The Buccaneers have their first win of 2020 and it came during their first game playing at home. Though there were unfortunately no Bucs fans there to hear it, there was plenty of cannonfire due to the Tampa Bay offense and a balanced attack that put up a total of 31 points on Sunday. Coupled with another stellar defensive effort, the Bucs slid past their division opponents to improve to 1-1 on the season so far.
More encouraging was the tangible improvement on both sides of the ball as compared to the first week of the season.
And while there were a ton of noteworthy individual performances to speak of, here are the top three overall takeaways from Sunday's victory.
1. Just listen to your coaches.
Following up a Week One defensive performance that limited the league's all-time leading passer to 160 yards, last season's leading receiver to just 17 yards on three catches and one of the league's most dynamic running backs to a career-low 1.3 yard per carry average, was always going to be tough. But according to Head Coach Bruce Arians and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, there were still things to work on.
"We can do a lot of things better," said Bowles. "We have to get turnovers, obviously. We can pressure the quarterback more, we can tackle better – there's a lot of things when you lose a ballgame that you have to get better at and we understand that as a group."
Well, message received. The Buccaneers finished the day with 5.0 sacks and four total takeaways. They also registered seven quarterback hits and 73 combined tackles. For reference, the Panthers' defense had 48 total tackles on the day.
Tampa Bay wasted no time, either. By the time the first half was over, the Bucs already had 3.0 sacks and two turnovers. What was even more encouraging was that those sacks and turnovers came from all levels of the defense. Safety Jordan Whitehead came up with the team's first pick of Bridgewater while rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. came up with the team's first sack on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. It was a strip sack that popped the ball out, which outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul recovered in the first quarter.
"Our safeties have been playing great," said Arians following the game. "Jordan obviously had a great game today. Antoine Winfield, I said it before he's come in like a vet. He's been so impressive, and just having him and Jordan go back to back at strong [safety] and free [safety] has been such a plus for our defensive back core. It actually took us over that hump that we were missing last year, so having those two guys going back to back has been great for us."
The secondary wouldn't let up from there either as cornerback Carlton Davis intercepted Bridgewater for the second time just as the Panthers were driving with the opportunity to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
"Turnovers come in bunches – they're week-to-week," said Arians. "We had our hands on balls last week [and] we didn't catch them. I thought defensively we set the tone with this whole ballgame getting turnovers. I thought we were a little leaky in our run defense. But, that was a big interception to start the second half and we give it right back to them [and] let them back in the game. Carlton [Davis III] had a great interception to ice this thing with Leonard [Fournette's] run."
The secondary was also helpful in run support with both Davis and Whitehead recording tackles for loss. It complemented the effort from their front-seven counterparts with the Bucs registering a total of seven tackles for loss, while facing yet another dynamic pass-catching back in Christian McCaffrey.
And the defensive front came up big themselves. Outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul recorded his second sack in as many weeks. Dating back to last season, he's had at least one sack in each of his last four games, which ties for the fourth-longest such streak since sacks became an official stat in 1982.
A week after Arians said he'd like to see more pressure come from the interior of the defensive line, defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh stepped up with 2.0 sacks. He now has 60.5 sacks in his career – the third-most by a defensive tackle since entering the league in 2010. It was his sixth-career game with 2.0-or-more sacks and first as a Buccaneer. Defensive lineman Will Gholston had two quarterback hits himself. Vea met McCaffrey in the backfield and dropped him for a loss of one on what ended up being a fruitless drive for the Panthers in the second quarter.
The guys who picked up the bulk of the work when it came to McCaffrey and other Carolina skill players were of course inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White. They combined for 24 tackles between them, with White registering 15, giving him back-to-back games with double-digit tackles. A career first.
Conversely, David did what David has done his entire career: force and recover fumbles. David punched the ball out from Carolina receiver Robby Anderson's hands in the third quarter and then recovered it himself, because of course he did. David leads all NFL players with 15 opponent fumble recoveries since he entered the league in 2012. He also ranks tied for fifth with 22 forced fumbles since 2012.
And those turnovers – no matter how they come – make a big difference. The Buccaneers are now 4-0 in games with three-or-more takeaways under Arians.
