Veterans: finish strong
After four straight losses that have undermined the Bucs' midseason momentum, the veterans will have to play a central role in helping focus a wayward team that has two games remaining
The process was already under way in the locker room after Sunday's 41-0 loss to the Saints, with some of the more prominent players formulating the message of the week to come.
"You'll see a lot of the character of this team and how everyone handles it and what they're going to do this week to prepare and stay focused," veteran TE Dallas Clark, bottom left, said. "No matter what the season holds and no matter what happens throughout the year, we signed up to play 16 (games), and you have to be a professional and play each one like it's the most important game you've played.
I think we have a lot of class on this team, and I think that's what we'll see. But it's going to take everyone to really focus in and take it personally and bring the professionalism onto the field."
Said S Ronde Barber, top left: "I'm going to try and lead them. The record doesn't matter. We are all privileged to play this game. I say it all the time: At the beginning of the year, you signed up for 16 weeks, so you have no choice but to see it through."
Said coach Greg Schiano said, "I haven't been here in a while, but I've been here before. We'll fight back."
Running game sidelined
With the Saints entering the game with statistically the second-worst rushing defense in the NFL, a prime opportunity existed for the Bucs to get rookie rushing leader Doug Martin going.
But the way Sunday's game unfolded made running the ball prohibitive. With the Bucs trailing 24-0 at halftime, Martin was used sparingly, carrying nine times total for 16 yards, the least-productive day of his young career.
"The game just got away from us," Martin said. "The turnovers and us just not being able to get anything going on offense — we all thought it was going to be a back-and-forth battle with the Saints, but with the early turnovers, we just got out of rhythm.
(The Saints) really made it a one-dimensional game for us. We had to pass instead of focus on the run, and that led us to keep getting behind and not doing what we normally do on offense. That's not how we've played this year, and it was really tough out there for us."
Martin is averaging 19.5 carries in 2012, and his nine rushing attempts in New Orleans were his second fewest of the season.
It's too bad the game played out as it did for Martin. The Saints have allowed some huge rushing games this season, including a 233-yard performance by the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles.
"When you quickly fall behind, I don't know if the running game ever gets a shot," coach Greg Schiano said.
Lack of turnovers hurting defense
The Bucs overcame many of their defensive shortcomings earlier in the season because they played better on offense, but also because the defense did a fundamental thing: produce turnovers.
When the Bucs had their four-game win streak in October and November, they thrived on turnovers, producing nine in that span. The Bucs have been among the league's leaders in interceptions for most of the season and produced 20 turnovers through their first 10 games.
But in recent weeks, the turnovers haven't come with as much regularity. And the result has been obvious.
"It's a big difference," S Ronde Barber said. "It's the biggest correlation to winning. Coach (Greg Schiano) says it all the time. We lost the turnover battle very handily (Sunday, five made to the Saints' zero). It definitely sustained us for sure earlier in the year. You want to be able to count on it. That's what wins football games. But if we play more sound, maybe it won't be as much of an issue."
Sunday was a day in which the Bucs couldn't get key stops against Saints QB Drew Brees, allowing him and his offense to get into a rhythm that was tough to break.
"When an offense gets on a roll like that, you have to bow your neck and get a stop," DT Gerald McCoy said. "We didn't. Being one of the defensive captains, it's very disappointing. Something has to change."
Forcing turnovers is one of the best ways to disrupt an offense's rhythm. The Bucs have produced two in their past three games, all losses.
"We take real pride in getting turnovers," LB Lavonte David said. "It's something we haven't taken advantage of, and at times when we did have chances, we didn't get (turnovers). We have to keep working at that."
Safety Keith Tandy was an accomplished high school quarterback in Kentucky, rushing for more than 1,000 yards as a senior.
He had a flashback to that Sunday when he was tabbed to handle a fake punt that resulted in an 18-yard gain.
On the first possession of the third quarter, with the Bucs trailing 24-0 and looking for a spark, Tandy lined up as the up-man in front of punter Michael Koenen, took a direct snap and ran around the right side. Then things got weird.
"All I know is when I took off running, it got so quiet in the stadium," Tandy said. "Then I remembered, 'Wait, we're on the road. That's why they're quiet.' It's like it didn't really seem real. It's the first time I've touched the ball in the NFL."
Tandy didn't have to do much to make any would-be tackler miss him before he was knocked out of bounds by LB Will Herring.
"It didn't go the way we drew it up, but it was wide open," Tandy said.
How was it supposed to work?
"Well, we might run it again, so maybe I shouldn't say."
The downer for the Bucs: The move ultimately didn't pay off. Josh Freeman was intercepted on the next play.
Teammates back Freeman
Josh Freeman has played his worst football of the season recently at the most inopportune time, helping to undermine the team's playoff hopes. But even after his five turnovers Sunday — he was intercepted four times against the Saints and lost a fumble, accounting for all the Bucs' turnovers — the Bucs quarterback has a great deal of support. In the locker room, where Freeman is well liked and respected, teammates came to his defense.
"We all have to play better," TE Dallas Clark said. "I think we have the people here that will make it happen. But certainly no one should take the brunt of any of this. It's a team thing right now, and we have to get it fixed."
G Jeremy Zuttah, who is close to Freeman, said, "It's not all on Josh. It's on the offensive line, too. He's getting hit a lot. We have to do a better job as a team. As the quarterback, obviously a lot of times people are going to point at him, but it's a whole offensive effort. We've been off as an offense."
Freeman finished Sunday's game 26-of-47 for 279 yards and a quarterback rating of 37.5, one of the lowest of his career. He was peppered with tough questions after the game and will continue to come under much scrutiny as the team ponders whether he deserves a contract extension. He has to have the fortitude to work through it, Zuttah said.
"Josh has been through a lot of adversity with a lot of people telling him what he can't do and what he's doing wrong," Zuttah said. "He gets stronger, and he fights back every time. He just goes out and gets better."
As if the Bucs didn't have enough to deal with on the field in the 41-0 loss to the Saints, they had an issue on the sideline when linebacker Adam Hayward and assistant coach Bryan Cox got into a physical exchange.
With 8:27 left in the second quarter, Cox was barking at either a player or the officials when Hayward stepped in as if to restrain him. The 44-year-old coach apparently took exception, pushing Hayward away, prompting Hayward to shove Cox, a former standout linebacker, in the chest with both hands. Linebacker Jacob Cutrera stepped in to separate them, pulling Hayward away as he continued to berate the coach.
Both player and coach said after the game the matter had been dealt with, but it was not overlooked.
"I'm not happy about it, but I do know it's been resolved," coach Greg Schiano said. "I think you chalk it up to heat of the moment. Guys are very passionate. Adam is a very passionate player. Coach Cox is a passionate coach. I know they're very close. I think it's more of a family spat in a frustrating time than anything that I'm deeply concerned about.
"I know they've already smoothed that over. But again, it's not what a football team that I'm the head coach of (does). … It need not happen again."
Hayward didn't comment specifically, saying, "It's always an emotional game. Definitely. This is your job. This is what you feed your family with. This is what you do for a living." He later added: "We're fine. Everything's good. Anything else, that's just among a player and coach who have been together for a long time."
Schiano's assessment of the relationship between Cox and his players of being close is true. That is obvious each day at One Buc Place, so no lingering issues are expected.