Lovie Smith met with the press on Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell just short in a 19-17 decision against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. In the interim, Smith had an opportunity to review the tape from that game, meet with his team and gain a more detailed understanding of what unfolded in Week 15 of the 2014 season.
So, upon further review, here are a few things Lovie Smith and the rest of us learned from – and/or what new questions were raised by – the Buccaneers' loss to the Panthers.
1. The Bucs will be a little short-handed over the last two weeks…but it could be a lot worse.
The sight of All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in pain and prone on the turf in the first quarter of Sunday's game was a sobering one for Buccaneer coaches and fans alike. That McCoy refused to ride on the cart that was brought out to take him off the field was a somewhat encouraging sight, but the extent of his knee injury wasn't completely clear on Sunday.
On Monday, Smith revealed that McCoy was one of three Buccaneer players who will soon be placed on injured reserve, along with wide receiver Louis Murphy (ankle) and rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (back). That will mark the third time in five NFL seasons that McCoy has finished the season on I.R., but in this case it's not nearly as big of a setback. Smith called McCoy's injury a sprain and said the two-time Pro Bowler would not need surgery. Thus, McCoy will be able to use the 2015 offseason to once again hone his craft rather than spending weeks and months in rehab.
"It wasn't a decision that Gerald was going to make," said Smith. "You knew he wanted to continue to play, but it's something bigger than that. First off, he has an injury and he can't play, but we'll take every precaution with him. Of course, going through a year like this, you want to finish it with the troops. He'll have a chance to get started [on] time."
As a non-playoff season nears its end, the injured reserve list becomes something of a math equation. If an injured player does not have a chance to return to action before the final game, there's no real reason to hesitate to shut his season down. Tampa Bay has two games remaining and can finish with a maximum of four wins, making the loss of McCoy a less painful blow for the team, even if he will be sorely missed on defense. What's more important is that he'll be right back in the thick of it to start the next season.
"Realize where we are - two games left to go in the season," said Smith. "He's done everything that we've asked him to do. Showed up every day, the leader in every drill, great player, face of the franchise for good reason, future is so bright. Again, we've been through a lot. We've been down here together. It's going to be fun rising up together with him. But we will rise up based on guys like him."
Seferian-Jenkins, the Buccaneers' second-round pick in the 2014 draft, had already missed the last three games with his back injury. The University of Washington product played in nine games with eight starts and finished with 21 catches for 221 yards and two scores. In a four-game midseason stretch in which he started to become more involved in the passing attack, Seferian-Jenkins contributed 14 catches for 143 yards and two scores. While injuries limited his production to some degree, Smith said the Bucs saw enough in him to expect bigger things in 2015.
"He's done enough around here for the people who've seen him to know that he has a bright future ahead of him," said Smith. "But you still want it to end a certain way. Just like I talked about with Gerald, you want to finish it with your teammates, but now you know your season will be ending probably. Now it's about next time up and doing everything I can to…now that I've tasted some success, I want to get back out there, and that's where he is."
After going to training camp with his hometown Buccaneers this summer, Murphy was left off the initial active roster but he returned in Week Four and quickly nailed down the job as the Buccaneers' number-three receiver. He played in 11 games with three starts and contributed 31 catches for 380 yards and two scores before suffering his injury Sunday in Charlotte. Smith and his crew also saw enough from Murphy to believe he can be a factor again in 2015.
"You know who Gerald McCoy is; Austin Seferian-Jenkins, second-round draft pick," said Smith. "But Louis came in a little bit off the streets, you can say. [He] earned everything that he's gotten. Just kept showing up. Love what he brought to our team on and off the football field.
"I think that's safe to say that he's a guy that we like representing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."
- Demar Dotson's debut at left tackle was encouraging, and some other players will get a chance to prove themselves in new or expanded roles the next two weeks.**
After starting the previous 44 games at right tackle for the Buccaneers – the second-longest active streak for the Buccaneers behind Vincent Jackson's 45 (and now 46) straight at wide receiver – Demar Dotson was given a new challenge in Week 15. Smith decided to act on an idea that has long percolated with the Buccaneer staff, moving Dotson to the critical left tackle spot. The 6-9 blocker has nimble feet and long arms, some of the traits teams look for in their blindside blocker. Dotson has been the ninth-rated right tackle in the NFL on Pro Football Focus this season after finishing third on that list in 2013, and the Bucs may find out that he can put those talents to even better use on the left side.
