TAMPA — Bucs ball. Fourth down and 10 yards to go at the Giants' 49-yard line. Trailing 23-18. Just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Punt or go for it? Don't be silly. Of course you punt there. That's exactly what Bucs coach Lovie Smith did, and I'm not here to question that decision. Still, as soon as the punt lifted into the air, you knew it deep down. This game was over.
By the time the Bucs got the ball back, they trailed 26-18 with 28 seconds left and no timeouts. Sure enough, this game was over.
When it mattered most, when the game was on the line, the Bucs' defense — schemed by Smith and executed by players chosen by Smith — could not do its job.
Make a stop. Make a play. Make a difference.
Instead, it made for another loss.
That's becoming a familiar story with this team. It isn't the offense. It isn't the rookie quarterback. It's the defense. And until it's fixed, we're going to see more games (read: losses) like Sunday's.
Yeah, sure, the Bucs kicked too many field goals in the 32-18 loss. They didn't score enough touchdowns, and that's a sure-fire way to lose games in the NFL. Wide receiver Mike Evans played like he had butter lathered on his gloves. Doug Martin and Charles Sims played hot potato, too.
But pin this loss on the defense. You know, Lovie's specialty.
The Bucs cut the Giants' lead to 20-18 with 9:35 left, but the defense gave up two scoring drives — a pair of field goals — that chewed up more than 61/2 minutes. Ball game.
"We did everything we could, but they just kept driving," defensive end George Johnson said. " We kept them out of the end zone, which was a good thing. But drives like that, when they're long, it chews up clock and gives us less time to work with."
All the Bucs needed was a third-down stop, maybe a turnover, a sack. They needed someone to bust through the line and make a tackle for a loss, maybe force a Giant into a costly holding penalty.
All they needed was someone to make a play. It never happened. It never happens.
"Very tough, especially when we practice that situation every week," linebacker Lavonte David said. "In that situation, we got to find a way to get three and out or take the ball away.
Speaking of which, has anyone seen David when the game gets to crunch time? Anyone notice him when he is needed the most? Anyone notice Gerald McCoy at all? Ever? These are the stars. These are the play-makers. They're the ones who are supposed to create the fumbles, pick off the passes, sack the quarterback.
These are the guys who are supposed to make a difference, yet they are nowhere to be found.
David continues to pile up the tackles — he led the team Sunday with 11 and leads the team for the season — but the splash plays are nonexistent.
"I'm just doing what I'm told, doing my job, just doing what is asked of me," David said. "Going out there and playing hard."
What does McCoy have to say? Nothing after Sunday's game. He left without speaking to the media following his one forgettable tackle. He has but 18 tackles for the season, no sacks in the past three games and no forced fumbles.
Maybe he's hurt. He has been so ineffective that you hope he is. That at least would explain why he has been a nonfactor.
Maybe he's being double- and triple-teamed. That's less of an excuse because other great players get special attention and they still find ways to make plays.
"Gerald is fighting every play," David said. "He's doing what he is told and playing hard."
Playing hard isn't good enough. Neither are the supposed good things Lovie says he sees.
Smith likes to use the "other players are on scholarship, too" excuse. True, the other side Sunday had a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Eli Manning and an elite receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. But, hey, this is the NFL. Everyone is good.
The problem is the Bucs' defense isn't good enough. And it's not going to get better until it finds better players through the draft or the high-end free-agent market. The Bucs can start with the secondary.
As pedestrian as McCoy and David have been, the secondary has been abysmal. Each week Smith seemingly pulls names out of a hat to find the right mix. In eight games, the Bucs have used six combinations of starters in the defensive backfield. Yet, nothing has worked.
Take this stat: the Giants converted 9 of 16 third downs. So, Lovie, where does this defense need to get better?
"All areas," said Smith, who tried to paint a positive spin by mentioning his team allowed only 26 points to the Giants' offense. "That's just not a terrible day. … I thought we did some good things with some of the young players. Again, we're not quite there right now. We lost the game, so all areas."
Until all those areas are fixed, the Bucs will continue losing games. In the meantime, maybe the Bucs can start drawing up some fourth-and-10 plays on offense.