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Buccaneers AfterMath: The Bears expose the truth. There is no spoon. Or defense.

There will be calls for the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Smith. Tampa Bay’s struggles, however, were set in motion long ago, before Smith ever called a play.
 
[Warner Bros.]
[Warner Bros.]
Published Oct. 1, 2018|Updated Oct. 1, 2018

In The Matrix, Neo, the main protagonist, watches in wonder as a child bends a spoon.

“Do not try and bend the spoon,” the child says. “That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.”

“What truth?” Neo asks.

“There is no spoon.”

“There is no spoon?”

“Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends. It is only ourselves.”

Today, you might feel as if you’ve been fooled. A couple of weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were sitting atop their division with a 2-0 record.

But that was just an illusion. It’s what you wanted to see.

Sure, there was evidence that it was real. You watched the Bucs beat the Saints and the Eagles with your very own eyes.

That team you watched, however, does not exist. It never did.

Don’t blame the Bucs. They didn’t manipulate us. We manipulated ourselves.

The signs were there. They allowed 40 points against the Saints. They allowed the Eagles climb back from a 27-7 deficit. They allowed 30 points in the first half against the Steelers.

Mitchell Trubisky, who lit up the Bucs for six touchdown passes in the Bears’ 48-10 win Sunday, led us to the truth:

There is no spoon. Or a defense.

Turning Point

What happened: In 30 minutes, the Bears went touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal. The Bucs went punt, punt, field goal, punt, punt, interception.

Fitzmagic died, Jameis Winston returned from a three-game suspension and coach Dirk Koetter called for his own firing.

It was an embarrassing new low for a franchise that specializes in embarrassing new lows.

“I’ve been in the league for nine years and never got beat like that,” defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. “Never, ever got beat like that.”

Yeah, welcome to Tampa, JPP. It’s a Bucs life.

What changed: Remember when safety Isaiah Johnson ran full-speed into a wall early in the game against the Steelers a week ago?

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[NFL Game Pass]

The Bucs, who were leading 7-6 at the time, haven’t been the same since.

Much of what happened Sunday was set in motion before the Bucs and Bears played a snap. Before the Bucs and Steelers played a snap. Before the Bucs played a snap this season. Their defensive struggles predate training camp, the draft and free agency. Their struggles even predate defensive coordinator Mike Smith’s first play call.

To understand the Bucs’ troubles in Chicago on Sunday, you have to go back in time, but you don’t have to travel far. In fact, you can stay in Chicago. The site: the Auditorium Theatre, a 25-minute walk from Soldier Field. The date: April 28, 2016. The event: the NFL draft.

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After two offense-centric drafts, the Bucs needed to restock the defense.

They needed a cornerback. They got one in Vernon Hargreaves in the first round.

They needed a defensive end. They got one in Noah Spence in the second round.

They should have drafted more.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Mathletics author and University of Houston visiting professor Wayne Winston after that draft. “The importance of passing dwarfs everything,” he told me. The focus for teams in early rounds should be on players who can help score or stop touchdowns.

In other words, pick a cornerback. And then add another. Pick a defensive end. And then add another. Keep picking them because the draft is a crapshoot. You just don’t know.

What the Bucs did next took the NFL by surprise. They packaged third- and fourth-round picks to move back into the second round. Not to draft another cornerback. Or a defensive end. Or a receiver. Or an offensive lineman.

They took a kicker.

That kicker, Roberto Aguayo, wasn’t at the game Sunday. The Bucs cut him after one season. They didn’t win before him, they didn’t win with him and they haven’t won without him.

Koetter called the loss “horrific.” The same could be said of the team’s 2016 draft class — Hargreaves, Spence, Aguayo, cornerback Ryan Smith, offensive guard Caleb Benenoch, linebacker Devante Bond and fullback Dan Vitale — a group that contributed a total of 60 snaps on offense and defense Sunday. Benenoch played 41 snaps; Smith played 19. Everyone else was injured, inactive or no longer on the team.

It’s rare, almost unheard of, for a team to hit on every one of its draft picks. But to miss on every one? That’s a devastating blow, one from which the Bucs are still trying to recover. It’s why they traded a third-round pick from this past draft to acquire Pierre-Paul from the Giants. It’s why they drafted three defensive backs — M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis in the second round and Jordan Whitehead in the fourth round.

For all that the Bucs have invested to fix their pass defense, they’ve seen little return. That’s to be expected when your secondary is full of players who are learning on the job and adjusting to the speed and complexities of the professional game. They’re going to bite on receiver double moves and quarterback pump fakes. They’re going to fall down. They’re going to cover the wrong player.