Dotson's first game on the blind side wasn't perfect, but it was encouraging.
"I thought he did a pretty good job for his first time out," said Smith. "By saying that, we're not All-Pro ready or anything like that, but that's a lot when you've been playing one position. The steps are all different, he took the challenge last week when we approached him and told him this is what we're going to do. He was all on-board with it and for the first time out it was an encouraging start. If you look at just the position in which you're looking for long arms, big body, athletic, good feet, there's nothing that would tell you he wouldn't be able to do it. I'm anxious to see him there again this week."
Anthony Collins, who started 11 of the first 14 games at left tackle and has recently been dealing with an elbow injury, was one of the Bucs' seven inactive players on Sunday in Charlotte. Smith said that "everything was on the table" when asked if Collins might be an option at right tackle, where Oniel Cousins played on Sunday.
"What caused him to initially go in that slot is he had an injury and then from there you can sometimes move on," said Smith. "You give other guys an opportunity and you kind of like what you see a little bit from there. Anthony was back and is pretty much healthy now and gave us a good look out there last week and we'll see how it goes this week."
With McCoy out and fellow starting DT Clinton McDonald still uncertain with a hamstring injury that has robbed him of the last three games, the Bucs will be needing additional help on the inside. That will likely mean quite a bit of playing time for Da'Quan Bowers over the next two weeks, and he is another player who could prove to be of more value to the team moving forward with a strong finish.
"Inside, with Clinton and Gerald both being out, there's a void and there's no other way around that," said Smith. "We've talked about our defensive ends and some of the unexpected help that we've gotten from them outside with some of younger players, but the others will have to pick up some slack. We played Da'Quan Bowers…I've been talking about him getting better and he's had flash plays when you're playing about 20 reps, but now we're talking about 50 reps and we need to see more from guys like that. We have a couple of options, but again we would have to get a player like Clinton back and we'll look better inside."**
- Panther pass-catchers Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin had big games on Sunday but that didn't necessarily indicate a problem with the Bucs' defense.**
Coming into Sunday's game, TE Greg Olsen and rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin had combined to produce about 52% of the Panthers' gross passing yards. In Carolina's season-opening, 20-14 win at Raymond James Stadium, the two combined for 14 catches, 175 yards and both Panther touchdowns. Obviously, Tampa Bay's defensive play-callers knew that Olsen and Benjamin would be oft-targeted by QB Derek Anderson.
And indeed they were. This time, Olsen caught 10 passes for 110 yards and Benjamin hauled in eight for 104, and they accounted for 77% of Anderson's passing yards (though neither scored this time). That might seem like a failure for the Bucs' defense but Smith pointed out that, if not for a fumble recovered inside the Buccaneers' five-yard line in the third quarter, the Panthers might have never found the end zone.
"First off, Greg Olsen has caught quite a few balls on quite a few guys," said Smith. "He's an excellent target, a good receiver and all of that. We did talk to our guys a little bit about him and some of their other players too, but take away [them getting] the ball on the four-yard line, then they scored 12 points. Sometimes when you're caught up in catches and things like that – it's a little bit more than that. I'm just going to say Greg is a good football player and he made some good plays yesterday."
Most of Benjamin's catches were of the 15 to 20-yard variety, many of them in traffic as Anderson did a fine job much of the afternoon zipping passes into holes in the zone. Benjamin was undoubtedly one of the main reasons the Panthers won on Sunday, but from the Bucs' perspective his yardage total wasn't necessarily the main reason they lost.
"I'll say the same thing, they're good football players," said Smith. "They've been catching balls on most of the guys that they've played against. Benjamin is a big target, a good player, he hurt us at times yesterday and he was a part of those twelve points…besides that one that was given to them late there [with the fumble]. Sometimes those passing yards, you've got to be careful on those a little bit."
Smith wasn't satisfied with Tampa Bay's defensive performance on Sunday, but he did see some positive aspects, particularly in how well the team clamped down in its own zone, and how it handled the absence of McCoy. Ideally, the Bucs would not have let Olsen or Benjamin crack 100 yards, but the Bucs still could have won that game without taking anything away from the Panthers' top two receivers.
"I was encouraged," said Smith. "That was kind of my point a little bit. [When] you give up that many points, there are some things that you like. You don't like [that] they almost had 400 yards, and we talked about Greg Olsen and Benjamin and things like that, but I thought we did do some good things. There are a lot of plays that we would like to have back yesterday, but considering some of the guys we had out we did a decent job."