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.
Bucs moving up in our latest power rankings
With conference championships now over, all focus will shift to bowl games in college. Florida Atlantic was the lone state team playing for a title last week, defeating the UAB Blazers in blowout fashion. In the NFL, the Bucs made it three straight victories.
The Dolphins almost made it two in a row before the late-game drama. The Jacksonville Jaguars offense fell flat at home in a blowout defeat. That all leads into how our top 5 looks heading into this weekend:
Florida Gators- The Gators stay on top despite not participating in the SEC title game. They may not have played a game, but they still got a win by being selected to the Orange Bowl. Dan Mullen is now two for two in his Gators career in gaining entry into the “New Years Six.” Two seasons of a row with a big bowl win can only help the gators getting back to where they want to be, and that is competing for championships.
Florida Atlantic- The Owls were able to win the C-USA championship destroying UAB 49-6. This was the second title in three years for the Owls, and their great success under Lane Kiffin. All good things come to an end in this day and age in college football for non-power five schools. And so, Kiffin is now on his way to “the Grove” and will be the head coach of Ole Miss. The Owls reward is to play host to SMU in the Boca Raton Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers- The Bucs are riding a hot streak right now. They are now on a three-game winning streak. The offense continues to put up big numbers behind QB Jameis Winston. Winston, who threw for a career hight 456 yards Sunday, has the second-most yards and touchdowns, but leads the league in INTs by a large margin.
The defense has been playing very well during this winning streak. Next, the Bucs will go on the road to face a struggling Detroit Lions team.
UCF Knights- The Knights had a rare off week during the AAC Title game. They had won the previous two and Saturday the Memphis Tigers won this one, avoiding the Knights. UCF, however, still won 9 games and will look to make it 10 in the bowl game. They will head an hour south to play Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa.
Many wanted the Knights to draw an in-state team like FSU or Miami; instead, it will be Marshall. It is important for UCF to end the year strong with a decisive victory.
Miami Dolphins- The Dolphins didn’t win this past weekend over the New York Jets. They did, though, show a lot in this contest. For a team that looked down and out the whole first half of the season, they have completely turned it around.
If it wasn’t for a late review on pass interference, the Dolphins likely would have won their fourth game in their last six. Head coach Brian Flores was livid after the game, and that heart and passion has put his name in the running for coach of the year.
No, he won’t win the award, but what he and this team have done has been impressive with the lack of talent on the roster.
Bucs QB Winston in limbo with injured thumb
The Bucs are very much concerned and waiting to see the status of quarterback Jameis Winston injured thumb suffered in Sunday’s wild victory over the Colts.
And they have to be prepared to be without their starting quarterback this weekend in Detroit.
First, credit to Pewterreport.com which was at teammate Mike Evans’ charity bowling event Monday evening, and where the fifth year quarterback participated bowling left-handed with a brace seen on his right hand and thumb:
#Bucs QB Jameis Winston bowling at his teammate @MikeEvans13_ charity bowling event tonight in Tampa to raise money for Mike’s foundation. Winston was wearing a brace on his right hand, and bowled his left. pic.twitter.com/fsIAXIc9fc
— PewterReport (@PewterReport) December 10, 2019
Winston injured the thumb at some point late in the second quarter of the 38 – 35 victory over Indianapolis. Coach Bruce Arians relayed after the game that Winston came out for the second half warm up and couldn’t grip the ball, when he was trying to get ready for the third quarter.
He went inside for an x-ray and backup quarterback Ryan Griffin ran the team for the first series of the second half. Winston returned and threw for over 200 yards in the second half including the game-winning touchdown to Breshad Perriman in the final five minutes of the game.
After the game Arians revealed that Winston had what he described as “a slight, slight crack in the thumb” that showed up on the X-ray.
On Monday afternoon at his regular news conference, the Buccaneers coach said that it would be day by day evaluation, that Winston had swelling on the thumb and would be getting a second opinion from a specialist:
"We’re going to come, we’re going to work. We’re going to try to win four in a row, five in a row and then six in a row.”
➡️: HC Bruce Arians pic.twitter.com/XrdtIA2yQQ
— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) December 9, 2019
The injury comes at a time of great debate about whether Winston will be kept on for the Buccaneers beyond this season.? He’s currently playing on the 5th year option of his rookie contract for $20 million.
As we wrote last week, Arians made it clear that the evaluation will begin after the season as to whether Winston will be back for 2020 and long-term.
The former number one overall pick is still leading the NFL in interceptions this season with 23, but he is also second in the NFL in touchdown passes and yardage. And, the Bucs have responded with three straight wins late in the year to keep their NFC wild-card hopes barely alive.
Tampa Bay had hoped use veteran Blaine Gabbert, if something happened to Winston, but Gabbert was hurt in the preseason with a separated left shoulder, placed on injured reserve and will not be able to be activated down the stretch of the season.
So that means if Winston cannot play, Griffin, a six year veteran who has played well in the last two preseasons, will be expected to get his first start Sunday.