Every game you learn a little something about your football team. You learn who the good players are, where the coaching is lacking and who just isn't ready for prime time.
What we learned this week about our beloved bunch of bumbling Buccaneers is that they are a mentally weak football team that requires eveything to go perfect for them. If they don't get it, they go in the tank.
A Promising Loss?
Jameis Winston is taking a little heat this morning for something he said post game, that this was a "promising loss". Its obvious he meant that there are things that are on the cusp of helping this team win. Encouraging things to build upon and he's right. We'll talk about some of those later.
With that said, this loss wasn't promising. It was disturbing because the Houston Texans were ripe to be picked. Injuries have neutered the Texans' offense and defensively if they weren't getting sacks, they were getting beaten by Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson.
This game reminded me of the classic Denny Green line (ironically about a Lovie coached team), "They were who we thought they were and we let them off the hook!"
One of the most disappointing aspects of Sunday's performance was the Bucs' putrid defense, namely the run defense. Houston's makeshift offensive line of backups and practice squad guys dominated the Bucs defensive line at the point of attack, blowing Tampa Bay off the football and allowing a guy whose name is more mysterious than Doctor Who's - Alfred Blue, run wild on them. Who the hell is Alfred Blue? He's the guy stepping over Bucs defenders on his way to a 139 yd 1 TD performance. In all, the Texans pounded out 186 yards rushing against the Bucs defense.
Why did this happen? Two reasons - First - Gap Control. Even after 19 games for most of these guys under Lovie Smith, (hell, for many on the defense longer than that) the Buccaneers still cannot line up properly. They don't fill their responsibilities and then they're gashed. Second - they were just out physicaled at the point of attack. Last week, the Bucs were ferocious at the point of attack. They outmuscled the Saints o-line and lived in their backfield. This week, the Texans M*A*S*H unit punched the Bucs in the mouth and they whimpered.
Not Much to Hang Your Hat On Defensively
It would be one thing if the Bucs were letting the Texans run to stop their passing attack but Tampa Bay was equally bad against the pass. Ryan Mallett carved up the Bucs' defense similar to the way Marcus Mariota did (thankfully every throw didn't end up in the endzone like it did that day). Once again the Bucs struggled to line up properly, perform their assignments or make plays.
They played confused, unprepared and looked lost half the time. This tells me the team is either poorly coached or these players are mentally strong enough to know what they're supposed to be doing.
Penalties destroyed them as well. It seemed the Bucs couldn't cover a Texans wide receiver without holding or committing a pass interference penalty. One such penalty wiped out Jac Smith's 5th sack and a huge turnover for the Bucs. Penalties are caused by being mentally weak or simply not good enough to make a play.
Hands of Stone
If you look at Jameis Winston's stat line, you see that he completed less than 50% of his passes for the second time in his career. However, if you actually watched the game, you'll see his stat line (and the offensive performance) was victimized by poor play of his receiving core.
Now Sander and I debated a little bit on Twitter ( I'm @jcdelatorre for any of you who'd like to follow me) on the definition of a drop. Pro Football Focus charged Tampa Bay's receiving core with 4 drops, 3 by Mike Evans. However, I submit that instead of drops, we need to discuss plays that should have been made.
Sander made a great point that you can't expect Bucs receivers to win contested catches every single time. He's right. You can't. They'll be a drop here or there. But NFL caliber receivers win most of the time. And that's really the frustrating thing isn't it? How many times have we seen Mike Evans make those plays? Vincent Jackson? Louis Murphy?
And it goes beyond that. Jackson, a veteran, failing to get his second foot down in the endzone (although in his defense, the corner made a terrific play pushing him out of bounds), Evans getting called for pushing off (again), Russell Shepard trying to run before tucking away the football on a screen pass. Another big screen pass called back on a holding call.
Sure, its easy to say, "aw shucks it happens" but when the Texans receivers were making contested catches and fighting for footballs - you know, what NFL caliber receivers do - then its really inexcusable how non-chalant the Bucs wide outs attacked the football. This is especially crucial for a team lacking in confidence as the Buccaneers do.
Bottom line, Jameis can't catch the ball for these guys. He can only put the ball in places for them to make the play, its up to them to make it.
No Pity for the Defense
I lambasted the Bucs defense on twitter during the game for their performance. One of the common replies I got was "They're tired. They've been on the field a long time". And whose fault was that? If you say the offense you're wrong. The Bucs offense was 3-and-out only three times the entire game. The Texans only three-and-outed twice. And they sustained drives of 9 or more plays six times. SIX TIMES. You don't want to be tired, get off the freaking field.
