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Bucs Sunday: Preview vs. Redskins

Bucs kicker Patrick Murray has not had a lot of opportunities because of a poor offense, but his range has been impressive.
Bucs kicker Patrick Murray has not had a lot of opportunities because of a poor offense, but his range has been impressive.
Published Nov. 16, 2014

Disappointing as it is for Bucs fans to see their team at the bottom of their division, consider this: They're at the bottom of what might be the worst division the NFL has seen since it went to eight four-team divisions in 2002.

The NFC South's four teams are a combined 5-19-1 in games outside the division — including the Bucs' win at Pittsburgh — and that puts them on pace to challenge the worst record by any division: 10-30 by the NFC West in 2008, which had a 9-7 division champ in Arizona, followed by the 49ers (7-9), Seahawks (4-12) and Rams (2-14).

The NFC West had three terrible seasons from 2008-10 — going 10-30, 12-28 and 13-27 out of the division — but then last season matched the best record ever by a division, going 30-10 out of division behind Seattle (13-3), San Francisco (12-4), Arizona (10-6) and the Rams (7-9).

How bad is this year's NFC South? Division-leading New Orleans, at 4-5, would be a game and a half out of fourth place in the AFC North, where every team has two more wins than losses. The Saints, Falcons and Panthers are a combined 4-0 against the Bucs, but a combined 6-17-1 against the rest of the NFL (including each other).

To avoid being the worst division the NFL has seen since realignment, the NFC South must go 5-10 in its remaining 15 games outside the division. And of those 15 opponents, only three have fewer than four wins — two being the Bucs' next two games against the Redskins (3-6) and Bears (3-6). So if the NFC South is to avoid resetting an NFL low, they may need the Bucs' help to do so.

Turnovers tough to come by

One of Bucs coach Lovie Smith's most consistent messages, however poorly it has been received by his players, is the strong connection between winning the turnover battle and winning football games.

His coaching history plays out as a strong testimonial to the direct link from one to the other. As does his present: Just as the Bucs are at minus-7 in turnover margin, on pace for the worst differential in Smith's 10 seasons as an NFL head coach, he's also likely headed to the worst record he has had as a head coach.

In nine years in Chicago, every time he had a losing turnover margin, his team had a losing record — including his 2004 debut, when the Bears were minus-8 and finished 5-11. A year later, they were plus-6 and flipped that record to 11-5 and made the playoffs.

Smith's Chicago teams weren't generally dominant in turnover margin — for the first eight years they were a net plus-10. In his last year, though, it was a team strength — plus-20 after leading the NFL in interceptions (24) and takeaways (44) in a 10-6 campaign that still got Smith fired.

The Bucs rank 27th in turnover margin, and the 12 total takeaways by the Tampa Bay defense is glaringly low compared to the 44 Smith's Bears had two years ago. But the offensive turnovers are among the league's worst (only the Jaguars have thrown more interceptions than the 12 thrown by Bucs quarterbacks) and only the Jaguars (22) and Eagles (21) have more turnovers as a team.

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The good news for this game? The Redskins actually rank lower in turnover margin, sitting at minus-9 thanks to forcing just eight takeaways this season. Only the Jets (seven) have fewer. Again, there's a direct tie to their record, as the Redskins have five takeaways in their three wins, but just three total in their six losses.

So if the Bucs want their second win to come today, they likely need to win the turnover battle first — something they've done only once this season, in the overtime loss to the Saints.

A spot where production's kicking in

Few things have gone well for the Bucs in their 1-8 start, but kicker Patrick Murray, who beat out veteran Connor Barth for the job in preseason, has been a pleasant surprise from long range, hitting four field goals from 50 yards or longer. Only one kicker (Dallas' Dan Bailey) has more, and Murray has only missed once from that distance. In Bucs history, only three kickers hit more long field goals: Martin Gramatica twice had five from 50-plus, and Barth had six in 2012.

"Lot of confidence in him. He's earned all of it," coach Lovie Smith said. "He's confident … He doesn't need a pep talk each day. He's pretty much been on point before the game telling me exactly where his range was. Couldn't be more pleased with what he's done. It's a good pickup for our team."

The Bucs' struggling offense has meant few scoring opportunities, so their nine total field goals are one short of the NFL low this year, ahead of only Chicago and Denver. It's a major dropoff compared to 2012, when Barth hit 28 field goals, and 2013, when veteran Rian Lindell hit 23. Bucs' opponents, by comparison, have 21 field goals this season.

