Dirk Koetter spoke with the press on Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell to the Atlanta Falcons, 43-28, in a primetime Thursday night affair. In the interim, Koetter had an opportunity to review the tape from that game and gain a more detailed understanding of how the Bucs took their first loss within the division in 2016.
So, upon further review, here are a few things Koetter and the rest of us learned from – and/or what new questions were raised by – the Buccaneers' Week Nine game against Atlanta.
1. Thursday's game was a costly one in terms of injuries, and at two very familiar spots on the depth chart.
Given that the most effective part of the Buccaneers' offense in 2016 has been the connection between quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receiver Mike Evans – a connection that owns a league-high eight touchdown completions – it's a relief that neither player seems to have suffered any long-term injury on Thursday night. Winston was reported to have sustained a knee injury late in the fourth quarter and Evans was evaluated for a concussion at roughly the same time, but it's likely that both players will be on the field when practice resumes on Monday.
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"Jameis is fine," said Koetter, simply. "Mike's in the concussion protocol, as is [guard] Kevin Pamphile. Both of those guys are in the concussion protocol. I do know that Mike will be able to practice on Monday. I don't think Kevin will be. I don't think Kevin will be – I don't think he's that far along, but that's really all I know."
Unfortunately, the beleaguered running back and defensive end positions on the Buccaneers' depth chart weren't as lucky. Both running back Antone Smith and defensive end Howard Jones sustained knee injuries on Thursday, and Koetter said on Friday that he believes both will be season-ending mishaps. Smith joins tailbacks Doug Martin, Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers on the sideline as Tampa Bay has had a run of misfortune in the backfield that Koetter hasn't encountered on any team before.
"I haven't seen it," he said. "Again, we've hit on this before, but for whatever reason, we're being hit hard at two potions – running back and defensive end have been the positions that we've been hit really hard on. Other teams in the league have their issues at different positions, but I've never seen where we're a one-back team and we have four running backs go in one year. I've never seen that."
Sims is already on injured reserve, though he technically could return before the end of the season if he's healthy and the Bucs use their one IR exception on him. Martin hasn't played since Week Two due to a hamstring injury that he subsequently aggravated in Week Five. Rodgers was doing a marvelous job of filling in for those two, gaining 314 yards in a trio of starts, but he sustained a foot injury while scoring a touchdown in Sunday's loss to Oakland. The Bucs have a long weekend in which to try to get Martin and/or Rodgers healthy but may once again be looking for necessary additions to the backfield in Week 10.
Jones will be the third defensive end the team has lost to injured reserve, following a preseason injury to George Johnson and an ACL tear for Jacquies Smith early in the regular season opener. In addition, Robert Ayers has only been able to participate in four of the first eight games due to an ankle injury sustained in Week Two and Noah Spence has had to play through a shoulder injury that required him to wear a harness.
The Buccaneers expected a strong running game and a much-improved pass-rush to be strengths of their 2016 team. That could still be the case in the second half of the season but a new pair of injuries in Week Nine certainly didn't start that process off on the right foot.
2. Mike Evans' unflagging effort level might have been more impressive on Thursday night than his big receiving numbers.
Third-year wide receiver Mike Evans caught a career-high 11 passes against Atlanta, turning them into 150 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His 2016 totals continue to improve, to the point that he's now on pace to break the team's single-season records in all three categories. According to Koetter, that's largely because Evans has taken his in-game focus to a new level.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' game against the Falcons.
"I think that's Mike's biggest improvement this year," said Koetter. "We talked in the offseason how Mike's his own worst critic. Mike has really got his temper under control. Mike is really locked in to what he needs to do, whether it's a penalty called on him or a penalty that he thinks should have been called on them or Jameis overthrows him or Mike going over the middle. Mike has really learned to move on and play the next play. You can see it in how he's running his routes. He's getting off the line. Sometimes last year it would look like, when he got tired, like he wasn't running hard."
