Special Teams Loomed Large In The Bucs’ Win
Patrick Murray went 3/3 on field goal attempts, Charles Sims had a touchdown reception, and the Buccaneers snapped their five game losing streak on Sunday with a win at home over the New York Jets.
It wasn’t a pretty affair, with both touchdowns coming in the fourth quarter Missed passes and dropped passes were the order of the day. Drives largely ended in special teams plays. In fact, there were only five drives that did not result in either a punt or a field goal. Three were turnovers, the other two touchdowns.
The Buccaneers tallied six sacks on the afternoon, nearly doubling their season total of eight in the first eight weeks. An even better sign was who all those sacks came from. Tampa Bay got their sacks from six different players on Sunday afternoon, never allowing Josh McCown to get comfortable under center. McCown threw for 262 yards in the affair, with a touchdown and an interception.
“Everybody just did their jobs and had each other’s backs” according to linebacker Lavonte David, who gave the pregame speech to the Buccaneers in Jameis Winston’s absence. “We were feeding off each other and played great football and you see the results when we do that.”
“It seemed like Josh McCown doesn’t want to hold the ball, and he had to hold the ball. And then our rush was able to get home,” said coach Dirk Koetter after the game in a much more pleased tone than previous weeks.
“We lost a unanimous decision in a 12-round fight” said Jets head coach Todd Bowles. Perhaps he’s right, but it was a decision in a Floyd Mayweather sense: Not a crowd-pleaser but enough to win on points.
The critical takeaway from this game as to the Bucs’ long term is that they played hard for Dirk Koetter. A week ago, the team’s devotion to their coach was called into question after Jameis Winston and Mike Evans got involved in a skirmish along the sideline. People were wondering whether the Buccaneers had quit on their head coach. This week, that concern can be eased considerably. Tampa Bay’s defense showed up and played hard, and the offense did enough to get the job done on a day when both of their best offensive players were out.
For his part, Fitzpatrick wasn’t any better. He completed exactly half of his 34 attempts, going for just 187 yards on the day, taking a sack, and matching a touchdown with a turnover. If the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, Fitzpatrick and McCown were a throwback to a former era. Neither came in known as the type of player who could singlehandedly lead a team to victory, and neither of them looked the “elite” or “franchise” part.
What Fitzpatrick did in the game that should turn heads is get Desean Jackson as involved as he’s been at any point in this Buccaneers season. The free agent signing was targeted ten times, six of them were completed passes, and he ended up with 82 yards on the day. Especially in the first half, Jackson proved effective on slant routes and routes that sent him up the middle of the field, rather than that play down the sideline that has come to define the Bucs’ frustrating season.
Chris Godwin also got involved in the action, with a career high 10 targets for the rookie, 5 receptions, and 68 yards on the day. He seemed to be one of Fitzpatrick’s favorite targets, there when the Buccaneer quarterback needed him to be there. Godwin was able to help the Buccaneers move the chains all day, which in turn gave Tampa Bay a time of possession advantage that they used to set the pace of the football game and keep it going throughout.
The game featured a lot of punting, as one might expect from two teams that came in with losing records. The Jets punted the ball away seven times, averaging 50.6 yards per punt and putting two inside the 20 yard line. Tampa Bay’s midseason MVP Bryan Anger punted six times for an average of 43.3 and one inside the 20. Combined with the two kickers making all their kicks, it was the best special teams game Bucs fans have seen all year.
Other than the kicking and punting, though, it wasn’t exactly a thriller. The two teams combined for 595 yards of offense, a pretty low number by today’s high-scoring NFL standards. The leading rusher in the game, Doug Martin, ran for 51 yards on 20 carries. Neither passer threw for 300 yards. Ryan Fitzpatrick fell short of 200.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, in his return to Tampa Bay, caught six passes for 67 yards, including a first down catch on 4th and 16 that helped set up the Jets’ lone touchdown of the day. Until the fourth quarter, he was held at bay by the Buccaneers’ defense, but he eventually got a chance to jump in and he took it emphatically.
