If you experienced a sense of déjà vu while watching the Buccaneers take on the Panthers on Sunday, you’re probably not alone. A growing majority of Bucs games have followed a pattern repeated Sunday and it’s not a good one.
Just as they did against the Steelers, Falcons and Bengals, the Bucs fell behind early against the Panthers, caught fire in the second half and made a game of it, then lost.
In this case, it was a 42-28 loss. The good news is the Bucs clearly have the ability to come back from almost any deficit, no matter how big. The bad news is they can’t completely overcome those large deficits.
As a result, the Bucs now stand at 3-5, which means they’ll have to stage a second-half rally much like those that they stage during their games to get back into the playoff race.
Their capable of doing it, but the problem now is that the Bucs are at a point where even a late rally probably won’t be enough to keep them from posting yet another losing season. So, let’s break this one down.
Ryan Fitzpatrick had a very Jameis Winston-like game Sunday. He completed 24 of 43 passes for 243 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions and was fortunate a couple more of his throws didn’t wind up as picks. The question that has to be asked now is, does he really give the Bucs the best chance t win? Like Winston, Fitzpatrick has moments of brilliance, but he also has moments where he just looks ordinary. Given where they stand and what they’ve invested, it might be best for the organization to go back to Winston, if only because they need to be absolutely sure he’s not the answer before they give up on him.
Another reason it might not be a bad idea to go back to Winston is because it really doesn’t matter who starts at quarterback now. Granted, turnovers have killed this team and Winston has turned the ball over more than Fitzpatrick has. But if the defense can’t figure out a way to keep spotting opponents double-digit leads the Bucs are always going to be chasing the score and there’s no way they’re going to win consistently doing that.
Back in the day, there was a coaching adage that said never try a two-point conversion after a touchdown until you absolutely have to. That adage has pretty much been done away, what with all the trouble kickers are having these days, but the same still holds true for fake punts. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter nevertheless ignored that rule Sunday and it cost him. The Bucs were down 28-7 when Koetter called for a fake punt from his own 26. The fake didn’t work and the Panthers took advantage, turning the mistake into a touchdown that gave them a 35-7 lead.
It’s only fair to explain that Koetter’s thinking on the fake punt was that at that point in the game, the Bucs needed to steal a possession. It’s usually the job of the defense to steal a possession or two, but the Bucs defense failed yet again on Sunday to take the ball away. It’s pretty hard for a quarterback to play perfect football, but that’s the position the Bucs quarterbacks have been put in by their defense. If they’re not perfect, the Bucs lose.
It was only a couple weeks ago that the Bucs actually led the league in fewest missed tackles. That’s not the case anymore, not after this outing. Their inability to take the ball away aside, the Bucs biggest issue Sunday was their failure to tackle. A Christian McCaffrey run of 35 yards in the second quarter was a great example. McCaffrey could have been stopped three times along that jaunt, including once for no gain. He wasn’t, though, and despite a series of Panthers mistakes that followed, his run down to the Bucs 1 set the stage for a critical Panthers score.
And while we’re hammering the defense, I don’t want to hear any noise about how great a job their doing a good job of making second-half adjustments. Good teams make adjustment in the second quarter. If not sooner. The Bucs seeming inability to adjust prior to halftime has cost them at least three games this year, including Sunday’s. The Bucs have an offense that can score almost at will. In order for that offense to matter, though, it needs a defense that can keep the game close early as well as late.
It’s not just the defense that’s making life hard on the Bucs quarterbacks. Their running game isn’t helping them much either. If you take away the five runs for 23 yards that Fitzpatrick had, the Bucs ran 16 times for 59 yards (3.6 per carry), with 18 of those coming on a Peyton Barber run and 15 more coming on a Jacquizz Rodgers run. It’s usually up to the defense to make an offense one-dimensional but the Bucs have managed to do that all by themselves.
I wonder how wide receiver DeSean Jackson feels about this switch back to Ryan Fitzpatrick now. He wasn’t even targeted in this game until 1:53 was left in the first half, and he wound up catching just two of the four passes thrown his way for 32 yards and no scores.
This isn’t like it is in hockey where there is a post-game selection of the three biggest stars of the game, but if there were, Bucs slot receiver Adam Humphries would be my pick for No. 1 star. Humphries caught all eight of the passes thrown to him for 82 yards and a touchdown and even ran the ball once for 7 yards. Humphries often gets lost in the shuffle of weapons the Bucs have at wide receiver and tight end but he’s as reliable and potent a pass catcher as the Bucs have.
I’m starting to wonder if the Bucs might be better off using cornerback Ryan Smith at safety. Smith can’t cover worth a darn, but he’s one of the better tacklers on the team. That’s one reasons he plays gunner on the punt team. This regime may not be around to try it but given his skill set, it might be worth giving Smith a shot at playing box safety and have him run downhill a little bit.
Roy Cummings is the Bucs Insider for pewterpirates.com