December 7, 2023

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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly : Week 15 – Bucs vs Bengals

17 min read


If you have been a Bucs fan long enough, you knew this was coming. Not just the catastrophic collapse in this game, but this entire season. No matter how good things might be going, Bucs fans are always waiting for this team to push the self-destruct button. After being a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan for 25+ years, I’ve come to expect collapses like this. When they won Super Bowl LV, I braced myself for a terrible 2021 season. They went 13-4 that season. So then I figured they were going to drop the ball in the wildcard game against the Eagles. They won 31-15 to move on. Next came the Rams game. And that’s when the wheels finally came off. That was when this Tom Brady train finally went off the tracks. They never recovered.

Sunday afternoon showed us what this team is capable of. It showed us why this team was heavily favored to win the NFC South, the NFC and the Super Bowl coming into this season. It gave us a glimpse at what could’ve and should’ve been this season. Unfortunately, it also showed us why this team is 6-8 and in danger of missing the playoffs. After coming out and putting on a flawless first half performance where they took a 17-3 lead into halftime, the Bucs came out in the second half and proved that they’re still the Bucs by giving up 34 unanswered points as well as the lead losing 34-23 in the end. Four turnovers in an eleven play span by Tom Brady, another by the Bucs special teams and a three and out by the Bucs offense gave the Bengals a short field on every possession in the second half and led to five straight scoring possessions for Cincinnati. It’s the first time since 2001 that a Tom Brady led offense turned the ball over four times. Brady had just 4 turnovers in the first 11 games this season. He now has 7 turnovers in the last 3 games. For the first time in 90 career games when his team had a 17 point lead, Tom Brady lost. That’s right folks. Before Sunday’s game, Brady was 89-0 when his team had a 17-point lead. That’s how rare this collapse was. So let’s take a look at my “Good, Bad & Ugly” from this game so we can move on the the next one and get this season over as soon as possible.


The First Half

It was probably the best half of football this Buccaneers team has played all season. Dominant is the only way to describe it. The Bucs offense ran 40 plays for 261 total yards, 16 first downs, 17 points and 20:27 in time of possession. The defense held the Bengals to just 20 plays for 83 total yards, 6 first downs, 3 points and just 9:33 in time of possession. The Bucs scored on three of their four first half possessions that included drives of:

13 plays for 67 yards/FG

11 plays for 59 yards/TD

8 plays for 32 yards/Missed FG

10 plays for 85 yards/TD

Meanwhile, the defense was suffocating the Bengals offense by bringing pressure on Joe Burrow with a number of Bowles blitzes and stopping the run. They had five possessions on offense and didn’t score until their final one of the half. Those included drives of:

5 plays for 35 yards/Punt

3 plays for 0 yards/Punt

3 plays for -6 yards/Punt

3 plays for 7 yards/Punt

7 plays for 47 yards/FG

The 5th ranked offense in the NFL averaging 372 total yards and 26 points per game had five possessions that resulted in three straight three and outs, four punts totaling just 83 yards and 3 points. It was the Bucs best half of football this season, but it quickly went south after halftime.

The Defense

Even though Cinicinnati scored 34 points in this game, the Bucs defense held the NFL’s 5th ranked offense to just 237 total yards. NFL teams were 30-6 when doing so this year. And when the team also scored at least 23 points while doing it, they were 23-0 this season. The Bucs are 23-1 in franchise history when doing it, with the only loss (before Sunday anyway) being in 2007 when Jeff Garcia threw 3 interceptions against the Jaguars with one being returned for a touchdown. They held Joe Burrow to just 200 passing yards on 39 pass attempts. They held Joe Mixon to just 21 yards on 11 carries.They held Ja’Marr Chase to just 60 yards on 7 catches. The Bucs defense did their job on Sunday. The only problem was that Cincinnati started every drive of the second half (with the exception of their final drive that was prolonged by two terrible defensive penalties) inside the Buccaneers 40-yard line. Thanks to five straight turnovers by the Bucs offense, the Bengals offense started their first four drives of the second half at the Bucs 16, the Bucs 31, the Bucs 13 and the Bucs 39 yard lines. It would be hard for ANY defense to overcome that.


