Saturday, April 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Rest was nice for Bucs, who gain ground in NFC South race

TAMPA — For five glorious days, football was not on the mind of tackle Donovan Smith, who used the Bucs' bye week to push the reset button and make rest and recovery his biggest priorities.

"I did withdraw from football," Smith said. "I'm not going to lie. I had nothing to do with football."

If Smith had checked out any NFL action, he would understand that for a team that didn't play, the Bucs (2-3) had a pretty good weekend.

They gained half a game in the NFC South standings on the first-place Falcons (4-2), who lost at Seattle. Carolina got smaller in their rear view mirror as the three-time defending division champions fell to 1-5 with a defeat at New Orleans.

That's finding money in the laundry.

"Other than two or three teams that jumped out to really fast starts, I think the league has really shrunk up and come back together," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "Fortunately, we were able to get that win last Monday night and guys can see the light, if we play good football, complementary football and don't turn it over and get some takeaways on the other side, that we can be right there."

Perhaps more encouraging, the cavalry may be coming to rescue the Bucs. Though running back Doug Martin, defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald, and defensive end Robert Ayers didn't make it out to the extra practice Monday, some or all could be back for Sunday's game against the 49ers.

And speaking of the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick started at quarterback Sunday against Buffalo and the whole team took a knee. The Bills rushed for 312 yards. Even without Martin, the Bucs ran well against a stout front seven at Carolina, starting third-string running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who carried a career-high 30 times for 101 yards.

"It felt good to run the football. As offensive linemen, we like to get after it and butt heads a little bit," Smith said.

With a reasonable chance to get to .500 with a win over the 1-5 Niners, the Bucs are in pretty good shape. Starting Sunday, you also only have to wait three games over a span of 12 days to know whether this team is going to become relevant or simply relent. After the game at San Francisco the Bucs host the Raiders on Oct. 30 then the Falcons for a Thursday night game Nov. 3.

The Bucs haven't handled that situation very well, going 1-8 in those stretches over the past three seasons. But considering the 40-7 loss at Arizona, going west might be the toughest part of the schedule for the Bucs.

"The only thing that's important right now is San Francisco," Koetter said. "It's a tough situation in and of itself because it's a West Coast trip. Three time zone changes. The hard part of what you're talking about doesn't come until that third week with that Thursday night game. We've heard all the talk about Thursday night football, this and that, but the reward for playing on Thursday night is you get two days off the next week."

Considering that the Bucs have lost three of their four starting defensive linemen and their top two running backs to injuries, they are fortunate to still be in the thick of things.

Another timeout used against the Rams, a few more made field goals by Roberto Aguayo, and they could be leading the NFC South. As it is, the Bucs are the only team that is 2-0 in the division, both victories on the road.

The player who might have benefited most from the letting some steam out of the pressure cooker was quarterback Jameis Winston, who played his first turnover-free game at Carolina.

"It was this time last year that Jameis went on a five- or six-game roll," Koetter said. "Jameis has been hearing it from everybody. We talk about it all the time, nobody has higher expectations for him than he does. We also have very high expectations for him. I fully expect Jameis to take it from there and use that as a springboard to improving and getting better and better as the season goes on."

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