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Armando Salguero: Why Buccaneers Can Remain Hopeful Despite Consecutive Losses

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been knocked for a loop after consecutive losses the past two games, so they’re stumbling and something is definitely wrong with the defending Super Bowl champions.

And they’re not really hiding from this fact.

They’re actually quite publicly showing their frustration.

We saw it in quarterback Tom Brady. The NFL’s all-time touchdown pass king is almost always cordial and accommodating with reporters, but he walked out on his post-game press conference following Sunday’s 29-19 loss to Washington. Brady took a handful of questions within a 3-4 minute session and was done.

We see it in coach Bruce Arians. When asked whether his team played without passion in that Washington loss, his reply was eyebrow raising:

“Totally,” he said.

Arians offered his assessment, by the way, the day after the loss. So he’d had time to study what happened and wasn’t as emotional about the result.

Immediately after the game when he was indeed still managing visceral feelings about the result, Arians strafed his entire team, calling them, “a very dumb football team and that is a reflection of the coaches.”

Arians was critical of his defense in general and pass rush in particular, and, yes, he even laid responsibility on Brady, who threw two interceptions for the second consecutive game.

“It has nothing to do with his receivers,” Arians said, “it is on him.”

Is the picture of an unwell defending Super Bowl champion coming into focus?

The proverbial silver lining is that most of the problems seem correctable. And because the season is 17 games long instead of 16, time is an ally.

So let’s address the problems:

Let’s start with Brady and the offense. The truth is opposing defenses have gotten smart and aren’t trying to beat the Bucs by matching up against their often superior talent. Defensive coordinators are using schemes that mitigate Brady’s ability to throw deep, limiting the big plays.

“Everybody is playing us in a very soft, two-shell [defense] and forcing the ball to go underneath and make you run with it,” Arians said. “I think we have to protect our quarterback better early in the game, and maybe we’ll take some shots down the field like we normally do when he’s protected.

“But if he’s being hit a bunch early, he isn’t holding onto it for very long. I don’t know anyone that does.”

An explanation: The cover 2 shell is meant to stop deep passes because at the snap, the two safeties typically cover deep to the outside parts of the field. That means an offense can run the ball because there isn’t an extra safety in the tackle box, or can attack the middle of the field or with short check-down throws to running backs.

Tampa Bay’s problem is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who can attack the middle of the field, has missed five games with a ribs and back injury. And Antonio Brown, a speed receiver, hasn’t played since Oct. 14 because of a high ankle sprain.

The Bucs hope they can get Gronkowski and Brown back within a couple of weeks, which would probably solve multiple problems. A greater commitment to the run is also needed.

Most surprising about the Buccaneers is their defense, which actually led the charge to last year’s championship, has been undone the past two weeks by the likes of Trevor Siemian and Jameis Winston for New Orleans and Taylor Heinicke for Washington.

None of these quarterbacks are elite, but against Tampa the last two games, they’ve combined for three TD passes without an interception.

Surprising, right?

Perhaps the most surprising thing in the Washington game was about one team imposing its will on the Buccaneers and closing them out by engineering a 10-minute, 26-second drive that turned a 23-19 lead into the final 10-point margin.

Brady, hopeful of getting the football back after cutting the Washington lead to four points, never got a chance to put his team ahead.

“So we didn’t capitalize with the energy level on defense after we made plays … and our offense scored a touchdown,” Arians said.

“That was the most disheartening thing for us — to have a 10-minute drive against us. That just can’t happen.”

It happened, in part, because the Buccaneers have accomplished pass rushers in their front four — including Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett — but the front four isn’t consistently affecting the quarterback.

“We had some blitzers coming free, they just didn’t get there fast enough to affect the throws,” Arians said. “Playing more zone than man-to-man because of who we’re playing with, it’s going to be a little bit softer back there, so we have to get home when we’re blitzing.”

There is, however, a possible fix for the defense. The Bucs have fielded a makeshift secondary for over a month. Atop that, Richard Sherman strained his calf in warmups prior to the Washington game and is out for an extended period.

The good news is Sean Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis are healing. Murphy-Bunting will try to prove he’s close to playing again starting in Wednesday’s practice. Davis is similarly working toward returning from a quadriceps injury after being out since Week 4.

The point is the Buccaneers can still hope their situation is not irreparable. They’ve taken some hits. But they’ve not been knocked out.

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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