Prior to the start of Sunday's game in the Georgia Dome, quarterback Jameis Winston gathered teammates around him and gave an emotional speech driven by his concern for fellow rookie Kwon Alexander, whose younger brother had been killed earlier that weekend. What followed was the Bucs' best performance of the season, a 23-20 overtime road win against a 6-1 division foe.
Alexander, who was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week on Wednesday, was the star of the game with 11 tackles and two critical takeaways, but Winston was one of many Buccaneers who channeled their emotions into intense and successful performances. He was at his best with the game on the line in overtime, converting three third downs to lead the game-winning field goal drive.
Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter could see the effect that Winston's display of passion and leadership had on those around him, as well as on his own performance.
"It definitely affected our team, yes," said Koetter. "I would actually say Jameis might have been a little too emotional at the start of the game. I thought Jameis got off to a little bit of a slow start and missed a couple throws that he can definitely make. But, with that said, Jameis' competitive spirit showed up more so than it has. When we drafted Jameis, when we were doing our homework and talking to [Florida State Football Head Coach] Jimbo Fisher and the guys at Florida State they told us this was Jameis. Jameis drove us there in that overtime – those plays he was making on third down and throughout the game. Some of the plays he made with his feet, I mean we have to throw it better but they plays he made with his feet and the competitive plays were fantastic."
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Winston's work has shown steady improvement since the beginning of the season, particularly in terms of avoiding critical mistakes. He has gone three consecutive games and 86 straight passes without throwing an interception and the Bucs' only turnover in that span was a desperation pitch by Charles Sims in the closing moments of the loss at Washington. Winston himself cited "taking care of the football" as his biggest improvement over the last two months. The Buccaneers' coaching staff has obviously appreciated that evolution in Winston's game, and now they are happy to see his leadership qualities starting to come to the forefront.
"Pregame speeches, I think they can only go so far," said Head Coach Lovie Smith "You follow by his play and that's what Jameis is doing as much as anything. I think as a quarterback you get in a situation where it's a tie or you're behind and you need to go on a drive. For our team to see Jameis lead us on that did an awful lot. We talked about him moving more and more into that role. It's a quarterback. Every quarterback on every team has to be one of the primary leaders and we're seeing that."
As Koetter mentioned, Winston's innate qualities as a leader were always a highlight of his scouting report before the draft, but the former Florida State star has made a point of not pushing that on his teammates since his arrival. Of course, if those qualities are indeed innate, then they are going to come out at some point, and that point was Sunday's game in Atlanta. Winston simply galvanized what his teammates were thinking and feeling, and the results were just what the Buccaneers needed.
"Jameis wanted to win bad in this game," said Koetter. "We needed this win as a team and Jameis really wanted to win. He might've just been a little too worked up [at the beginning]. I think that's an experience thing. I usually don't talk to players about that. I think that's something players have to figure out on their own."
- In Week Four, William Gholston took over as the Buccaneers' first-string left end, giving the team a starting D-Line of Gholston, Clinton McDonald, Gerald McCoy and Jacquies Smith. Five weeks and four games later, that entire front four is hurting.
McDonald is done for the year, landing on injured reserve earlier this week due to a pectoral injury. Akeem Spence, just two games back from the reserve/PUP list, took over as the starter in McDonald's place in Sunday's game in Atlanta. During that overtime win over the Falcons, Smith suffered an ankle injury that currently has him wearing a boot, so he was obviously unable to practice on Wednesday as the Bucs started preparing for the Giants. Gholston also left the Falcons game with a knee injury, but he was able to participate in Wednesday's workout on a limited basis. Gerald McCoy has been playing through a shoulder ailment for much of the season and was once again limited to start Week Nine.
The Buccaneers may get reserve defensive tackle Tony McDaniel back from the groin injury that has cost him the last two games and limited him on Wednesday, but it looks like they will continue to need extra contributions from such young and/or newly-arrived linemen as Howard Jones, Josh Shirley and Lawrence Sidbury.
Three other Buccaneers were held out of practice on Wednesday: wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Logan Mankins and safety Major Wright. Jackson and Wright are recovering from knee and hamstring injuries that kept them out of last weekend's win, but Mankins is just getting a scheduled day of rest. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who hasn't played since Week Two due to a shoulder injury, practiced on a limited basis, just as he did all last week. The Buccaneers are not yet sure if this is the week that Seferian-Jenkins will return to the field on game day, however.
"Every day he's gotten better and better, which we expect," said Smith. "Whether he'll be ready this week or not, I don't know that yet. We had pads on today. We have seen progress daily from him. I know he is feeling more and more confident with coming back on the football field. Keep in mind last Monday – a week ago Monday – he told me he was ready 100 percent, but that of course wasn't the case."
Seferian-Jenkins says he has remained optimistic throughout his layoff that he was close to returning, but he also didn't want to hurt his team by coming back before he was ready.
"You've got to go back out there feeling like you can do what you did at your best," he said. "I don't want to go out there and not give my teammates what they deserve out of me when I'm out there on the field. I want to be out there, but they've been doing a great job. The offensive line's been doing a great, the quarterback's been doing a great job, the tight ends have been doing a great job, everybody's been pulling their weight."
- Alexander's NFC Player of the Week award was the second of the season for the Buccaneers, after running backBobby Rainey won the honors on special teamsin Week Five. It was the first Defensive Player of the Week award won by a Tampa Bay player since Lavonte David was selected in Week 12 of the 2013 season. And it was the first such award won by a Buccaneer rookie since defensive tackle Santana Dotson was honored in Week Four of the 1992 season, 23 years ago.
Overall, Buccaneer players have won dozens of weekly awards since the NFL started handing them out in the '80s, and every one was a special honor. Alexander's win had special meaning, though. He played the game less than 48 hours after the death of his brother, Broderick Taylor, and dedicated his efforts to him. Thus, any honor Alexander receives for those efforts is added recognition of what his brother meant to him.
"I'm blessed," said Alexander in response to Wednesday's honor. "With [my brother] by my side I can do anything. That's what I'm thinking now, with him by my side I can do anything. I'm not worried about anything, just dedicating this whole season to him, that's it."
The support that Alexander got from his teammates on Sunday has extended into the new work week.
"They've always been there for me since before this even happened and to see that they're there for me even more when my brother passed, it meant so much to me that I got a lot of brothers, too, that are here," he said. "For them to be there for me means so much to me."
Alexander would surely be pleased to know that his brother's memory will not only help him finish the season strong, but the rest of the team as well.
"I'm sad to say it, but Kwon's situation kind of helped our team out because now we don't focus on ourselves, we don't focus on what we have to go through," said Winston. "We focus on our brother who's hurting. He just got Defensive Player of the Week honors so he's probably not hurting as bad, but he's in pain, so we have to tend to him and worry about him and how he's feeling.
"Sometimes when you get a chance to step back and just look at how someone else is feeling you don't want to be selfish anymore. All you want to do is fight for that man and make sure his day is good. You don't care about your day. Sometimes being selfless is a good thing for a team."