1. The Bucs can find a way to win.
No, it wasn't pretty. But it was almost better that way. It wasn't that the Buccaneers went on the road to face a red-hot team toting a league MVP candidate and sailed to a win. It was that they came out with a win despite those things and more stacked against them.
The in-game injuries alone would have been enough of a challenge. The Bucs lost Aaron Stinnie, already in for starting left guard Ali Marpet, cornerback Jamel Dean and inside linebacker Devin White all within a couple drives in the first half. Stinnie and Dean wouldn't come back in and the Bucs were left adjusting on the fly. You'll forgive them then if the first half wasn't what you expected it to be.
But the second half was.
Head Coach Bruce Arians called it one of the best halves the Bucs have had all year. They allowed the Colts just one score and took the ball away three more times after nabbing two takeaways in the first half on defense. Offensively, they maintained a balanced attack but added more production – scoring three touchdowns and a field goal in the second half, including a trip to the end zone on a drive that began with the score tied and just 3:29 left in the game, which ended up making the difference. And even when the ensuing kickoff was returned 71 yards with 20 seconds still left on the clock for Indy to work with, the defense clamped down yet again and recorded a game-sealing interception to preserve the win.
Credit the Colts too, who did some good things against the Bucs to try and stop them. Quarterback Tom Brady had just 226 yards and a touchdown through the air – but his lack of passing was made up for in the run game. The Bucs had more first downs rushing than they did passing in Sunday's win and four of their five touchdowns came on the ground. Indy took away wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans' impact but that only made room for tight end Rob Gronkowski to record his highest receiving total of the year, catching seven of 10 targets for 123 yards and a 17.6 yards per reception average. Yeah, side note, can we PLEASE talk about Gronk a little more?
After his first two targets in the very beginning of the game went incomplete, Gronk only missed one other ball thrown his way the whole rest of the game. He provided a stable and productive weapon for Brady that is near impossible for one defender to stop. And reinforced how multidimensional this Bucs' offense truly is and gave the Bucs an extra blocking weapon to help with that ground game effort.
Against a good team, with a good plan and dealing with injuries in a hostile environment – the Bucs still prevailed. This has to be the most encouraging win of the season, even if it wasn't the most convincing.
2. Balanced offense for the Bucs means production.
Yeah, you read the above stat about the rushing and passing splits right. The Buccaneers had more first downs by rushing than passing. Of the 28 total first downs Tampa Bay's offense gained, 13 were on the ground and 11 were through the air. Four more came by penalty. It meant a total of 142 yards rushing with an additional 217 yards passing for a total offensive gain of 329 yards on the day.
That was actually less than the Colts' 392 total yards, even with the Bucs' defense taking the ball out of the Colts' hands five times. Tampa Bay even lost the time of possession battle (by two seconds, for the record) but those usual indicators didn't end up mattering and I think that's what happens when not only do all three phases of the ball play complementary to each other, but different aspects of the same phase of the ball complement each other as well.
This is also more likely with a quarterback who is the ultimate team guy and couldn't care less about his individual stats, even if you do have him on your fantasy roster. Brady fed the ball to Fournette all day – and gladly. It gave Fournette 131 total yards from scrimmage on the day as if to say he was the running back we should have been talking about all along this week – and not that other guy on the Colts.
I'd be remiss to not mention the part the Bucs' offensive line played in that, as well. Even with a utility lineman that has no designated position plugged in on the line. With backup guard Aaron Stinnie suffering a knee injury early in the game, it was up to Nick Leverett to come in and play up to the standards of a line that coming into the game had allowed the least amount of sacks of any team this year. And he did it. Not only that, but he blocked for a 142-yard rushing performance.
Running the ball more takes time off the clock and also keeps a defense guessing - that's what it comes down to. And with the Bucs' personnel, there's a lot to guess. All five of the Bucs' touchdowns came from running backs – who would have guessed that coming into the game? Certainly not Indianapolis.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Week 12 matchup vs. the Indianapolis Colts.
3. The defense made up for the dilapidated secondary with their takeaways and stout run defense.
This cannot be overstated: the Colts had come into the game as the top-ranked team in turnover margin. They hadn't turned the ball over in three-straight games. Wentz had thrown just four picks all year. In the span of 60 minutes, that all changed.
Indianapolis ended up -3 on the day, bringing down their season margin to +12 from +15. Wentz now has six interceptions on his record as a Colt. The five total takeaways were the most by far that Indy has seen this season. Their previous high was three. It afforded the Bucs' offense more chances to put points on the board – and I just detailed how they took advantage of that especially in the second half.
The effort wasn't perfect on the Bucs' part, though. The Colts still managed a splash 62-yard touchdown and did put 31 points on the board. But only seven of those points came in the second half – after the Bucs figured out how to deal with another starting corner going down and after Devin White had come back in the game after missing more of the first half with injury.
Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett said Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles detailed the plays in which the defense had gone wrong at halftime and told them where they'd be if they just hadn't let them up. It made them determined to come out in the second half and be better and more aggressive. They ended up blitzing Wentz on 52.9% of dropbacks in the third quarter after blitzing him just on 28.9% in the first and 10% in the second.
Believe it or not, the Bucs blitzed their second-lowest percentage this season against the Colts, but it worked. They rushed four or less on 72.3% of Wentz's dropbacks on Sunday overall, nabbing two of their three sacks in those situations. One of those sacks resulted in a turnover. So, the pass rush was effective even when it wasn't sending more than four guys. If you looked closely, the rushers were hardly ever the same. The Bucs pulled out some very exotic looking fronts, including more appearances by outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka on the interior of the defensive line, often in Ndamukong Suh's usual spots. Suh, in turn, lined up wide. There were also instances of multiple outside linebackers to one side, forcing the Colts' O-line into a state of near constant decision on who to block.
It helped mitigate the Colts' run game, too, which may have been more the purpose of not running a passing blitz-heavy gameplan. It's worth noting that the NFL's Next Gen Stats don't only account for the number of rushers on dropbacks and run blitzes are a thing, after all. Tampa Bay limited the league's leading rusher to just 97 total yards from scrimmage, snapping his eight-game streak of over 100 scrimmage yards and at least one touchdown. Most of his yards didn't even come until the fourth quarter, either. The game before, against the Buffalo Bills, Taylor had 204 yards from scrimmage with a whopping five touchdowns, for reference.
It forced Wentz to do more work than he had to in any of Indy's last three wins. Wentz attempted 44 passes on Sunday and this season, the Colts are now 0-4 when he attempts 35 or more. That was exactly what the Bucs had set out to do – and they did it.
Coming into the game, the two teams matched up well with the Bucs' top-ranked rushing defense and the Colts' fourth-ranked rushing offense and the league's top back at their disposal but like Bruce Arians said after the game…
"I mean nobody runs the ball on us. I don't care who the hell you are. You are going to end up throwing it because if you're going to run it all day, you're not going to get much, and they did that last drive. We were a little bit playing pass defense and they ran it on us. I'll take our run defense versus anybody's run offense anytime."