TAMPA — Three of the four starters on the defensive line were out, replaced in part by two undrafted free agents. Down to his third running back. Young quarterback who needed protection, not only from defenders, but from his penchant for throwing interceptions. A rookie kicker playing Army with field goals. (Left, right, left).
And all he does, with the season on the line, is go on the road to their house, knock over a few lamps, break the fireplace vase and walk out with a 17-14 win on Monday Night Football over the NFC champions that had beaten the Bucs six straight times?
If this were Bill Belichick they would be calling him a coaching savant, or at the very least, a genius.
But it was Dirk Koetter, and if you didn't notice, he did his best coaching job against the Panthers.
What's more, heading into the bye week at 2-3, he and his staff might have saved the season. After the game, Koetter was asked how big of a win the Bucs pulled off Monday.
"Man, we just won on Monday Night Football," Koetter said. "No one thought that we could, you kidding me?"
The Bucs had maybe their best team win in years Monday, with many of their best players inactive due to injuries.
Sure, sure, the Panthers were missing the NFL's reigning MVP, Cam Newton (concussion).
But backup Derek Anderson, who once threw for nearly 4,000 yards with the Browns, had beaten the Bucs twice with the Panthers. Getting a division road win is tough. Doing it on MNF? Even harder.
Here are the right buttons pushed Monday.
. Run the ball, protect the defense: With Doug Martin out with a hamstring injury and Charles Sims placed on injured reserve earlier in the day with a bum knee, Koetter relied heavily on Jacquizz Rodgers to carry the mail.
Rodgers, who played for Koetter in Atlanta but was not on the Bucs roster to start the season, rushed 30 times for 101 yards. His career high had been 18 rushes; he had 10 on the opening drive.
Carolina had one possession in the first quarter.
"We really felt like we needed to try to run the ball, try to control the clock, try to not put our defense in a bad position early in games, which we've been doing too much this season," Koetter said. "Consciously made an effort."
Koetter said he paid close attention to Rodgers to make sure he wasn't gassed, though he called his number five times on the final drive.
"You can tell when a guy is gassed or not," Koetter said. "Tim Spencer, our running backs coach, took out him out a couple times in the first half. I kept looking at Quizz going, 'I'm going to need you on third down!'
"Shoot, he's playing a high level. A wise coach told me one time, 'feed the stud.' When a guy is hot, you give him the ball."
Koetter awarded a game ball to Rodgers.
. Win the turnover battle: Defensive coordinator Mike Smith pitched a shutout in the first half despite playing with undrafted free agents DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward. While they didn't rush Anderson, they played the run well and the Bucs secondary was more aggressive. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves tipped a ball that was intercepted by linebacker Daryl Smith, and cornerback Brent Grimes intercepted a pass for tight end Greg Olsen in the end zone.
"Even with lack of pass rush, I thought our secondary did a good job with the exception that Olsen did get lose on us sometimes," Koetter said. "Both Hargreaves and Grimes did a good job … in essence we get two turnovers from our corners."
. Good clock management. People said Koetter wasn't aggressive enough on the final drive, but backed up at their 14-yard line in a tie game with two timeouts and 1:49 left, his mission was two-fold. Get at least one first down to force the Panthers to use some timeouts and not leave enough time for them to win the game in regulation; and get into at least field-goal range.
"After we got going in our two-minute offense, they started playing more two-deep coverage and we ran it," he said.
. Play around the erratic kicker: While they really didn't get this accomplished, enduring two missed field goals by Roberto Aguayo, the Bucs did score one touchdown (with a two-point conversion) and gave the Florida State rookie a shot at redemption with the winner, his third make of the game.
"There's no doubt we can all be frustrated with what's going on with Roberto at times," Koetter said. "We have plenty of things to get better at and one of them was our field-goal kicking."
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected]. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs. Follow @NFLStroud.