It’s still too soon to know, but the second half of the Bucs 34-29 loss to the Falcons may go down as the point in the season where the Bucs defense caught fire and finally began to play at the level it was expected to.
Consider that in defending the Falcons during the first half Sunday, the Bucs allowed 265 yards, three touchdowns and a field goal across five possessions. Then came the second half.
Picking up on one of the things they actually did well – though not enough – in the first half, the Bucs came out blitzing in the second half, and until Gerald McCoy went down, they looked like a different defense.
Across the Falcons first three second-half possessions, the Bucs allowed just 30 yards, two first touchdowns and forced three punts, thereby creating a situation in which the Bucs were able to get back into the game.
The unit reverted to its old ways thereafter, allowing another TD and a field goal on the Falcons last two possession, but that field goal – a 58-yarder – was forced by a key stop on third-and-2 at the Bucs 39.
That will go down as a win in the Bucs defensive ledger, in part because it still gave the Bucs a chance to win a game that might have wound up differently had Chandler Catanzaro not missed a PAT.
Remember, it was that missed PAT that forced the Bucs to later try a 2-point conversion that also failed and eventually forced the Bucs to have to drive for a touchdown instead of a field goal at the end.
Now, this is not to absolve the Bucs defense of blame. Clearly, the play of the Bucs defense continues to be this team’s biggest issue, and in the first half, it was the play of the defense, not the design of it, that was the biggest issue of all.
Consider for example that there was one third down in which a safety (newcomer Andrew Adams) dropped deeper than the sticks in coverage, thereby allowing for an easy throw and catch for the first down.
Then, on another third down play, one on which the Bucs actually made a stop, a hands-to-the-face penalty charged to McCoy wiped out the outcome and gave the Falcons a first down.
And then there was the opportunity cornerback Ryan Smith had to stop Austin Hooper in a one-on-one situation near the goal line. Smith flat out missed the tackle, allowing Hooper to walk in for a 9-yard touchdown pass.
These are examples of the Bucs failing to execute basic fundamentals, and they’re only a few of the examples. There were plenty more, including a key reception made by Julio Jones when veteran cornerback Brent Grimes took his eyes off Jones to look back at the quarterback in a man situation.
Look, this game will do nothing to quell the calls for the dismissal of defensive coordinator Mike Smith, and given the way the Bucs played in the first half that’s understandable.
But the bottom line here is that the problems with this defense lie mostly in the failed execution of it and that was evident on Sunday when the Bucs were done in largely as a result of mental mistakes, including far too many made by key veterans who should flat out know better.
Now on to other matters.
Since the start of the 2015 season, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston has turned the ball over more than any other quarterback in the league (63 times) except Blake Bortles (69).
That number includes two giveaways (both picks) on Sunday, but it’s hard not to like what we saw of Winston in his first start of the season Sunday. When it was all said and done he completed 30 of 41 passes for 395 yards and four touchdowns for a passer rating of 115.4.
The Bucs are getting out of Jason Pierre-Paul exactly what they expected to get out of him. Pierre-Paul had another sack on Sunday, his fifth of the year, and he now has a sack in each of his last four games. The last Bucs defender to record a sack in four straight games was Simeon Rice. If he stays healthy, Pierre-Paul should become the first Bucs defender since Rice to record 10 or more sacks in a season.
It took a few weeks, but Barber on Sunday finally played like the every-down back the Bucs believe he can be. He ran 13 times for 82 yards and caught four passes for 24 more and a touchdown.
No team is deeper or perhaps more talented than the Bucs at tight end. If you think that’s a reach, consider that in the first half alone Sunday the Bucs threw touchdown passes to Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard and Antony Auclair threw the key block in springing running back Peyton Barber free for his longest run of the day (28 yards).
Falcons QB Matt Ryan picked on cornerback Ryan Smith most of the first half, going 5-for-6 for God knows how may yards and a TD, Ryan was just as effective throwing against Grimes, who just doesn’t look the same as he has the past two years.
If we learned anything Sunday (and it may be that we were simply reminded of this fact) it’s that the Bucs are still not good enough to overcome points lost because their kicker can’t make a kick.
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