TAMPA — If there is a theme to this Bucs season, it's that they shrink in the biggest moments of games.
Whether it's Mike Evans not able to get off the field after an injury against the Rams which led to a game-ending 10-second runoff, or Johnthan Banks with a hands-to-the-face penalty on a crucial third-down play at New Orleans, or Austin Seferian-Jenkins fumbling on the first play of overtime against Minnesota, or second-and-1 failures in the fourth quarter at Cleveland and Chicago, the Bucs haven't handled late-game situations well.
The latest and worst example occurred in Sunday's 14-13 home loss to the Bengals. The Bucs were caught with 12 men on the field, preventing them from trying a possible winning field goal in the final seconds.
Bucs coach Lovie Smith said he has tried to prevent those mistakes, but every Monday he keeps having to scold a player who looks like the cat with a mouthful of feathers.
"I wish I could give you a good answer. Everyone has been different but it's been the same result a little bit which is we haven't handled the situations well," Smith said Monday. "It's kind of as simple as that. You can live with Johnthan Banks' (penalty); I mean that's playing ball. But how we've handled some of the situations at the end, we've had a lot of leads throughout.
"Growing pains, learning situations, normally it doesn't take this many games to get the point across. But (Sunday), that one hurt as much as anything to have 12 guys on the field. It's a sin. Kind of as simple as that. Can't do it."
Penalties also have been a big problem. Tampa Bay has committed 102, tied with Seattle for most in the NFL. Five times the Bucs have been in double digits, including Sunday's 13-flag affair. In two other games they had nine.
Sunday, after Bobby Rainey went 29 yards with a screen pass and an encroachment penalty moved the ball to the Cincinnati 31 with 43 seconds left, a holding penalty on center Garrett Gilkey backed the Bucs up 10 yards.
"I haven't been in this situation before," Smith said. "Normally I preach turnover ratio and if you win that, you're going to win the football game. What I found out this year, that many penalties can offset anything you do with the turnover ratio."
But the year's biggest blunder came when the Bucs had 12 men on field, erasing a 21-yard pass from quarterback Josh McCown to Louis Murphy. The play would have moved the ball to the Bengals' 20 with 26 seconds left.
Tackle Oniel Cousins checked in as an eligible receiver at tight end and thought he communicated that to rookie Robert Herron, the fourth receiver who was supposed to come off the field.
"We communicated it clearly. I guess the receivers didn't hear it or whatever happened," Cousins said.
Herron said he and fellow receiver Murphy knew something might be wrong before the snap.
"We never ran that play out of that formation, so me and Murph knew it wasn't right," Herron said. "You can see the in the TV copy, we're looking at each other like, 'What do we got?' He looked like a lineman on the field so we didn't even know."
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Smith said the team worked on that substitution all week, knowing Cousins would be used as a tight end with three players at that position inactive with injuries.
"We have a lot of things, safeguards in place, for that not to happen," Smith said. "But they all fell through, starting with me not seeing it. That's what has happened, that's why we have two wins right now, why we haven't won at home based on how we've played at the end of the game."
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. Follow @NFLStroud.