Buccaneers-Vikings Turning Point, Week 3: Overreaction vs. reality

Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs torched a porous Bucs secondary Sunday with eight catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns. [Getty Images]
Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs torched a porous Bucs secondary Sunday with eight catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns. [Getty Images]
Published Sept. 26, 2017

The NFL, it'll humble you. In a hurry.

Just a week ago, the Bucs were the talk of the league after they dominated the Bears. By 3 p.m. Sunday, that talk had shifted.

The Vikings were in complete control, jumping out to a 28-3 lead. Instead of taking another step forward, Tampa Bay regressed — all the way back to 2014.

The reaction on social media to the 34-17 loss was, as expected, measured and thoughtful. A summary: The Bucs are trash and need to make changes ASAP.

This team isn't trash — not even close — but the loss did reveal some serious flaws. Let's unpack some of the reaction and assess what is valid and what is not.

Reaction: The Bucs can't cover and can't tackle.

Mostly valid. Tampa Bay put itself in a precarious position by entering the season with Brent Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves, Ryan Smith and Robert McClain as its cornerbacks. Grimes is 34. Hargreaves led the league last season in catches and yards allowed. Smith is a cornerback turned safety turned cornerback. McClain, a part-time player for the Panthers and Chargers last season, allowed a 133.8 passer rating from the slot. That amounts to a plan of "Let's hope that Grimes continues to defy time and that Hargreaves breaks out."

So much for that. Grimes missed Sunday's game because of a shoulder injury. It was no coincidence that Case Keenum, filling in for Sam Bradford, had the best game of his career, passing for 369 yards and three touchdowns. Hargreaves saw 10 passes into his coverage and allowed seven catches for 126 yards and a touchdown. Smith saw eight passes into his coverage and allowed five catches for 118 yards and a touchdown.

Smith had a chance to prevent the touchdown he allowed — Stefon Diggs' 59-yard score early in the third quarter — but he went for the ball instead of the tackle. He wasn't the only defender to whiff Sunday. The Bucs defense combined to miss 13 tackles.

Tampa Bay can work out cornerbacks, but at this point, sweeping personnel changes aren't likely. The success of this unit will continue to depend on Grimes' health.

Reaction: The Bucs don't have a pass rush.

Valid, when Noah Spence isn't on the field. Tampa Bay pressured Keenum only 11 times Sunday, with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David recording three apiece. Defensive end William Gholston did not record a pressure.

The Bucs need a healthy Spence, who has shown in flashes that he is the pass rush threat Tampa Bay has been seeking for what feels like the past decade. Problem is, the 2016 second-round pick dislocates a shoulder about as often as he sacks a quarterback. Including Sunday's injury, he has suffered a dislocation three times.

Without him in the lineup, the Bucs have pretty much the same defensive front as last season, when Spence was more of a situational player. In 2016, Tampa Bay generated pressure on 23.7 percent of pass plays, which ranked 27th. McCoy can hurry the quarterback, but when he's double-teamed, the Bucs need someone off the edge in pass situations who can consistently win one-on-one matchups.

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Reaction: Jameis Winston is the same quarterback we've watched over the first two seasons.

Valid. After throwing three interceptions against the Vikings, Winston now has turned the ball over 25 times in 17 road games.

The issue usually isn't whether he's correctly diagnosing coverages. Sometimes it's his accuracy, as was the case on his first interception, an underthrown deep ball to DeSean Jackson.

Other times it's his refusal to give up on a play or his tendency to force throws, as was the case on a third-down completion to tight end Cameron Brate in the first quarter. Winston wisely avoided a sack that might have taken the Bucs out of field-goal range, but he was fortunate that one of the three defenders near Brate didn't pick off the pass and return it for a touchdown.

While left tackle Donovan Smith allowed five pressures, the offensive line wasn't to blame for Winston's interceptions. On each one, the protection was solid. In fact, on the first, the line picked up Minnesota's blitz.

For Winston to live up to the billing of franchise quarterback, he must take better care of the ball on the road. This is a talented football team, but it can't afford to give opponents extra possessions. Few teams can.

Reaction: The Bucs made a mistake in taking O.J. Howard over Dalvin Cook in the first round of this year's draft.

Not valid. Let's go back to Sept. 13, 2015. Winston's first NFL pass resulted in a pick-six. Marcus Mariota and the Titans trounced the Bucs 42-14. Then came the hot takes suggesting that Tampa Bay erred in taking Winston over Mariota. After one game. ONE.

Seems silly, doesn't it? At least now we're drawing conclusions after three weeks instead of just one. It's still ridiculous, but it's an improvement.

Box score scouts will compare Cook's 169 yards from scrimmage and (bogus) touchdown with Howard's single catch for 12 yards. That results-based thinking ignores the sound reasoning behind the Bucs' decision.

Cook is electrifying. There is no doubt about that. But Howard, too, is a multidimensional player; it just won't always show up in the box score. He'll catch passes, but he'll also put his hand in the dirt and block some of the game's toughest defensive linemen. Tight ends who can excel at both are hard to find — and certainly harder to find than running backs.

To expect seven catches for 100 yards and a touchdown two games into a career isn't realistic. Only 10 tight ends have reached 600 receiving yards in their rookie season, with the Seahawks' John Carlson the last to do so in 2008.

Given the short career spans of running backs, it's plausible that Howard will be the more productive player in the long term. One game shouldn't define a player, and for that matter, a team.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at Follow @tometrics.