Early Mistakes Doom Resilient Bucs in Loss to Houston
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 22 December 2019|
One seemingly impossible streak continued for Jameis Winston. Another more positive streak came to an end for his Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Bradley Roby's 27-yard pick-six 38 seconds into the game on Saturday opened the scoring for the visiting Houston Texans, who defeated the Buccaneers, 23-20, at Raymond James Stadium. It marked the sixth time this season and the third game in a row that Winston has thrown an interception on the game's opening drive.
And while the Buccaneers overcame those early turnovers in wins over Indianapolis and Detroit they couldn't quite do so a third time in a row, thanks in part to their second and fifth drives also ending in interceptions and the third ending with a blocked field goal. The Bucs were still only down 10-3 early in the second quarter when their sixth drive ended in a Peyton Barber fumble at the Bucs' 42, leading to another Houston touchdown. And Tampa Bay's last realistic chance to get back into the game was snuffed out by Winston's fourth interception.
"You just can’t have them; you can’t have that many," said Head Coach Bruce Arians of the Bucs' five turnovers. "Throwing it to the right guys, those guys have got to win, too. We’ve been winning one-on-ones. He’s used to guys winning one-on-one when he reads it properly and we didn’t win."
The loss snapped Tampa Bay's four-game winning streak and dropped its home record in 2019 to 2-5. With one game to play, at home next Sunday against Atlanta, the Bucs are 7-8 and will try to finish their first season under Arians with a .500 record and a 6-2 run in the second half of the campaign.
"This team is not losers," said Arians. "We want to win this last game, get to 8-8, and build from there."
The Texans clinched the AFC South with their victory while the Buccaneers will be watching the playoffs from home. Still, the Bucs intend to fight to the end.
"At the end of the day, it comes from everybody," said OLB Jason Pierre-Paul, who had his third career three-sack game. "It starts at practice. It starts with talking with each other. We've got one more game left and we're going to play it all out. I know I am, and I'm sure everybody else will, too."
The Buccaneers actually did rally from the deficit created by those early turnovers, with Winston's scrambling eight-yard touchdown strike to Justin Watson tying the game at 17-17 just before halftime. It was a 20-20 game into the fourth quarter and the Buccaneers had the ball in Houston territory, trailing by three with less than four minutes to play. However, a very rare drop by Cam Brate on fourth down killed that drive and S Jahleel Addae's interception with 1:27 left sealed it. In the end the Bucs couldn't do quite enough to overcome their early mistakes.
Both Winston and Brate took responsibility for the missed connection on fourth down, which if completed would have had the Buccaneers inside the Houston 40 with about three minutes to play, with a chance to win or at least tie.
"He was wide open and I've just got to make a better throw and we've got to connect there," said Winston.
Added Brate: "A really good play call and I was able to find kind of a soft spot there and unfortunately I just didn't come through for the team and it hurts. Obviously, that would have been a really big play for us and I take that one fully. That one's on me. It's frustrating, all that. I'll feel bad about for 24 hours but we've still got one more game next week so I'm just going to have to move on."
The Buccaneers needed to play a cleaner game with a rash of injuries impacting their top-ranked passing attack. Winston still threw for 335 yards despite being without Pro Bowl receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, plus rookie speedster Scotty Miller – all out with recent hamstring injuries – and running back Ronald Jones had 109 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, but the Bucs scored their lowest point total in five weeks and couldn't make the big play at the end.
Arians said that Winston's decision-making has gotten better throughout the season but he might have expected a bit too much from the emergency fill-ins on Saturday "[We had] those one-on-one match-ups that we win all the time with guys that aren’t quite as good as them," said the coach. "He trust guys sometimes and he trusts them more than I do."
That said, several players did step up for the Bucs' offense, including Breshad Perriman, who had his second straight 100-yard game, and Watson, who scored his second touchdown of the season. The Bucs even got big plays from players who were just added to the roster, with TE Cody McElroy setting up the team's first touchdown with a 30-yard reception and Ishmael Hyman setting up the second one with a 31-yard grab.
"Those guys, they did their best, they did their job," said Winston. "A shout out to them for coming out there and competing and being ready to play.
McElroy and wide receivers Spencer Schnell and Cyril Grayson played in their first NFL games and Hyman in his second.
"It was great, it was a dream come true," said McElroy of his NFL debut. "I wish we could have won the game to make it a little sweeter, but it was an awesome feeling to get out there and play at that level."
Tampa Bay's defense held Houston's dynamic offense to its lowest yardage total of the season, allowing just 229 net yards, including 68 on the ground for the NFL's seventh-ranked passing attack. QB Deshaun Watson was held to 184 passing yards and no touchdowns and was sacked five times. Rookie CB Jamel
Dean's interception of a deep ball in the second quarter led to the Bucs' game-tying touchdown just before halftime and LB Lavonte David forced yet another fumble earlier in that same period. In addition to Pierre-Paul's three sacks, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting and OLB Carl Nassib also had QB takedowns. OLB Shaq Barrett, who has tied the team's single-season sack record with 16.5, was shut out for the first time in five weeks.
"The defense, they played winning football today," said Arians. "Our special teams and offense did not. We started on the 17-yard line about every kick-off, guys just not getting their man blocked. Tough field position and turnovers are the story."
Arians credited CB Carlton Davis with the main part of holding Houston's Pro Bowl wideout, DeAndre Hopkins, to 23 yards on five catches.