The Second Half

Leading 17-3 at the start of the 3rd quarter, the Bucs got the opening kickoff of the second half. Unfortunately, the offense went three and out and they were forced to punt on 4th & 1 from their own 20-yard line. The Bucs coaching staff got a look that they liked from the Bengals special teams unit, so they decided to run a fake punt play where running back Giovanni Bernard, who is lined up as a protector on special teams, is supposed to catch the direct snap and run up the middle for a first down. The only problem is that Bernard was apparently the only player on special teams that was unaware they were running that play. The snap was perfect and it hit him right in the chest, but he didn’t catch it and had to fall to the ground to cover the ball up. That gave the Bengals the ball on the Bucs 16-yard line. Luckily, the Bucs defense kept them out of the endzone and Cincinnati had to settle for a field goal. But that was the snowball that started the avalanche.

Some fans were critical of the fake punt call. Up 17-3 with your defense playing great football, some were saying there’s no need for it. I disagree. I loved the call. I’ve been on Todd Bowles‘ ass all season about making gutless game decisions like punting from the opponents 40-yard line or not going for it on 4th & inches, but here he finally made a call with his balls. The problem I do have is that Giovanni Bernard CLEARLY wasn’t expecting that snap to come to him, which means he didn’t know they were running a fake punt. And that part falls on the special teams coach Keith Armstrong. Even though Bowles stated during his post-game press conference that Bernard knew it was a fake punt, I don’t buy it. He’s covering for his coaching staff’s incompetence and putting all the blame on Bernard simply mishandling the snap. That’s much easier to explain than the truth. In any case, it happened and that’s when the collapse started.

After the Bengals kicked the field goal to make it 17-6, they kicked off to Devin Thompson who fielded the short kick around the 2-yard line and took off running. He got spun around at the 15-yard line and tried to reverse field, but when he did he ran backwards almost all the way back to the goal-line and was finally brought down at the 8-yard line. The return netted 6 yards and pinned the Bucs offense deep in their own territory where Tom Brady eventually threw an interception a few plays later. After the pick, the Bengals offense got the ball at the Bucs 31-yard line and score a touchdown a few plays later. Now the score is 17-12 and the Bucs offense is back on the field with the ball at the 21-yard line. Unfortunately two plays later, Brady was sacked at the 12-yard line by linebacker Luke Wilson and defensive tackle DJ Reader, who also stripped the ball where it was recovered by the Bengals. Their offense took over at the Bucs 13-yard line where they scored a touchdown a few plays later and then a 2-point conversion taking the20-17 lead. The next Bucs possession started at their 25-yard line, but two plays later the ball slipped out of Brady’s gloved hand during a handoff attempt to Leonard Fournette and that fumble was once again recovered by the Bengals giving them yet another short field. It took them 7 plays to score a touchdown and take a 27-17 lead going into the 4th quarter.

You would think that was enough, right? You’d be wrong. The Buccaneers offense wasn’t done shooting itself in the foot just yet. Two plays into their first possession of the 4th quarter, Brady was hit while he was throwing and it resulted in his second interception of the half giving the Bengals the ball at midfield. The Bucs defense held up forcing a three and out by Cincinnati’s offense, but the punt went out of bounds at the Tampa Bay 2-yard line pinning the offense on their own goal-line. The Bengals then forced a three and out by the Bucs causing them to punt. Cincy got the ball at their own 38-yard line and proceeded to go 62 yards in 13 plays gaining 5 first downs and taking almost 7 minutes off the clock before scoring their final touchdown of the game to go up 34-17 with 2:21 left in the game. The Bucs did get the ball back and marched 75 yards in 9 plays to score one more garbage time touchdown and make the score a little more respectable, but by that time the collapse was complete and the game was over.

