Struggling Bucs need to look in mirror, play better

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — It’s not difficult to see why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are off to a disappointing 3-3 start.

Tom Brady and a talented but struggling offense have not performed at a consistently high level, particularly in the red zone.

A normally reliable defense hasn’t played well, either, during a stretch in which the Bucs have lost three of four games.

“It’s a game of earning it, and it’s a game of playing well, and we’re just not doing a good job of that,” Brady said after Sunday’s 20-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who stopped a four-game skid despite playing without several key players on defense.

“We’re all playing less than we’re capable of,” the seven-time Super Bowl champion added, “and we’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out why.”

Coach Todd Bowles echoed that sentiment, reiterating the team has to play better in all phases if it expects to emerge from a puzzling funk.

“You’ve got to get your hands dirty and go to work just like everybody else. We’ve been working hard. We’ve got to work harder. Nobody’s going to feel sorry. We’ve got to go back as coaches, as players, and the time for talking is over,” Bowles said. “You’ve either got to put up or shut up.”

Bowles once again on Monday rejected the notion that Brady attending Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s wedding Friday night in New York affected the quarterback’s performance against the Steelers. Brady missed Saturday’s walk-through and team meetings in Tampa.

Bowles said Brady works “as hard as anybody” and is as locked in as ever.

“There’s been a few guys miss some meetings and some practices for some special things that don’t get publicized because they’re not him,” Bowles said. “It kind of comes with the territory. You don’t worry about it too much.”

The Bucs are averaging 20.2 points per game this year after averaging 30.8 on the way to winning the Super Bowl two seasons ago and 30.1 in 2021.

Bowles was asked if he’s satisfied with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich’s play-calling.

“I’m dissatisfied with a lot of things. Winning is No. 1. It’s not about the play-calling. It’s all inclusive. Players have to execute what the coaches call. The coaches have to make sure players are in position to call them,” the coach said.

“We don’t throw blame anywhere. It’s all inclusive,” Bowles repeated. “It’s offense, defense and special teams when we have a bad game.”

WHAT’S WORKING

With the offense continuing to struggle in the red zone, kicker Ryan Succop has done his job to keep the Bucs in games. He booted four more field goals against the Steelers, extending his streak of consecutive successful attempts to 13. He’s 15 of 16 on the season.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Red-zone woes continue to undermine the offense, which didn’t get into the end zone Sunday until Brady tossed an 11-yard TD pass to Leonard Fournette more than 10 minutes into the fourth quarter. Three of four drives inside the Pittsburgh 20 ended with Succop kicking field goals.

STOCK-UP

It wasn’t easy to identify a bright spot in the loss to the Steelers. Fournette, however, delivered another solid—if not spectacular—performance with 63 yards rushing on 21 attempts and six catches on six targets for 38 yards receiving and the team’s lone TD.

STOCK DOWN

The defense, dominating through three games, has not been nearly as good the past three weeks, especially at critical moments. The Steelers were 3 of 11 on third downs before going 4-for-4 down the stretch on Sunday. The Bucs pulled within two points with 4:38 to go, but never got the ball back as the Steelers ran out the clock with help from Mitch Trubisky, who converted on third-and-15 and third-and 11.

INSURED

TE Cameron Brate, who was carted off on a stretcher in Pittsburgh, returned home with the team and has a sprained neck. “He has all his extremities moving well, and he’s resting,” Bowles said Monday. … Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (quad) and safeties Mike Edwards and Logan Ryan (foot) were inactive against the Steelers. Bowles said it was too early to speculate on their status for this week.

KEY NUMBER

Sunday’s loss snapped a franchise-record six-game road winning streak. The Bucs hadn’t lost away from home since last Nov. 14 at Washington.

UP NEXT

Despite losing three of their past four games, the Bucs remain atop the NFC South and can improve to 3-0 within the division by defeating Carolina on the road this week.

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