"We played great," said Davis of the Bucs' defense. "We executed the game plan that Coach [Todd] Bowles set out for us and it was really just trusting each other and doing our jobs. From the beginning of the season, we always pride ourselves on doing our job regardless of what the offense is doing. We're going to root them on no matter what's going on. We're just going to go out there and make as many plays as possible."
Indeed, field position was a huge part of the three-point outcome. The Buccaneers started eight of their 14 drives inside their own 20 and had an average drive start of their own 24. Thanks in large part to their five takeaways, Houston started at an average of its own 35 and had 17 points before it had even 75 yards.
Incredibly, Winston was intercepted on the first drive again on Saturday, this time on his first pass as Roby cut under an out intended for Watson on the left sideline and ran untouched 27 yards for the game's first points.
Winston's second pass of the game brought out a challenge flag as Perriman was contacted by CB Gareon Conley while trying to catch a pass deep down the right sideline. Unfortunately, the call stood, costing the Buccaneers an early timeout. And his third pass of the game was intercepted by S Justin Reid and taken back to the end zone, though a foul on the runback cost Reid his touchdown.
The Texans' second drive started at the Bucs' 24 and seemed to be stopped on consecutive pass break-ups by Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean, but Dean was flagged for defensive holding on third down and the Texans got a new set of downs at the 17. The defense held again and Houston settled for Ka'imi Fairbairn's 32-yard field goal.
Down 10-0 less than four minutes into regulation, the Bucs got their first glimmer of hope when Jones broke off his 49-yard run, making several sharp cuts in the open field and fending off one tackler with a fierce stiff arm. However, after a successful fourth-and-two run by Barber was erased by a holding penalty, the Bucs tried a 54-yard field goal and Matt Gay's attempt was blocked by DE Angelo Blackson.
The Bucs got their first score on their next possession, driving 58 yards from their own 10 to set up Gay's successful 50-yard field goal. Perriman got the drive started with an impressive leaping sideline catch for 27 yards, and Winston converted a key third down with a scrambling check-down to Dare Ogunbowale for 19 yards down to the Houston 32. That's as close as the Bucs got, though, after two near-misses on deep balls into the end zone to Watson and Perriman.
Tampa Bay got another scoring opportunity when David poked the ball out of Duke Johnson's arms and White scooped up the fumble, returning it eight yards to the Houston 31. However, Joseph picked off Winston's next pass on a deep come-backer intended for Perriman. Tampa Bay's defense got a quick stop and the ball back but Barber's fumble at the end of a fine 10-yard run gave Houston possession at the Bucs' 42. That giveaway led to another seven points for Houston, as Watson found TE Darren Fells for a 10-yard completion down to the one on third-and-seven and Carlos Hyde ran it in on the next play.
Dean gave the Buccaneers another scoring opportunity at the end of the first half with an interception and Winston led yet another successful two-minute drill. Dean stuck with Kenny Still deep down the middle of the field and leaped for the pick at the Bucs' 30-yard line. An Andrew Adams block helped him get going in the other direction and he returned it 39 yards to the Houston 31. A scrambling Winston found Hyman for a 31-yard gain down to the eight, giving the Bucs' three cracks at the end zone with 28 seconds to play and no timeouts. The first two passes were incomplete but Winston snapped the ball with 20 seconds left on third down, scrambled up and to the right and finally zipped an eight-yard touchdown pass through traffic to Watson for the game-tying score.
Houston got the first possession of the second half and were able to break the tie with a 68-yard field goal drive. Watson converted a fourth-and-one with a keeper in Buccaneer territory then scrambled for 19 yards on third-and-15 to get the ball to the Bucs' 10. But the Tampa Bay defense held again and the Texans settled for Fairbairn's 25-yarder.
The Bucs matched that with their own methodical field goal drive, marching 57 yards on 16 plays and converting four of five third downs in the process. Winston hit Cam Brate for 12 yards to convert a third-and-eight and then scrambled for 13 yards on third-and-12, slipping between three defenders at the end to just get past the sticks. However, the fifth third down failed as Jones was stopped for no yards on third-and-one at the Houston 23 and the Bucs let Gay tie it with a 41-yarder. Those two field goal drives chewed all but 1:13 off the clock in the third quarter.
Pierre-Paul's second sack killed the Texans' next drive quickly but the Bucs had to punt it back from midfield. Watson took the ensuing possession from his own 12 to the Tampa Bay 19, much of it on a 39-yard downfield connection to DeAndre Carter to convert a third-and-six. That got the ball into Buccaneers territory but the drive stalled at the 19 and Shaquil Barrett's third-down hit on Watson helped his last pass of the drive sail high. Fairbairn put the Texans back on top with a 37-yard field goal with 7:11 left in the game.
The Buccaneers took the next drive across midfield thanks to a 23-yard catch-and-run by Jones but gave it up at the 40 on a turnover on downs. Jones' run on third-and-one lost two yards and the Bucs went for it on fourth-and-three with less than four minutes to play. Winston found an open Brate but the very sure-handed tight end uncharacteristically dropped the pass.
Tampa Bay's defense forced a punt but Winston and the Bucs were once again faced with challenging field position. With 2:21 left on the clock and one timeout in the Bucs' possession, the drive started at their own 10. Winston got one first down on a 19-yard completion to Perriman and faced a third-and-one after a 12-yard strike to Perriman again. However, his attempt to get the first down on a short pass out to the left sideline to Ogunbowale was thwarted by S Jahleel Addae, who undercut the route for the game-sealing interception.