In the first half of Sunday’s 34-23 loss to the Bengals, the Bucs actually played complementary football – something they haven’t done very often in 2022.
Then in the second half, it was mostly the same old story that has played out all year. The offense dried up the defense and everything unraveled. It started with one failed fake kick by Giovani Bernard to open the third quarter. That gave Cincinnati possession at the Bucs 16-yard line, eventually resulting in a field goal.
From there, Tom Brady turned the ball uncharacteristically four times over the next four drives of the offense, with all four turnovers resulting in shortfields for the Bengals. The first three led to touchdown drives of 31, 13, and 39 yards for Cincinnati. Tampa Bay’s 17-3 lead was just a 27-17 deficit.
In the end, the defense allowed 34 runs — but only 237 meters.
“Our defense played well. They played well enough to keep us in the game,” said Buc’s tight end Cameron Brate. “But we give them the ball several times on the 20 yard line… They ended up with less than 300 yards, right? … Thirty-four points and 237 yards, that’s not right. That’s what happens when you turn the ball over on your side of the field and you just can’t do that in the NFL and expect to win games. So you have to remedy that.”
Having to defend against drifts that start deep in plus territory will undoubtedly exhaust your defenses. Bucs linebacker Devin White said it’s the defense’s responsibility to pick up the offense in those situations, but there was really only so much that unit could do for much of the second half.
“I just think as a defense, we need to have that corner but not break the mentality,” said White. “We can’t control what happens with special teams and attacks – we like to play a complementary ball. But at the end of the day, when our backs are against the wall, we have to do everything we can to get them on keeping three to keep our lead, keep the energy and keep the focus.
As much as the defense wants to share the blame, it shouldn’t. This 2022 season has been on the offensive.
Offense responsible for Bucs’ sub-par record
What unfolded on Sunday was not surprising. The Bucs haven’t played four full quarters all season, and the offense was the main reason for that. This was just a continuation of what 2022 will be remembered for: the offense that let the defense down.
Tampa Bay is 6-8 with three games left. It still leads to the embarrassment of a division that is the NFC South, but this team would have walked away with the division crown long ago with an offense that was even slightly better. The Bucs defense has put the team in position to win almost weekly.
Looking at the team’s eight losses, the defense played well enough to win in at least four of them:
-14-12 loss to Green Bay
-41-31 loss to Kansas City
-20-18 loss in Pittsburgh
-21-3 loss at Carolina
-27-22 loss to Baltimore
-23-17 loss at Cleveland
-35-7 loss in San Francisco
-34-23 loss to Cincinnati
It can even be argued that the defense played well enough to beat Carolina and Baltimore as well. The Bucs controlled the offenses of the Panthers and Ravens until they ran out in the second half – after constant three-and-outs from their own offense.
Head coach Todd Bowles said after Sunday’s game that they will not blame any side of the ball. But it’s clear one side deserves more blame for the team’s 6-8 record this season, and it’s not Bowles’ side.
“It’s a team game,” Bowles said. “If they turn it around, we have to stop. If the defense gives up a touchdown, the forward has to come back and get one. It’s a team game. You know, we don’t put the blame on one side of the ball or the other. We’re in this together and we’re going to fight. We just can’t turn the ball around and if we do we have to stop.”
Tampa Bay lets games escape
Worst of all, the Bucs have shown promising offenses all season. They’ve gotten an edge in some games, but eventually finish around their average of 17.6 points per game. And when three-and-outs and turnovers start to pile up, the unit seems to spiral, showing little ability to right the ship and get back on track.
Take Sunday’s game for example. Once things started going wrong on offense in the third quarter, it never felt like the Bucs could dig their way out.
“It is a game of ebb and flow and they had full momentum in the third quarter. We just couldn’t find a way to get back on track,” said Brate. “You have to do that, you have to move on, you have to forget the game you messed up. Because, hurry up, we still had 15 minutes to win the game and from then on it just snowed.
The same goes for other games this season. Despite the struggles of the attack, the team was within one possession in five of its eight losses in the second half, thanks in large part to the defense. In a sixth – their overtime loss to the Browns – they led in the fourth quarter and just needed another field goal to put the game aside. In all six cases, the offense was unable to get out of neutral.
It’s hard to pin much on Bowles’ defense this season. That group has held opponents to 21 points or less in nine games. It also kept the Browns below that mark in regulation before giving up the winning score late in overtime. But the offense rarely hits 20 itself, which is why the Bucs are where they are with three games left in the season. Their winning recipe this year isn’t one they can continue to rely on, but right now it seems to be all they’ve got.
“In football, all you can do is fight,” said Bowles. “You can fight, you can play smarter, you can coach smarter and we have to keep fighting. We understand that what we are doing is nowhere near good enough. It’s not even good enough and we have three more games to try and save the season.”
It’s reasonable to expect the defense to play better and put the Bucs in position to salvage their season. But can the transgression hold its end?
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