Sunday, January 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Buccaneers vs. Saints Turning Point, Week 16: Josh Huff's muffs

Remember, remember the third of November.

The Buccaneers' season turning point.

That was the day Atlanta beat Tampa Bay by three touchdowns on Thursday Night Football.

That also was the day the Eagles cut Josh Huff.

The receiver and kick returner was arrested two days before in New Jersey and charged with driving under the influence, possession of marijuana and possession of a handgun without a permit. That's not a good look, but he still would be wearing midnight green if he had had more than 13 catches for 72 yards.

At the time, anyone who had nine or 10 fingers had a shot at suiting up for the Bucs. Huff not only met that condition but also could run really fast, so Tampa Bay signed him to the practice squad Nov. 7. He played in his first game in a Bucs uniform two weeks ago.

Apparently, he left his hands in Philadelphia.

The first time he touched the ball, it went well enough. He rushed for 5 yards. The second time? The Saints' kickoff bounced inside the 10, took a bad hop, hit him in the face and rolled out of bounds at the 1.

On the next play, New Orleans stuffed Doug Martin in the end zone for a safety. Huff's miscue cost the Bucs two points, but it didn't cost them the game.

A disruptive defense bailed out Huff that evening. Its three takeaways rendered the play meaningless in a 16-11 win.

But Huff muffed another kickoff Saturday. This time, the Bucs couldn't recover.

While it wasn't the reason Tampa Bay lost 31-24, it set in motion a series of events that changed the game.

"When we have bad plays, we have a tendency to string them too close together," coach Dirk Koetter said.

The Saints, who led 13-7 at the start of the second half, rolled a kickoff inside the 10, just as they had two weeks earlier. Huff tried to pick it up at the 4 but couldn't gain control. Again.

Any time a team starts that deep in its territory, it has to proceed as you would at the office when you hear the fire alarm: Get out. Quickly.

Teams have started at or inside their 4-yard line 132 times this season and have been more likely to turn the ball over than score points. Teams have scored 26 times and turned the ball over (or suffered a safety) 32 times.

That's what happened the first time these teams met. The Saints began their final possession from their 3. It ended at their 47 when safety Keith Tandy intercepted Drew Brees.

Things have looked a lot differently when teams have started at, say, the 20. They have gone on to score more than three times as often as they have turned the ball over.

The Bucs were at a particular disadvantage on their first and 10 at the 4. The Saints defense, knowing the offense's primary objective was to gain some breathing room, could key in on the run. Tampa Bay prefers to run on first down as it is, and it hasn't been good at it. The Bucs have run for a loss on first down an NFL-high 36 times (excluding quarterback kneels).

So when the Saints stuffed running back Jacquizz Rodgers for a 1-yard loss, it looked familiar.

That set up the play that put the Bucs' playoff hopes on life support. On second and 11, Tampa Bay came to the line in max protection. The Bucs called a pass, but because they were guarding against a potential sack and safety, they sent only two receivers out on routes.

Winston didn't have options and tried to force a pass to Mike Evans, even though Saints cornerback B.W. Webb had help in coverage from safety Jairus Byrd. Byrd picked off the pass and returned it to the Tampa Bay 14.

"That was just a crazy play on my part," Winston said. "No one was open. I tried to give my guy a chance."

To that point, it was the most influential play of the game, according to Pro Football Reference data. The Saints' win probability jumped 9 percentage points.

On the next play, running back Mark Ingram scored his second touchdown of the game.

"One-score game, and then right off the bat, we make it a two-score game," Koetter said.

Not the kind of game-changing speed the Bucs were hoping for when they brought Huff to Tampa.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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