Dirk Koetter spoke with the press on Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished off the Saints, 16-11, to earn their fifth straight victory. In the interim, Koetter had an opportunity to review the tape from that game and gain a more detailed understanding of how the Bucs matched their longest winning streak since the 2002 Super Bowl season.
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 14 win over the Saints.
1. The Buccaneers showed resiliency after a rough stretch Sunday, and for the second week in a row that was critical to earning a victory.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' game against the Saints.
In their Week 13 game at San Diego, the Buccaneers were trailing 14-10 in the third quarter, were struggling to sustain drives and were facing a fourth-and-two at their own 38-yard line. That is usually an automatic punting situation, particularly in a one-score game, and the Buccaneers did indeed punt. However, in his "All Access" interview on Buccaneers.com the following week, Koetter revealed that he contemplated going for it on that fourth down, thinking his team needed to make something happen soon to turn the game around.
As it turned out, the punt and the play that followed took care of that. Bryan Anger hit a towering 54-yard kick that was fair caught at the San Diego eight-yard line, and on the Chargers' next play Vernon Hargreaves deflected a pass to Lavonte David, who returned it 15 yards for the go-ahead score.
This past Sunday, it was the Buccaneers who were on the wrong end of such a sequence. On three successive snaps Tampa Bay botched a kickoff return inside its own one-yard line, suffered a safety on a rushing attempt and then hit the ensuing free kick out of bounds to give the ball back to New Orleans at midfield. Suddenly the Saints had a chance to tie the game before halftime after the Bucs had controlled most of the first-half action.
"So those three plays right in a row, you're just [saying], 'Wow,'" recounted Koetter. "That really kind of put a damper on, for the offense and for the special teams, what we had done well for the first half. Now defensively, they went right back out there and that's just like a sudden change situation, that's just like throwing an interception. At the 50-yard line, they went out there and played like champs."
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The Saints used that good field position to drive down to the Bucs' one-yard line with about 30 seconds remaining, but a Robert Ayers sack helped keep the Saints out of the end zone. A Brent Grimes tackle at the three on what looked like a likely touchdown three plays earlier also proved critical. New Orleans settled for a field goal, went into halftime down five and never did catch the Bucs on the scoreboard.
"I think the last two games, San Diego and New Orleans, resiliency has been a key word," said Koetter. "And complementary football has been something we're building on. Now, I'd sure like to see the offense get more involved on the compliments. I don't think the offense is doing a good enough job and that starts with me, obviously. But we're finding ways and I told the team Saturday night that somehow, someway we needed to get one more point than the Saints. And I said it could be 55-54 or it could be 7-6. In my mind right then, I was thinking it would be closer to 55-54, but we'll take it anyway that we can get it. [You] should never apologize."
2. The offense has not been producing at the level it needs to, even during the winning streak, but there's reason to believe it will down the stretch drive.
The Buccaneers have ended each of their last four games with a takeaway on the opposition's final possession, something no NFL team had done since New England in 2003. As noted above, that shows great resiliency by the defense, but the Bucs would just as soon not have to rely on a late-game pick to seal a win. Had the Bucs been able to extend their early lead after getting out to a 13-0 start, the end of the game might not have been so tense.
"At least these last two games, they really didn't need to be this close if we're playing better on offense," said Koetter. "But, we didn't and we still won. So, we can't forget, the object of the game is to win and now we're wanting to win prefect. Some of us are."
Strangely, the Buccaneers' efficiency in the red zone has dipped considerably during the five-game winning streak. Prior to that, Tampa Bay had scored touchdowns on 63.0% of its trips into the opposition's red zone, which is better than the current league-wide average of 56.1%. Over the last four games, the Bucs have scored touchdowns on 38.9% of their trips inside the 20.
With 13 minutes left in regulation on Sunday, the Buccaneers had a 13-11 lead and the ball at the Saints' seven-yard line. Quarterback Jameis Winston tried to hit wide receiver Russell Shepard in the end zone but cornerback Sterling Moore caught up just in time to knock it away. Moore probably wouldn't have been able to reach the ball had it been placed a little bit better, leading Shepard across the field on his route.
"On the very last time on there, third-and-seven on the seven, we couldn't have had a better thing up," said Koetter of the play call. "It's the same exact thing we played at Philly last year to Russell Shepard, it was wide open and we just missed it. That puts the game away, that makes it a nine-point game if we make the extra point. That's just one example, there's something different on every one of them. Sometimes it might be the play call, it might be execution, it might be a penalty, a combination of all those things. Trust me, we're working hard on it over on that side of the building as we speak and I guess … it's very concerning, but at the same time, I know how these guys can play on offense."
One aspect of the offense that can definitely produce better results is the rushing game. The Buccaneers ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game and second in yards per carry in 2015 but are 17th and 29th in those categories this year. As Koetter noted a week ago, every season is different and the 2016 Buccaneers don't have the exact same identity as last year's squad. Still, the team has definitely stayed committed to the ground game, as evidenced by an average of 33 carries per game during the winning streak despite a per-carry average of 3.0 yards.
The Buccaneers' winning streak has coincided with the return of running back Doug Martin. Beyond his three touchdowns in five games, Martin's numbers during that stretch may not look overwhelming (58.8 rushing yards per game, 2.9 yards per carry) but Koetter says his lead back is as dangerous as ever.
"He's been running hard," said the coach. "When I see that stat about two-point-something rushing average or whatever it is, I say, 'Man, that two-yard run he made in San Diego, I sure like that one.' And that was a one-yard run I think yesterday and he broke about 10 tackles to get one yard, but it was our only touchdown of the game. Doug's running hard. We've got to give him more. We've got to give him more lanes. He was running into some rough looks, some unblocked guys and there's nothing wrong with Doug Martin. People are complaining about Doug Martin, there's nothing wrong with Doug Martin, we've got to play better around him."
3. The Buccaneers are about to play on Sunday Night Football for the first time in eight years, the result of their own hot streak and the league's flex scheduling. That's great for the franchise but it's not something the players need to focus on during the week.
"I think when you start having success, the way you know is you start getting your games flexed and we just found out that the next week got flexed, the Christmas Eve game," said Koetter. "So, we're flexed here three weeks in a row, so that means somebody's noticing. I think the fun part comes when you get closer to the game. But right now at this part of the week, it's the work part. The preparation is the hard part and the preparation is what can't change."
Pictures of the Bucs' Secondary during the game against the Saints.
The Buccaneers won their first prime time game of the year, a Monday Night Football affair at Carolina that ended in Roberto Aguayo's game-winning field goal in Week Five. The Bucs also lost on prime time in Week Eight, a 43-28 decision against the Falcons that directly proceeded the current winning streak. The last time the Buccaneers were asked to play on Sunday night was in 2008, a home game against Seattle that ended in a 20-10 victory for Tampa Bay. Getting back into that SNF mix is a positive sign for the Buccaneers, which is something Koetter would prefer his players get excited about around, oh, Sunday afternoon.
"I think we get [to Dallas] Saturday, at four or five o'clock in the afternoon, you've got a lot of times on your hands and I think that's when you're sitting around all day and you're watching football and they've advertising the game every two seconds," he said. "And it's a cool place to play, it's an awesome stadium to play in. I've heard them say that the last couple of games there that it's been a great atmosphere, extremely loud. I'm sure our guys will be fired up to play when the time comes, but we can't start getting fired up about it on Monday at 4:30."