TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers reject the notion that they're the same old Bucs.
Despite dropping their debut under coach Bruce Arians in a manner that's become all too familiar during the NFL's second-longest playoff drought, the mistake-prone team showed signs of progress in some key areas during a 14-point loss to the San Francisco 49ers, including development of a running game capable of making Jameis Winston's job easier.
The fifth-year pro became the franchise's career passing leader, but also undermined the team's chances of winning by throwing three interceptions — two of which were returned for touchdowns.
The Bucs also lost a fumble, had a punt blocked and were penalized eight times for 87 yards, including a pair of holding calls that nullified two touchdowns in the first half.
"After watching the tape, it was obvious the penalties were probably the biggest thing in the game, other than the turnovers," Arians said Monday.
Tight end Cameron Brate, who was on the receiving end of both TD passes that were called back, resisted the temptation to attribute the mistakes to growing pains in a new offensive system.
"We thought we had a really good training camp," Brate said. "We won some games there in the preseason, kind of got a blueprint for winning games, but it just kind of unraveled for us (Sunday)."
Getting the running game going is a big part of Arians' plan to help the Bucs become relevant again. Tampa Bay had the fifth-ranked rushing attack during Winston's rookie year in 2015, when the Bucs won six games. Ground production has declined sharply since then (24th in 2016, 27th in 2017, 29th in 2018).
With second-year RB Ronald Jones II leading the way, the Bucs averaged 4.7 yards per carry on the way to gaining 121 yards on 26 attempts against the 49ers. That not only puts them on pace to have their best running attack since they averaged 135.1 per game four years ago, but also figures to ease some of the burden on Winston to carry the offense.
"I think all quarterbacks are the same unless you're Tom Brady," Arians said. "You've got to run the ball and stay balanced."
Tampa Bay averaged 95.2 yards per game rushing last season, the 11th consecutive year the team failed to make the playoffs.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The offensive line remains a concern. While there's reason to be encouraged by the way the team ran the ball against San Francisco, pass protection was suspect during the preseason and again in Sunday's opener.
The 49ers hit Winston five times and finished with three sacks. The pass rush was also a factor in the quarterback forcing a throw on an intended screen pass that was intercepted and returned for the clinching TD.
Jones, a second-round draft pick who was disappointing in limited playing time as a rookie in 2018, carried a career-best 13 times for 75 yards against the 49ers. A year ago he was inactive for seven games and averaged just 1.9 yards per attempt, finishing with 44 yards on 23 carries with one touchdown.
"That's something we can really build off of," Arians said.
"Definitely the coaches are showing more belief in me. ... I've just got to make the most of it," Jones said.
TE O.J. Howard had four receptions for 32 yards, but did not have a stellar opener. He fumbled after a 10-yard reception to the San Francisco 9, costing the Bucs an opportunity to kick a field goal. He also had a pass skip off his hands on the first of Winston's three interceptions.
Bucs didn't report any significant injuries during the opener. WR Mike Evans played the entire game, despite being slowed by a flu bug. Same for rookie LB Devin White, who Arians said has tonsillitis. White, Howard (ankle), Jones (toe), DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches (finger) and WR Bobo Wilson (ankle) all practiced Monday.
Four. Days between the opener and a road test at Carolina on Thursday night.
Arians had a simple message for players when the team reassembled Monday to begin preparation for the Panthers.
The opener's over. Move on.
"Learn from what you did, get it corrected," Arians said. "And you get it corrected, the wins will start happening."