Bucs Hit Sour Note at End, Drop Opener to 49ers
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 9 September 2019|
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers liked a new-look defense that allowed just 256 yards and no red zone conversions in three tries. They loved Vernon Hargreaves' first-quarter pick-six off Jimmy Garoppolo. But in the end they wanted some more of it…"it" being offensive precision as they tried to take down the visiting San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's 2019 season opener at Raymond James Stadium.
On an afternoon that began with an unprecedented pregame concert by country superstar Tim McGraw in the south end of the stadium, the Buccaneers opened the Bruce Arians era with a disappointing 31-17 loss to the visiting 49ers. Two of the 49ers' three touchdowns were scored on pick-sixes by Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon, part of a three-interception day for Jameis Winston.
To put it in another way that McGraw might not appreciate, the Buccaneers actually needed fewer – fewer than the eight penalties that robbed them of two touchdowns and led to San Francisco's only offensive touchdown. And fewer than the four turnovers on offense, which included an O.J. Howard fumble in the first quarter inside the 49ers' 10-yard line.
The Bucs were left feeling as if they had beaten themselves in the first game of the year.
"There's no doubt about it," said Arians. "That's what we talked about at half and before the game, and right now that was the message. When we stop beating ourselves we can be pretty good."
Tampa Bay had the ball with just over two minutes to play, down by six points after San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould made his third field goal of the night, a 47-yarder. The Bucs had a timeout and the two-minute warning to work with, but the drive ended in one play as Winston floated a screen pass that was picked off by Witherspoon and returned easily for a 25-yard score. Earlier in the half, Sherman had scored on a return of the same length after Winston made an ill-advised attempt to hit an overmatched running back, Peyton Barber, against the veteran corner.
"The last interception, he was trying to throw a screen," Arians explained. "The back didn't get out and he was trying to throw the ball away. He'd already gotten the one grounding call, so just throw it further, or throw it at somebody's feet. We teach them to throw it at somebody's feet."
As for Sherman's interception: "He threw a hitch. Just don't throw it against Richard Sherman to a running back. Peyton ran a hitch against a very good corner. It was just a bad decision to throw it to a running back versus [a good corner]."
Sherman's pick came right after the only touchdown drive the Buccaneers' defense allowed, which included a 23-yard pass-interference call against CB Carlton Davis on a deep incompletion on third-and-10. San Francisco QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who was limited to just 166 yards passing, hit WR Richie James for the go-ahead score two plays later.
That was obviously a costly penalty, as were the two holding calls against right tackle Demar Dotson that erased a pair of apparent touchdown passes to TE Cam Brate on the same possession in the second quarter. That drive ended without points on Howard's fumble. Overall, there were 19 accepted penalties in the game, including two that erased San Francisco touchdowns later in the second quarter.
"It seemed like it was just a long, long game," said Brate. "They always harp on [that in] the preseason they're going to call a ton of flags, but usually once it comes down to regular season they keep the flag in the pocket a little bit more, but that definitely wasn't the case today. There were calls both ways. They had a couple touchdowns called back as well."
There were things to like on offense, too, despite the turnovers and the final outcome. Arians actually thought Winston played well enough outside of the two decisions that led to pick-sixes (his third interception went off Howard's hands). Arians praised the offensive line despite three sacks allowed and was pleased with a rushing attack that racked up 121 yards and 4.7 yards per carry. Second-year back Ronald Jones had something of a coming-out party with 75 yards on 13 carries (5.8 avg.) as well as an 18-yard catch.
"I think [the O-Line] did an outstanding job," said Arians. "When we got beat it was the tight ends a couple times, so it looked like it was the O-Line but it was the tight ends. We ran the ball extremely we well. We had them first-and-goal at the 10 a couple times and didn't score, and from the 11 there at the end. I probably got greedy; should have taken the three points and made it a three-point game, but I felt really good that our defense could get it back with enough time."