Houston was 8-of-18 on third down conversions, which is way too high of a conversion rate. They sealed the game with a Texas sized 14 play, 54 yard drive that bled 6:52 off the clock.
Get off the field, defense.
Mixed Bag for the Offensive Line
All week long we worried about how Jameis would survive the relentless attack of J.J. Watt and Clowney. Truth be told, the offensive line did a fabulous job against both. The line was charged with just 1 QB hit, 1 hurry and no sacks on the day. Considering all the hand wringing we did, that's a great job by the o-line. The Texans tried to find favorable matchups, moving Watt up and down the line. Young o-linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet held their own against the superstars.
Of course, where Watt and Clowney made their presence felt was in the run game, where the Bucs were limited to just 57 yards and a 2.9 average on the day - a disappointing effort against a defense ranked 26th against the run coming in.
Play calling was Questionable
I've lauded the addition of Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator for the Buccaneers but this week his play calling truly perplexed me. In their previous two games, the Texans weakness against the run was on the edge. While they're a tremendously physical defense, Houston isn't a speedy team. But what do the Bucs do? Instead of getting Simms or Martin on the edge, they plow straight into the teeth of the defense - where Vince Wilfork has made a career of eating up running backs like Chicken and Shrimp Bang Bang. 11 of their 20 attempts were right up the gut, managing 17 yards.
The Texans' other opponents also victimized them with quick passing plays and screens, using Houston's aggresiveness against them. Tampa Bay didn't start using screen passes until the second quarter and amazingly, the second one they call goes to the house. How about that?
Did we see it again the rest of the game? Once, and Russell Shepard dropped the pass.
A Losing Mentality
As we led up to this week's game, I was seeing some really disturbing comments by several Buccaneers. "We have to believe we can win two games in a row," or some variation of that was constant. Verner had mentioned the Bucs desperately needed to stop the Saints because he looked over at the sideline and didn't see the belief they could do it. It bothered me. You mean you don't already have that belief?
And then you saw it on full display. The Bucs are a team that simply must have everything go perfectly for them to believe they can win. The lack of confidence is astounding. Considering that it's only been a year, folks. Half this roster wasn't even here for last year's 2-14 debacle. 90% weren't Schiano Men, either.
Yet the culture of losing has taken such root within this organization that the players have lost their belief, their trust in each other and their confidence that they are the better team when they walk onto that field.
We've talked about it in the past about a losing culture. How negativity surrounding the organization can effect them mentally. Bad things are happening because they are expecting them to happen.
It's understandable. Since Gerald McCoy has gotten here, there's been one winning season. Lavonte David's never been on a team that had a winning record. Logan Mankins went from a Super Bowl Champion to 2-14 and has played like it. That's your leaders on the team.
Jameis has come in and his positivity is infectious. But he's a rookie, trying to figure out his own deal. He can't be expected to change this culture overnight.
The frightening thing is this is what got the Bucs into their pattern of losing in the 80's and early 90's. They would walk on the field not with the confidence and expectation to win but with the hope that they don't lose. It took Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks to say enough is enough and lead this team from the depths of despair. To make guys accountable and challenge them to be better. To believe in themselves.
Are McCoy and David strong enough in their own skin to repeat that? I don't know. I just don't know. Right now the Bucs aren't mentally strong enough to overcome a bad penalty at an inopportune time. They don't have the confidence to handle their rookie kicker developing the yips.
When Kyle Brindza missed the gimme to give the team the lead in the fourth quarter, you could see the belief just seep out of the defense. They simply quit playing hard because they no longer believed it was their day. "Oh damn, here we go again."
To win, the Bucs need everything to go right and in the NFL that rarely happens. That's why after beating the Saints last week you saw the sideline erupt like they had just won the Super Bowl. If the Bucs players don't believe they can win - who is that on? Is it coaching? Do they not believe Lovie is putting them in position to compete? Or is it Jason Licht? Do the Bucs just need to get better players who exude that confidence?
My biggest question right now is how is it rookie coaches can come in other organizations and immediately change the losing culture of the team?
The Bucs can't have more days like this. They have to get themselves a signature win like they got in the 1997 season opener against San Francisco. One that they can look back on and say, "Hey, you know what? We can compete in this league. We can be a contender. We're not the same old Bucs." They need their leaders to say enough is enough and make the conscience decision to no longer allow doubt to be part of the equation - like the Bucs did in 1996 in San Diego.
Until that happens, the Bucs will continue to have a losing mentality and they will self fulfill their prophecy.