Coach Todd Bowles emphasized after the Week 11 loss at Levi's Stadium that there were "no moral victories" in competing with one of the NFL's top teams, but the reality is they are only one game out of first place in the NFC South behind the New Orleans Saints (5-5).
The Bucs were able to get back in the winning column in Week 10 with a dominant win over the Tennessee Titans that snapped a four-game losing streak after a promising 3-1 start that showed the fight is still there.
"It's still in our hands," safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said Monday. "We've got to go ahead and make sure we take care of our business. We've got to win our games that we're supposed to win. It's still there for us. We still have hope in that aspect.
"It's getting serious. It's getting down to the wire. ... Coming down to these final games, we've got to make sure that we get some wins under our belt so we can make this playoff push."
They do have favorable odds -- with games remaining against the Indianapolis Colts (5-5), Atlanta Falcons (4-6), Green Bay Packers (4-6), Jacksonville Jaguars (7-3), Saints (5-5), and the Carolina Panthers (1-9) twice.
ESPN's Football Power Index currently gives the Saints a 66% chance of making the playoffs, the Bucs a 31.9% chance and the Falcons a 25% chance. The FPI gives the Saints the second-easiest remaining schedule, while the Falcons have the third easiest and the Bucs have fifth easiest.
None of that matters if the defense continues to trend in the wrong way, with 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy having a perfect passer rating and Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud having a record-setting day in Week 9 against the Bucs. And a big concern is that some of the team's highest-paid players on defense and players the team has invested high draft picks on are the ones struggling.
"The defense has to be more productive. It's not just Devin. Everyone has to produce more," said Bowles, who has resisted all opportunities to be critical of the No. 5 overall pick in 2019 despite White requesting a trade this offseason because of contract negotiations and not wanting to play under the fifth-year option of his rookie deal.
But then there's cornerbacks Carlton Davis III and Jamel Dean, who both struggled in man coverage against the Niners, with Dean surrendering a 77-yard touchdown and Davis an explosive play for 37 yards. Also, neither have recorded an interception. Davis is averaging $14.83 million per season and Dean $13 million.
"Sometimes it's the rush not getting there, [or] sometimes it's the secondary," Bowles said. "It's a combination, it's a defensive thing, [and] it's not a secondary thing. At certain times, they get beat, and all you see on TV is the defensive back getting beat, but you don't see the whole play.
"The coaches [have] to coach it better, the players [have] to play it better, so we are all in it together. We're not putting blame on anybody, and we'll work on it."
Further, Dean and Davis both left the 49ers' game with ankle and hip injuries, respectively, putting their statuses up in the air. Even worse, inside linebacker Lavonte David left that game with a groin injury, and he's their best option in coverage.
Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, coming off an Achilles injury from last season, is averaging $17 million per year. He has four sacks this season and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, a 2021 first-round draft pick, has three.
Rookie Yaya Diaby has four sacks despite playing a fraction of the snaps, and he was able to sack Purdy twice Sunday in just 21 snaps. Bowles' justification?
"We do different things a lot of time with a lot of people on there. We don't have a justification for it when we rotate our guys," Bowles said. "Our stats are going to always look different for different guys. Yaya had a lot of production [Sunday], [and] I'm happy he did. He plays a lot, and he'll play more for us."
The Bucs are allowing only 20 points per game, which ranks ninth, but the offense is scoring only 19.2 points per game, 10th worst.
The offense has made progress moving the ball, but running the ball is still a major issue. They still rank last in yards per game (76.9) and yards per carry (3.1). They are also tied with the fourth-fewest rushing touchdowns (four), which got a boost when Rachaad White rushed for a 1-yard score Sunday.
Red zone remains a challenge as well, going 2 of 4 Sunday with White's touchdown and a 1-yard slant from quarterback Baker Mayfield to wide receiver Mike Evans. Their 46.4% red zone touchdown percentage is 28th in the league.
"We [have] to find a way to punch it in the end zone, and that's holding us back," Bowles said. "[It is] the small things that are holding us back from winning these ballgames."