Saturday, November 18, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs offense flounders when it counts most

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TAMPA

You have to admire Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston for the way he will spin, bounce like an exercise ball off tacklers, launch his body to keep a drive alive. His uniform should come with a seat belt.

After taking a shot to the helmet Sunday against Chicago, Winston had enough energy to plead his case and lung whip the referee for not lifting a flag to protect him.

"I looked back at the ref. I mean, I don't know how many times you're going get hit to the head and (aren't) going to get a call, but that's how it is," Winston said.

Emotion, energy and effort will never be a problem for the Bucs' rookie. But lately, execution has, especially during the Bucs' three-game losing streak.

In the first half of losses to the Saints, Rams and Bears, the Bucs have scored two touchdowns, including one Sunday on a 4-yard run by Doug Martin after a blocked punt.

Remember Winston's highlight reel 20-yard run on third and 19 in a 23-19 win over the Falcons to improve the Bucs to 6-6?

Where has the Bucs' offensive production gone since that play?

"We just haven't been able to finish as much as anything," coach Lovie Smith said Monday. "We've moved the ball (by) running, we've had some moments in the passing game. Like the interception in the red zone (Sunday), we haven't been able to finish drives. I think if you looked at the last three games, it would be the story to what has happened to us offensively.

"It's on all of us. It's on the quarterback, but I think everyone has joined in. Opportunities when they could get us out of that hole and have an opportunity to make a play down in the red zone. Of course, it always starts there but it's a lot more than that."

Winston will have the best case for NFL rookie of the year. He has helped the Bucs triple their win total. He needs 283 yards to join Cam Newton and Andrew Luck as the only rookies to pass for 4,000 yards. Josh Freeman is the only Bucs player to eclipse that mark and he did it in his fourth season. Winston has 22 touchdown passes and rushed for five touchdowns, with only 13 interceptions.

Some of those numbers have been compiled in the final two minutes of losses, when Winston has gone 20-of-24 passing for 251 with four touchdowns and no interceptions for a 149.8 rating, the best of any starter.

Sunday is an example of how an offense self-destructs. Martin loses two fumbles. Winston throws a red zone interception with a 14-13 lead. Mike Evans fails to haul in a deep pass that hits him the hands.

"After looking at the video a lot more, you go back to the turnover ratio. We were minus-three," Smith said. "Those two fumbles really hurt a lot. The interception down in the red zone really hurt a lot.

"There were a lot of things in between offensively. We had some dropped balls where we didn't connect on some favorable matchups that we had in the passing game. We really couldn't get our running game going the way we wanted to."

Winston is surrounded by very good, not great players. He has two rookie linemen. Evans has a chance to be great and not many players begin their careers with two 1,000-yard seasons. Martin has had two great years in four. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins shows great promise but played a season-low 16 snaps Sunday, apparently still working back from his shoulder injury. Losing receiver Vincent Jackson to recurring knee injuries has been a crusher.

The defense is a mess. Outside of tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and suspended rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander, who has made a case to come back next season? It's going to take another draft or two.

"I think when you're a young football team, too, it doesn't happen right away," Smith said. "You keep building. There are a lot of young team mistakes that we've made. We haven't handled some situations that more veteran teams will have. We're building, but we're not there yet."

The Bucs get one final chance to avoid losing their last four and five of six to end the season when they play Sunday at Carolina. The Panthers (14-1) need a win to secure homefield throughout the playoffs.

"They're going to come and try to take our heads off like they've been playing well all year, so we've got to come and compete," Winston said. "That's the mentality that we have to change here at Tampa Bay."

Nobody has competed harder than Winston. What has been lacking is the execution of the offense, particularly on third down and in the red zone, which is crucial to putting points on the board.

Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs. Follow @NFLStroud.

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