Tampa Bay’s touchdown was a pass thrown to Charles Sims, his third reception of the afternoon. Fitzpatrick was blitzed on the play and had to dump the ball off, but Sims was able to waltz in for his touchdown. At the time, that expanded the lead to 15-3 with time running out in the fourth quarter, making a comeback extremely difficult.
The Jets did respond with a late touchdown of their own, marching down the field in the time surrounding the two minute warning and finally connecting on a McCown touchdown to Robby Anderson (the leading receiver on the day with 85 yards) with :29 remaining in the football game. This situation demanded an onside kick, and New York failed to recover as the ball went straight to Chris Godwin. From there, a simple victory formation was all that was needed.
The Buccaneers move to 3-6. Their five game losing streak has come to an end. They remain in last place in the NFC South, and the season still looks lost, but there are still positives to take from a game like this beyond crediting the Bucs with simply showing up.
Brent Grimes had a big day for the Bucs, with an interception and a sizable return. Grimes returning to form can only help a Bucs secondary that has struggled at the best of times to keep people covered and give the rest of the defense opportunities to make plays. In addition to his interception, Grimes made a couple of plays to keep the Jets from getting an offensive rhythm.
Grimes spoke to reporters after the game about his interception. “Just playing ball. He just ran the post, I just ran with him and made a play on it and [caught] the ball.”
It’s also worth praising the Buccaneers’ special teams unit for the best day they’ve had in years. Patrick Murray was 3/3 on field goal attempts. Bryan Anger was his normal, effective self as the team’s punter. Bernard Reedy, St. Petersburg’s own, had the best punt return he’s uncorked all year, going for 44 yards on a punt that started the Buccaneers at midfield. That second quarter return, unfortunately, led to a three and out by the Bucs, but it was still an impressive play and exactly what Tampa Bay needs out of Reedy moving forward.
Along with the positives, there are plenty of concerns. The Buccaneers committed three penalties in field goal range, shooting themselves in the foot at the worst possible time, including once in the red zone. While Tampa Bay has been a pretty solid team in terms of avoiding too many penalties, the timing of the penalties they do take has never been particularly good.
Tampa Bay’s defense also picked a bad moment to lapse. The Buccaneers allowed the Jets to score on what was a desperation drive, including the aforementioned fourth and 16 conversion. The Jets would score a touchdown on that drive, making it a one score game. Granted, that happened with less than thirty seconds on the clock and no timeouts for the Jets, and the ensuing kick was recovered by the Buccaneers, but the finish was closer than the rest of the game gave it any right to be.
Offensively, the issues were clear. Ryan Fitzpatrick struggled to find his stride all day, throwing for just 187 yards on the day. While Godwin and Jackson were heavily involved in the action, rookie O.J. Howard was nowhere to be found, not targeted once on the afternoon. Only three passes went to tight ends at all, and Cameron Brate caught just one of those. Combined with last week, Howard has been targeted twice. Either Dirk Koetter and his staff are losing faith in Howard’s ability to run routes and catch passes, or there is still a lingering issue in regards to spreading the ball around.
Without Winston and Evans, the team seemed less explosive. Jackson doesn’t consider that much of an excuse. “It’s the NFL. One man goes down, the next man has to step up and get the job done. Throughout the week we knew the circumstances and we knew what we had going against us, but all that mattered was coming into Sunday and getting a win.”
The Buccaneers did get that win in the end, their first since scraping by the New York Giants at home. That means that, despite all that has gone wrong this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers swept the two teams of East Rutherford, New Jersey (New York by name). It was Tampa Bay’s first win over the Jets in almost 33 years, having last defeated the squad in December of 1984.
From here, the Buccaneers head back on the road to take on Miami on what was scheduled to be their bye week. This is, of course, the week one matchup that had to be rescheduled due to Hurricane Irma, an event that may have had a lingering impact on the seasons for both teams. It will be a short week for Miami, as they play on Monday Night Football in Charlotte tomorrow night. The Dolphins will come into that game at 4-4, and it’s a tumultuous 4-4 after losing quarterback Ryan Tannehill before the season, signing Jay Cutler, realizing that Jay Cutler remains Jay Cutler, then turning to Matt Moore. Under Moore, the Dolphins have looked pretty solid, and they will provide a stiffer test for the Bucs presumably than the Jets did on Sunday.