Dirk Koetter spoke with the press on Tuesday evening, less than 24 hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished off a critical intra-division win over the Carolina Panthers in front of a national audience. In the interim, Koetter had an opportunity to review the tape from that game and gain a more detailed understanding of how the Bucs secured their first Monday Night Football road victory since 2003.
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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' Week Five win.
1. With the starting defensive line ravaged by injuries, the quietly effective play of several young players was critical to the defense holding its ground on Monday night.
Both teams came into Monday night's game with lengthy injury reports, and given that he is the reigning league MVP, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was probably the highest-profile player on the sideline. In the Bucs' case, the specific challenge of their injury list was how concentrated it was at several positions, particularly along the defensive line.
With Jacquies Smith and George Johnson on injured reserve and four other linemen – Robert Ayers, Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald and Noah Spence – all battling injuries, the Bucs had to cobble together a defensive front from undrafted rookies and recently-added players. Ayers, McCoy and McDonald were all inactive and Spence, wearing a shoulder harness, was limited to 21 snaps.
Tampa Bay's starting line for the night featured Week One starter William Gholston along with the undrafted rookie DaVonte Lambert on the other end and a DT duo of Akeem Spence and undrafted rookie Channing Ward. They were backed up by the limited Noah Spence, just-signed defensive tackle John Hughes and pass-rushing end Howard Jones.
The Panthers did put up 414 yards – much of it through the Derek Anderson-Greg Olsen connection – but they converted only one of eight third downs and, most importantly, were held to 14 points. The Bucs got four stops on third downs of two or fewer yards, including a massively important third-and-two tackle by Akeem Spence on Carolina's last drive. Koetter was impressed by his team's resolve in the face of all the injuries, particularly up front.
"I think it says something about them," said the coach. "If my opinion counts for anything, of course I do. I'm proud as heck of those guys."
The Buccaneers did not sack Anderson, nor even get credited with a single hit. It's clear that the pass rush will not have the same juice until Ayers, McCoy, McDonald and Noah Spence all return to health (hopefully immediately after the bye), but that doesn't mean that the Bucs' reserves failed to make significant plays after being pressed into service.
"We talked about guys playing roles that they maybe hadn't been asked to play before, guys rising up to the challenge," said Koetter. "Will is the only one of our four starting D-linemen who's healthy enough to play. Akeem Spence had a huge play on that third-and-two right before the final drive to stop [Carolina]. Our defense in general, holding them to one-of-eight on third down conversions. Those two free agent rookie D-linemen – the D-line, even though we weren't able to generate much pressure, those guys fought hard, they competed hard."
Lambert's biggest play was a forced fumble on an Anderson scramble early in the fourth quarter, after Carolina had crossed into Bucs territory in a tied game. Gholston who has been moved all over the defensive line as the injuries have mounted, was able to fall on the loose ball.
"Lambert, what a nice play on the scramble that Derek Anderson had," said Koetter. "It looked like he might make the first down and ironically enough, it was Lambert that made the hit and it was Gholston, who was dropping on that coverage, hustling over to get the fumble recovery. So, [I'm] just really proud of those guys and the way they competed."
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Given their solid play over the last four weeks, Lambert and Ward will surely remain involved in the Bucs' defensive plan going forward. However, the overall picture might look a lot better when the Buccaneers resume play in San Francisco after their bye week.
"Yeah, it probably couldn't be at a better time for us," said Koetter of the team's week off. "The momentum factor is one thing, but we have a chance to get several key members of our team back. So the players have five days off, starting tomorrow. Six of the next seven days off – [we've] got a nice opportunity to get healthy."
2. The cornerback position could be turning into a strength for the Buccaneers.
With the Buccaneers ranking 22nd in pass defense and the defense giving up far too many "explosive" plays, it has been hard to get too excited about a reworked secondary in the early going. As Koetter has pointed out several times, however, Tampa Bay's offense has been complicit in the early defensive problems, too often putting their counterparts in difficult situations. The aforementioned injuries up front, too, have not helped the backfield as opposing quarterbacks have rarely been hurried.
The Bucs' defense wasn't able to stop, or even particularly slow down, Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen on Monday night. Carolina's wideouts, however, gained a combined 88 yards and no touchdowns and the Bucs intercepted Anderson twice and knocked down six of his passes. Now that rookie Vernon Hargreaves has moved permanently to the outside, the Bucs' starting cornerback duo is Hargreaves and free agent signee Brent Grimes, and they were an impactful pair on Monday night.
Grimes, of course, made the defensive play of the game with an interception in the end zone that preserved a tie midway through the final period. Koetter was just as impressed by a play in the running game that Grimes made on the previous snap.
"Even more so than the interception was the tackle he made the play before that because … if he doesn't tackle that guy on the one-yard line, then that next play never happens, we're already down," said Koetter. "He kind of shoved that guy, got him down, dove for the end zone, they call it out at the one and then the next play Brent gets the interception. Brent actually got voted a game ball by the coaching staff."
Grimes has broken up five passes in the Bucs' past two games and has a team-high seven on the season. His fist pick as a Buccaneer was his 14th since the start of 2013; the only NFL cornerback with more in that span is Richard Sherman.
Hargreaves doesn't have a pick yet but he made the play that led to Daryl Smith's first Buccaneer interception. The rookie corner had played well in his first start on the outside in Week Four but Koetter had also urged him to be more aggressive on short routes in front of him. Hargreaves took that to heart in the second quarter when he broke quickly on a button hook by wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and got a hand on the pass, causing a deflection that Smith hauled in. That takeaway near midfield led to a Roberto Aguayo field goal.
"They've been getting crushed [by analysts], but I've been thinking our secondary's not that bad," said Koetter. "Again, going back to [the offense has] been putting them in a lot of bad situations. And again, even with lack of pass rush last night, I thought our secondary did a good job – with the exception of Olsen [getting] loose on us a few times, but he did make some plays when we did have him covered too. Both of our corners did a nice job, both Hargreaves and Grimes did a nice job. Grimes just about had another [interception] that he stepped in front of and if he were able to hold that one, he would've gone to the house. So he got one and then Vernon knocked that other one out so in essence, we get two turnovers from our corners and almost another one."
3. Despite the fact that RB Jacquizz Rodgers blew past his previous single-game career high in carries by 67%, Koetter didn't hesitate to lean on Rodgers at the end.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers carried the ball 10 times on the game-opening 15-play field goal drive, something no Buccaneer running back has done since at least 1998. Tampa Bay could have put the running game on the backburner with both Doug Martin and Charles Sims out, but instead they chose to rely on Rodgers, who had played in Koetter's system in Atlanta. By the end of the game, Rodgers had 35 combined carries and catches and the Bucs had an enormous win.
Six of those offensive touches came on the final game-winning drive. The Bucs had spelled Rodgers a couple times during the game with rookie tailback Peyton Barber but didn't hesitate to go back to the night's workhorse with the game on the line. Rodgers converted a critical third down with an eight yard catch on third-and-four that required a sharp cut to defeat the first defender. He got another first down and got the ball into field goal range with a seven-yard run.
Koetter knew Rodgers still had something left in the tank after an arduous night.
"Well, I'm watching the game, I'm there," said Koetter. "You can tell when a guy's gassed or not. Tim Spencer, our running back coach, took him out a couple times in the first half and I kept looking at 'Quizz' [and saying], 'I'm going to need you on third down.' I trust the guy a lot, I know I've seen him do it before. He was a workhorse in college…I know this isn't college football. I think it would've shown up if he was wearing down and it didn't show up. A wise coach told me a long time ago, 'Feed the stud. When the guy's hot, give him the ball.'"