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Not to rain on their parade, but Bucs need to be better than what we saw

John Romano | Tampa Bay played a smart, disciplined game to beat Minnesota. But there were a lot of holes on both offense and defense.
Despite a myriad of blitzes, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins had enough time in the pocket to throw for 344 yards with a 102.8 passer rating against the Bucs on Sunday.
Despite a myriad of blitzes, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins had enough time in the pocket to throw for 344 yards with a 102.8 passer rating against the Bucs on Sunday. [ BRUCE KLUCKHOHN | AP ]
Published Sept. 12|Updated Sept. 12

TAMPA — The Bucs won their season opener in Minnesota and, right now, that’s all you should care about.

You shouldn’t concern yourself with style points. You shouldn’t worry about the inefficiencies, and you shouldn’t obsess over the many details and stats that suggest the victory was less than impressive.

But the Bucs should.

Confidence is good, but overconfidence can be fatal. And the Bucs should not delude themselves into thinking that an upset win on the road against a seemingly quality opponent somehow means that champagne and cigars are right around the corner.

The Bucs absolutely deserved their 20-17 conquest of the Vikings but I’m not sure they would get the same outcome if the two teams played again next week. And that’s not meant to be an insult. The Bucs were the smarter, more disciplined team. But the more talented team? Not so much.

One week into the season, Tampa Bay is 27th in the NFL in defense and 26th in offense. It’s obviously early and things will change but, typically, teams in the bottom quartile of both offense and defense do not finish seasons with winning records.

Tampa Bay’s revamped offense gained a measly 242 yards Sunday. In franchise history, the Bucs are 12-74 when gaining 242 yards or fewer on the road. The last time they won a game like that was the final road win in the Greg Schiano era just about a decade ago.

Again, I’m not trying to be overly critical. In some ways, this was the best outcome to be expected.

The Bucs have a new quarterback, a new offensive game plan and a reconfigured offensive line. It’s going to take some time for everyone to get on the same page. If you recall, the Bucs were equally sluggish when they opened with a loss on the road in New Orleans in Tom Brady’s first game in 2020, and that season turned out okay.

The most encouraging sign is the Bucs played in a style that head coach Todd Bowles prefers. They had only 35 passes/sacks after averaging 45 a year ago. They held on to the ball longer than the Vikings, and they had no turnovers and fewer penalties. Those are all signs of a winning team.

Bucs safety Christian Izien (29) celebrates with teammates after intercepting a pass during the first half Sunday.
Bucs safety Christian Izien (29) celebrates with teammates after intercepting a pass during the first half Sunday. [ ABBIE PARR | AP ]

The problem is you can’t expect to have a plus-3 turnover margin every week. You can’t expect your opponent to line up offsides on a field-goal attempt and essentially hand you a touchdown opportunity. You can’t expect to be outgained by 127 yards and walk away with a win.

That doesn’t mean the Bucs won by fluke, but it does suggest that Venus and Mars were aligned in their favor.

So you wanna know what that victory does mean?

It gives the Bucs a fighting chance to be playing meaningful games in December.

When looking at the schedule before the season began, the hope was Tampa Bay could survive the first four weeks with a 2-2 record. The Monday Night Football game against Philadelphia has always looked rather hopeless, but there was a chance the Bucs could get two wins between games against Minnesota, Chicago and New Orleans.

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Now that they’ve begun on a winning note, a 3-1 start suddenly does not seem out of the question. The Bears were wobbly in a loss to the Packers on Sunday and the Saints struggled to beat Tennessee. Those appear to be two winnable games, and could, incredibly, set Tampa Bay up as the team to beat in the South.

And that’s why it’s important for the Bucs to recognize their own shortcomings this week.

The offensive line needs to be better. Take away Baker Mayfield’s scrambles, and the running game averaged 2.5 yards per carry. Considering that was the one thing Bowles wanted new offensive coordinator Dave Canales to fix, that was an utter disappointment.

The pass rush also needs to be better. According to Pro Football Reference, the Bucs had more blitz attempts than any defense in the league in the opening week. Yet with all that extra pressure, they finished with only two sacks.

The receivers had too many drops and the secondary had too many breakdowns in zone coverage.

If the Bucs play the exact same game against the Bears, there’s a good chance they will lose. You simply cannot count on your opponent making the critical errors that the Vikings did on Sunday. You cannot expect your kicker to drill a 57-yarder in the fourth quarter for the game-winning points.

Was it a good win on Sunday? Absolutely. Was it an encouraging sign for the rest of the season? Certainly.

Was it evidence that the world was underestimating how good the Bucs could be in 2023?

That’s still to be determined.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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