PROJECTED STARTERS

BUCS

OFFENSE

WR Vincent Jackson 83

LT Oniel Cousins 75

LG Logan Mankins 70

C Evan Dietrich-Smith 62

RG Patrick Omameh 66

RT Demar Dotson 69

TE Brandon Myers 27

WR Mike Evans 13

QB Josh McCown 12

RB Bobby Rainey 43

TE A. Seferian-Jenkins 87

DEFENSE

DE William Gholston 92

DT Gerald McCoy 93

DT Clinton McDonald 98

DE Michael Johnson 90

SLB Danny Lansanah 51

MLB Mason Foster 59

WLB Lavonte David 54

LCB Crezdon Butler 26

RCB Johnthan Banks 27

SS Major Wright 31

FS Dashon Goldson 38

SPECIAL TEAMS

P/KO Michael Koenen 9

PK Patrick Murray 7

LS Andrew DePaola 48

KR/PR Marcus Thigpen 19

REDSKINS

OFFENSE

WR Pierre Garcon 88

LT Trent Williams 71

LG Shawn Lauvao 77

C Kory Lichtensteiger 78

RG Chris Chester 66

RT Tom Compton 68

TE Jordan Reed 86

WR DeSean Jackson 11

QB Robert Griffin III 10

RB Alfred Morris 46

FB Darrel Young 36

DEFENSE

DE Jarvis Jenkins 99

NT Chris Baker 92

DE Jason Hatcher 97

OLB Ryan Kerrigan 91

LB Keenan Robinson 52

LB Perry Riley Jr. 56

OLB Trent Murphy 93

CB Bashaud Breeland 26

CB David Amerson 39

S Brandon Meriweather 31

S Ryan Clark 25

SPECIAL TEAMS

P Tress Way 5

PK Kai Forbath 2

LS Nick Sundberg 57

KR/PR Andre Roberts 12

THE POLL

Which was the dumbest of the 10 penalties the Bucs took in Sunday's loss to the Falcons?

What they're saying

Quarterback Josh McCown had to choke back tears during his postgame press conference Sunday. "One and eight," an emotional McCown said, repeating the Bucs' record multiple times. … That 1-8 might be 1-15 soon, so it's probably not going to get much better for McCown and Co. this season.

Chris Burke, Sports Illustrated

I wouldn't pick Lovie Smith's guys to beat anyone right now. Washington isn't very good, but Tampa Bay is a lot worse.

Michael David Smith, ProFootballTalk.com

It's every bit as bad as it seems. The Bucs have been ranked as low as No. 32 in total defense and that's completely out of character for a team coached by Lovie Smith. He's supposed to be a defensive guru, but this defense has been bad. It's shocking because there is a lot of individual talent … but this defense has struggled to get off the field on third downs, show a pass rush and come up with takeaways. Those are all supposed to come with the Tampa 2 defense. But that hasn't been happening and critics are saying the Tampa 2 defense is outdated.

Pat Yasinskas, ESPN.com

The picks

Washington coach Jay Gruden gets a little revenge for brother Jon, who was once fired by the Bucs. Tampa Bay, however, will keep this game close. Redskins, 24-21.

Tom Jones, Times Sports Columnist

This is the dog game of the week. These two are going nowhere, especially the Bucs. They are really bad. Washington is coming off a bye, so that will help. Robert Griffin III takes advantage of a bad Tampa Bay defense. Redskins, 34-24.

Pete Prisco, CBSSportsline.com

Two weeks is more than enough time to get ready for a one-win team. Even for Washington. Redskins, 27-20.

Mike Florio, ProFootballTalk.com

THREE QUESTIONS

WITH WR MIKE EVANS

You're halfway through your rookie year. Do you get starstruck at all? Are there players you look forward to meeting in the league?

"Peyton Manning's my favorite player, but I haven't met him yet. I'll be starstruck when I meet him, probably. I met Reggie Bush on a (pre-draft) visit to Detroit. I got to meet him, talk to him, and he said he was a fan of me, so that was pretty cool. Steve Smith was cool to meet too. Outside football, Derek Jeter's my favorite baseball player, haven't met him yet. Dwyane Wade is my favorite athlete, period. I want to meet him."

Favorite place to eat in town?

"Two places. Ocean Prime, or this place called Koto, a hibachi place on South Howard. I just get a filet, medium well, with the jalapeno au gratin."

You get to watch Texas A&M's win against Auburn last weekend?

"I loved it. We had meetings here at 8:15 and it was cutting it close. I was watching it, about to leave the house, watching it. Saw the last play and ran out. I texted my (old) roommates, Devonta Burns, Sabian Holmes and Justin Bass."

Greg Auman, Times staff writer