Observations of the Middling Midseason 11/12/23 Bucs/Titans Recovery

1) As I'm in the middle of a National Novel Writing Month project, this will be a midseason evaluation of a middling Buccaneers season as well as a quick review of a game I had to watch remotely while typing away at a book on American Isms. Achoo.

1a) So the good news is that the Bucs righted a season that had gone askew in October, ekeing out a tough win over an equally struggling Tennessee Titans squad. The Titans hadn't yet won on the road and the Bucs only had one home win to this point, so something had to give, and that ended up being the Titans' passing offense.

1b) Considering how the Titans have Derrick Henry, arguably still a serious threat at RB, and failed to use him early and often enough speaks to both the Bucs' successful run-stopping defense returning to full form as well as the Titans' coaching trying to rely on throwing it too much. Even with a rookie QB in Will Levis still figuring out the pro level.

1c) Granted, the Bucs have a terrible history with rookie QBs - making them look like All-Pros against us - but this time around the defense kept Levis contained and pressured for most of the game, refusing to give up any TDs and noticeably fixing the soft zone defensive woes we'd had during the 4-game losing streak.

1d) If there were bad news, it was how the Bucs failed to take advantage at key points in the game to turn it into a major blowout and easy win. Even with the two-score lead going late into the Fourth Quarter, there were still opportunities for the Titans to pull off a quick scoring drive or two.

2) Player of the Game: This was a roller coaster of sorts for WR Mike Evans today. Early on in the game, he suffered some key pass drops that could have either sustained a drive or scored a TD, including an easy peasy pass at the goal line without a defender near him. It was bad enough that the media chatter was Evans having a bad game. But he recovered with impressive catches in coverage for deep yards, including the game-clinching score late in the Third Quarter, ending with 6 receptions for 143 yards and that TD. He's still the primary receiver for this team, and his determination to keep playing after the miscues is a good sign for the fans.

2a) Baker Mayfield didn't open up the game well, tossing an ill-advised deep throw in the First that turned into an INT, but the QB recovered as well, readjusting his aim and trusting his receivers better to create sustained offensive drives and two TD scores. He scrambled for first downs when he had to, and made more smart plays than dumb ones. He's still not a game-breaker QB, but he will get the job done.

2b) Rachaad White is not going to be the running back getting 100 yard rushing days, but he IS turning into the receiving-type RB that got him drafted last year. Working with the short screens and getting good downfield blocking, White busted loose for a 43 yard TD scamper that put the Bucs up 7-3 in the Second Quarter, and ended the day with 98 total yards both rushing and catching.

2c) Tristan Wirfs did what he does best: Pass block at Left Tackle like a goddamned All-Pro. But at one point late in the game, Mayfield tried scrambling and fumbled the ball to where Wirfs recovered it and started rumbling downfield with it. The rule is that you can't advance a fumble, so the 14 yards he gained was moot, AND the refs had Mayfield was already down negating the fumble. But man, EVERYBODY watching that play were all thinking the same thing: Bring back the Fridge run play. At the goal line, Wirfs won't need a tush push: HE IS THE TUSH PUSH.

2d) Defensively, the front line did everything to contain Henry and the Titans run offense, forcing Tennessee to play to a passing attack that rookie Levis still has to learn. Giving up only 42 total rushing yards, pretty good day.

2e) Antoine Winfield Jr. had himself a day, leading the team in tackles, getting some safety blitzes to pressure Levis, and then snagging a late-game interception to prevent the Titans from getting back into it.

2f) Lavonte David was second in tackles, including two TFL and had decent pass coverage throughout the day. This is a guy wanting to retire on his terms.

2g) Vita Vea remains a force of nature, getting the first sack of the day even as the offensive linesman twisted his helmet halfway around, and maintained pressure on Levis all game long.

2h) Yaya Diaby getting a sack? Ya, ya. Also racking up 2 TFL and QB pressure all game long as well.

2i) Calijah Kancey didn't get a sack but his presence was clear all game, getting two TFLs and showing some of the speed getting after Levis demonstrating he's adjusting now to the pro level.

3) In terms of the midseason point, we're nine games in with eight to go, and the Bucs are at 4-5 which is not exactly the best place to be in the NFC. We had been at 3-1, poised to set ourselves atop the South division, when that 4-game losing streak - attended by poor defensive play and two games where the offense sputtered - exposed the weaknesses the team still has and left us pondering if we could make the postseason.

