TAMPA — Jameis Winston's dramatic 20-yard run on third-and-19 against the Falcons three weeks ago vaulted the Buccaneers into playoff contention. They were only 6-6 after the Week 13 win, but with games against the league's worst defense (Saints), the league's worst offense (Rams) and the league's worst rushing defense (Bears) on the schedule, eight or nine wins seemed attainable.
Yet here we are on Dec. 28, and Tampa Bay is still stuck on six.
The Saints, losers of four straight, held the Bucs to 291 total yards. It was the first time this season that they had held an opponent to fewer than 300 yards.
The Rams, losers of five of their past six, scored 21 points in the first half. The Rams hadn't scored 21 points in eight of their 13 games.
And Sunday, the Bears, losers of three straight, held Doug Martin, the NFL's second-leading rusher, to less than 3 yards a carry en route to a 26-21 victory. They came into the game allowing 4.6 yards a carry.
"We just have to give them the credit for how they played," coach Lovie Smith said. "These are normally situations where — everyone has tried to stop our running game all year and we continued to (run the ball) and we had success doing it. Whatever the reason was today, we were unable to get it done."
Perhaps the Bucs were too committed to the run.
In the first three quarters, they ran the ball on 15 of 18 first downs (excluding one kneel down). That's 83.3 percent. That's high, even for the Bucs, who before Sunday ran the ball on first down about 58 percent of the time. The rest of the league is much more balanced, calling just a handful more run plays than pass plays on first down.
The Bears anticipated a heavy dose of Martin, as they frequently kept eight to 10 defenders within 6 or 7 yards of the line of scrimmage. Essentially, Chicago said, "We see your heavy formations. We know you're going to try to establish the run. Go ahead and do it against our eight-man front."
It was a battle the Bears ultimately won as the Bucs managed only 43 yards on those 15 carries in the first three quarters, or 2.9 yards a carry, well below their average of 5.2 coming into the game. On six of those 15 carries, the Bears tackled Martin for a loss or for no gain.
The lack of production on early downs in turn led to unfavorable third downs. Of the Bucs' third downs, all but one were third-and-8 situations or longer. After converting their first third down — a 16-yard completion to Mike Evans on third-and-13 — the Bucs failed on six of their final seven tries.
One of the outcomes of those third-and-longs: a game-changing red zone interception — the first of Winston's career.
"When you're trying to convert on third-and-15, third-and-20, it makes the level of difficulty hard," Winston said. "And that situation, we beat ourselves."
Before the interception, the Bucs seemed to be shaking off their first half fog. They ran the ball effectively on their first possession of the third quarter, and Winston found Charles Sims down the left sideline for a 50-yard touchdown that gave Tampa Bay a 14-13 lead. On defense, cornerback Sterling Moore ran across the field and fought through traffic to make a terrific third-down stop of receiver Joshua Bellamy.
Minutes later, Winston's improvised 46-yard pass to tight end Cameron Brate put the Bucs at the Chicago 11-yard line. With its win probability reaching a second-half peak of 80.4 percent, Tampa Bay looked to be in strong shape. And then it was as if someone took a pin to a balloon.
On first down, the Bears dropped Martin for a 1-yard loss. On second down, an early snap and poor pass protection led to a rushed throw to Sims in the right flat that fell incomplete. And on third down, the pass protection broke down again, and with three Bears defenders in his face, Winston threw a jump ball toward the end zone, hoping that Sims would come down with it. Instead, Bears rookie safety Harold Jones-Quartey wrestled the ball away and returned it 23 yards. It's the first time this season the Bucs have driven at least 74 yards and not come away with any points.
Why would Winston throw the ball? "Trying to get somebody to make a play in the end zone," he said.
It has worked before. Winston actually completed a similar third-and-long pass to Sims for a 14-yard touchdown last month against the Eagles.
Here's the throw Sunday. The Bucs originally split Sims out wide on the right and then motion him inside. He runs forward 4 yards, stops and turns toward the end zone. Evans, lined up on the outside, runs a slant route toward the end zone and draws the attention of Tracy Porter. This leaves Sims one-on-one with Jones-Quartey. Considering the field position and that Sims is well-covered, it's a throw Winston should not force.
"I think there's a big difference when you throw (a pass) like Cameron Brate's — when you throw it up. That's a good punt," Smith said. "It's a little different when you are in the red zone and you have at least a field goal right there. Circumstances will allow you to be a little more aggressive. That wasn't one of them."
Here's the throw against the Eagles. Just as in the play above, the Bucs split Sims out wide on the right and then motion him inside. Sims and Evans run similar routes. This throw is just as risky — possibly more so because there are two defenders in the area — but Winston is fortunate that cornerback Byron Maxwell isn't good at catching footballs.
On the ensuing Bears possession, the Bucs recovered and came up with another critical stop as safety Bradley McDougald stuffed Matt Forte for no gain on third-and-1.
After the punt, what did the Bucs do on first down? Despite eight defenders within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage, Martin got the handoff. One of those defenders, linebacker Jonathan Anderson, penetrated the line and forced Martin's second fumble of the game. That play alone caused the Bucs' chances of winning to plummet 24 percentage points, the largest swing in win probability of the game.
Five plays after the fumble, the Bears were in the end zone celebrating a lead they would not relinquish.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.