TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians doesn’t care that his young team was caught in an unfamiliar situation last Sunday -- holding a sizable 18-point lead over the New York Giants that they ultimately surrendered to lose 32-31 at home. There are no excuses.
"It’s a good excuse. I don’t like excuses," Arians said. “We talked about it at halftime. I was doing a lot of screaming -- I’m a little hoarse because of halftime -- for that reason, and it just didn’t get done."
After jumping out to a 28-10 halftime lead -- including three touchdowns from quarterback Jameis Winston to Mike Evans -- the Bucs scored just three points in the second half, which did nothing to help a defense suddenly under siege.
“Our back end probably had their worst game of the year and it was as simple a plan as it could be, and we lost leverage, didn’t line up properly a couple times and gave them huge plays that should’ve never been made. We’ll get it corrected," Arians said.
The defense's mistakes went beyond not having answers for rookie quarterback in Daniel Jones, who tossed a pair of touchdowns and tacked on two more with his legs. It’s about finishing, having eye discipline, reading keys, not getting sucked up by play-action and communicating -- all things they look to improve on this week as they begin a five-game road stretch starting in Los Angeles against the Rams.
On the first rushing touchdown by Jones, he faked the handoff to running back Saquon Barkley inside, sucking up safety Jordan Whitehead to the point where he was out of position to try to assist M.J. Stewart making the tackle of Jones as he raced to the outside.
Play-action also allowed tight end Evan Engram to slip behind linebacker Lavonte David on a crossing route for a 75-yard touchdown, with safety Mike Edwards taking a bad angle and not making the tackle.
Missed tackles weren’t so much of an issue as players being out of position, which you could see by the 59 rushing yards and 309 receiving yards allowed before first contact.
Offensively, the coaching staff could do a better job in terms of play-calling. In the fourth quarter following Shaquil Barrett's forced fumble, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich called seven straight run plays. Arians said it wasn't because they'd gotten spooked by the interception Winston had just thrown, but because they were running the ball effectively.
"If you find a mud hole, stomp all the water out of it before you go to another one," Arians said. "And we were stomping that water pretty good until that third-down call."
Yes, the Bucs were running the ball well and on that series, but at no point was there a call for play-action and this would have been the prime opportunity for it -- the defense had been lulled to sleep and Winston is one of the better quarterbacks in the league in that department. Instead, the drive stalled on third-and-2 at the Giants' 5-yard line and they settled for a field goal, and one could argue that they shouldn't have taken their foot off the gas.
How can the team avoid the same letdown on the road against the Rams this week?
“It’s gonna be really the most difficult team to defend,” David said. “It’s gonna test our eye discipline. They do a lot of moving around -- different guys moving around, different guys with the ball when they move around -- it’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna be about discipline, communication, everybody’s gotta be where they need to be.”
Rams coach Sean McVay relies heavily on 11 personnel -- one running back, one tight end and three receivers -- using it on 166 of 197 snaps (84 percent), more than any other team in the league. But he uses motion and play-action to dress it up and get safeties and linebackers out of position. He bunches and stacks to create confusion when it comes to responsibilities: who’s got who? This can be especially challenging for defenses relying on man coverage as the Bucs do.
“It’s just communication, just like anything in the real world -- you don’t tell somebody you’re going somewhere and then they wonder where you are,” cornerback Vernon Hargreaves said. “It’s the same thing on the football field. If you don’t tell a guy a coverage, he’s gonna play what he thinks the coverage is. It’s not that we don’t know. It’s just getting that communication.”
"We've just gotta stay on top of our stuff," Edwards said. "Pay attention to detail, do your own job, be where you're supposed to be, line up right and just play football. ... We messed up on some stuff but we know what we've gotta do -- we've gotta play as one."
The team needs to be able to finish, which has been the main point of emphasis this week.
“Coach [Arians] put it on the big board this morning in the team meeting -- everything in capital letters: 'Finish.' That’s just the main thing. Trying to change the standard around here. You’ve just got to finish," David said, adding that it's not only a mentality thing but also not falling asleep at the wheel and staying dialed-in.
“Finish the game. Don’t have no letup. Don’t feel like you’ve got the game won. … It’s an attitude thing. Definitely an attitude thing. When you’ve got your opponent down and you feel like they’re beat, just keep it on. It’s the NFL. You can’t let up at all. They came out and scored on the very first play of the second half. This is the NFL -- you’ve gotta be on-point, all four quarters, 60 minutes throughout the football game.”