TAMPA, Fla. — Jameis Winston has to play better for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to realize their potential. So does the supporting cast around the young quarterback.
The second-year pro’s inconsistency has been a focal point during a slow start that’s concerning not so much because of a 2-3 record as the way the team performed during a three-game losing streak that followed a season-opening win over the Falcons.
Injuries have been a factor. So have an offense that’s turned the ball over too much; a defense that hasn’t generated enough pressure on opposing passers; and rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo (4 of 8 on field goals, one missed extra point), who’s done little to stop lingering questions about whether it was a mistake to draft him in the second round.
All that said, coach Dirk Koetter feels good about where the team sits in the NFC South race after beating the first-place Falcons (4-1) and three-time defending division champion Carolina Panthers (1-4) on the road in the first five weeks of the season.
Now, this weekend’s bye offers an opportunity for several injured starters, including running back Doug Martin and defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and Robert Ayers Jr., to get healthy.
“It probably couldn’t be at a better time for us,” Koetter said of the break, which comes of the heels of a skid-ending 17-14 win over the Panthers.
“The momentum factor is one thing,” the first-year coach added, “but we have a chance to get several key members of our team back.”
Tampa Bay has missed the playoffs eight consecutive seasons, finishing last in the NFC South the past five.
Martin’s return from a hamstring injury could be essential to Winston, who threw seven interceptions and lost two fumbles during the three-game skid, ending that trend.
With the two-time Pro Bowl running back sidelined for three games and most of a fourth, the Bucs have been unable to run the ball consistently. Martin rushed for 1,402 yards a year ago, finishing second in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson. Through five games, Tampa Bay is averaging 3.3 yards per carry rushing.
That’s placed a heavier burden on Winston, who’s completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 1,327 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions.
In Tampa Bay’s two victories, the Bucs attempted 62 passes. In losses to Arizona, Los Angeles and Denver, Winston threw 145 times.
The importance of a productive rushing attack was evident last Monday against Carolina, the first time this season the Bucs ran the ball more (37 carries, with Jacquizz Rodgers gaining 101 yards on 30 attempts) than Winston threw it (30 times without an interception).
“I feel like I’ve improved a lot from my first year to my second year,” said Winston, who threw for more than 4,000 yards as a rookie. “I just have to protect the football — that’s the main thing. Just put us in better situations to win football games.”
A healthy Martin can make a difference.
Despite getting a big night against Carolina from Rodgers, who wasn’t on the roster when the season began, Martin’s versatility was a huge part of Tampa Bay ranking fifth in total offense last season.
“I’m excited for him to come back,” Winston said. “But I just think overall, as an offense, protecting the football is the main thing.”
Koetter also entered the bye week encouraged about the progress of the defense, which he says has not been nearly as bad as statistics might suggest.
Tampa Bay is tied for 28th in points allowed (142), although Koetter notes opponents have benefited greatly from the Bucs turning over the ball and leaving the defense in bad situations.
In addition, two of Winston’s nine turnovers have been returned for touchdowns.
“You’re going to be judged as a defense ultimately by how many points you’ve given up,” defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. “We’ve given up way too many points. And it doesn’t matter where the drive starts, how it happened — we’ve got to go out and stop them, and we haven’t shown the resiliency that we need to.”
The hope is the return of Ayers from an ankle injury that’s sidelined him since Week 2, as well as a healthy McCoy — who missed last Monday night’s game after injuring his calf the previous week — will bolster a defensive line that had to rely in part on an undrafted rookie and other backups in expanded roles.
“I think we’re a lot closer than we are away … I can assure you that,” Smith said. “And, really there’s one guy to me that’s got to do a better job, and that’s Mike Smith. He’s the guy that’s got to make sure that these guys understand what we’re trying to get accomplished, what we’re trying to get done.”