That was the long version. Here’s the short version of it. The Bucs second half possessions went like this:

4 plays for -1 yard/Turnover on downs (botched fake punt)

5 plays for 15 yards/Interception

3 plays for -8 yards/Fumble

4 plays for 13 yards/Fumble

3 plays for 16 yards/Interception

They ran 21 plays totaling just 44 yards and turned the ball over five times. They gave the Bengals offense the ball on the Tampa Bay 16, the Tampa Bay 31, the Tampa Bay 13 and the Tampa Bay 39 in the 3rd quarter alone. Cincy had four scoring drives totaling just 96 yards and scoring 27 points. The turnovers definitely set the tone for that entire second half. However, the coaching staff needs to take some of the blame as well.

The Coaching

The players deserve most of the blame for this loss. They poorly executed on the field just as they’ve done all season. The problem is that they were poorly executing an idiotic gameplan. After taking a 17-3 halftime lead, it appeared as though Todd Bowles made the decision to pull the reigns back and sit on their lead. The offense got conservative. The defense was much less aggressive. It’s like they took all of the things they were doing in the first half that were working to perfection and just threw those pages of the playbook away. The turnovers didn’t help matters or even allow either side to get into any kind of rhythm, but from the little sample that we did see it didn’t look liked the same team that had just got done dominating the first half. I’m sure the Bengals made their own adjustments at the half and that had something to do with it too. But what about the Bucs? Did they make any halftime adjustments?

After 5 catches on 10 targets for 83 yards in the first half for Mike Evans, he had zero catches on 3 targets in the second half. And that was with the Bengals missing three of their top four corners. He hasn’t been getting used nearly as much this season, especially in the redzone. In 2021, he had 23 targets inside the 20-yard line (7th in the league) and 13 targets inside the 10-yard line (5th in the league). This year, he’s only got 12 targets inside the 20 and just 6 inside the 10 ranking him 26th in the league for both. Byron Leftwich AND Tom Brady both need to figure out how to get the ball to their best playmaker more often. With 3 games left, he only has 3 touchdowns (matching his lowest total since 2015) and he’s still 112 yards short of his 9th straight 1,000 yard season.

Then again, the Bucs scoring is down across the board. They’ve gone from scoring 30 points per game for the past two seasons to just 17 points per game this year. Tom Brady had 43 touchdown passes last season. This year he has 20 and is on pace for just 24 this season. And they had 18 rushing touchdowns in 2021 with just 4 touchdowns on the ground this year, including just one in the last 6 games. That matches the 1977 Buccaneers for the fewest in franchise history. Byron Leftwich is on the verge of being responsible for coaching one of the worst offenses in franchise history, which is unacceptable with the amount of talent this team has on that side of the ball.

The Bucs FINALLY ran some play action in this game with a season-high 14 attempts, mostly in the first half. And it worked. Brady was 10 of 14 for 145 yards on play action passes against the Bengals. They ran play action on 30% of their dropbacks Sunday, their second highest rate of the year. Had they been doing that all season, Brady would rank 9th out of 39 qualifying QB’s in play action usage. Instead, he’s dead last at 39th. The Bucs rank in the top five in the league at play action success rate, but they are near the bottom of the league in play action usage. What sense does that make? And that falls on their offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.