2. The running game helped create a more balanced offense.
Tom Brady's stat line was very… well, Tom Brady-like. And not necessarily in the way you think. Brady is known for how much he spreads the ball around and promoting a total team effort, even when it doesn't directly pad his own stats. Sure enough, Brady was 23-of-35 for 217 yards and a touchdown. Not bad at all but not overly eye-popping – until you look closer.
Where the stat sheet is seemingly limited for Brady, it is heavy in one column that the Bucs have been consistently trying to improve: rushing yards. In just their second game of the season, the Bucs had their first 100-yard rusher in newly acquired running back Leonard Fournette. It took Tampa Bay until the last game of the season to have a 100-yard rusher in 2019, when Ronald Jones rushed for 106 yards against the Atlanta Falcons.
And while Fournette got a big chunk of his 103 yards, and Tampa Bay's 122 yards on the ground, on a 46-yard touchdown run that sealed the Bucs' victory in the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay still averaged 5.5 yards per rushing play overall.
Fournette carried 12 times and had two touchdowns on the day, which was the fourth multi-touchdown game of his three-year career. Jones also had a touchdown on the Bucs' second drive of the game, running it in on a handoff from seven yards out.
Veteran running back LeSean McCoy converted some pretty clutch third downs to round out the group, though he did those through the air. Brady clearly trusts McCoy in those third-down situations and the balance between the three backs and how they're carving out their roles is beneficial for all of them, according to Arians.
"It's nice to have a hell of a player with fresh legs in the fourth quarter," Arians said, referring to Fournette. "Our guys did a good job – I thought – of mixing the backs in. Shady (LeSean McCoy) did a great job catching balls [and] making first downs. I know he wants that one back that he dropped for a touchdown, but he'll make some more in the future. [In] the running game, I thought our line blocked well all day. RoJo (Ronald Jones II) – we fumbled that ball and we can't have that on a handoff. Overall, Leonard's…as he keeps practicing, learning and doing some things, we'll keep getting him more and more touches."
Coming from Jacksonville, where Fournette was a bulk of the Jaguars' volatile offense, rest is a pretty foreign concept for the third-year running back. It's taken some getting used to but Fournette isn't complaining, even as his role increases.
"It's different," he said. "You are so used to being the guy. Like last year I played for the Jags, I had like 95 percent of the snaps. It's different. It is helpful too, you know a lot of guys come in with fresh legs and you get your breath back with the rotation of the backs, so it's helping."
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 2 matchup against Carolina.
3. It may have been a win, but as Brady put it, the Bucs are still a long way from where they need to be.
"Execution was a little bit better," said Brady. "I think we are still a long ways from where we need to be. I think we had the ability to make plays. I think consistency [and] dependability are going to be things that we really need. We've got to get back to work and the clock is ticking on next week. Going to get focused on next week's game and try to be a lot better next week."
He's not quite downplaying the improvement in execution, either. While the Bucs managed to put up 31 points, they left as many as 21 more out there, according to Arians.
"Oh gosh – we dropped, probably, about 125 yards worth," said Arians, talking about passing yards. "About seven drops [and] two touchdowns. Maybe three touchdowns, really. You put the ball right there and we don't catch it – I don't think I've ever seen Scotty [Miller] drop that ball. I know LeSean [McCoy] is going to catch it nine times out of ten. The wind did get Cyril [Grayson] a little bit – that ball moved a little bit – it hit him in the head. But, the guy's got great hands and that's an easy touchdown. That should have been three touchdowns. Tom [Brady] should have had a 400-yard day if we just catch it."
Arians advice on how to get it corrected?
"Don't drop the damn ball or you won't get another one. It's easy. He [isn't] going to throw it to you."
All that being said, the Bucs offense is jelling more and more. That was no more evident than in the connection between Brady and wide receiver Mike Evans on Sunday. Brady's lone passing touchdown went to Evans on one of the best throw-and-catch plays you'll ever see. With that score, Evans now has 50 receiving touchdowns, which is the most in franchise history. He's now the ninth-youngest player to reach the mark in the NFL, just turning 27 last month.
Evans also had 91 first-half receiving yards and finished with a team high seven receptions for 104 yards. He has 25 100+ yard games in his career which are the fifth-most since he entered the league in 2014.
The Bucs are trending in the right direction and will cut down on the mental errors week by week, leaving the team optimistic for what the rest of the season brings.