3a) Above all, there was the maddening problems with pass defense on third down and long situations where the Bucs were giving up too many conversions and letting other teams drive (and score) at will. Against Houston, it was painful. This week against the Titans, the coaches seem to finally make adjustments - observers noted the soft zone coverage wasn't as used this week, and more man coverage stifled the receivers - and given the success one can hope the pass coverage will remain shutting teams down.

3b) We also need to look at how the offensive line interior is just not getting running lanes open, and yet the offensive playcalling insists on sending Rachaad White - an open-field back who needs to go outside - up the middle for few yards and fewer first downs. It's clear we don't have a running attack to scare opposing defenses. We need to focus on opening up more pass options and more off-tackle running (which we rarely call). If the Bucs have to start thinking about next year's draft, a pure Center and/or a pure powerback RB have to be top of the needs list.

3c) We have to note how there were winnable games - against Atlanta especially - but we have to focus on the future games, which still aren't all easy. The failure vs. the Falcons was an offense fritzing out at the worst time - it was Evans' worst performance with dropped passes, and the other WRs and TEs other than Chris Godwin failed to step up - and it's still a question if the passing game can find ways to get the ball to the playmakers - Evans, Godwin, White, Otton - to guarantee points and wins.

3d) Of the first half of the season, the positives were a defensive front that was solid - save for one or two games - against the run and had been getting steady QB pressure and sacks. Considering this, I would argue our team MVP of the midseason should be DT Vita Vea, who when healthy has been the keystone to that defensive front, getting sacks (leading the team with 5), containing pockets, and making running backs reconsider their life choices.

3e) If the Bucs have any hope for a postseason, we have to defeat the NFC South teams still on schedule - both games against Carolina and one more game apiece vs. Atlanta and New Orleans. That would go a long way to getting Tampa to 8 wins on the year. We were lucky today in that both the Falcons and Saints lost (Saints especially losing Carr to injury, depending on how serious it is) allowing the Bucs within a game or so in the title race.

3f) Additional wins against the likes of Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers - both struggling teams - would get us to 10 wins on the season and hopefully enough to win the South. Making it via the Wild Card is going to be rough with other NFC teams in the East and West - like Dallas, Seattle, and/or Minnesota - racking up more wins at this point.

4) Statistics of the game: Red Zone Offense. As in, NEITHER TEAM HAD ANY. Good news, it kept Tennessee to field goals (and thankfully they missed one). Bad news? DAMMIT BUCS...

4a) Tackles for Loss: Bucs excelled at that today, officially tallying 10 of those while the Titans forced 5. Add that to the sack totals, and the Bucs were controlling that scrimmage.

4b) PENALTIES WILL BE THE DEATH OF US: Yeah, Bucs got sloppy with 7 flags for 50 yards, but in the end it was little factor.

4c) Total Yards: Titans only got 209 total on offense, compared to 340 for the Bucs. Their offense just couldn't sustain drives.

4d) Third-down Conversions: 6-of-15 for Tennessee, 7-of-15 for Tampa Bay. Nearly matching numbers. Deeper inside the numbers, on third-and-long situations the Titans went 0-for-7, meaning the Bucs defense finally figured out how to stop opposing offenses and force punts (or FGs).

5) In other professional football news: Given how the New England Patriots failed to score a TD in yet another loss (to a not-so-good Colts team that only scored 10 points), could we be honestly looking at the end of the Hooded One's tenure as Head Coach up there?

That said, Thursday night games - outside of Turkey Day - should be banned forever after this and other lackluster debacles over the last 6 weeks. When was the last time there was a compelling, must-watch Thursday nighter? Seriously? Even the Bucs-Bills game wasn't all that good, and it was at least competitive.

5a) Did you see that Lions - Chargers game? If you had anybody on fantasy team from those offenses, congratulations! Except for myself, I had David Montgomery but left him on the bench. That 75-yard touchdown would have blown up my fantasy points...

5b) And the reason I had Monty on the bench was because I got Brian Robinson from the Washington (Insert New Name Here Soon) who racked up MORE fantasy points getting 119 yards RECEIVING along with a 51-yard TD scamper. And THAT game - Washington vs. Seattle - was a last-minute nail-biter as well.

