Coming into the game against the Tennessee Titans today, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were not where they hoped they would be after their breakout performance last year when they were just a tie-breaker away from going to the playoffs.
Instead of jockeying for a position atop the NFC South, the Bucs first needed to find a way to stop their four-game losing streak. With every loss, the Buccaneers' playoff hopes dwindled faster.
Regardless of their place within their division, they needed a win against the Titans simply to stay in the race for a wild card spot.
Unfortunately, despite a terrific effort, the Bucs were not able to come away with a victory. Over the following 10 slides, we will take a look at some lessons that we learned about the Buccaneers in their 23-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Although Tampa was the first team to lose the ball to the opposition, they certainly were not the only culprits.
On this rainy, dreary day in Nashville, the Buccaneers and the Titans combined for a total of nine turnovers.
It is difficult to say whether the turnovers ultimately decided the game (there were so many from each team), but they certainly set a vicious, high-speed tempo throughout its duration.
Although QB Josh Freeman has shown flashes of greatness during his time as a starter, he has shown a pretty high number of alarming tendencies as well.
His quarterback rating is consistently low, and even when he plays well it does not guarantee that his team will win. He has demonstrated a tendency to turn the ball over through interceptions and fumbles at key times during close games.
He rarely acts as a person around which his team must rally to pull out a win in a close, difficult game.
This is a problem that started before the current five-game losing streak, and even before the 2011 season. It appears that Josh Freeman is not outgrowing his rookie mistakes, and the rest of his team is having mixed success in covering for him.
Where Josh Freeman is struggling, RBLeGarrette Blount continues to come up pretty big for his team.
He may have made a big mistake on his first carry of the game by fumbling the ball away, but like any good player he demonstrated that he had a short memory and a deep thirst to play hard to make up for his errors.
Although he generally starts games slowly, Blount is the definition of a downhill runner who picks up momentum over the course of the game. In the third and fourth quarter, he rivaled Chris Johnson for explosiveness.
Blount continues to have a pretty large number of touches throughout the game, and he makes good use of them. Against the Titans, he averaged just over five yards per carry.
He may not have been able to find the end zone during the game, but he was extremely effective at helping move his team down the field when the passing game faltered.
Over the past several weeks, the Bucs have been able to put together many good—even great—drives down the field.
The problem is that they can’t seem to find the end zone on the vast majority of them.
Coming into this game, the Bucs were 31st in the NFL for red-zone touchdown percentage. They can now add several other failed red zone trips to their season tally after the game against the Titans.
This is one area that the Buccaneers have got to work on if they want to find any sort of success moving forward.
One defensive change that has been good for the Buccaneers has been the shift from zone-coverage plays to more man-to-man coverage.
This has been an effective move overall; the Buccaneers have been more aggressive against the pass, with more tipped balls and better tackling when catches are made.
Unfortunately, the better pass protection has led to bigger holes on the ground for the Bucs to try to cover.
Chris Johnson is a punishing runner for any defense to play against, but it seemed as though Tampa had particular difficulty bringing this running back down.
The Bucs gave up 190 yards on the ground to Chris Johnson, including a long run of 34 yards. Adding in the yardage accrued by other Titans running backs, the Buccaneers gave up over 200 yards on the ground.
It doesn’t matter that the run defense was able to generate several forced fumbles, or that they were able to hold Titan quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to just 160 yards through the air. Giving up that kind of yardage on the ground is a sure way to lose a game.
The Buccaneers took the ball away from the Titans four times during the game, giving their offense great field position and big momentum swings.
Cornerback Ronde Barber, safety Tanard Jackson, cornerback Aqib Talib, linebacker Geno Hayes, and safety Sean Jones all had huge games, which is a testament to how much talent the Buccaneers have on their defensive unit.
It is simply a shame that the Buccaneers' offense was unable to capitalize on many of the gifts that their defense gave them, and that they coughed up the ball five times to put their defense back on the field.
Despite the turnover game, the Tampa Bay defense was able to step up when it really counted, holding the Titans to punts and field goals for the majority of the game. They stepped up particularly big in spite of a few dangerously short fields thanks to offensive turnovers.
This is the continuation of a trend that began last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, when the Bucs were able to largely stall that potent offense throughout the game.
For a team whose entire defense was accused of giving up just two weeks ago, this is a huge turnaround in attitude and play on the field.
Unfortunately, the defensive rally came to an end when the Bucs were unable to keep the Titans out of the end zone in the fourth quarter. The game was over when the offense was unable to put together a drive in response to the touchdown that put them behind late in the game.
One area that seems to need particular attention for the Buccaneers is their special teams unit.
It is a little bit hard to hold them fully culpable for the kick return that was run back for a touchdown. After all, it was essentially a trick play that happened to work.
On the other hand, there have been other trick plays on special teams this season, and it is the responsibility of the men on the field to be aware of where the ball is at all times.
There was also the trend of punter Michael Koenen giving them poor punts. He was able to pin the Titans within their own 20 only once in five punts, and he had one of his punts blocked after a high snap.
There was talk last year about the Buccaneers being the best team in the NFC. Those were big words for a very young team, and as it turned out they were proved false.
This year, the Buccaneers were expected by many to be better than their 10-6 showing in 2010. They have not been able to deliver on that expectation; in fact, they seem to have regressed quite a bit in many ways.
Much of that may be due to the difference between their schedule this year and their schedule last year. The Buccaneers were playing better teams in 2011 than they did in 2010. Where they feasted off of weaker teams last year, they have struggled to find victories against these more challenging opponents this year.
It is clear that the Bucs still have more work to do to rebuild their young squad into legitimate contenders.