TAMPA — In what likely was the final dress rehearsal before the regular season for Bucs starters and rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, the Browns undressed them.
Winston was sacked four times, pressured into throwing an interception and did not see the field as well as he had in the two previous preseason games.
Call it the flaw of averages.
The up-and-down result of playing rookies at quarterback, left tackle and right guard was on full display in Saturday night's 31-7 loss before 51,521 at Raymond James Stadium. Winston completed only 6 of 15 passes for 90 yards and the interception.
That performance was in stark contrast to the Bucs' 25-11 win over the Bengals five days earlier.
"You'd like to maintain a certain level each week, but normally it doesn't happen like that," coach Lovie Smith said. "That's why you can't get too high after last Monday night's game, and you can't get too low. We're somewhere in the middle; that's where we are right now. To become a good football team, you have to know you're going to have days like this.
"It's not all bad to have this bad feeling in our stomach right now."
It was as disjointed a performance as you can imagine from Winston, who proved he might not be ready to tear up the NFL as a rookie. And because Winston isn't expected to play in the preseason finale Thursday at Miami, he won't have any game time to work on his play before the Sept. 13 regular-season opener against the Titans.
Winston likely will finish the preseason with no touchdown passes (he has run for two scores) and a 52.7 passer rating.
To be fair, the former Florida State standout spent the night with Browns defenders in his face mask. The offense had no answer for the array of blitzes thrown at it by the 3-4 scheme of the Browns, and Winston referenced making some wrong protection calls.
"I've got to get the ball out faster. They brought a lot of pressure," he said. "I've got another thing to learn from, from a blitz-protection standpoint. I've got to see things and get us in the right protection call
"Obviously, they came with a different game plan than we expected."
Meanwhile, the defense allowed touchdown drives of 80 and 78 yards, and a special teams breakdown led to a 53-yard punt return for the game's first score, by Travis Benjamin in the first quarter for the Browns (1-2).
To make the loss even more salty, Tampa Bay's defense was picked apart by quarterback Josh McCown, who went 1-10 as the Bucs' starter a year ago and never had won a game at Raymond James Stadium until Saturday. The 36-year-old led scoring drives on the Browns' first possession of both halves, throwing a pair of touchdown passes.
"It wasn't good enough," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Just allowed too much on the defensive end. First drive was long, then five straight three-and-outs, and then you come out (in the) second half and play like that. That's not good enough."
The short week for the Bucs (1-2) might have played a factor in Winston and the team not handling the Browns' blitzes. On one series in the first quarter, rookie guard Ali Marpet, a second-round draft pick from Division III Hobart College, had a trifecta of mistakes. He gave up a pressure to defensive end Desmond Bryant, who hit Winston's arm on a pass attempt, had a false start, then yielded a sack to Bryant.
The Bucs' first three possessions ended in Winston being sacked twice and him throwing a pass under duress off his back foot for receiver Russell Shepard that was intercepted by cornerback Charles Gaines.
The only bright spot was Doug Martin's 19-yard touchdown run to cut the Browns' lead to 17-7 in the second quarter. But Tampa Bay never got closer as Connor Barth and Patrick Murray missed field goals of 43 and 44 yards, respectively.
Overall, Smith said he is pleased with how Winston has played during the preseason.
"I like what he's done throughout the games, but (Saturday) he was part of a bad effort that we had as a football team," Smith said. "There's not much we did well, Jameis or any other position you bring up — coaching, all of it.
"But at the same time, it's one game. We had a quick turnaround. We didn't handle this week as well as we needed to. It's as simple as that."