TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — For all the talk about Jameis Winston's inconsistency undermining Tampa Bay's chances of ending a long postseason drought, a porous young secondary also bears some of the responsibility for another poor start for the Buccaneers.
The Bucs (2-6) haven't made the playoffs since 2007 and are in danger of extending the stretch of futility to 12 consecutive years halfway through their first season under coach Bruce Arians, who remains confident the team can turn itself around over the next eight games.
"Like I told them today, there's nobody left on our schedule we can't beat, and there's nobody that can beat us, if we finish ballgames," Arians said Monday, adding he hasn't given any consideration to making drastic lineup changes in the wake of a four-game losing streak that's dropped Tampa Bay into a deep hole in the NFC South.
The Bucs have carried leads into the fourth quarter of three of their six losses, including road setbacks the past two weeks at Tennessee and Seattle, which rallied to beat Tampa Bay 40-34 in overtime on Sunday.
In large part because of injuries that left them down two starters and a key reserve, the Bucs had as many as six rookies on the field at a time, including third-round cornerback Jamel Dean, who had played sparingly this season before being thrown into an expanded role because of an injury Carlton Davis suffered during pregame warmups. The Seahawks repeatedly exploited Dean's inexperience as Russell Wilson threw for 378 yards and five touchdowns.
Arians said defensive coordinator Todd Bowles used a "really simple game plan and we still didn't execute it like we should because we're young at times."
"But that's really not an excuse," Arians added. "We've got to be able to play the last 5 minutes of ballgames better, because we're there to win games."
Arians reiterated that at 2-6, he remains focus on winning now.
"Everything that we do is about winning this week," the coach said. "I can't play any more younger players. They're all playing now."
When Winston takes care of the ball, as he did Sunday when he lost a fumble but didn't throw an interception after turning it over 10 times the previous two weeks, the Bucs have shown they have an offense capable of giving any opponent fits. Wide receivers Mike Evans (50 receptions, 842 yards, 7 TDs) and Chris Godwin (54 receptions, 766 yards, 6 TDs) are having big years. However, there's plenty of room for improvement if the Bucs can find a way to get tight end O.J. Howard, who's missed the past two games with a hamstring injury, more involved in the passing game. Defensively, the Bucs are allowing a league-low 78.1 yards per game and outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett has been one of the league's most dominant pass rushers.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The good news is the Bucs are averaging nearly 29 points per game. The bad news is they're yielding almost 32. A leaky secondary is allowing 293.5 yards per game passing, and eight different receivers have posted 100-yard days against Tampa Bay — tied for the most in the league with Arizona. Howard (13 catches, 176 yards, 0 TDs) has been underutilized the first half of the season, and the third-year pro reportedly attracted interest for other teams at trade deadline. It will be interesting to see if Winston makes a more concerted effort to get Howard the ball more when he returns from injury, possibly this week against the Cardinals.
Running back Ronald Jones II made his first start at Seattle and is beginning to show why the Bucs drafted him in the second round in 2018. He's averaging 4.1 yards per carry and has three touchdowns — two of them over the past three games. He carried a career-high 18 times for 67 yards against the Seahawks. "I think he handled it really well. He's been consistent (and) he's been more explosive," Arians said. "It's not that Peyton (Barber) did anything wrong. I think RoJo has earned the right to play a little bit more and start the ballgame."
The play of cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III has fallen following an encouraging start to the season. The fourth-year pro returned an interception for a touchdown during a season-opening loss to San Francisco and had 12 tackles, including a game-saving fourth-down stop of Christian McCaffrey in the closing minute of a victory at Carolina in Week 2. The 11th overall pick from the 2016 draft hasn't had much of an impact since, contributing to the woes in the secondary.
Davis (hip) was hurt during pregame warmups Sunday. Linebackers Carl Nassib (groin) and Anthony Nelson (hamstring) left the game with injuries. Arians said it's too soon to speculate on their status for Sunday against Arizona.
7 — The number of weeks since the Bucs last played in Raymond James Stadium. Their trip to Seattle concluded a stretch in which they played four road games wrapped around a "home" date against Carolina in London and a bye.
Arians, lured out of retirement by Tampa Bay last winter, coached the Cardinals for five years before stepping down after the 2017 season.