5c) Dallas just abused the New Jersey Giants so badly that the Gints had to enter Witness Protection. Granted, the Giants are down to their third-stringer QB, but that shouldn't excuse the horrendous lack of defense that's been letting other teams run (literally) over them.

5d) Remember that 3-game losing streak of the San Francisco 49ers? Their playmakers are back healthy, especially Deebo. And their defense woke back up, crushing Jacksonville's offense like a grapefruit under a Ford 250 truck.

5e) Okay, how things stand at the halfway point of the season: Miami, Baltimore, Jacksonville, and Kansas City control their divisions, but Buffalo and Houston are close on the heels of the division lead. The AFC North is shocking with all four teams above .500 - even the struggling Cincinnati Bengals - with Pittsburgh winning games in spite of questionable offensive coaching and Cleveland winning games in spite of a questionable QB.

In the NFC, Philadelphia, Detroit, and New Orleans are in the division leads, with San Francisco and Seattle tied for control of the West. The Eagles still have the league's best record but still the sloppiest wins overall: They've honestly won with defense and luck in spite of Jalen Hurts' messy play. Things have changed in the NFC North where the Lions are dominating with surprising QB performance from Jared Goff and the Packers falling apart with Jordan Love not the guy they should have drafted all those years ago (insert Tom Grossi scream here).

5f) After Jacksonville's collapse, I would argue we're looking at a Detroit Lions - Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl (I don't trust Philly in a big game seeing how Hurts is turning it over far too often), but if it ends up being a 49ers - Steelers matchup I won't be surprised.

6) In professional college news: Good God. Texas A&M firing Jimbo Fisher for three bad years of coaching after his first three years of good coaching. I hadn't realized Fisher had been there that long. I also choked on the size of the contract payout the school has to give Fisher for kicking him out. $76 MILLION to fire him for bad performance?! In any other college job, somebody losing a job won't get $76 MILLION to go away (I didn't when I left UF Libraries). These coaching contracts - and the bloated golden parachute sweetheart deals that come with - are getting out of control. No wonder half these schools are screaming about needing more cable TV revenues, their coaches are vacuuming up all the moolah. The NCAA needs to step in and examine just how wasteful these bloated contracts are.

6a) Okay, so this wasn't going to be the Florida Gators' year. That doesn't mean my alum should fire the head coach. I mean, I don't want HIM getting $75 million either.

6b) It's good that USF won against Temple and did so with noticeable improvement on pass defense. At least they're 5-5 this year and sitting in the middle of the conference instead of dead last like the last three years. They can arguably reach a 6-6 season and qualify for a third-tier bowl, which won't be too bad except... what the hell are they doing setting a college bowl game in BOSTON FENWAY PARK IN THE MIDDLE OF WINTER?! That's the bowl game we're projected to attend?! AH HELL NAW.

6c) Right now there's 7 undefeated Division I teams - Florida St. (boo I'm with UF and USF), Michigan, Ohio St., Liberty (?!), Washington, Georgia, and James Madison - and several 1-loss teams trying to game the BCS computers into ranking them higher than undefeated teams. Considering Liberty (CUSA) and Madison (Sun Belt) aren't going to rank in the computers, that leaves FSU, UM, OSU, Wash, and UGA to fight over four playoff spots. Michigan and Ohio St. still play each other, right? Past that, it'll be a question if FSU, Georgia and Washington can win out.

6d) Oh hey, Central Florida, how's that move to the Big Eight treating you? Awwww, only 2 wins within the conference? Bet you're missing the American right about now. That said, what the hell happened to Cincinnati?! You're worse than UCF?! But... you guys were doing so well in the AAC (and Big East before that).

7) In professional baseball news: I still refuse to accept who won the World Series. This is somehow more painful than watching the Astros win it, or the Marlins.

8) In professional hockey news: The Tampa Bay Lightning have been up-and-down - mostly down - this early point in the season and I would argue it's the lack of defense and a downturn in goaltending. Vasy's been out injured, and the backup Johannsen's been inconsistent. Dammit, Bolts, find a decent defenseman to help reduce the Goals Against numbers!

9) Next up for the Bucs: A dangerous road trip game to the West Coast - we rarely win out there - against a resurging 49ers team. This could get nasty.

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