GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Things could not have gone any worse for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their start against the Arizona Cardinals, and their defensive struggles were only magnified without franchise quarterback Jameis Winston, who left Sunday's 38-33 loss with a right shoulder injury.
Winston took a crushing blow from Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones on third down of the opening possession, falling hard on his throwing shoulder. He attempted to work through the injury but looked over at quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian and shook his head.
Winston has never missed a game since he was drafted in 2015. He's never had a significant injury as a pro or a significant injury, period. "I've come out of a game before, but I don't think I've ever missed a game [on any level]. I don't think I'm going to miss a game, either."
He's not only their signal-caller on offense but their emotional leader. He's also a player who has been hell-bent on playing even when coach Dirk Koetter has attempted to pull him out of games before. This wouldn't have happened unless Winston truly felt he wasn't physically able to continue, which is what happened.
"Jameis is as tough as they come," said Koetter. "This isn't about toughness. This is about, 'He's got a shoulder injury and couldn't throw the football. He couldn't do his job.' We just have to see what happens."
The Bucs' offense has only averaged 23.6 points per game this season, but there has been a feeling that Winston's chemistry with DeSean Jackson would improve, that Winston would continue spreading the ball around to targets like Adam Humphries and O.J. Howard and that the return of running back Doug Martin could help open things up.
Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick showed Sunday that he's capable of stepping in, helping the Bucs to 32 points in the second half. He threw three touchdowns against the Cardinals, to Jackson, Cameron Brate and Mike Evans. He also led an 11-play, 70-yard drive capped off with a 1-yard run from Martin in the fourth quarter.
Fitzpatrick also threw two interceptions, however, something he's struggled with throughout his career. Since 2013, Fitzpatrick has had 3.2 percent of his pass attempts intercepted, the most in the NFL during that span. Regardless of the Bucs nearly pulling off a comeback in the second half, that could be a problem.
"We got a touchdown and we got that second touchdown and the defense scored a touchdown, "Fitzpatrick said. "At that point, we really had a chance. I made too many mistakes, especially the big one giving them seven points -- [it prevented] us from completing the comeback."
Also, considering the way the Bucs' defense performed against the Cardinals in the first half -- they came out flat, couldn't tackle and had major issues with their run fits -- they might not be in position to truly play complementary football where Fitzpatrick can be a game manager.
"We just beat ourselves way too much, way too much," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "We dug a 31-point hole, fought back and we [lost] by five. We have to [fight] from the beginning."
The turnovers that helped the defense get on a hot streak at the end of last season may not always be there, although they helped the Bucs back into the game against the Cardinals. Brent Grimes intercepted Carson Palmer and Lavonte David had a scoop-and-score off of Larry Fitzgerald in the fourth quarter.
The worst part about Winston's injury, though, is that the Bucs haven't even gotten into divisional play and they're already 2-3. After a trip to face the Buffalo Bills next week, the NFC South-leading 4-2 Carolina Panthers come to town. That's followed by a trip to New Orleans to face the Saints who, at 3-2, have moved into a tie for second place in the division with the Atlanta Falcons. In total, the Bucs play three divisional opponents in the next six weeks.
"I just think we have to get back in the books," Winston said. "We need to start working harder. That definitely can't happened again with the type of team we have. ... We have to bounce back next week. This game's over."