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Turning Point, Week 2: Bucs play to not lose, lose anyway

Bucs running back Bobby Rainey carries the ball near the end of the third quarter - a sight that became familiar, if not monotonous, to fans watching the game. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Bucs running back Bobby Rainey carries the ball near the end of the third quarter - a sight that became familiar, if not monotonous, to fans watching the game. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Sep. 15, 2014

No one expected a shootout between the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, but the Buccaneers' play calls in the 19-17 loss were more conservative than delegates at a Republican National Convention.

You wondered more than a few times whether the Buccaneers were playing to win or playing to not lose. One such instance: Down 10-7 at the end of the first half with all three timeouts available, the Buccaneers let 10 seconds expire after a run to their own 40-yard line instead of trying to move into field goal range. It's not as though the Buccaneers could look forward to opening the second half with the ball, either — they had to kick off to the Rams.

It was a cruel twist then that in the end, when the Buccaneers really wanted to stop the clock after a 29-yard last-gasp completion to rookie receiver Mike Evans, all they could do was wish they had few more seconds as the referee announced, "We have an injured player on the play, and they are out of timeouts. It requires a 10-second runoff. The game is over."

And if you hoped the Buccaneers might open up the offense after a poor performance in their season-opening loss to the Carolina Panthers, what you actually got was a lot of running back Bobby Rainey. For fans watching at home, it sure seemed as though the broadcast was a steady dose of Rainey runs, promos for comedy-drama "Red Band Society" and an introspective Matthew McConaughey talking to us softly while driving a luxury SUV. If you missed it, it pretty much looked like this:

That's not to say Rainey wasn't effective. He rushed for 144 yards, averaging 6.5 yards on 22 carries, and caught three passes for 30 yards. Still, there were moments where the Buccaneers called one run too many. While Rainey broke off four gains of 18 or more yards, he also rushed for three or fewer yards 10 times.

One of those moments came late in the third quarter when the Buccaneers, leading 14-13 and driving deep inside Rams territory, called four straight Rainey runs, all to the left side of the offensive line. After a Josh McCown incompletion on first down, Rainey ran for 18 yards on second down and for a 3-yard loss on first down. The Rams didn't seem particularly threatened by the possibility of a pass on either down.

Let's take a look. On 2nd-and-10, note the soft coverage on the 6-foot-5 Evans. He's matched up with 5-foot-11 defensive back Brandon McGee, who immediately takes a couple of steps back after the snap. The Rams show blitz and send seven defenders. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, the pressure comes from the right, opening a hole on the left side of the offensive line.

The Rams show a similar look on the next play. Again, the coverage on Evans is soft (matched up here with 5-foot-10 rookie E.J. Gaines) and the Rams show blitz, though this time they send only six defenders. First-round draft pick Aaron Donald beats left guard Logan Mankins and brings Rainey down for a loss.

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A 6-yard gain on second down set up a questionable play call on 3rd-and-7 from the St. Louis 9-yard line. The Buccaneers line up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), a grouping from which most teams called a run 20-30 percent of the time last season.

Instead of targeting one of their 6-foot-5 receivers (Vincent Jackson and Evans) in the end zone to increase their lead to as many as eight points, the Buccaneers once again hand the ball off to Rainey, who is stopped well short of a first down. The Rams block the ensuing field goal try, and the Buccaneers suffer their second red zone failure of the day (the other was a Josh McCown interception in the second quarter).

"We'd like to have that play over," head coach Lovie Smith said after the game. "That's on us as coaches. We can call a better play in that situation."

Before the 3rd-and-7, the Buccaneers' win probability stood at 73 percent, according to advancedfootballanalytics.com. When the Rams took over after the blocked field goal try, the Buccaneers' win probability slipped to 52 percent.

Notes: After McCown completed a 9-yard pass to tight end Brandon Myers on the Buccaneers' first offensive snap, the Buccaneers ran the ball on their next seven first downs for a total of 4 yards. The next time McCown threw on first down, his pass intended for Jackson was intercepted by Rams safety Rodney McLeod.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tbassfootball.

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