Bucs 22, Dolphins 19: Tampa Bay takeaways & observations

TAMPA, Fla. — Hey, how about that? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are winless no more.

The Bucs jumped out to a 15-0 lead, fell behind 19-15 and then held on for the 22-19 victory over the Miami Dolphins behind two sacks on the visitors’ last drive at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay followed the Jacksonville Jaguars’ lead from Sunday, and now there are no winless teams in the NFL.

The Bucs’ rushing game was a big reason for the result on a night when the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito controversy served as a backdrop to this Sunshine State showdown. Tampa Bay outrushed Miami 140 yards to 2, despite losing starting running back Mike James to injury on the first drive.

Here are thoughts and observations from the Bucs’ first victory …

1. The Bucs took advantage of the Dolphins’ offensive shakeup.

Measuring controversy’s effect is a tricky thing. There’s no universal way to react to what the Dolphins went through, much like there was no “blueprint” for how the Bucs dealt with the Josh Freeman fiasco and MRSA scare.

Credit the Bucs for gathering themselves in recent weeks. I’ve noticed a change since the blowout loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 8. Coach Greg Schiano seems more relaxed. Players appear looser. Sure, there was no way to polish 0-8, but Tampa Bay hasn’t packed in its season. That’s a credit to the locker room.

The first half Monday played out much like Tampa Bay’s play at Seattle. Mostly, this was a confident offensive group complemented by a defensive unit that exerted its will when asked. After falling behind in the second half, the Bucs did enough to come back. Kudos to them.

2. Mike James’ injury was unfortunate.

The Bucs figured to make the rookie running back a centerpiece of their offensive plans, and it looked that way after the Miami product rushed for 41 yards on five carries on the first drive. Then seemingly out of nowhere, he was seen rolling in pain near his huddle, at the Dolphins’ 10-yard line following a rush to the 1.

Soon after, he was carted away from the field. The Bucs’ announced an ankle injury, and he never returned.

This is a clear step backward after he was impressive at Seattle last week, when he ran for 158 yards on 28 carries. With the Bucs doing the wise thing by placing Doug Martin on injured reserve Friday, Tampa Bay’s depth at running back has diminished quickly.

James has progressed well in recent weeks, and the Bucs should hope he’s not out long.

3. We saw a lot of Brian Leonard in James’ absence.

Remember, Leonard was in a heated competition with James for the No. 2 running back spot in training camp. James ended up winning the position, but Leonard has carved out a serviceable niche as a short-yardage, physical runner.

Leonard finished with 57 yards on 20 carries. For the second consecutive week, the offensive line did a strong job of opening holes in the running game. It’s not a stretch to think James would have run for at least 150 yards with the way he looked on the Bucs’ first drive. Still, Leonard did some good things in a less-than-desirable situation.

4. Warren Sapp’s Ring of Honor induction was well done.

The night included video tributes from key members of the Bucs’ past such as Tony Dungy and Derrick Brooks. Sapp is a controversial figure among many throughout the Tampa Bay region and beyond, but his Hall of Fame resume was worthy of Monday’s recognition.

Two weeks ago, I thought Schiano’s presence would cast an awkward feeling on what should be a celebrated night. Tampa Bay’s upstart performance in Seattle eliminated some of the vitriol.

Miami’s own troubles, plus a 10-0 Tampa Bay lead after the first quarter, also lightened the mood compared with the sour feelings after the loss to the Carolina Panthers during the most recent home game. In a season that hasn’t had much to highlight, this was worth remembering.

5. Understatement of the year: This victory was needed.

It won’t change the ugly record (1-8) or scrub away the bad memories from Freeman, MRSA and the inner turmoil. But after all the near misses, after all the blunders and blowouts, Tampa Bay finally found itself on the right side of the scoreboard for once.

Will it change all the bad from this season? No. But it will make this week more tolerable for all involved.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.