TAMPA, Fla. — One week ago, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David was nearly inconsolable leaving the field against the New Orleans Saints. On Saturday night, he stood before his teammates and delivered an emotional speech, telling them, “Do it for the family.” He also said that no matter what everyone else was thinking — the fans, the media, anyone around them — that only people who could change their situation were right there in that room.
Sunday was a start. With no Jameis Winston, no Mike Evans and not much hope heading into the second half of their season, the Bucs were able to snap a five-game losing streak with a 15-10 win over the New York Jets, thanks to a dominant performance on defense. They showed that they haven’t given up and that any shot of salvaging their season to some level of respectability will be because of the defense, the same unit that helped orchestrate last year’s midseason turnaround.
“There was a lot of frustration [last week], because I know we’re a great football team,” said David, who led the Bucs with eight tackles, two tackles for a loss and a fumble recovery against the Jets. “We just beat ourselves. That was the frustrating part. … Today, everybody took that to heart [and] did their jobs. Everybody played football the way we know how to and we had fun today.”
They were able to generate pressure, getting a season-high six sacks from newcomers Will Clarke and Darryl Tapp and Robert Ayers, Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald and linebacker Kendell Beckwith, whose role standing up at the line of scrimmage — something the Bucs unveiled against the Buffalo Bills — is starting to make an impact. Heading into Sunday’s game, the Bucs had just eight sacks in eight games for the season, the fewest in the league.
“The veterans definitely emphasized bringing that energy and bringing that passion and I think we came out the gates swinging, especially on defense” said defensive end Ryan Russell, who said practice this week set the tone. “We were just running to the ball. The Saints hit us with a lot of screens and guys weren’t really, really running 110 percent. I think it started with the small details in practice, everyone running to the ball, all 11 guys.”
Their coverages looked tighter. They had takeaways, with cornerback Brent Grimes picking off Josh McCown on a deep post route to get things going. Then David forced a third-quarter fumble, with Kwon Alexander recovering it. They were able to get off the field on third down, allowing the Jets to convert just 3 of 15 tries (20 percent). The last three games, they were allowing a combined 52.7 percent.
“Before we even stepped out of the locker room, our minds were made of what we were gonna do,” said Alexander, who finished with four combined tackles, two quarterback hits and a pass breakup to go with the takeaway. “We were just playing. Everybody was just feeding off each other. Nobody had to do too much to make a play. Everybody was just doing their job and in the right spot where they needed to be and making plays.”
It wasn’t a perfect day, though. The Buccaneers had kept the Jets out of the end zone until there were 31 seconds to go, with wide receiver Robby Anderson snatching a 38-yard touchdown on a deep fade route.
“We didn’t finish the game the way [we] would have liked to, but up until then, our defense was lights out,” said coach Dirk Koetter. “That wasn’t the most beautiful offensive game I have ever been in, but I’ve been in some beautiful offensive games and we’ve come up short. All I care about is we got one more than they got at the end of the game.”
Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick did his job stepping in for Winston, completing 17 of 34 attempts for 187 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He got rid of the ball quickly as pressure loomed. He took off immediately when no options were available. The only major error he had was the pick. (It would have been two, had it not been for an illegal contact penalty on the Jets’ defense.)
“Gritty, that’s what Ryan is,” said Koetter. “That’s what Ryan is. He’s a ‘get it done’ kind of guy. He’s going to make some plays you maybe don’t expect him to and he might miss a couple plays you’d like him to make. But he’s a tough guy and a competitor. You can’t have enough of those guys on the team.”
The Bucs’ ground game — the engine that makes their run-first offense go — continued to struggle early on, with just 43 yards heading into the fourth quarter. It wasn’t until Charles Sims’ 21-yard run in the fourth quarter that the unit, or the offense, showed any viable threat to score. Sims then caught a 6-yard touchdown on a slant route, giving the Bucs a 15-3 lead. They finished with 90 yards on the ground.
“We just dug deep. We competed,” said Sims, who despite the big run, finished with 20 total rushing yards because of defensive plays made behind the line of scrimmage. Still, this moment was a long time coming for him and the Bucs’ running backs, who hadn’t scored a touchdown in nearly a month.
“It just felt good to win. It felt good to win,” Sims said. “We’re just doing it one game at a time, one win at a time. That’s all we’ve got control of. One game at a time.”
Overall on offense, they moved the ball well but had too many wasted opportunities. The Bucs got a 44-yard punt return from Bernard Reedy, starting their third offensive possession from the 50-yard line. Yet four plays later, they were punting from 4 yards behind that. Then, after Grimes’ interception, Fitzpatrick threw it back into the Jets’ hands with a pick of his own.
Make no mistake about it — at 3-6 and with three consecutive road games ahead, it would take a miracle for the Bucs to reach the playoffs, and these are two bad football teams. The offense continues to underachieve, scoring just two touchdowns in the last 12 quarters of play, despite having one of the most talented groups in the league. But the Bucs showed they still have it in them to play hard for their coaches and haven’t given up, even if many around them have.