GLENDALE, AZ – You can say all you want about that nice 20-point rally the Buccaneers made here in the desert late Sunday afternoon. The bottom line is, they were never really in this game.
Not from the very first snap.
The worst thing about it is, that’s not even the biggest of their concerns.
When the final whistle blew on what proved to be a 38-33 loss to the Cardinals, one in which the Bucs trailed 31-0 early in the third quarter, their biggest concern was the condition of quarterback Jameis Winston.
And their defense.
Let’s start with Winston. He was pulled from the game late in the second quarter and did not return after he suffered a right shoulder injury at the end of the Bucs first offensive series in the first quarter.
Winston’s throwing shoulder hit the ground hard when he was taken down while trying to complete a third-down pass to running back Charles Sims off a roll out to his right.
He returned to the game after testing the shoulder on the sidelines but in his last series he threw the ball away twice before watching a pass for tight end Cameron Brate fall incomplete because of a drop.
The Bucs were trailing 24-0 at the time Winston was replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick so it’s possible Winston was pulled more or less as a precautionary measure after completing 5-of-10 passes for 61 yards.
As ordinary as that was, his was actually one of the better performances of the game for the Bucs, who from the opening kickoff just didn’t look like they were very well prepared for this game.
When the Bucs gave up 40 points to the Cardinals a year ago it was in part because Winston committed five turnovers and in part because the defense just wasn’t quite sure what it was doing.
There’s no was no leaning on either of those excuses this time around. Before he was pulled from the game, Winston had been ineffective but he hadn’t given the ball away.
The defense, meanwhile, was coming off a mostly impressive outing against the Patriots in which it allowed just 19 points to further extend a renaissance that began after the bye week last season.
The Bucs had supposedly figured out all the nuances to coordinator Mike Smith’s complex zone scheme, but their effort Sunday represented a significant step backwards. Veteran Pro Bowl defensive back Brent Grimes said after the game “it’s like we weren’t ready to play.”
The Cardinals took control of this game immediately, like on the very first play from scrimmage, when running back Adrian Peterson gained the first 8 of his 130 rushing yards.
One play later, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer completed the first of what would be 14 straight passes before one finally fell finally incomplete in the third quarter.
That first completion, by the way was to Larry Fitzgerald, who caught 10 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown, including 128 yards and a touchdown in the first half as Arizona built a 24-0 halftime lead.
Peterson for his part accounted for two of the touchdowns in his remarkable Arizona debut:
— NFL (@NFL) October 15, 2017
That lead became 31-0 before the Bucs finally cut into it and they cut into it significantly, scoring 20 unanswered points, including six on a 21-yard Lavonte David fumble return, before the Cardinals got on the board again.
The Bucs rally, generated with veteran back-up Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, included touchdown passes of 4 yards to DeSean Jackson and 10 yards to Cameron Brate, but they proved to be little more than window dressing.
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