The Tampa Bay Buccaneers pulled off something on Sunday the glory years Bucs never could. Not even the Gruden or Dungy teams. You had to go back to 1990 to find the last time the Bucs beat a division oppponent on the road to open up the season. Crazy Huh?
It was an impressive opening act for Coach Dirk Koetter and his squad, who told his team these road victories against division opponents almost count as two, because you're not really expected to win these.
With all that positive vibe, there were definitely some things to diatribe about. This wasn't a perfect outing by the Bucs, even if the outcome was.
1. This will be a theme throughout this article, but the amazing thing about Sunday's performance is this wasn't Jameis Winston's best game. Sure, the stat line looks superb, 23 of 33, 281 yds, 4 TDs and 1 Int and a QB Rating of 122.6. But as Jameis is wont to do, he started out ice cold in the first quarter, just 4-for-8 with an interception that handed the Falcons a 10-3 edge. Jameis has been better than this...but man wasn't he pretty darn good in the Georgia Dome?
I don't know what it is about the Falcons that brings out some of the best plays in Jameis' highlight reel but with a 3-0 record against Atlanta, he is enjoying his games against the Dirty Birds.
By the way, Atlanta's 1-6 in the NFC South under coach Dan Quinn. That's not going to endear you to ownership and fans.
2. Coach Koetter called a terrific game on Sunday - that is until he let his inner-Lovie come out a bit and had his team sit on the 31-13 lead. Koetter tried pounding the rock and killing the clock late in the third quarter and the Falcons responded, forcing back to back 3-and-outs on defense and two consecutive long scoring drives. Considering this was the Bucs' defense's first full game of the season (remember the starters only played a half or so during exhibitions), you could see the gas tank go periously close to empty.
I will say that he certainly knows his team, though. I would have strongly considered going for it on fourth-and-2 and in hindsight, it would have been the wrong decision. Tampa Bay's 8 play drive in the fourth quarter was crucial to giving the defense the recovery time it needed (not to mention bleeding a crucial two minutes off the clock). If the Bucs defense couldn't stop the Falcons from going 91 yards with no time outs in 1:52, they didn't deserve to win the game.
As Fox 13's Kevin O'Donnell pointed out last night, Koetter joins Sam Wyche (get well soon, coach), Greg Schiano, Richard Williamson (as an interim) and Ray Perkins as the only Bucs coaches to win their first regular season game as Head Coach. Let's hope coach Koetter's career ends a bit better than those guys.
3. Many expected the Bucs, in a new defense, to struggle for a little bit. Facing the likes of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and the electric Tevin Coleman would be a daunting task for any defense - but one learning under a new defensive coordinator? It would be a challenge and certainly 24 points, 374 yards surrendered and no turnovers forced isn't what Mike Smith is looking for from his defense.
What he is looking for though is 3-for-13 on third downs and 3 sacks, 2 from his defensive line. In fact, five of Atlanta's first seven possessions were 5 plays or less. 1-for-4 in the Red zone is, too. No one wants their defense to allow their opponents into the red zone 4 times, but if it does happen, you want them walking away with Field goals instead of touchdowns.
Tampa Bay was also stellar on the Atlanta run game, limiting the dynamic duo of Freeman and Coleman to just 52 yards (counting a 10 yard Matt Ryan scramble) and an impressive 2.4 yards a carry.
So yes, the defense continues to be a work in progress, but you can see what Mike Smith is building and when we get to toward the end of the season, this defense could be something very special.
4. Speaking of special - it takes a real kind of special to believe that the Buccaneers' Kwon Alexander is not an amazing football player. Why do NFL executives chuckle at the "grading" of Pro Football Focus? Because of asanine nonsense like the stuff they've said about Alexander. It's frustrating that so many fans put so much stock in these guys. Who are these people? Have any of these graders played organized football or scouted for an NFL team in their lives? Or are they just jabronis like you and I - giving plusses and minuses without know what the hell we are truly looking at? And how do they grade without seeing the coaches film? Unless Cris Collinsworth (an investor in PFF) has swung some deal with the NFL to get them the coaches tape early, they're waiting for NFL gamepass to release it, just like the rest of us. Who grades off of a TV feed? PFF does. If you want some real football insight, visit RealFootballNetwork, run by Pat Kirwan and Jim Miller. These guys actually know what they're talking about and employ real football people.
Okay, off my soap box and on to Alexander. The Wrath of Kwon was in full effect for the Jameis of the defense. 17 tackles (15 solo) and a sack, Alexander was literally all over the field on Sunday. It had to be frustrating for Lavonte David, every time he was about to make a play, the blur of number 58 zipped past him and beat him to it. Kwon brought back memories of when the Hardware Man, Hardy Nickerson, patrolled the middle of the Bucs' defense.
