TAMPA — If it helps, Sunday’s loss in Houston was not the biggest waste of offense in Bucs history.
Just the second biggest.
The only other time the Bucs scored at least 37 points and lost was in 1985 against the Dolphins. Of course, those Bucs were 0-6 at the time and facing future Hall of Famer Dan Marino, who took Miami 45 yards in the final 43 seconds to set up Fuad Reveiz’s field goal in a 41-38 victory.
In that sense, Houston’s 39-37 win Sunday may have been more painful considering the Bucs are still in the NFC South race and Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud was playing just his eighth NFL game. The Bucs defense allowed Stroud to drive Houston 75 yards in 40 seconds for the game-winning touchdown pass.
How is that possible?
In this case, it took a unique blend of poor playing and stubborn coaching by Tampa Bay to pull it off. The Bucs stayed in a zone defense the entire drive, which is not uncommon in such situations. They also eschewed the blitz, which can be excused in a last-minute situation.
The bigger problem seemed to be that the Bucs played a ridiculously soft zone, allowing Stroud and Houston receivers to eat up chunks of yardage in relatively rapid fashion. The defensive backs played so far off the ball that receivers were at full speed by the time defenders began to back pedal. The linebackers were so deep that Texans linemen had no concern about the possibility of a blitz disrupting their blocking assignments.
Here, then, is a play-by-play look at what went wrong for the Bucs on the final drive.
First and 10 from the Houston 25
(46 seconds remaining)
With three receivers running deep routes on the right side of the field, and the running back going toward the flat on the left, tight end Dalton Schultz was left completely open for a simple down-and-in to the center of the field.
When the ball was thrown, the nearest defender, linebacker Lavonte David, was 7 yards deeper than Schultz. That meant a 7-yard pass quickly turned into a 14-yard gain. The only positive for the Bucs was it cost Houston a timeout.
First and 10 from the Houston 39
(39 seconds remaining)
Again, the Texans sent receivers deep to clear out the underneath. When Stroud hit Schultz at the 42, there wasn’t a Tampa Bay player within 8 yards. Fortunately, for the Bucs, Zyon McCollum closed the gap quickly and held Schultz to a 6-yard gain. With the Texans using their final timeout, this was the only Bucs play that could be considered a success on the drive.
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Second and 4 from the Houston 45
(31 seconds remaining)
The Bucs’ zone grew even looser. Before the ball was snapped, seven of the Bucs players were at least 5 yards away from the line of scrimmage. The two safeties were 15 yards downfield.
Receiver Noah Brown, lined up in the slot, went 14 yards downfield on a simple curl route. He was tackled immediately after catching the ball, but the Texans by then had completed three consecutive passes for 34 yards.
First and 10 from the Tampa Bay 41
(17 seconds remaining)
With no timeouts left, the Texans quickly lined up and spiked the ball to stop the clock.
Second and 10 from the Tampa Bay 41
(16 seconds remaining)
With time running out, the Texans chose to be bolder. Unfortunately, the Bucs did not. They continued playing a soft zone, giving Houston plenty of room to operate. Receiver Tank Dell lined up in the slot with Schultz behind him. When the ball was snapped, Dell ran straight upfield and split David and McCollum, who were both backpedaling. McCollum had outside routes on that side of the field, but hesitated for just a moment when Schultz ran a shorter route in front of him.
That’s when Dell cut toward open field near the sideline. Safety Dee Delaney was at least 12 yards deeper than McCollum, which left Dell wide open on the sideline for a 26-yard gain. He stepped out of bounds to stop the clock.
First and 10 from the Tampa Bay 15
(10 seconds remaining)
The Bucs lined up with four defensive backs spread across the 5-yard line and three more defenders on the 10. For the sixth play in a row, no one was pressing the receivers at the line of scrimmage and no linebacker threatened to blitz.
The Texans had three receivers lined up on the right side of the field. Dell was the outside receiver on the right and ran a simple post play right past cornerback Carlton Davis, who was lined up at the 5 and was somehow 2 yards behind the receiver by the time they reached the end zone. The safety on that side of the field, Delaney, had bit on another post route nearer the center of the field and could offer no help.
That was it.
Five passes — six if you include the spike to stop the clock — and the Texans went 75 yards in 40 seconds.
The Bucs defense stayed in the zone the entire time but, more importantly, played so far off the receivers that Stroud had easy pickings the entire drive. There was not one contested pass, not one bold or aggressive call.
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