The Special Teams

I touched on it a little in my long breakdown of the Bucs breakdown in the second half, but I want to dive a little deeper into this unit because they contributed to the Bucs collapse as much as anyone. It started with the missed 50-yard field goal by Ryan Succop in the 2nd quarter that would’ve put the Bucs up 13-0 with about 8 minutes left in the first half. Instead of putting 3 points on the board, the Bengals offense took over at the 40-yard line. Luckily, the defense held them to a three and out and the Bucs offense went down to score another touchdown thanks to a 10 play/85 yard drive. My problem with this is the decision to kick the field goal instead of going for it on 4th & 3 at the Bengals 32-yard line. The defense was playing outstanding. The offense had been moving the ball well. In fact, they had converted three first downs on this drive alone. And Succop was 2 for 5 on field goals of 50+ yards this season. So why not go for it? Just so you can possibly put 3 more points on the board when you’re already up 10-0? If you go for it on 4th and don’t get it, then you’re in the same position as if he misses the kick. I don’t agree with the coaching decision here at all, but I’ve come to expect nothing less from this gutless coaching staff. After that it was the botched fake punt debacle by Giovanni Bernard and then the bad decision to reverse field by Devin Thompkins on the kickoff return that netted 6 yards. Both leading directly to 10 points for the Bengals.

The Officiating

I don’t want to put too much of the blame for this loss on the officials, but they certainly didn’t help the Bucs out at all. There were plenty of what I’ll just label “questionable calls” that effected the momentum of this game. In the 3rd quarter, there was the 23-yard sack by Devin White and Anthony Nelson on 4th down that was negated by a weak defensive holding flag on Lavonte David that had nothing to do with the play. Instead of the Bucs having 1st & 10 at the 50-yard line, it gave the Bengals 1st & 10 at the Bucs 19-yard line. Then, a few plays later on that same drive, they had the “facemask” on Carlton Davis (which it was not) that happened on a 3rd down play where the Bucs had stopped them to force a field goal attempt, but the penalty gave the Bengals a new set of downs and eventually led to a touchdown. The officials also refused to call a “roughing the passer” on the Bengals throughout this entire game. There were at least three occasions where Tom Brady was either knocked down late or hit in the head and no flags were thrown. Lastly, on Cincinnati’s last touchdown play of the game putting them up 34-17 with less than 3 minutes left in the game, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka was basically clothes-lined by the Bengals right tackle coming around the left edge and there was no offensive holding called. A sack there would’ve put the Bengals at 3rd & long, but instead Burrow threw the touchdown to put the game out of reach. That’s 14 points that were handed to Cincinnati by the officiating crew.


The “Quicksand”

If you’ve ever seen the football movie “The Replacements“, there’s a scene where Keanu Reeves talks about “quicksand” during a team meeting. He explains what it is saying that things could be going great during a game, but then something goes wrong. Then something else goes wrong. Then another thing goes wrong. And another. And the more you struggle to stop it the deeper you sink, until you’re in over your head. Just like real quicksand. That’s exactly what happened to the Bucs in this game. They played arguably their best half of football in the first half of this game. Then in the second half, they stepped in the “quicksand“. It started with the botched punt. Then it was the first interception. Then it was the first fumble. Then it was the second fumble. Then it was the second interception. At that point, the Bengals were up 27-17 having score 27 unanswered points and the Bucs were in over their head and drowning.


OFFENSE : WR Russell Gage Jr

I know, I’m as shocked as anyone else about it. We had a Russell Gage Jr. sighting in this game. The $10 million man FINALLY earned some of that money finishing with a team-high 12 targets and tied for a team-high with Mike Evans with 8 catches for 59 yards and 2 touchdowns. That gives him 4 touchdowns for the season, which sadly leads all Bucs receivers. The last time Tampa Bay had a player lead with so few TD’s was back in 2015 when Charles Sims and Austin Seferian-Jenkins were tied with four a piece.

DEFENSE : CB Carlton Davis III

He had easily his best game of the season on Sunday finishing with 6 tackles, 4 passes defensed and an interception while shutting down one of the best young receivers in the NFL in Ja’Marr Chase. If Davis could play like this every week, he’d be one of the top corners in football. But for some reason, he doesn’t play with this kind of attitude and energy every game.


OFFENSE : QB Tom Brady

His numbers weren’t bad for the game finishing 30 of 44 for 312 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he’s on the shit list for the turnovers. His 2 interceptions and 2 fumbles directly led to 21 unanswered points by the Bengals and put the Bucs in a hole that they couldn’t climb out of. After just 4 turnovers in the first 11 games this season, he now has 7 turnovers in their last 3 games.