The sequence to which Arians refers was a very long drive crossing from the third quarter into the final period, which spanned nearly six minutes but ended on a failed fourth-down try from the two-yard line. The Bucs' defense managed to get the ball back near midfield and the resulting drive again nearly reached the end zone before a sack forced the Bucs to settle for Matt Gay's 31-yard field goal. That made it 20-17 with five minutes to play and the home team needed one more stop from its very game defense. A personal foul call at the end of an 18-yard run by Rashaan Mostert foiled those plans, leading to Gould's 47-yarder.
"Yeah, up until that last drive," said Arians, regarding whether he was pleased with the defense. "We gave up three; we needed the three-and-out, and give our offense a chance to get back down there. But I thought the first half was outstanding. They were put in short fields and they got three and nothing. The defense scored. We missed some tackles, and then again the penalties. We were our own worst enemy. We had them stopped and, again, whether that's pass interference or not, it was called."
The Bucs took a 7-6 lead into halftime, almost exclusively thanks to their aggressive, swarming defense. Hargreaves provided the only first-half points with a 15-yard pick six and LB Lavonte David led a crew that held Garoppolo and company to 128 first-half yards (to 100 for Tampa Bay). David had seven tackles, one for a loss, and clearly was playing fast in the new defensive scheme. The Bucs allowed only two Robbie Gould field goals in the first half despite facing two drives that started at the Tampa Bay 33 or closer. In the end, San Francisco had just 17 first downs, 3.1 yards per carry and 158 net passing yards. And the win, of course.
"We lost, so it doesn't really mean too much," said Hargreaves of his first career touchdown. "Overall, we just didn't play well enough to win. It doesn't matter who played well, who didn't play well, we didn't play well as a team and we didn't win."
The Bucs won the toss before the game and elected to go on offense first. Unfortunately, their opening possession failed to pick up a first down and the Bucs punted from their own 30. Even worse, Bradley Pinion's first punt was mostly blocked by his former team, going forward just three yards.
The 49ers thus started the game with a prime scoring territory and quickly got 19 yards on a pass out to Kittle in the left flat. An apparent touchdown catch by Kittle two plays later was erased on an offensive pass interference flag on FB Kyle Juszczyk, pushing the ball back to the 18. After a screen to Kittle failed to pick up the first down the 49ers settled for Gould's 29-yard field goal and the game's first points.
The Bucs' second drive got an early boost when Arians challenged a non-call on pass-interference and it was ruled that Richard Sherman did interfere with Mike Evans down the left sideline. The penalty was good for 16 yards and took the ball out to the 34, and two plays later Barber weaved through traffic up the middle to get 14 yards and another first down. Another penalty on Sherman proved big when he held Breshad Perriman on a third-and-10 play that proved incomplete. However, the drive stalled just across midfield.
The resulting punt was fair caught at San Francisco's nine, but RB Tevin Coleman immediately ripped off a 12-yard run over right tackle to gain some breathing room. However, DL Vita Vea sniffed out an underneath screen to Coleman to force a third-and-one and DL Ndamukong Suh killed the drive by sliding off a block and shooting a gap to drop Coleman for a loss of one. A 54-yard punt pushed the Bucs all the way back to their 17.
The Bucs mounted a long drive from there but eventually came up empty. An impressive feint by Winston to evade Nick Bosa and a 16-yard strike to Evans got the drive moving, and it got into scoring range when Winston scrambled for a first down and absorbed a helmet-to-helmet hit from Alexander. Alexander was ejected for the hit and the Bucs got it closer on a 15-yard catch-and-run by Chris Godwin with some nifty sideline footwork. Jones also converted a third-and-17 with a great run on a screen play, but a pair of holding penalties on Dotson erased two touchdown catches by Cam Brate. The drive ended when Howard caught a short pass over the middle and fumbled at the 49ers' eight-yard line.
Two great tackles by David on Matt Breida put the Niners into a hole at their six but Garoppolo zipped a quick slant into the hands of WR Deebo Samuel to move the chains. Hargreaves struck two plays later, however, reacting quickly to a stop route by Coleman and darting in front of him for the interception. He had a clear path to the end zone for the 15-yard score.
