Monday, November 20, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jones: Believe it or not, Bucs are starting to look like a good team

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — One by one, they raced off the field and down the hall into the visitors locker room at Levi's Stadium.

"Great victory, fellas!" yelled receiver Russell Shepard.

"Yessir! Yessir!" said tackle Donovan Smith.

Linebacker Lavonte David simply nodded, looking like he had just kicked in the swinging doors of an old-time Western saloon and was looking for someone else to take out.

This is what victory looks like for a Bucs team that suddenly is a team to watch in the NFC. It's back to .500 and back in contention.

Bet you didn't see this coming. Not after that grueling home loss to the Rams. Not after Denver used the Bucs as a chew toy. Not after injuries sidelined running back Doug Martin and wide receiver Vincent Jackson.

Two wins in a row. Both on the road. Doesn't matter against whom. The opponents were NFL teams. And now it feels as if the Bucs are starting to turn the corner. It feels as if they are making strides.

"Feels good," defensive tackle Akeem Spence said.

What wasn't to like about Sunday's 34-17 victory over the 49ers?

Running back Jacquizz Rodgers has come off the scrap heap and looked like Jim Brown the past two games, rumbling for a career-high 154 yards Sunday. Quarterback Jameis Winston threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns. Mike Evans has turned into a top-five receiver.

Okay, brace yourself for what I'm about to say: The Bucs are starting to look like a good team.

"I'm proud of these guys," coach Dirk Koetter said. "That's two weeks in a row that we've played complimentary football."

That's fancy coach-speak for the Bucs are getting contributions from everyone, including players one normally doesn't confuse with stars, such as Shepard (five catches, 77 yards) and running back Peyton Barber (a key 44-yard scoring dash that iced the game).

But if you're looking for what really led Tampa Bay to victory, it was a defense that is playing way better than anticipated. It's not quite 2002 Bucs, but it's pretty stingy. Just one game after holding the defending NFC champion Panthers to 14 points in a victory at Carolina, the Bucs put the clamps on the 49ers.

San Francisco scored on its first drive, but then the Bucs held the 49ers to 10 points the rest of the game, including a touchdown drive that was possible only because a Winston interception gave San Francisco the ball at the Tampa Bay 17.

"Couldn't get off to a much worse start," Koetter said. "They went through us like Swiss cheese on the first drive."

After chasing 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick all over the field, defensive linemen came back to the Bucs' sideline huffing and puffing, and told Koetter, "Coach, he's fast!"

"No kidding," Koetter told them.

But they eventually kept Kaepernick in the pocket enough to throw a wrench in San Francisco's offense. The Bucs held the 49ers to 113 yards passing while intercepting Kaepernick once and causing another turnover on a sack-fumble.

"Turnovers are a key for us, and they swung the game," Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes said.

So now what?

Tampa Bay can really take a big leap with three consecutive home games.

"We got to learn how to win some games at home," Koetter said. "Let's rock that place next week. We got to do our part. We got to learn how to win at home. We've proven we can win on the road."

Say this, though: The Bucs are full of confidence. That's what happens when you wipe the field with your opponent. That tends to give you some swagger.

"It absolutely boosts it," Evans said.

"The confidence is pretty high," Spence said.

Know who says things like that? Good football teams.

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