Dirk Koetter spoke with the press on Monday afternoon, approximately 24 hours after the conclusion of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week Eight loss to Carolina. Koetter had an opportunity to review the tape from that game to gain a better understanding of how the Buccaneers dropped their fourth decision in a row.
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' 17-3 defeat at the hands of the Panthers.
1. The Buccaneers are having a difficult time playing "complementary football."
Tampa Bay's offense rang up in excess of 400 yards in each of the first three games of the current four-game skid, and scored a combined 60 points in losses at Arizona and Buffalo. As such, it was reasonable to conclude that the team could get back on track if the defense could show some incremental improvement.
Tampa Bay's defense did more than that on Sunday, putting together it's best game since a season-opening 29-7 win over Chicago. There was still no pressure on the quarterback and the defense only created one takeaway, but despite those continuing deficiencies the Panthers were limited to 254 yards, 4.0 yards per play, 14 first downs and just over 50% passing. Those were all easily season-best results for the Buccaneers' defense.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' Week 8 matchup with the Panthers.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay's second-ranked offense and first-ranked passing attack hit a speed bump, producing just 279 yards and 16 first downs and – critically – converting on just two of 12 third downs. The Bucs got into Carolina territory on six of their 12 possessions but too often ran out of gas just outside field goal range or turned the ball over. As a result, the Buccaneers scored just three points and were held without a touchdown for the first time in Jameis Winston's 39 career starts.
"[There are] just too many breakdowns at inopportune times," said Koetter. "One guy's breakdown here, one guy's breakdown here, penalty there, turnover there – everything starts with turnovers. You can't turn the ball over three times. When you're pressing sometimes – we had some issues with guys trying to do too much. We don't always make plays that we can make [and] that I've seen us make many times on the throw-and-catch part."
As such, the Buccaneers are left feeling "frustrated" and "disappointed" on another Monday, as Koetter noted. Players and coaches tend to put those feelings behind them quickly as they turn their focus to the next opponent, but at some point these frustrating weeks are going to add up to an exit from the playoff hunt. The Buccaneers aren't at that exit yet, but they have certainly eliminated most of their margin for error. To reel off a much-needed winning streak, the Buccaneers will need to get both sides of the ball playing together on the same day.
"We're just not playing complementary football enough," said Koetter. "One side of the ball is playing good, the other side not good. Then it flip-flops the next week. Until we do that, until we do the things consistently that it takes to win, then we're going to struggle to win."
If a winning streak is to begin immediately, it will have to start in New Orleans, against a Saints team that has won five in a row. Koetter told Buccaneers players on Monday that the team's confidence will grow win it starts to win some games, which will lead to even more success, and he used the Saints as an example. Koetter doesn't think that his players lack confidence in their own abilities, but that is only one part of the battle.
"You can see it on the tape," said Koetter of the Saints' demeanor. "I've been looking at some tape this afternoon. They've always had confidence on offense, but you can see their confidence on defense. The same holds true the other way when you lose four in a row. It's not so much your confidence because we've got confident players. These players have all done it before or they wouldn't be in the NFL. It's your belief. It's your belief in the system, your belief in each other, your belief in the other side of the ball, your belief in your teammates – very rarely is it belief in self."
2. Several factors will combine to determine if Jameis Winston keeps the same practice schedule as the last two weeks and continues to start despite the injury to his throwing shoulder.
The Buccaneers came into the game against Carolina averaging more than 300 passing yards per game but were held to 194 net yards by the Panthers, matching a season low. The Panthers have a strong defense, especially with linebacker Luke Kuechly back from his most recent concussion, but some of Tampa Bay's problems on offense were self-inflicted. That included a number of throws by Winston that were off target.
"It was not Jameis' best game," said Koetter. "He played much better the week before against Buffalo. Jameis missed some throws that he normally makes."
It would be easy to point to Winston's shoulder and the lack of practice throws as the reason for the dip in the quarterback's performance Sunday, but the exact same preparation led to his best game of the season the week before in Buffalo. Winston originally hurt his shoulder in Week Six at Arizona, missing most of the last three quarters in that game.
Koetter's problem with that theory is that is difficult to prove or disprove.
"There's no way to measure that – how much he was affected," said the coach. "It was the exact same as the week before and I believe that Jameis played one of his better games against Buffalo, and it was exactly the same as that. How do you put a measurement on that? I don't know the answer to that. As far as moving forward, nothing will be decided on that until Wednesday based on what the medical staff says and how Jameis feels."
The course of action, thus, will remain the same: Examine the evidence you currently have on hand regarding Winston's availability for the next game, and make this week's decision based on that.
"There are three factors in that," said Koetter. "First and foremost is what the medical staff says – that's for every player, but Jameis is at the front of the list. Second is the player. The player knows if he can go or not. Third, when we watch them practice, if it doesn't look like they can go, or it looks like they can't go at a success rate good enough for us to win we would always hold them out. But, we haven't had any of those things."
3. The improved defensive performance was the result of some correction to several issues that were identified last week, though other struggles persist.
As noted above, the Bucs got their best results on defense in more than a month against Carolina on Sunday, albeit in a losing effort. Carolina averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and was mostly held without the explosive plays that were such a problem the week before in Buffalo. Newton did escape for a couple long runs on read-option keepers but he only completed one pass for more than 16 yards.
"[Our] tackling in general was much better, especially open-field tackling," said Koetter. "Our run fits were a lot more consistent and our corner play was much better."
Missed tackles and gap assignments were a pair of specific problems in Arizona and Buffalo, but the cornerback play had been a more pressing concern overall, with the exception of Brent Grimes. The week before, second-year corner Vernon Hargreaves had been moved from the outside into the slot, and it seemed to energize his performance. He was replaced on the outside by former nickel back Robert McClain. However, both Grimes and McClain finished the Buffalo games with injuries that kept them out of the Carolina contest. That put the lineup back to what it was in Week Two in Minnesota, which was not a strong game for the secondary. Hargreaves moved back outside and Ryan Smith took over for Grimes.
The results were quite good, as evidenced by the lack of big plays. Hargreaves and Smith covered their men tightly, contested their get-off at the line frequently and denied several deep throws. Both corners registered two passes defensed, accounting for more than half of the team total of seven.
That's obviously encouraging, and it also might be very important as the team could still be without Grimes and McClain when it takes on Drew Brees and the Saints' high-powered passing attack. Robinson suffered a concussion in Buffalo and Grimes is dealing with a shoulder injury.
"We still have two players in concussion protocol – Bobby (Robert McClain) and Josh Robinson," said Koetter. "Brent is improving but I'm not sure if he will be able to go this week."