, tackle a little better."
The Buccaneers turned the ball over four times, in fact, two each in the interception and fumble columns. One of the picks came on a Hail Mary attempt at the end of the first half and thus wasn't really a mistake. The last of the four was Chris Godwin's fumble near the Dallas goal line with five minutes to play that set up his own (successful) shot at redemption.
The other two giveaways by the Bucs on Thursday were the results of mistakes made by the team's running back duo of Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette on consecutive offensive plays from scrimmage. After a Dallas missed field goal, the Buccaneers started a new drive at their own 21 with a handoff to Jones but DeMarcus Lawrence was able to strip the ball from Jones's arm and Randy Gregory fell on for the Cowboys at the 27. Dallas scored a touchdown five plays later to trim the Bucs' lead to one point. Dallas then took the lead, 16-14, minutes later after an attempted screen pass to Fournette went through his hands and was caught by Cowboys rookie Micah Parsons. The Bucs' defense held Dallas to a field goal but the damage was done, with 10 points in the span of two minutes all set up by those two turnovers.
Jones' fumble came on his sixth offensive snap and he would not get back into the game afterward. Fournette would end up with 42 snaps but only nine carries as the Buccaneers relied on their star-studded passing attack for most of the second half. Arians said the Buccaneers could have gone back to Jones after his fumble – much as they did to great effect in a win last season at Carolina – but they just didn't need to.
But the Bucs will need to go back to Jones and Fournette as the season unfolds, perhaps even this coming Sunday against a Falcons defense that allowed 173 rushing yards in Week One. Arians will have no qualms about putting the ball back in either runner's hands.
"Yeah, they're all different, and RoJo was ready," said Arians of how players respond to making mistakes. We started throwing the ball a bunch more. [Jones] is starting this week and he's ready to roll."
Arians has said that he views both Jones and Fournette as starters, and during the preseason he gave each one a start (they both sat out the middle game). That appears to be a pattern he will follow in the regular season as well, as Fournette took the first offensive series against the Cowboys and Jones took the second. As he said, Arians is planning on starting with Jones against the Falcons.
In that aforementioned 2020 Carolina game, Jones fumbled on the first series of the game but later ripped off a 98-yard touchdown as part of a 192-yard outing. Arians wanted to demonstrate his confidence in Jones after the young runner had trouble getting over another fumble in a narrow win over the Giants two weeks earlier.
Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich thinks Jones and Fournette could similarly use their Week One miscues to drive them to greater success in Week Two.
"The professional guys know how to move past it, get themselves in positions so when the next play presents itself, this group tends to make it," said Leftwich. "I'm more excited for the guys that people may think they didn't play well just because I know what it does to them. I know how they'll react to that and I just try to think to give them more opportunities to play well and play at a high level."
Leftwich won't hesitate to call Jones's number on Sunday.
"I'm not worried about Ro at all," he said. "We'll continue getting Ro the ball and letting Ro be Ro. Ro is real special running the ball, and unique. We understand the talent that he has. It's never perfect in football. The game doesn't go that way. Football doesn't allow it to be perfect. Football also helps in life lessons. It gets tough sometimes and sometimes it's better for you, but throughout a 17-game season that's just how it goes."
Fournette joined the Buccaneers' loaded offense just before the start of last season and for a while had difficulty adjusting to his role. He had been at the center of the offense in Jacksonville for three years, and at LSU before that. He eventually had to accept his complimentary role in Tampa, and that eventually led to his emergence as the lead back and driving force in the playoffs. Compared to that experience, getting past one bobbled ball is easy.
"I believe we're watching Lenny become a pro," said Leftwich. "I really believe that. As professional athletes, it doesn't always go well. It's not the first time that it's not going well for an individual throughout a game. That happens week-in and week-out."
The Buccaneers ran for just 52 yards in the opener against a Cowboys defense that ranked 31st against the run in 2020. They would surely prefer a little more offensive balance, even with all of their pass-catching weapons healthy and ready to dominate. They'll need Jones and/or Fournette to be at the top of their games, both physically and mentally, to get that. The Bucs are confident both backs will be ready in Week Two.
"We'll continue to try and get the ball to everybody," said Leftwich. "Week-in and week-out, somebody is going to be the guy that didn't get it. It is what it is. We're trying to win football games and we'll get the football to our playmakers the best we can."