TAMPA, Fla. — Greg Schiano understands Gerald McCoy’s frustration. There’s no shortage of pursed lips outside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ bunker these overcast days, even if the men inside the palace insist the fire-tipped words, the “FIRE SCHIANO” billboards and other signs of heated angst haven’t crossed their moat.
But are there cracks within their own walls?
With the playoffs waving bye-bye long ago, that’s the remaining drama with these Bucs, who are in a race with the Jacksonville Jaguars to see who crawls from the goo of the NFL’s winless world first. Last Friday, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle raised a few antennas when he answered a question about trust in the coaching staff’s game plan this way:
“That’s not my job,” McCoy said. “I just run the calls of what I’m told to do. Whether I agree with it or not, for me to not run the calls would not be right. But hey, I don’t get paid to coach or come up with a game plan.”
Granted, McCoy had reason to be peeved about the Bucs’ defense again. Counting the loss to the Carolina Panthers last Thursday, opponents have scored 31 points in three consecutive weeks.
Once, the Bucs’ defense stonewalled offenses. But in the three games since the bye, the unit has become more cotton candy: Tampa Bay now ranks No. 14 in yards allowed (338.4 per game) and No. 18 in scoring defense (23.3 points per game). Last Thursday, Cam Newton earned 221 yards passing and a season-high 50 yards rushing with three total touchdowns.
Frustration? Where there’s smoke, you know what to find.
“I think Gerald’s general frustration is that he’s such a competitor, and he’s playing at such a high level,” Schiano said Monday. “The guys around him aren’t all playing at his level and that, I think, is generally frustrating for Gerald. … One of the things I’ve told him is, ‘You’re doing a great job.’ He’s beating guys one-on-one rushes over and over again.”
It takes more than one man to raise a defense, though. Of late, the Bucs’ woes on that side of the ball have been a group failure, starting at the top. There were two head-scratchers in the loss to Carolina, in particular, that led to self-inflicted bruises.
* In the third quarter, Adrian Clayborn ran a stunt from his defensive end spot to rush toward the offensive line’s gut. But that move opened a running lane on the left side of the line for Newton to score easily from 6 yards away, giving the Panthers a 21-6 lead.
* In the fourth, cornerback Leonard Johnson blitzed near the end zone, allowing open space for fullback Mike Tolbert. Newton found his target for a simple 3-yard touchdown pass, giving the Panthers a 28-6 lead.
Monday, Schiano spoke about a need to play to the Bucs’ strengths, to become more precise on both sides of the ball. To him, that means fine-tuning defensive plans — “It’s not like we’re trying to do something we haven’t done,” he said — and completing a deep study of an offense that ranks No. 31 in the league with 14.3 points per game. No easy task.
“We’re like, ‘That close,'” Bucs wide receiver Chris Owusu said. “I think we’re really close to being an offense that is to be reckoned with each and every week. I think some consistency is going to help us, especially at the wideout position. Every unit is improving.”
Problem is, the Bucs go from Carolina’s frying pan to the Seattle Seahawks’ boiling oil Sunday at CenturyLink Field. To add salt to that wound, Tampa Bay will be without wide receiver Mike Williams, the Bucs’ No. 2 target, after he was placed on injured reserve Monday with a right hamstring injury that requires surgery.
So the Bucs will press ahead, with their noses down and thoughts forward. They’ll stick to the familiar tunnel vision, with hopes that the light in the distance is no locomotive.
“I let coach do his thing, put game plans together, and I just go out and execute them the best way I can,” Bucs running back Mike James said. “The coaches coach, and the players play. I do my best to do my job. … I feel like we’re close. A few more plays here, a few more plays there. A few less mistakes here, a few less mistakes there, and we’re right where we need to be.”
We’ll see, and fast, with a Pacific Northwest test awaiting a group that has stumbled through Schiano’s second season. The signs are out, the words are hot, and the Bucs must fight the static outside and the doubts from within.
“As long as he’s our coach, we’re going to have respect for him,” McCoy said Friday. “We’re going to play as hard as we can for him. It’s as simple as that.”