Garoppolo went back to Coleman on the first play of the next drive and it worked magnificently, as the running back caught a crossing route and hit the open field for a gain of 31 yards. Three plays later, CB Davis tripped up Coleman on a third-and-three run and the 49ers decided to go for it. S Jordan Whitehead eventually dropped Garoppolo in the backfield but the play was erased on a defensive holding call on Davis. The 49ers then got a first down at the 15 after a third-down pass-interference call on Hargreaves. San Francisco subsequently had two touchdowns erased by penalties, ending up with a third-and-13 at the Bucs' 18. Garoppolo's next pass was nearly intercepted by Davis and the 49ers settled for a 36-yard Gould three-pointer, cutting the Bucs' lead to one point with three minutes left in the half.
The 49ers immediately got another scoring opportunity, as Winston's first-down pass on the ensuing drive went through Howard's hands and was intercepted by LB Mark Nzeocha at the Bucs' 29. Tampa Bay's defense was up to the task, though, preventing any points off the turnover as the half came to an end. A perfectly-timed rush off the left edge by Shaq Barrett helped put San Francisco into a long third-down with 17 seconds left, and on the next play Samuel fumbled on a short screen, with Davis recovering.
The 49ers took the lead back on the first drive of the second half, helped immensely by yet another penalty. This one came on third-and-10 at the 37, with Garoppolo throwing deep downfield and well past James. Davis was hit with the flag, putting the ball at the Bucs' 40, and two plays later James got behind the defense and Garoppolo hit him in stride for the 39-yard touchdown.
The 49ers added another score just moments later when Sherman picked off a pass on the left sideline that had been intended for Barber. Sherman managed to stay inbounds and make it 25 yards for the touchdown and a 20-7 lead. The Bucs countered with a touchdown drive of their own. After two quick first downs, a Bosa sack helped put the Bucs into a third-and-12 but Winston converted that with a sharp 28-yard pass down the middle to Godwin. A Jones 11-yard run made it first-and-goal at the 11 and on the next play Winston pulled the ball out of Jones' hands on an RPO, rolled right and lasered a 10-yard touchdown into Godwin's gut.
The 49ers' next drive started with four very good edge runs to get the ball into Buccaneers territory. However, it stalled out at the 39 and the 49ers send out Gould to try a 57-yarder, which missed by the smallest of margins. The football actually hit the crossbar and bounced almost directly upward, but it came down in the end zone and was no good. That gave the Bucs possession at their own 47 with 2:38 left in the third quarter.
They quickly used that good drive start to move into scoring territory, with Jones getting hot and ripping off 29 yards on four carries. That set up a play-action rollout pass for 15 yards to Howard down to the nine-yard line. An intentional grounding penalty pushed the Bucs back and eventually led to a fourth-and-goal at the four. The 49ers jumped offside when the Bucs lined up for a field goal, and when the ball was moved down to the two Arians decided to go for it. Winston attempted to hit Godwin over the middle just across the goal line but S Tarvarius Moore cut in front and broke it up, nearly intercepting it.
The 49ers got one first down after taking over at their own two but penalties and a hard third-down tackle by M.J. Stewart on Mostert forced them eventually to punt from their own four. The kick took a favorable bounce back for the Bucs and was downed at San Francisco's 41 with 8:21 left in the game. The Bucs kept feeding Jones and runs of nine, 11 and five helped get it inside the 10-yard line. However, Winston was sacked by Arik Armstead on third down and the Bucs had to settle for Matt Gay's 31-yard field goal to make it a three-point game with just under five minutes left.
The 49ers followed with a successful drive in that they drained the clock almost to the two-minute warning and finished it with a third Gould field goal, from 47 yards. The big play was an 18-yard run by Mostert that had 15 yards tacked on the end when S Darian Stewart was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit.
The Bucs' last chance started at their own 21 with 2:10 left in regulation. It didn't last long, as Winston floated an apparent screen pass directly into the hands of Witherspoon, who returned it 25 yards for the clinching touchdown.