Evans was the target on 17 of Winston's 37 throws on Thursday, and an 11-150-2 line on 17 passes is more than acceptable. Still, Koetter thinks Evans could have produced even more, and that's encouraging for the Buccaneers' offense in the second half of the season.
"We only went with four wideouts last night, with 'Shep' [Russell Shepard] being down," said Koetter. "Mike and Adam [Humphries] – especially – and Cecil [Shorts] had to play a lot of plays. I think that's Mike's biggest area of improvement. For as good of a game as he had, I'm sure Mike will be the first to admit that should have had a couple of more."
Evans also got one he probably shouldn't be expected to make, a dazzling one-handed sideline catch late in the third quarter on which he was drilled by safety Keanu Neal just fractions of a second after hauling in the football.
"That was two plays right in a row why people watch the NFL," said Koetter. "The catch was fantastic and that was some kind of hit. That was some kind of hit. As a coach, I wish Jameis would throw the ball further outside and Mike didn't have to make the catch like that, catches it going out of bounds and doesn't take that hit."
3. Yes, the Buccaneers are clearly still looking to define what they can do best on defense.
Winston-to-Evans, as mentioned, is the best thing Tampa Bay's offense has going at the moment, and when injuries haven't gotten in the way the running game has been solid behind a young and improving offensive line. Slot receiver Adam Humphries and tight end Cam Brate, both of whom scored on Thursday, have clearly defined roles that have been productive when the team has needed it.
It's a lot more difficult to make that sort of assessment on defense, where the Buccaneers have struggled significantly over the past two games. Tampa Bay did hold Carolina and San Francisco in check in the fifth and sixth games of the season, but the Oakland and Atlanta games, in which a total of 73 points was surrendered, have been a definite step back. Going forward, the Bucs will need to determine what they do best on defense and try to build around those things.
"I think every team finds its own identity sooner or later," said Koetter. "Sometimes what you think you're going to be when you start the year, it doesn't work out that way, for one reason or another. I think that might be a fair assessment, that maybe we haven't really found what we can consistently hang our hat on. There's different reasons for that. All that is, that's our job as coaches. That's my job, to help us get to that point."
Buccaneer players and coaches usually try to adhere to a '24-hour rule' in which they celebrate a victory or sting from a defeat for a brief period before moving on to the next task, as is necessary in the NFL. That's still in effect this week, but an idle weekend after a Thursday game does allow for a little more time for reflection.
"We talk about the 24-hour rule – I'm still hurting a little bit today and sometimes I'll be a little too emotional in the 24 hours after the game about how you look at stuff," said Koetter. "I'll be thinking about that a lot and I know the defensive coaches will. That's what I asked the players to do, too, over this little break that we have. We have to play better at a lot of different spots. We have to coach better. We have to coach better to enable our guys to play better."
Koetter was hired as the Buccaneers' head coach in January after a very successful 2015 season as the team's offensive coordinator. He quickly moved to bring in Mike Smith, with whom he'd had successful collaborations in Atlanta and Jacksonville, as his defensive coordinator. That meant a new system for Buccaneer players to learn, and it appears as if the transition has not gone as quickly as the team would have hoped.
"We're not communicating good enough," said Koetter. "Not everybody's able to just line up and read their keys and play fast. That's what you want to do with every position and we're just not doing that right now. It could be different reasons on different plays. We're talking about communicating all time and making sure everybody's on the same page, and we're not doing a good enough job of that right now.
"We've got to coach them better. That's what a coach's job is, that's what my job is, to try to get your team to achieve to the talent level that they have. Everybody can argue whatever your talent level is, and every team in the NFL has injuries. I'm saying I think we have a higher ceiling than we're playing to right now. Our record is what our record is; we have to own that, just like I said last night. But I think we can play to a higher level across the board. That starts with me, first and foremost. I have to figure out how to reach these guys, how to motivate them, how to get them on the same page, get them to play together, to play up to the talent level that I think we have. That all starts with me."