Dirk Koetter spoke with the press on Monday afternoon, 24 hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished off a 31-24 win in Atlanta to take sole possession of first place in the NFC South. In the interim, Koetter had an opportunity to review the tape from that game and gain a more detailed understanding of what unfolded in the Bucs' first Week One division road win since 1990.
So, upon further review, here are a few things Dirk Koetter and the rest of us learned from – and/or what new questions were raised by – the Buccaneers' win over the Falcons.
1. The Bucs earned good to great grades Sunday in three critical areas of situational football: red zone defense, two-minute drill and four-minute drill.
Every NFL team devotes frequent practice periods to preparing for certain game situations, such as the one that arose when the Falcons kicked their second field goal on Sunday to take a 13-10 lead with 1:45 left in the first half. The Bucs got the ball back on their own 25 after a touchback and that put them into the classic situation coaches refer to as "two-minute."
Since that was a strength of Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers' offense in 2015, it was not terribly surprising to see the visiting team march 75 yards in 91 seconds to score the go-ahead touchdown. They didn't even need to use their third timeout.
When Atlanta kicked its third field goal in the fourth quarter to pull within one score, there was just under five minutes left on the clock. This time the Bucs started at their own 17 and went into what coaches refer to as a "four-minute drill." The goal is to move the chains enough times, using almost exclusively run plays to keep the clock moving and minimize turnover risk, to run out the clock. The perfect four-minute drill ends with a kneel-down and the ball never going back to the opposition. The Bucs didn't quite succeed in that regard, but they did put Atlanta's backs against the wall.
Doug Martin gained one first down with back-to-back runs of nine and four yards, and Winston got another one with a short pass to Charles Sims that converted a third-and-three. A keeper by Winston on third-and-five came up two yards short, forcing the Bucs to punt right after the two-minute warning. Atlanta got the ball back with 1:52 left on the clock, no timeouts and 91 yards separating them from the end zone. Matt Ryan got 19 of those yards on a pass over the middle to TE Jacob Tamme, but his next four passes were incomplete, the last one tipped away by DT Gerald McCoy.
"We did an adequate job in the four-minute," said Koetter. "Every game has situations. We did a really good job in the two-minute at the end of the first half, we did an adequate job in the four-minute. Probably the best thing we did was get two first downs and make them use all their timeouts. After they got that first completion it was great to see our defense close it out. On that last third down, we came up just half-a-yard shot. If we could have made one more first down – one first down, no timeouts at the two-minute warning, it's game over. It was close; that was something we'll have to work on."
The Bucs were in a better position at the end because Atlanta had to have a touchdown in order to tie the game, rather than a field goal. That might not have been the case if Tampa Bay's red zone defense hadn't been so solid. The Falcons breached the Bucs' 20-yard line four times, once due to the game's only turnover, but only scored 16 points on those drives. Atlanta scored a touchdown following that turnover but on the other three drives settled for field goals after gaining a combined one yard on nine plays.
"We put [the defense] in a horrible position on the interception, but any time you get into the red zone and you force an NFL team to kick a field goal versus a touchdown, that's a win," said Koetter. "You're saving four points every time you do that. I think we were 75% defensive efficiency in the red zone, so we met our goal there. We'll take that every week."
2. Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander were a two-man wrecking crew on Sunday, and that may prove to be a common thing in 2016.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' Week 1 matchup with the Falcons.
The Buccaneers lost their last four games in 2015 without Kwon Alexander. They won their first game in 2016 with Alexander back.
The second-year linebacker was the game's defensive star for the second straight year in Atlanta. After forcing two big turnovers (with a third erased by penalty) in last year's overtime win over the Falcons, Alexander was basically a tackling machine this time around. His 17 stops were the most by a Buccaneer since Barrett Ruud had the same total in the 2009 season finale. Alexander also had one of Tampa Bay's three sacks on a key third-down play in the fourth quarter.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' game against the Falcons.
David is a team captain and the established Pro Bowler in the Bucs' linebacking corps, but in this game he was the perfect complement to Alexander's all over-the-field performance. David had three stops and did what he has always done best – make plays behind the line of scrimmage, tying a career-high with three tackles for loss.
Koetter consistently resists comparisons with last year's team or any other defensive schemes the Buccaneers have used in the past. He did explain, however, why Alexander and David got off to such a big start in the defense installed this offseason by new coordinator Mike Smith.
"I would just say that those two guys are 'downhill' a little bit faster right now, they let them go downhill a little bit faster," said Koetter, referring to the way the Bucs' linebackers quickly attack the line of scrimmage. "Those two guys are really fast, that's one thing that jumped out at me, just from going against them in practice and then watching the tape. Wow. There were some plays when both those two guys were flying downhill."
Alexander was the Bucs' surprise story of 2015, a fourth-round draft pick who won a starting job and proved to be a nascent big-play maker. Of course, as a rookie he had his predictable share of ups and downs. The former LSU star appears ready to take his play to a new, more consistent level in 2016, and Koetter says that comes from Alexander doubling down on his dedication to his craft.
"Last night in the plane, I walked to the back of the plane, players were laughing and messing around; Kwon was watching the game on his Surface [tablet]," Koetter relayed. "I walked through the locker room pregame, when some guys are stretching, some guys are seeing how cool they look in their uniform; Kwon was watching tape on his Surface. That's preparation and he's doing a good job of that. I think guys that want to be great, they find ways as they go from rookies into how they become better pros. And when you're a pro, you find ways to get better."
3. After auditioning a number of kickoff return options who have since departed, the Bucs may end up using one of the last players they added.
The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
Sixth-year wide receiver Cecil Shorts, who was signed early last week after being let go by Houston, made his Buccaneer debut on Sunday, albeit in a way that was probably a little less than satisfying thanks to Atlanta's Matt Bosher.
Shorts played two snaps on offense but his main role was as the team's new kickoff returner, as he was the deep man for most of Atlanta's kickoffs. As it turned out, with touchback specialist Matt Bosher kicking off in a dome, that mostly meant catching the kicks and kneeling for touchbacks. That didn't give Koetter much of a chance to evaluate Shorts as a return man, but that likely won't be the receiver's last shot at the job. He might eventually take some punt return reps from Adam Humphries, as well.
"Yeah, I think we will [keep Shorts on kickoff return]," said Koetter. "We had a feeling there were probably going to be a lot of touchbacks, Bosher is a good kickoff guy in a domed stadium. [The Falcons] brought a couple out from pretty deep – that first one, I don't know how deep that was, eight yards maybe. We have a set point of where we're going to bring it out or not bring it out. But Cecil is an explosive guy, he's done it before. We want to split it up between him and Adam. Cecil can do both, Adam can do both and that's where we're at right now. He just didn't get any shots at it, but I'm sure that's coming."