First and foremost, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 31-23 victory over the Washington Football team is one that should be celebrated, certainly among Buccaneers fans.
It was the team’s first postseason win since Jon Gruden and that Hall of Fame defense of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, John Lynch, and Simeon Rice hoisted the Lombardi Trophy as champions 18 years ago. Between then and now, Tampa had made the playoffs just twice before this postseason, losing in the first round of both appearances in 2005 and 2007.
Quarterback Tom Brady had an incredible night. His stats read 22-for-40, 381 passing yards, two passing touchdowns, and no interceptions, but a plethora of uncharacterized dropped passes by some of his best receiving options robbed him of a potential 400-yard night with even more touchdowns to boot. Wide receiver Mike Evans’ toughness was on full display on Saturday night, as just a week prior he suffered a knee injury that had the look of something that could be season ended. Six days later, he was out on the field making his postseason debut to the tune of six catches and 119 receiving yards.
Running back Leonard Forunette certainly deserves a shout out, as well. The now veteran back on the team rushed for 93 yards on 19 carries with one score. This heavy workout came after it was announced that starting running back Ronald Jones wouldn’t be able to play right as the game kicked off. Fournette stepped up in what was one of his best performances of the year when the team needed it most. He also did it behind an offensive line that, for the most part, did what they needed to do to keep things in control. Tampa lost its starting right guard, Alex Cappa, to a fractured ankle, and that is something that will hurt them moving forward. But the rest of the starting four held their own against a tough Washington front.
That was the good; the Buccaneers played well enough to dust off the postseason drought with a win.
But there’s another takeaway from this game that, depending on how you look at Tampa Bay's postseason goals, is even more important, and that is this: Tampa Bay cannot play the way they did this weekend and win another game this postseason.
The Buccaneers’ defense was not what it needed to be against Washington. Going against a backup quarterback, Tampa Bay's passing defense made life far too easy on Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke and their passing weapons. Combined with a fantastic performance from Heinicke himself, all things considered, soft coverage and poor tackling were the stories of the night—and unfortunately, this has not been an uncommon theme for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and his initial results throughout the second half of the season. This looked like a similar defensive game plan to the one they trotted out there against the Chicago Bears, a game in which they lost. It also looked similar to that of the one they tried to deploy against the New Orleans Saints in their second meeting of the season, a game in which they got obliterated 38-3.
A repeat performance of what we saw from Tampa Bay this weekend will mean they’ll be just one week behind Washington joining a pool of teams turning their focus to the draft and not the Super Bowl.
The Buccaneers should get linebacker Devin White back next week, which will help them regardless of who their opponent will be. But the philosophy of this current Buccaneers defense must change. Whether they’re hosting the Rams or traveling to New Orleans, the Buccaneers will be facing a team they have gone up against already, and have not beaten. If Bowles and Tampa Bay continue to want to play conservative coverage, they better make sure their tackling is a lot better than what it was this past weekend, and they better find themselves on the higher end of a few takeaways.
I can see the vision for what the complementary football of this offense and defense is supposed to be. The goal is for the defense to be OK with giving yards up between the 20s while looking to clamp down in the red zone (three instead of seven) and force turnovers where they can, hopefully often; they’ll take giving up yards and field goals knowing they have an offense that will demand you put up 30 on them to win. They won 11 games this season. They’re also a top-10 defense in Football Outsiders DVOA metric against both the run and the pass. And on top of that, they’re a top-10 defense in terms of turnovers forced per game. So to say that plan hasn’t worked wouldn’t be true, but that doesn’t mean it will work against the best of the best—it can, but the execution and discipline have to be a lot better than what it was.
What Tampa Bay did this weekend was good enough to beat Washington, and that shouldn’t just be a footnote; that was the story on Saturday. But a week from now the headlines won’t be as kind if they don’t get focused on both sides of the ball.
As they will learn as a relatively green roster for the postseason, it only gets tougher the further you go.