Even while facing this murmurer's row of quarterbacks — the (then) Texans' Ryan Mallett, the Colts' 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck and the Rams' Case Keenum — the Bucs' secondary has been the primary reason for their failure this season.
Opponents have a passer rating of 100.3, fifth highest in the NFL. In the past three games, it has swollen to 107.9. If the passer rating belongs on the FM dial, it's time to face the music, boys.
It happened again in Thursday night's loss in St. Louis when Keenum, best known for being the guy who was left on the field to play with a concussion against the Ravens, hit 14 of 17 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns against Tampa Bay. Prior to that, Keenum had one touchdown pass all season. The Rams had eight.
When did the Tampa Two become the Tampa Ew?
Against the Rams, Bucs coach Lovie Smith tried his seventh different combination in the defensive backfield. That doesn't include the fifth cornerback who comes in during passing situations. Safety Keith Tandy, who started there Thursday, was the third this season.
But nothing has helped.
"We've tried a lot of different combinations. You try a lot of different combinations because you don't like something that is happening," Smith said Friday. "During the course of the year you look at all your options. Yeah, it's a combination of our rush hasn't been exactly what it needed to be, the back end definitely hasn't been as good as it needed to be, third-and-long situations, early downs. That has been one of the story lines from our season of not being able to play the pass better than we have."
Keenum made two explosive plays to change Thursday's game. He got Bucs rookie cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah to bite on a double move by Kenny Britt for a 60-yard touchdown strike. He also executed a screen pass against the blitz to Tavon Austin for a 17-yard touchdown. The final score came on a 21-yard end around by Austin.
"Last night, you look at some of the things that happened —should not give up, of course, that long touchdown like that in a coverage that should force us to keep the ball in front of us," Smith said. "They scored on a screen pass, and they scored on a reverse. Those types of plays we've stayed away from most of the year."
Just for good measure, Adjei-Barimah was replaced by Johnthan Banks after yielding the bomb.
At the very least, Smith and general manager Jason Licht know which areas to address in the draft. For the past two years, the Bucs have selected one defensive player — linebacker Kwon Alexander, who was a steal in the fourth round last spring. Cornerback will be a priority, as will an outside pass rusher — the two positions that most affect the quarterback.
"No doubt we do," Smith said. "I feel like we have a good feel. And how do you get to this point? Of course you go through, and we've been through every situation, but I also think when you have guys on your roster, you let them play. I think for the most part, most of our guys have had an opportunity to show us whether they belong, whether we think they belong, if they need more time, if they need to start, or if we need to move on."
The lack of a pass rush and poor coverage on the back end of the defense is also responsible for the sudden dropoff in takeaways. The Bucs have produced one turnover in the past four games.
What's confounding is that the Bucs have been stellar against the run. On Thursday, they held Rams rookie Todd Gurley to 48 yards on 21 carries. They are tied with Denver for tops in the league with an average of 3.3 yards per carry.
When you do that, you get teams in predicable passing downs and should have the advantage. Not the Bucs. Titans rookie Marcus Mariota was marvelous. Cam Newton was super. What was it Kurt Cousins screamed? "You like that!'
"That is the goal, and normally (stopping the run) says you're going to be okay," Smith said. "But normally you don't give up a long touchdown pass — you can't (do that) and win. And you can't give up a couple of trick plays for touchdowns. That's 21 points right there. It shouldn't happen that way. When you play a great running back like we played and hold him in check like that, and go for over 500 yards (of offense), almost 30 first downs on (offense), that normally says you're talking about the good things that happened last night. But what we saw from that is that it's more than that, and you can't give up plays like that. In the future we won't. We're not there yet."