Buccaneers’ free fall continues with another loss

TAMPA, Fla. — Moments after the loss to the Buffalo Bills last week, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter warned his players about “splintering from within” as the defeats continued to mount. One week later, following Sunday’s 17-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers which was the Bucs’ fourth straight, it may be too late for that.

Safety T.J. Ward already voiced his frustration over lack of playing time, as did defensive tackle Chris Baker. Five-time Pro Bowler and team captain Gerald McCoy, who never gripes publicly, said he wasn’t happy with the way he was having to line up.

Don’t expect the Bucs’ frustration to die down anytime soon, now that a season in which they were expected to contend for the division has taken a sudden free fall.

Against the Panthers, quarterback Jameis Winston struggled with accuracy; he threw two interceptions and fumbled after being sacked by Julius Peppers. For the second straight week, Winston didn’t throw on Wednesday or Thursday, resting his injured shoulder, before taking all the reps Friday. He completed 21 of 38 passes for 210 yards and no touchowns. The offensive line was unable to generate any sort of ground game as the Bucs managed just 27 rushing yards in the first half.

There were bright moments that offered glimmers of hope in the second half. Safety Chris Conte notched an interception, jumping a route on a pass intended for tight end Ed Dickson. Doug Martin broke 14-yard runs and a 17-yarder with an offensive line looking far more physical up front. They got their first and only points of the day off a 41-yard field goal from kicker Patrick Murray, who is 3 for 3 since replacing Nick Folk. The defense also allowed just three Panthers third-down conversions after surrendering 5 of 6 in the field half.

But Winston’s picks — his fifth and sixth of the season — were costly, with the first setting up a 25-yard touchdown by Kelvin Benjamin. When Luke Kuechly got his hands on another in the fourth quarter, loud boos emanated from the stands. This was a 9-7 team last year that made significant talent upgrades — particularly on offense — and hasn’t produced in spite of that. The Bucs’ three points against the Panthers were their fewest in a game since Week 16 against the Green Bay Packers in 2014.

This was the third straight week in which the Bucs failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first half. Sluggish starts have become the new norm, even if the Bucs have quietly become the league’s top passing team and have the league’s second-most productive offense in terms of yardage. Those stats are futile without points, however, and not a good sign heading into next week’s game against the New Orleans Saints, who are averaging 28.5 points a game.

The playoffs aren’t mathematically impossible for the Bucs at this point. In the last five seasons, five teams have lost four straight and gone on to reach the playoffs, either by winning their division or as wild cards. With the exception of the fluky 7-8-1 Panthers from 2014, the average number of losses for those teams was 5.5. But the Bucs have to play four of their final six games against divisional foes.

It’s hard to imagine this team finishing anywhere close to that.

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