DEFENSE : HC Todd Bowles

I couldn’t really think of a defensive player that deserved to be here, so I’m putting the Bucs defensive coordinator here instead. The overall defensive gameplan for this game was fantastic, especially in the first half. The Bucs defense was really aggressive with blitzes and coverages. They were playing more press-man on the outside with their corners. It was all working flawlessly. Then it all stopped in the second half. It seemed like the Bucs defense went into “protect the lead” mode after halftime. They stopped the blitzing. They started playing more zone coverages. All the short fields they had to defend din’t help matters of course. The short drives didn’t give them an opportunity to do much of anything. But it did seem like they were much less aggressive in the second half. I know that I’m nitpicking here, but someone had to take the fall on defense and this time it’s Todd Bowles.


Sadly, the 23 points the Buccaneers scored in this game was their second highest output this season. Last year, they scored 23 or more points in 16 of their 19 games. What a difference a year makes. This team is bad. I don’t even think they’re as good as their 6-8 record. Remember, had it not been for two Tom Brady led last minute game-winning drives against two bad teams, the Bucs would be 1-8 in the last 9 games since beating the 5-9 Falcons in early October. This game was a microcosm of this entire season. This team’s inability to put together four quarters of good football has wasted the talent on this roster, ripped the hearts out of their fans and destroyed any hopes of winning one more Super Bowl with Tom Brady. The players and coaches ALL keep blaming “poor execution” for the losses. But why hasn’t that been fixed? It’s now Week 15 and they are still having the same issues that they were having in Week 1. How does a team with so much talent and experience from top to bottom continue to “poorly execute” each and every week? They have three weeks to figure it out because IF they do win the division and make the playoffs as the 4th seed, they will be hosting a wildcard playoff game.


Believe it or not, even at 6-8 the Buccaneers still control their own destiny when it comes to winning the NFC South division and making the playoffs. Even if they lose in Arizona on Sunday, they could still beat the Panthers in Tampa Week 17 and still win the division. If they do win in Arizona, then beat the Panthers in Tampa, they would clinch the NFC South. If they lose to the Cardinals, but beat the Panthers in Tampa and the Falcons in Atlanta, they clinch the NFC South. Oddly enough, there’s a scenario where the Bucs could still make the playoffs as a wildcard. Even if the Carolina Panthers end up winning the division, the Bucs could beat the Cardinals and Falcons to finish 8-9 and be an NFC wildcard IF the Commanders lose out and the Lions AND Seahawks both lose two of their last three games. Lots of “if’s” in that scenario, so winning the division would be the easiest and most likely path. That being said, as it sits right now they would finish as the 4th seed and host the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs.


Next up for the Bucs is a Christmas night showdown with the Arizona Cardinals (4-10) on Sunday Night Football. The Cardinals will be without their starting quarterback Kyler Murray who is now out for the season with a torn MCL. Their backup quarterback Colt McCoy has also been ruled “OUT” of the game with a concussion, so that means that rookie quarterback Trace McSworley will be making his first career NFL start against the Bucs on primetime television on Christmas night. No big deal, right? He’s 27-years old and has just one touchdown and three interceptions in 39 career pass attempts, including 2 interceptions in the Cardinals Sunday loss to the Broncos. Unfortunately for the Bucs, they have lost five straight games to quarterbacks making their first career start, including the 49ers Brock Purdy just two weeks ago. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Bucs lose this game, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if they win either. They should win. But with the way things have gone this season, anything can happen. With just three games left in the regular season and a home playoff game looming, this team needs to figure out who they are and where they want to go. Yeah I know it’s a little late in the season for that, but that’s where we’re at with this team. Hopefully, they figure all that out and give Bucs fans what they really want for Christmas this year, which is a full four quarters of quality football resulting in a win in Arizona where the Cardinals are just 1-7 this season.

Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!