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  1. Bucs

Mariota exposes Bucs' defensive deficiencies

Titans wide receiver Kendall Wright, breaking away from Bucs cornerback Johnthan Banks, left, had four receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown Sunday.

TAMPA

Lovie Smith only thinks about defense three times a day — morning, noon and night.

So how is it a rookie making his first NFL start like Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota can dissect the Bucs defense as if it were a biology class frog?

Mariota had more touchdowns (four) than incompletions (three) in the Titans' 42-14 win over the Bucs in Sunday's season opener. The 35 points Tennessee hung on the scoreboard in the first half was more than it had in any full game in two years.

The headlines were about Bucs rookie quarterback Jameis Winston losing to Mariota. But the bigger buzzkill was the way Smith's defense looked totally unprepared after 51/2 months of preparation.

"There's no doubt, we did not show up defensively," Smith said Monday. "We did not play the brand of defense we will play this year. Our defense has to play a lot better and it will."

In some ways — stay with me here — the Bucs got a little unlucky by drawing the Titans first on the schedule.

Wouldn't everybody want to start off at home against a 2-14 team with a rookie quarterback who has never taken a meaningful snap under center or spit a play out in the huddle since high school?

Maybe, except in the preseason Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt had not shown his version of the Oregon Ducks spread offense that they unleashed Sunday. Even if he had, it's nearly impossible to replicate the speed of Mariota's decision-making and the sharpness of his passes with a scout team in practice.

Plus, Mariota only had to throw the football 16 times Sunday. He's used to doing that in one series at Oregon. The Bucs linebackers also bit on the run action like pit bulls on a porterhouse, leaving the middle of the field open.

"Yes, some of the plays they ran, you don't know for sure until you get into a game," Smith said. "But they ran the football well against us. … Some of the pop passes will frustrate you a little bit but you can't let them go the distance like Kendall Wright's long (touchdown reception). That should be a minimum gain play and we get ready for the next play. So those are the kind of things that can and should not catch us off guard."

Titans running back Bishop Sankey averaged 6.2 yards per carry. For the most part, Mariota stayed out of third and long, the premier pass rush downs. That's why Tennessee converted 4 of 9 third downs.

"We feel we have to be physical," Bucs defensive end George Johnson said Monday. "When we're physical, we feel like we can set a tone. And when you're not, teams can run anything."

Speaking of setting the tone, Bucs safety Major Wright nearly did that on the first play of the game when he zeroed in on Sankey just as Sankey tried to catch a swing pass from Mariota. The sellout crowd at Raymond James Stadium erupted. It was a great hit, but one that hasn't been legal since 2008. Wright was penalized for a hit in the head and neck area on a "defenseless" receiver.

"As I told Major … you lower your target, you get the same effect," Smith said. "Running backs would rather you hit them up higher than down low. We have to lower our target and aim down there and that play can count."

Linebacker Lavonte David said that, after the penalty, the Bucs defense lost its edge.

"I think the fire wasn't there," David said. "We kind of let that first play, that penalty, knock us off our momentum and let that get to us. We've got to look past that and keep going."

It's only one game, but to Bucs fans, this probably feels less like 0-1 than 2-15.

"Not guys in our locker room and I should hope the fans don't because we are 0-1," Smith said. "That's all it is, 0-1. We can't go back. We can't bring in the Super Bowl of 2002 or anything else. We are 0-1 and we are disappointed about how we played the first game. There's no more than that. No. 2 is up."

This week, it's the Saints' Drew Brees. At least he's no Mariota!

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