The good news is that they’ll improve in time. But that’s also the bad news.

These are the consequences of the Bucs’ choices in 2016.

What it means: Because the Bucs are off next Sunday, it’s going to be an ugly couple of weeks. There will be calls for the firing of Mike Smith, and understandably so. Since he was named defensive coordinator before the 2016 season, the Bucs have allowed 5.96 yards per play (most in the NFL) and 24.72 points per game (fifth most).

There is an argument for keeping him, however, and it is this: The Bucs have done a worse job of acquiring talent than Smith has done at coaching that talent. You think Koetter and Smith were banging on the table and insisting that the Bucs draft a kicker in the second round? If anyone should go or step away, it should be the person or people who were pushing that idea.

Yes, the Bucs brought Smith to Tampa to fix the problems on defense. You can’t fix the problems, though, if you’re not drafting the right players.

General manager Jason Licht, seeking to emulate the defensive line rotation the Eagles deployed last season en route to a Super Bowl championship, stockpiled linemen this offseason, and for that, he deserves credit. Consider, though, how Philadelphia did it built its defense.

Fletcher Cox: drafted. Brandon Graham: drafted. Vinny Curry: drafted. Derek Barnett: drafted. Beau Allen: drafted. Timmy Jernigan: acquired via trade. Chris Long: acquired via free agency.

Notice the theme?

Licht’s investments might pay off eventually. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t have time to wait for “eventually.”

Sunday’s loss doesn’t help. It’s a stinging indictment of the Bucs’ rebuild. A week ago, they were the talk of the NFL. Now, the Bears are, thanks to the Bucs. The Bears — a team that lost 13 games two seasons ago — are contenders. The Bucs are not. They have been passed by. They’re back to being the Bucs.

They’re 2-2, so the season isn’t over, but it is time to panic. After the bye, the Bucs face the Falcons in Atlanta, the Browns in Tampa and the Bengals in Cincinnati. Those teams scored an average of 38 points Sunday. Suddenly, it’s not hard to see this team losing five games in a row.

Storylines

• In the days leading up to the game, the Bucs wouldn’t reveal whether they would start Fitzpatrick or Winston. Turns out, the joke was on us. They started both! (Kind of.) Ryan Fitzpatrick started the first half; Winston started the second half.

• Tight end O.J. Howard sprained the medial collateral ligament in his knee and is expected to miss up to four weeks, ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting.

• First-round draft pick Vita Vea made his Bucs debut. It was a quiet one, however, as the rookie defensive tackle didn’t record a tackle or a quarterback hit.

• A healthy scratch for the first three games of the season, second-round draft pick Ronald Jones finally got some snaps (20 at running back and eight on special teams). He gained 29 yards on 10 carries, but his most memorable play was a dropped pass in the red zone late in the first quarter. Had he caught it, he might have been in position to gain a first down or at least set up a third-and-short situation. After Fitzpatrick overthrew Howard on the next play, the Bucs, who were down 14-0, settled for a field goal, their only points of the first half.

• Right guard Caleb Benenoch struggled again in pass protection. On a second and 15 halfway through the first quarter, he barely touched Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks, who sacked Fitzpatrick for a 7-yard drive-killing loss. At that point, the game started getting away from the Tampa Bay. Five minutes later, Chicago took a 14-0 lead.

• Trubisky throws for 354 yards and six touchdowns and now the nation wonders whether the second-year quarterback has turned that all-important “corner” that young quarterbacks have to turn on their way to greatness. “This is a big day for him,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said after the game, “and hopefully this is a day where we look back down the road here and say you remember that day where he had that great game, and it helped catapult him into being a great quarterback.” You did this, Bucs.

What I got right

That the Bears would run the ball often out of the shotgun formation. Chicago ran 31 times Sunday, and more than half of those carries were out of the shotgun. On 16 runs, they gained 103 yards (a 6.4 average).

What I got wrong

That third down would be the down to watch when the Bears offense was on the field. Entering Sunday, Trubisky had struggled in those situations, averaging 5.2 yards per pass (25th) and posting an 81.6 rating (17th). Chicago’s solution? Get a first down before getting to third down. The Bears reached third down only four times in the first half, and two of them were third and 1s. They converted both.

Links

Rick Stroud: Bucs-Bears: Who deserves the blame?

Tom Jones: This is the kind of loss that can break a team’s will

Peter King: Something worked for Trubisky (Yeah, Peter. It was the Bucs' defense.)

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.