It wasn't a perfect day for Alexander, though. He lost Julio Jones on a switch that resulted in Jones being wide open and beating the rest of the defense to the end zone. Honestly, I'm not sure about any defensive design that has Kwon Alexander covering Julio Jones. That's a horrible mismatch made worse by Alexander blowing the coverage.
5. It was a kind of hit-and-miss day for Bucs top draft pick Vernon Hargreaves. VH3 got some tough lessons in over-anticipating, getting faked out by a few Matt Ryan pump fakes that allowed Mohammed Sanu to get behind him for some big plays. He also had a good shot at a Ryan INT that he couldn't pull in. With that said, Hargreaves got a lot of Julio Jones in this one and actually held his own. Jones, didn't make a catch until the second quarter and caught only 4 of his 8 targets for a very un-Julio-like 66 yds. 25 of which came on that bad switch between Hargreaves and Alexander.
It was a mostly quiet day for Jones, who would re-injure his ankle in the fourth quarter after getting drilled by Bradley McDougald.
For his first NFL outing, I'd give Hargreaves a B.
6. The Falcons employed a lot of quick short pasing plays that were designed to neutralize the Bucs' pass rush on Sunday. It was a pretty good game plan between the 20's but when it came down to crunch time in the red zone, Tampa Bay's defense rose to the occassion. Robert Ayers and Gerald McCoy seemed to be in the backfield all day long and rookie Noah Spence had a great rush that forced a Ryan incompletion. The pass rush wasn't quite as dominant as they have been in the pre-season but it was there and the Falcons game planned around it.
The linebackers (looking at you old man Daryl Smith) need to do a better job in covering guys out in the flat. In Smith's defense though, Tevin Coleman is one of the speedier, more dynamic receiving backs in the league.
7. As good as Winston was at delivering the ball on Sunday, his receivers had a whale of a ball game. First, Charles Simms with that whirling dervish run that broke five Falcons tackles on the way to end zone. I could hear classic ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman in my head saying "WHOOOP!", "WHOOP!" as the Falcons players flailed helplessly at the slippery Bucs back.
Then ASJ's acrobatic touchdown catch that showed everyone (including me) why the Bucs put up with his shenanigans. He's a hell of a football player when he's healthy, on the field and not being a jackwagon.
Then Godzilla made his return to the end zone, Mike Evans overpowering a helpless Falcons secondary for another highlight reel touchdown.
Let's not forget Adam Humphries athletic screen play which he weaved through the Falcons to set up the Bucs deep in Atlanta territory.
8. Speaking of not forgetting, punter Bryan Anger was an absolute weapon on Sunday. The Bucs found themselves pinned deep in their own territory more than they cared to admit, but Anger's booming moon shot punts kept Tampa Bay from getting themselves in too much trouble field position-wise. Anger averaged 49.4 yards a punt, with a 45.4 net. No punt was bigger than the one inside two minutes of the fourth quarter where he pinned the Falcons at their own 9 yard line. A huge upgrade many Bucs fans missed and a brilliant signing by GM Jason Licht.
9. As many of us feared, the running game issues that were prevelant in the pre-season carried over into week one. Tampa Bay finished with 90 yards rushing but running backs Doug Martin and Charles Simms only contributed to 71 of those yards on 22 carries, a 3.2 yd average. Atlanta, like many teams, was determined to make sure Martin didn't beat them. The Dougernaut did manage to pound out some nice runs but he wasn't getting much help from his offensive line. Now, this could be a product of Dirk Koetter wanting to keep his players fresh and ready for the season, so he didn't have them go overly hard during training camp. No goalline, padded practices they didn't take anyone to the ground. Many of the players said it was one of the easier (less physically demanding) camps they've had.
It worked as most of the roster got to opening day. The bad part is the Bucs offensive line hasn't developed that dominant running force they were last season and a lot of the offense relied on Winston's arm. Hopefully, as the season goes along, the offensive line and the running game will return to to cohesive unit they were.
10. Any hopes the Arizona Cardinals would be a little flat after their huge home opener against the Patriots were dashed with kicker Chandler Cantanzaro missed a 47 yard field goal wide left. Tampa Bay will be getting Arizona's best shot. It's a step up in weight class for the Buccaneers and its why Sunday's win in Atlanta was crucial for the Bucs to get off to a good start this season.
They'll be facing an extremely talented and pissed off Cardinals team. It will be fascinating to see how they do.
Bonus - After his early camp troubles, Bucs kicker Roberto Aguayo was perfect again on Sunday. He also boomed his kickoffs out of the back of the endzone, giving dangerous returner Eric Weems few opportunities to return. Not too bad, rook. Not too bad.