The Buccaneers on Sunday showed no lingering effects from their heartbreaking Week 3 loss to the Giants. One loss easily could have become two, but instead Tampa Bay took the fight to the defending NFC champions. In beating the Rams 55-40, the Bucs not only pulled off one of the most improbable upsets in team history but also saved their season in the process.
There was no feeling-out period early in the game. The Bucs came out firing. Jameis Winston was sharp and, for the most part, decisive, completing 11 of his first 15 passes for 148 yards. Thanks to his efficiency and Jared Goff’s insistence that we think of him as a “system quarterback,” Tampa Bay jumped out to a 21-0 lead.
Then things got interesting. Because a Bucs football game doesn’t truly feel like a Bucs football game until you seriously question your fandom three or four times.
The Rams were relentless, but what was especially noteworthy about the Bucs’ performance Sunday is that they kept their foot on the gas.
“The one thing I kept preaching was ‘Keep scoring, keep going after it,’” coach Bruce Arians said, “because I knew the Rams were going to score some points.” And score they did:
• When the Rams cut the lead to 21-14 late in the first half, the Bucs answered. On an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, Winston converted two third downs, hitting Chris Godwin for gains for 14 yards and 11 yards. Win probability gain: 15.3 percent.
• When the Rams cut the lead to 28-20 at the start of the third quarter, the Bucs answered. Matt Gay’s 58-yard field goal wasn’t just the longest of his young career; it was the longest of his life. He made it look easy, too. No sweat. Who says the rookie stinks? Win probability gain: 8.1 percent.
• When the Rams cut the lead to 45-40 in the fourth quarter, the Bucs answered — instantly. As Los Angeles Marcus Peters crossed the goal line during his 32-yard interception return, Tampa Bay offensive tackle Donovan Smith delivered a vicious shoulder tackle that nearly knocked Peters into the Pacific Ocean.
The question after the interception was whether Arians would lean on the run game. Initially, yes, that happened. The Bucs ran on first and second down, which set up a third and 6 and an opportunity for Winston to redeem himself. He succeeded, delivering a 12-yard strike to Mike Evans. Two plays later, he delivered another strike, this time to Godwin for an 18-yard gain that got Tampa Bay into field-goal range.
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Gay went on to prove he can make the chip shots, too. His 21-yarder put the Bucs up 48-40 and essentially guaranteed they could not lose in regulation. Win probability gain: 15.4 percent.
• When the Rams crossed midfield on their ensuing possession, the Bucs answered. On first and 20, linebacker Shaquil Barrett spun around Los Angeles right tackle Rob Havenstein and speared Goff, knocking the ball loose. An opportunistic Ndamukong Suh scooped up the fumble and took it 37 yards to the end zone. In four games, the Tampa Bay defense has returned two turnovers for touchdowns. It returned one all of last season. Win probability gain: 7.1 percent.
What it means
In AfterMath, we try to quantify the meaning of events from a game or a season. Some things, though, are difficult, if not impossible, to measure. One of those things might be the influence of Arians and his top assistants, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Previous Bucs teams in similar circumstances — a road game after a tough home loss — have crumbled.
Flash back to 2017. Tampa Bay came within 19 yards of upsetting defending Super Bowl champion New England. The next week, the Bucs looked flat and unprepared in Arizona and fell behind 31-0.
It happened last season, too. After a close loss at home to Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay was demolished in Chicago 48-10. Coach Dirk Koetter’s message: “We should fire every person that was on that field today, starting with me. That was horrific.”
Honest? Yes. But was it what the team needed to hear? Doubtful.
The Bucs went on to lose nine of their final 12 games. And Koetter? He ultimately got what he asked for.
Sunday’s game could have been like the losses in Arizona and Chicago. Why wasn’t it?
Execution? For sure.
Talent? That, too.
But what else?
A short memory?
“The loss last week, (Bowles) let it go,” safety Jordan Whitehead said. “He let it go, so we had to let it go. You’ve got to keep working because it’s a long season. You can’t let one game dictate the season, especially early in the year.”
More buy in?
“It’s a new vibe, new culture, new feeling around here,” cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “As a defense, we see results. As an offense, we see results. And when you see results, you’re like, ‘Okay, the coaches know what they’re talking about, so let’s make sure we do what they want us to do so we can win.”
“After the tough loss to the Giants, we all understood,” tight end O.J. Howard said. “That hurt. We had those guys on the ropes, and we let it slip away. We can’t keep doing that if we want to get to the playoffs. We knew we were playing a good L.A. team, and we just wanted to show the world that we’re right up there with all the great teams, and we are a great team. We made a statement in L.A.”
This much is clear: The Bucs have come a long way from “we should fire every person that was on that field.” Note the difference in Arians’ message:
“It’s time to play fearless. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake. Don’t hold your breath, all right? Let it go.”
Storylines and observations
• That the Bucs are 2-2 isn’t a surprise, but how they got here is. They lost the two home games in which they were favorites and won the two road games in which they were underdogs. Will things stabilize from here or should we expect more volatility?
• Each of Godwin’s 12 catches resulted in either a first down or a touchdown.
“I love when a guy has the breakout games of (12) catches or whatever for 170 yards because he’s doing all that grimy work,” Arians said. “You throw him screen passes in the red zone, not just because they’re good at it (but) because they deserve it.”
In March, Arians said Godwin “is going to be close to a 100-catch guy.” Through four games, he has 26 catches, putting him on pace for 104. The single-season team record is 106, set by Keyshawn Johnson in 2001.
• Excluding first downs, nearly three-quarters of Winston’s passes came in long down and distance situations (6 or more yards to go). He completed 15 of those 24 passes for 200 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Thirteen of those 15 completions resulted in either a first down or touchdown. Winston ranks third in the NFL in rate of passes resulting in a first down (41.0 percent). Carolina’s Kyle Allen (48.3 percent) ranks first, and New Orleans’ Drew Brees (43.8 percent) ranks second.
“He’s just growing in the offense,” Arians said. “I think Byron (Leftwich) and Clyde (Christensen) are doing a great job with him, fundamentally and mentally. I don’t know if anybody’s played better the last three weeks than he has, and the numbers should bear it — we put a lot of points up.”
• Winston faced pressure on less than a third of his dropbacks, a season low. The offensive line deserves some credit, but Winston’s average time to throw of 2.5 seconds was the fifth-shortest in the NFL in Week 4, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
• The box score doesn’t do Ronald Jones’ performance justice. Though his 3.7 yards per carry might not seem remarkable, he forced nine missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
• So you already know that the 55 points the Bucs scored was a team record, but perhaps the defense deserves half the credit. Off its four takeaways, Tampa Bay scored 28 points, also a team record.
• Though Suh’s fumble return touchdown was a cool moment, especially since it came against his former team, it wasn’t necessary. Suh should have resisted the urge to score and simply covered the ball. The Rams had only one timeout, so they would not have been able to stop the Bucs from executing a couple of kneel downs to drain the clock and end the game. Instead, play continued and two Tampa Bay players — cornerback Carlton Davis and linebacker Jack Cichy — were injured on the kickoff.