Dirk Koetter spoke with the press on Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers evened their record at 3-3 by thrashing the San Francisco 49ers, 34-17. In the interim, Koetter had an opportunity to review the tape from that game and gain a more detailed understanding of how the Bucs notched their second win in a row and their third road victory of 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 Seven win on the West Coast.
1. Though the Buccaneers still have several key defenders on the sideline due to injuries, the return of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy made a big difference.
After suffering a calf injury just before halftime against Denver in Week Four, McCoy missed the second half of that game, his team's Monday night win at Carolina in Week Five. He also had a bye week in which to recover before participating in a limited fashion throughout last week's run of practices.
That sounds like the progression of a player who would need to ease his way back into the action, and in fact Koetter mentioned a potential "pitch count" for McCoy in his return to the field Sunday in Santa Clara. That wasn't necessary, as it turned out, and McCoy played 64 of a possible 70 snaps in the win over San Francisco. He was still on the field with less than four minutes in the game and the Bucs up by 17, which gave him a chance to sack quarterback Colin Kaepernick and force a fumble, essentially killing the 49ers' penultimate drive.
"A lot of the players that come back after a three-week absence, they look a little rusty out there and we had a couple guys that were in that category," said Koetter. "Gerald did not look rusty, he looked like he was right back in Pro Bowl form. Gerald is one of those unique players that makes the other guys around him better and we were very happy to have him back."
Indeed, the Buccaneers held San Francisco to 273 yards, the lowest total for any Tampa Bay opponent this year, and sacked Kaepernick four times. That matched a season high in sacks for the Bucs' defense, and it was no coincidence that McCoy was involved in both of those games. McCoy had one of Tampa Bay's four sacks in the first half against Denver before his injury; in the six quarters of game play that he missed, the Bucs' defense did not record a single sack. His return, as Koetter pointed out, made the whole defensive front better.
"I think Gerald gets a bad rap sometimes; people don't appreciate what he brings to the table," said Koetter. "Having coached against him, you've got to double-team him or your guards are going to struggle to block him. Your center definitely can't block him single. He can beat a double-team and when he does get singled he's going to get penetration. He had a sack, caused a fumble – we didn't get that fumble."
San Francisco was able to recover the loose ball caused by McCoy's late sack, but it was McCoy who fell on another Kaepernick fumble after the quarterback was sacked by blitzing cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah in the third quarter. With three tackles to go with his sack, the forced fumble and the fumble recovery, plus a quarterback hit and a pass defensed, McCoy wasted no time in filling up a stat line upon his return. With its leader back in the mix, the Bucs' defense did the same.
2. Though there were a few unexpected hiccups, Tampa Bay's special teams made a significant contribution to Sunday's victory.
Prior to kickoff, the Buccaneers won the coin toss and elected to defer their choice to the second half. That meant San Francisco got the football to start the game but the Bucs knew they'd have the first possession in the third quarter. After rallying for 17 second-quarter points and a three-point halftime lead, that first possession looked like it could be a hammer for the visiting team.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' game against the 49ers.
Instead, the Bucs went three-and-out to start the second half and had to punt just two minutes in. Thanks to the special teams, however, that wasn't a missed opportunity.
Bryan Anger lofted a high 42-yard punt that return man Jeremy Kerley tried to field with a fair catch at his own 34. Unfortunately for Kerley, teammate Aaron Burbridge bumped into him just as the ball arrived. It bounced off Burbridge's right arm and was recovered by Keith Tandy at the San Francisco 36. The Buccaneers tacked on a field goal minutes later as part of a run of 27 unanswered points.
Though Burbridge obviously made an enormous mistake, the area all around Kerley was chaotic thanks to how quickly the Bucs' cover men got downfield on the kick. That was especially true for punt-team "gunners" Russell Shepard and Josh Robinson, who have been making things tough on return men all season. Buccaneer opponents have averaged 5.9 yards per punt return in 2016, the sixth-lowest mark in the league.
"Those two guys, they're getting double-teamed and they're still wreaking havoc down there," said Koetter. "And then the other thing is, Anger is doing such a good job of hanging the ball with hang time. That was kind of one of the knocks on him, is that he had the tendency to outkick his coverage and he's done an awesome job of making sure his hang time matches up with his distance. Those two gunners are definitely setting the tone on our punt team.
Anger dropped two of his three punts inside the 49ers' 20-yard line and did not have one returned against him. Rookie placekicker Roberto Aguayo misfired on a 50-yard field goal try but made two others and all four of his extra point tries. Aguayo also blasted all seven of his kickoffs into the end zone, leading to six touchbacks and one return that was stopped at the 16-yard line. The Bucs' return game didn't add much and sure-handed wide receiver Adam Humphries surprisingly muffed a pair of punts (recovering both), but overall it was a good day for the special teams.
"I think our special teams, for the most part, we did well, we got the one turnover," said Koetter. "It was a little uncharacteristic of Adam to put a couple balls on the ground yesterday, fortunately we got them both back. Our kickoff return team did not do as well as we would like to, but our kickoff team – we got a tackle inside the 20, we got the turnover and our special teams definitely contributed to the victory."
3. Russell Shepard had the big day but the Buccaneers used all of their available wideouts to cover for the loss of Vincent Jackson.
Tampa Bay put starting wide receiver Vincent Jackson on injured reserve on Tuesday, got Cecil Shorts back from a hamstring injury during the week of practice and promoted Freddie Martino from the practice squad on Saturday. There were a lot of moving parts on the Bucs' five-man receiving corps during the week leading up to Sunday's game – including the promotion and subsequent release of Donteea Dye – and the Bucs' solution was to tailor a specific role for all of the available pass-catchers other than Mike Evans.
"We had plays – we were going to absorb the Vincent [injury] – we had plays tagged," Koetter explained. "We were working it out with four guys and the reps bear that out. I think Cecil Shorts had 30 reps and Shep was in the twenties and Adam was in the twenties and Freddie was like, 17."
As usual, Koetter was nearly right on the money with his statistical recall, though Humphries was on the field for 38 snaps. Most likely what Koetter meant in that instance was that Humphries had about 20 snaps in a role designed to replace Jackson, in addition to his reps in his usual slot role. Shorts got 31 snaps, Shepard 27 and Martino 17 in what was truly a timeshare.
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With more time to prepare, the Buccaneers probably won't have to strictly pair certain players with specific packages of plays. Shepard, who had five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown – career-high numbers by a longshot – might have earned himself more playing time, and not necessarily because of his second-quarter touchdown, which gave the Bucs a lead they wouldn't surrender.
"Now as far as where the ball goes, it just worked out where Freddie didn't get targeted and Cecil didn't get targeted and Adam and Shep did," said Koetter. "Now Shep, he made some big plays. The biggest play he made – he had three explosives – but the play of the day for him was that third-and-five right before the half when we'd ran it on the first couple downs and then we just ran that little in-route and the guy was all over him and he made a great catch. And then we went in the two-minute [offense], hit him again on the next play and then eventually he scored the touchdown. But his biggest catch was a six-yard gain."