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Bucs see bright light emerging through youthful growing pains

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The Sports Xchange

TAMPA — The Buccaneers are 2-3 at the bye week, and it’s easy to see how they got here.

Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston threw away two games – the season opener against Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans and the loss to the Carolina Panthers in which he had five turnovers, including four interceptions. In each of his first two games at Raymond James this season, Winston’s first pass resulted in a pick-six.

When Winston has protected the football – in a win at the New Orleans Saints, at the Houston Texans and last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Bucs are 2-1. You could chalk up the loss to the Texans on two factors: Winston was 1-for-12 on third downs and rookie place-kicker Kyle Brindza missed three field goals and an extra point in a 19-9 loss.

Brindza had a negative impact on the Bucs’ loss to Carolina, missing two more field goals and an extra point. He was released in favor of veteran Connor Barth.

In games in which the Bucs have won, Winston has averaged 20 passing attempts. In games they have lost, he has attempted an average of 33 passes.

Bucs coach Lovie Smith would like to have a ground-and-pound offense to protect his young quarterback and rest his defense, similar to the game plan in a 38-31 win over the Jaguars.

“Yeah; in an ideal world, you want to score a lot of points and not have the (opposing) offense out there,” Smith said. “And I should mention third downs, too. There are some important things you need to do during the course of a game. But there still comes a time when a quarterback needs to make some good throws and Jameis was on point just about every pass he threw this past game.”

Winston said he doesn’t mind just playing his role.

“Make the simple decision,” Winston said. “I’m not the only person on this team that’s getting paid – we have a lot of great players. And Doug (Martin) and Chuck (Sims), they showed us how dynamic our team can be when we establish a running game and we have a balanced attack on offense.”

Martin has been the star of the first five games on offense. He is tied for second in the NFL with 405 yards rushing. The big difference over the last two injury-plagued years is that Martin reported to camp in shape and he is heathy. The Bucs decided not to pick up his fifth-year option, so he will become a free agent at the end of the season, which is a strong motivator.

“I just know what he’s doing now,” Smith said. “He’s doing everything we ask him to as far as running the football. He’s been great inside of the tackles, breaking tackles, making guys miss in the open field, catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s been good at his pass protections, so he’s just doing everything that a great running back should do.

“We’re counting on him. We’re leaning on the running game. We’ve always talked about having balance with our offensive attack and what better balance can you have, a lot with ball security – no turnovers this past week.”

The bright spot has been the offensive line. The unit had its best day running the ball against a Jags defense that ranked fourth in the NFL against the run despite starting two rookies, left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet, and three other players who weren’t counted on as starters when training camp began – center Joe Hawley, left guard Kevin Pamphile and right tackle Gosder Cherilus. In fact, Pamphile, an offensive tackle, had never taken a snap at guard before last Sunday.

“I’m very pleased with them,” Smith said. “If you’re a talented rookie, you know you’re going to have some growing pains to go through, but we’ve seen improvement from our guys, whether it be Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet – Kevin Pamphile hasn’t played an awful lot around here, but he’s stepped up.

“And that’s what it’s all about. You’re going to have injuries. If you’re not getting as much time as you’d like, eventually you’ll get an opportunity and you need to be ready, and that’s what we’ve seen from the o-line.”

Problems on offense were expected. But the disappointing side of the football has really been the defense. Smith took over the defensive play-calling without much success as the Bucs have allowed 148 points, the most in the NFL.

Much of it can be traced to turnovers. The Panthers scored 27 points off turnovers, for example. But poor play in the secondary has been a glaring problem. The Bucs have shuffled the deck at cornerback. Alterraun Verner was benched and has since been installed as the nickel corner. Starting corner Johnthan Banks injured his knee early in the loss to Houston and has not returned. Fellow corners Tim Jennings and Mike Jenkins have both struggled in coverage. The Bucs have only two interceptions, both by safeties.

“We’re not happy about it and there are reasons for it,” Smith said. “Sometimes a few positions cannot play exactly the way you would like for them to and the entire defense looked bad (last Sunday). We’re making too much progress (for that). We’re going to be a heck of a defense this year, but that many points is too many, simple as that. We need to get that down.”

NOTES: C Evan Smith will get his job back, perhaps following the bye week, once he is healed from an ankle injury he suffered in Week 2. Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said Evans can’t lose his job to backup Joe Hawley because of an injury. … S Chris Conte (ankle) and CB Johnthan Banks (knee) have a chance to return to the lineup following the bye week. … WR Vincent Jackson, who leads the team in receiving, did not practice Wednesday just to give him some rest during the bye week. … S Keith Tandy (knee) did not practice Wednesday and could miss some time with his injury. … CB Isaiah Frey was released from the practice squad.


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