For Jameis Winston, protecting ball has to come first

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston talks with coach Dirk Koetter after being sacked on third down in the second half Sunday.
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston talks with coach Dirk Koetter after being sacked on third down in the second half Sunday.
Published Oct. 4, 2016

TAMPA — Jameis Winston is both a talented passer and a paradox for the Bucs. His ultra-competitiveness might be his best trait. But when untamed, it leads to turnovers and losing streaks.

"At that position, taking care of the football is the No. 1 priority, and like I said, I thought we were past this," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said Monday. "I was confident we were past it, but we're struggling with it right now and we got to fix it."

Winston is second in the NFL with eight interceptions this season and has lost two fumbles. In Sunday's 27-7 loss to the Broncos, he had a hand in all three first-half turnovers that essentially allowed the Super Bowl champions to build a 17-7 lead.

The Bucs quarterback was intercepted twice by Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib, and the Broncos went on to score their first two touchdowns on drives of only 11 and 27 yards.

Then, facing third and 1 at the Denver 26, Bucs running back Charles Sims was stopped for no gain and, as Sims was wrapped up, Winston called for him to lateral the ball, resulting in a fumble recovered by Denver.

"Like I said (Sunday) night, it's something we don't need to do," Koetter said.

So how does Koetter "fix it?" What specifically can he do to put Winston in better positions to protect the football?

The options are surprisingly limited.

First, it depends on what kind of defense the Bucs play against. Not only are the Broncos considered the best defense in the NFL, they combine a fierce pass rush with lock down cornerbacks across the board, even against three or four receivers.

The plan Sunday was to run the football and Denver had been vulnerable against the run this season. Koetter called 20 run plays in the first half but they netted only 54 yards.

"Some of that depends on who your next opponent is and what kind of defense they play," Koetter said. "Whether we need to commit more guys to protection so he has a cleaner pocket, and at times (Sunday), we did have a clean pocket. Do we need to get more guys out on the route so he does have checkdowns available? And at times, that is there."

In the opener against the Falcons, primarily a zone coverage team, Winston was able to check the ball down to receivers in soft spots of the defense.

On Sunday, with tighter windows, he tried to force a pass to receiver Adam Humphries, who was well covered on the first series of the game. Talib intercepted an errant throw.

"Quarterbacks always, and Jameis included, they can't force the football," Koetter said. "That first interception, we didn't win with the route. Whether that was a bad play design by me, we didn't execute the play very good. Jameis didn't have a good option. He's got to be able to find another option and there's nothing wrong with punting in a 0-0 game."

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Winston also hasn't learned when the journey is over. He was sacked five times and hit 16 times, many of those because he refused to throw the ball away and extended plays long beyond their shelf life.

"I think the real trick is Jameis is such a competitive guy, and it's a positive trait he has, he's always trying to make a play when sometimes there's no play to be made," Koetter said.

A year ago, Winston had seven interceptions through four games and basically willed himself to stop turning the ball over, which he did for the next four games.

Koetter said he had not talked to Winston on Monday. "I'm sure I will here at some point but that needs to be discussed and Jameis has always been fantastic about that,'' he said. "In his time here, after he sees the tape, Jameis is always hardest on himself, his own worst critic and I'm sure he already knows that."