TAMPA — Okay, so it’s only two victories. And it’s not like either one of them came against a team still considered to be a playoff contender. After all, the combined record of the vanquished is just 2-11.
Still, you could make the argument neither one those victories should have been posted. Not by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at least. Not with the lineups they had to throw onto the field for them.
Not even halfway through their first season under new head coach Dirk Koetter, the Buccaneers have already tested the depth of their roster in ways few would have imagined. Yet they have clearly passed the test.
Three weeks ago they beat the Panthers 17-14 on a Monday night in Carolina despite not having either of their top two running backs or any of their four best pass rushers.
Then last Sunday, after a week off to heal up that didn’t pan out anywhere near as well as hoped, the Buccaneers went on the road again and put a 34-17 beating on the 49ers despite fielding an even more depleted lineup.
Oh sure, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was back, as good as ever. But running backs Doug Martin (hamstring) and Charles Sims (knee) weren’t, not was wide receiver Vincent Jackson, now out for the season with a knee injury.
The situation wasn’t any better on the defensive side of the ball, where defensive ends Robert Ayers (ankle) and Jacquies Smith (out for the year with a knee injury) and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (hamstring) were all missing.
Add it all up and the Buccaneers would have done well just to have remained competitive in those two games. Instead, they went out and won them to keep their suddenly improving playoff dreams from fading completely to black.
“We’ve said it many times that if you’re on the 53-man roster here or even you’re just on the practice squad, you’ve got to be ready to play,’’ Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said.
“And what we’ve had here and we’re really happy about it obviously, is that we’ve had is countless guys step up for us like that this year. We’ve had a bunch of guys do that for us.’’
No one has stepped up more than running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Released by the Bears during their final roster cuts back in September, Rodgers didn’t join the Buccaneers until Week 2 of the regular season.
In their last two games, though, he has arguably been the Buccaneers most valuable player, at least on offense, where he’s run a combined 56 times for 255 yards, including 154 yards a week ago at San Francisco.
And then there’s seldom-used (except for special teams) wide receiver Russell Shepard, who stepped up for the injured Jackson last week and caught five passes for 77 yards and a touchdown.
That’s one catch, 33 yards and a touchdown better than the most productive day Jackson turned in before he went down during the bye week and it epitomized what the Buc have been about this year.
“I think as coaches we sometimes have a tendency to pigeon-hole guys and say, ‘This is what they’re capable of doing when they’re actually capable of doing much more,’’ Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken said.
“But if you believe in them and you develop a game plan for them that maximizes their measurables and skills, which is what we’re paid as coaches to do, it can work out for you and I think we did a nice job of that last Sunday.’’
Indeed they did. But not just with Rodgers and Shepard. Running back Antone Smith, who was signed off the street just six days before the 49ers game, played an integral role in the Buccaneers latest victory as well.
Though he was only in the game for eight plays, he touched the ball on three of them, including one in which he took a short dump-off over the middle from quarterback Jameis Winston and ran 30 yards to spark the Buccaneers comeback from a 14-0 first-quarter deficit.
“I’m really fired up for all of those guys – Quizz, Antone, Peyton Barber,’’ Koetter said. “It’s going to be great when we get Doug Martin and Chuck Sims back but those guys are doing a great job of holding down the fort for us right now.’’
The same can be said of rookie defensive linemen DaVonte Lambert, Channing Ward and Noah Spence. With Smith, Ayers, McDonald and McCoy all missing time, all three have had to play far more than expected.
An undrafted free agent out of Auburn, Lambert has started each of the last two games and three of the last four while Ward, who was also undrafted, and Spence have seen their playing time quadruple.
The defense has not suffered as a result. In fact, in their last two games, the Buccaneers have allowed fewer points (31) than they’ve allowed in any other two-game period all season.
One reason for the improvement: more takeaways. The Buccaneers forced just two in their first four games. The defense alone has forced five in the last two, including a fourth-quarter fumble forced by Lambert at Carolina.
“I think that just shows the resiliency of our guys,’’ Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. “I mean, we’ve really had to rely a lot on a some of our young guys to contribute and they’ve all come in and done a really good job, especially up front.’’
The benefits of that reach far beyond the scoreboard and the standings. When the season began running back, wide receiver and defensive tackle were considered three of the thinnest position groups on the team.
In the last few weeks, though, the Buccaneers have discovered that they’re a lot deeper at those spots than they originally thought and that they may actually have some strength in area where they once considered themselves weak or vulnerable.
“You learn a lot more about a guy when you actually get to see them in a game and that’s what we’ve done,’’ Smith added. “I mean, you watch a guy in practice and you like what you see, but they’re not really getting hit in the mouth the way they would in a game.”
“But these guys have all gotten into games now and they’ve stood strong. Sure, they’ve made some mistakes. But they’ve corrected them and gotten better every week. We still have a steep learning curve with them, but you can’t help but be proud of the way they’ve played.’’