Bucs are not going anywhere if the defense doesn't straighten up
Tell me, which is the more entertaining prime-time debacle? Do you prefer complete humiliation by the Saints or a richly ironic heartbreaker against the Rams?

Because I've got to tell you, I'm torn. I thought the New Orleans loss two weeks ago was as bad as it gets, but Monday night's 27-24 letdown against the Rams was a more subtle and textured horror show.

I mean, you've got a glamour quarterback with the Bucs for the first time in franchise history. And during a two-minute drive on national television, he throws a lollipop of an interception just when the Bucs were a couple of first downs from a potential tying field goal.

You've got a defense that has taken years to build, and just when the playoffs appear within reach, everyone forgets how to tackle. You've got a Rams team going through kicker after kicker, and the guy they signed a few days ago ends up as the hero at Raymond James Stadium. Someone ought to tell Bucs general manager Jason Licht that he should draft a kicker like - looking up his name - Matt Gay.

Tampa Bay is still in decent shape for the postseason, so no need to panic just yet, but there have been some disturbing signs in recent weeks. And you should probably start with the defense.

For all the talk of Tom Brady's arrival, it was the defense's maturation that coach Bruce Arians kept whispering about. These were his guys. This was his secret. The defense was how Tampa Bay was going to win in 2020. And through September and October, the Bucs closely followed that script. They stopped the run, they harassed quarterbacks, and their defensive backs seemed to be growing before our eyes.

But the past few weeks have to give you pause. Against the Saints, you hoped the defense had a bad night. Now, you have to wonder if there are holes in the secondary. For the second time in three weeks, the Bucs have been blistered by an opposing quarterback. Granted, one of them (Drew Brees) is a future Hall of Famer and the other (Jared Goff) is a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback.

But who do you think the Bucs will see in January? You can wish all you want, but you're not going to be looking across the line of scrimmage at Daniel Jones or Jeff Driskel in the postseason. "I don't think (Goff) attempted one pass of 10 yards until the second half," Arians said. "Good, short passes and we didn't tackle (receiver Cooper) Kupp very well. We did a very poor job of tackling him and letting him run after the catch."

The Bucs seem to have lost their identity. This was once an aggressive defense. A blitz-happy, man-to-man, take-your-best-shot defense. And Monday night, the Bucs looked tentative. They played a lot of zone. They blitzed, but not the all-out jailbreaks from earlier in the season. Goff was hardly touched in the pocket, and he had time to find every soft spot in the secondary.

"(Defensive coordinator Todd) Bowles does a good job of mixing it up and trying to mess up the quarterback," said safety Jordan Whitehead. "I wouldn't say I was surprised we played a lot of zone because we worked on it all week."

Don't be fooled by the defense's brief revival in the second half. That had more to do with coach Sean McVay's underpants getting too tight on the Los Angeles sideline. Until the Rams got conservative and tried to kill the clock in the fourth quarter, they were dictating the game's tempo. On their first seven drives, the Rams had three touchdowns, one field goal and one missed field goal. Kupp finished with 130 receiving yards, and Robert Woods had 145.

"It's one thing if a receiver catches a ball on you, but you've got to get him down," Whitehead said. "Yards after contact is something we take pride in the DB room, and I know we missed a lot of tackles out there tonight. That's something we've got to clean up."

Through the first seven weeks of the season, the Bucs were giving up only an average 20.3 points a game. In the last four weeks, that average is up to 27.7. Maybe that's just a blip. A slump. A temporary condition against better competition. But Arians was right when he said the Bucs would go as far as this defense would take them. And right now, the defense is taking Tampa Bay to some dark places.

John Romano, Tampa Bay Times, published 24 November 2020