Same old story as Bucs wither before Lions
Members of the Buccaneers’ brass likely went to bed Sunday night wrestling with what could only be described as conflicting and bittersweet emotions. Though the Bucs have finally been eliminated from the season-long tortoise race for the NFC South title, they are right in the thick of the death march for the first pick in the 2015 NFL draft. With three games left, Tampa Bay is among five teams tied for the league’s worst record at 2-12.

To figure out how they got in position for that consolation prize, all you have to do is look at their 34-17 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Sunday. For the umpteenth time this year, the Bucs failed to establish an adequate ground attack, which prohibited them from adequately protecting either their quarterback or the football.

The result left the Bucs, once again, with a predictable, one-dimensional offense that was strafed for six sacks and 14 hits of quarterback Josh McCown, plus three takeaways. Throw in the defense’s failure to take the ball away despite getting its hands on it at least four times and the Bucs were left with one of their worst setbacks in a season overflowing with them. “We just didn’t really get anything going throughout the day,’’ Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. “In all three phases we didn’t play a good football game today, and so the better team won.’’

That the Bucs weren’t better on offense came as no surprise. The league’s 26th-ranked attack coming in, Tampa Bay has struggled to move the ball all year. But the struggles against Detroit were partly self-induced. Though they took on the league’s top-rated rush defense, the Bucs barely even tried to establish a running game, handing the ball off just five times in the first half and running it a season-low 14 times overall. Four of those runs, by the way, were McCown scrambles out of an ever-collapsing pocket.

Smith admitted the Bucs’ failure to even try to establish a ground game helped set them up for failure. “In hindsight, especially with how we ended up passing the ball and not being able to protect it, no, we weren’t committed enough to the run early on,’’ Smith said. “But they dominated us in all phases today, whether we were running the ball or passing it.

“We couldn’t protect the quarterback; we couldn’t run the ball; we just couldn’t get anything going throughout. We had a couple of long throws that got us a couple of points and you can look at that and say, ‘Hey, they were able to do something.’ But we never really got anything going on the offensive side.’’

Other than reaching Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford for four sacks, including two by left end Jacquies Smith, the Bucs never really got anything going on the defensive side, either. And that did come as a surprise. Tampa Bay entered the game with one of the hottest defenses in the league, a unit whose performances in allowing 299.7 yards per game over the previous five weeks was fifth-best in the league during that span.

But while Stafford completed 26 of 34 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns, the Lions also ran for 113 yards and converted seven of 15 third-down opportunities. The previous three games, opponents converted just 12 of 40 third-down plays. “We hang our hats on getting off the field and we’ve been doing that the last few weeks,’’ safety Dashon Goldson said. “But today we fell short.’’

Missed tackles, including on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line as the Lions scored their second touchdown, contributed to the Bucs’ third-down troubles. “I’m going to give them a lot of the credit there,’’ Smith said. “It was great play on their part. But on our end it always comes down to making a play when you’re in position, and we didn’t make enough.’’

The Lions made enough plays to all but put the game out of reach in the second quarter, picking off McCown to set up their second touchdown and falling on a fumbled center exchange to set up a field goal. Those scores gave the Lions a 17-3 lead, and when safety James Ihedgibo made it three takeaways in as many possessions, intercepting McCown in the back of the end zone, the outcome seemed inevitable.

But instead of taking the touchback, Ihedgibo ran the ball out of from 7 yards deep in the end zone, eventually fumbling it away on a Luke Stocker strip that allowed Oneil Cousins to fall on the ball at the Lions 10-yard line. That gave the Bucs new life, and they took advantage when McCown threw the first of two touchdown passes to rookie receiver Mike Evans to trim the deficit to 17-10 with five seconds remaining before halftime.

As they have all year, though, the Bucs came out flat in the second half, going three plays and out on offense on each of their first three drives and allowing Detroit to regain the momentum. The Lions led 27-10 before the fourth quarter.

“Anytime you get into a situation where it’s one-sided, it just makes it tough on whatever that side is,’’ said McCown, who limped around the locker room and addressed the media while wearing an ice pack on his lower back.

“I thought we got into the defense a few times with the running game today, but it felt like we got off schedule so much that we were just pulled out of the run game. And when your (rushing) count goes down and you’re throwing it a lot, it just puts (you) in a tough spot, because that’s a really good front that’s just pinning their ears back and getting after it.’’