Inconsistent Bucs look inward with future hopes in stability

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Nothing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drew up Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers went according to plan in a humiliating 35-7 loss that dropped them to 6-7 and spoiled quarterback Tom Brady‘s Bay Area homecoming — just the second time he has played there in 23 years.

Not the five touchdowns surrendered to a team led by rookie quarterback Brock Purdy in his first career start or the 209 rushing yards given up to Christian McCaffrey & Co. — the second most since coach Todd Bowles arrived in Tampa in 2019, after once leading this team to a No. 1 defensive ranking against the run.

Even the one time the Bucs reached the end zone — an 8-yard touchdown pass from Brady to wide receiver Russell Gage — was an accident, as it bounced off wide receiver Chris Godwin, the intended target, and into Gage’s hands and required an extensive review by officials.

“We’ve got to decide what team we want to be,” Bowles said. “We can’t be one set of Bucs and another set of Bucs. It’s got to mean something. … Either we want it or we don’t. We can’t care more than everybody else. As a coach, you don’t go out on the field, but we got outcoached, so we’re not excused from this at all. We got outplayed as well. As a team, as a group, we’ve got to buckle down and decide what our fate is in the next few weeks.”

Brady, who had been 7-0 against rookie quarterbacks making their NFL debuts, was handed the third-largest defeat in his NFL career.

“They kicked our ass,” he said bluntly.

Despite being one game below .500, the Bucs have a one-game lead in the NFC South with four games to go. They’re just the eighth team in NFL history to have a losing record and be leading a division after Week 14, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

But the offense has shown no signs of getting it together, averaging 16.69 points per game, 29th in the league. And the defense — needing to be perfect to account for the lack of scoring — might be even more short-handed after defensive tackle Vita Vea (calf strain), cornerback Jamel Dean (toe) and outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (hip) all left with injuries. Vea and Dean were in walking boots after the game. That’s on top of Pro Bowl nickelback Antoine Winfield Jr., safety Mike Edwards and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting already sitting out due to injuries.

Only twice this year have the Bucs managed to win back-to-back games.

“We can’t be up and down like we’ve been all year,” tight end Cam Brate said. “It’s tough, man. It hurts. And kind of embarrassing for everyone to have the outcome we had today.”

Their play Sunday was that way, too. Safety Keanu Neal sacked Purdy on the first play of the game but was called for unnecessary roughness. The Bucs looked to put points on the board with a 55-yard field goal by Ryan Succop on their first possession, but it was well short. On their second drive, Brady heaved a 68-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Evans, but it got called back for a holding penalty on left tackle Donovan Smith, who now has a league-leading 11 penalties on the season after picking up two more Sunday. A holding penalty on cornerback Carlton Davis also wiped out an Anthony Nelson interception.

“They’re devastating because we’re playing the Niners and we’re playing the Bucs,” Bowles said of the penalties. “We can’t beat two teams. We’re beating ourselves. Credit them. They beat us as well. They have a good scheme, but we’re beating ourselves, too. We’re making it even harder.”

The frustration is building, as well.

With 5:10 to go in the second quarter and the Niners up 21-0, outside linebacker Anthony Nelson jarred the ball loose from wide receiver Deebo Samuel with inside linebacker Lavonte David recovering it, but Brady couldn’t hit Godwin or Evans in the end zone.

“We’re just not making plays,” Evans said. “The plays that we’re used to making in previous years, we’re just not making them as consistent. I don’t know what it is. We’re just not connecting like we usually do.”

Added Brady: “I made a sh—y throw to Mike. At the end of the day, it was a terrible throw, so I’ve got to make it.”

When it was pointed out that the throw to Evans would have been a touchdown and was executed to near perfection, Brady said, “Yeah, but …Yeah, but …There’s been a lot of that this year.”

Players say it hasn’t been a function of not practicing together or a lack of reps. Brady has seldom taken days off after Bowles initially said he would on Wednesdays. Julio Jones has been back since Week 8. Gage returned last week. The only receiving weapon missing has been Breshad Perriman.

“We practice a lot together. We all practice a lot together,” Evans said. “It ain’t practice. I don’t know what other people — but it ain’t practice. We come out here. We’re just very inconsistent and just a very unfortunate season so far.”

Added Brate: “It’s been hard this year. Execution on game day has not been where it needs to be. Obviously we’re a different team than we were the past couple of years — different strengths and weaknesses — we’ve just got to figure out a way to move the ball consistently on offense. It’s been a struggle for us. We’ve just got to figure out how to do it.”

The protection continues to be a problem, only worsening without All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who missed the second consecutive week with a high ankle sprain. Despite the offensive line not giving up a sack, Brady was hit a season-high eight times. His pressure rating was 23.2% (third highest of the season) and his off-target percentage was 26.4% (season worst).

“It’s very frustrating. We’ve got to find an answer and we’ve got to fix it quick. Whatever it is. Me included,” Smith said, adding that he agrees with Bowles’ message. “He’s right. It’s on all on us. From the beginning, it’s always been told that this is our team and we’re going to go as far as we want to take it. It’s time we all step up, everybody in the locker room.”

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