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Bucs return to scene of their worst 2016 loss

 
The Bucs defense, still learning new coordinator Mike Smith’s system in the 2016 season’s second game, gave up 40 points to the Cardinals.
The Bucs defense, still learning new coordinator Mike Smith’s system in the 2016 season’s second game, gave up 40 points to the Cardinals.
Published Oct. 13, 2017

TAMPA — The last time the Bucs went to Arizona, it was, by most measures, the low point of their 2016 season, a humbling 40-7 loss to the Cardinals.

"Last year was unfortunate for us," said quarterback Jameis Winston, who had a career-high five turnovers, including four interceptions, in what remains the lowest-rated game of his three-year NFL career. "The turnovers kind of put us out of it. … Turning the ball over was the biggest part."

The final score obscures that late in the first half, the Bucs were at the Arizona 29-yard line, threatening to cut into a 10-0 deficit. But Winston was sacked and fumbled, and Arizona scored two more touchdowns in the final 90 seconds of the half, leading 24-0 at the break.

Arizona also returned a Winston interception 60 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. The 33-point loss is the Bucs' most lopsided since Winston and coach Dirk Koetter joined the team in 2015.

"They beat us. They beat us good. We remember. It stings," Koetter said. "I don't think defensively we're anywhere close to the same team we were last year. I think we're a much more confident defense."

Much of that improvement came in the second half of last season, with the defense fueling a five-game winning streak that had the Bucs in playoff contention in December. Players remember how poorly their last game in Arizona went, but go there hoping for a vastly different outcome when they return to face the Cardinals on Sunday.

"That's the talk around the building, how we went up there and stunk it up," defensive tackle Clinton McDonald said. "We want to perform well every game. We don't want to be up and down, one week we win, one week we lose. We want to be consistent. That's the truest measure of a man's mental toughness is his consistency."

In last year's game, the Bucs' defense, still learning coordinator Mike Smith's scheme, gave up two 50-yard passes and allowed Carson Palmer to throw for three touchdowns in the second quarter alone. Winston was sacked three times, and if you ask tackle Donovan Smith what the Bucs need to do differently this time, he's frank about it.

"Everything," Smith said. "We got handled last year. Our job is obviously not to let that happen again."

Said offensive coordinator Todd Monken: "We didn't play our best football. We deserved that beatdown. We turned it over. The game was still in the balance, and we did everything we could to give them the game."

The Bucs lost more than a game in Arizona last year. Running back Doug Martin suffered a hamstring injury and missed the next six games, and defensive end Robert Ayers missed the next four games with an ankle injury.

Martin returned last week from a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing-drugs policy and adds balance to the offense. Ayers wants the Bucs to show more of what they're capable of being this time around.

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"We took one on the chin (last year)," Ayers said. "I got hurt that game, so there's definitely motivation to come back from that. But it's bigger than that. I'm a terrible loser, so I hate that. They did beat us pretty good, but the biggest thing is we want to get a win against a team that's trying to get going in their season, too."