Mon. Jan 18th, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. — With the scoreboard reading 38-3 after a humiliating loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday Night Football, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians told what he described as a “pissed off” locker room that everyone needed to “look in the mirror.”

The Buccaneers came up empty once again on national television, and this time, it meant being swept by a divisional opponent, knocking the Bucs out of first place in the NFC South.

“[It] really couldn’t have gotten much worse than the Sunday night game — that was rock bottom,” tight end Cameron Brate said. “Nothing worked. Everyone played terribly.”

But it wasn’t just Sunday night. The Bucs are 7-3 for the first time since 2010, but they’re 1-2 in prime-time games, rare commodities until this year. Those games have become both a gift and a curse, thanks to Tom Brady being the quarterback, and something the Bucs will have to overcome if they want to reach the postseason and secure a seventh championship for Brady.

“We have stunk in those games,” Arians said.

On the one hand, prime-time games provide rare national exposure for players such as Lavonte David, who is arguably one of the best inside linebackers in the league the past eight seasons but has reached the Pro Bowl only once. On the other hand, the Bucs have played lousy in their prime-time games, averaging 15.67 points and giving up 27 points per game this season, compared to scoring 35.57 and giving up 20.71 in 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. ET games.

This week, Arians overhauled the team’s practice schedule in preparation for Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Rams (8:15 p.m. ET, Monday Night Football on ESPN). First, he gave his players Wednesday off to rest after treating it as a bonus practice before the team’s first Monday night game. Then the Bucs had their normal 11:25 a.m. practice Thursday, followed by a 7:30 p.m. practice Friday at Raymond James Stadium and a Saturday night practice at the facility.

“We’ve got to try something because we’ve had really, really poor starts in night ballgames,” said Arians, who will also have the Bucs do some work Monday morning in hopes of getting off to a better start. “What we’re trying to do now is practice at night so that we know when to rev it up.”

Brate added, “Obviously, we have a night game coming up this week, and if things go the way that we think, where we’re playing playoff games, then we’re gonna be on that stage definitely more often toward the end of the year as well, so it’s something that we’ve gotta kind of figure out.”

‘Guys’ body clocks just roll differently’

The Bucs have played most of their games the past several years at 1 p.m. and typically have practiced at 11 a.m. during the week, so that’s when they’re used to being mentally sharp and primed to compete — not seven hours later.

“When you look at it for a 1 o’clock game, as soon as you wake up, the game is right on top of you,” defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers said. “And these guys’ body clocks just roll differently than when you wake up on a night game — you kind of just sit around — like we always say, you hurry up and wait. So you’re sitting around. You’re sitting around constantly. Then all a sudden at 8, they want you to be wide-open, and sometimes it has affected us a little differently, and we’ve been off to a couple slow starts.”

Brate, who has played in 11 prime-time games in his career, thinks there’s a unique challenge to playing Monday night, as opposed to other prime-time slots.

“The Thursday night game, you’re just trying to go over the game plan as much as you can because it’s pretty new. You haven’t really practiced much of it,” he said. “Sunday, you’ve got football on all day. Monday’s the weird one, for sure. It definitely is a whole different deal. You’re sitting there waiting the whole day to play the game.”

Brate emphasized that each player has to come up with a routine that works for him.

“I like to go for a long walk in the morning. You get out, exercise a little, take a nap and go over the game plan,” Brate said. “That’s pretty much it. It’s pretty boring.”

Brady focuses on being mentally ready.

“You kind of get your physical prep done at your last day of practice, and then it’s a lot of mental prep from that point on,” he said. “Even all day Monday, I’ll be studying tape and making sure I’m prepared and have seen every look, I know how to handle every situation, and then you’ve gotta go out there and execute it.”

David, who has played 13 night games in his career, prefers to stay active throughout the day after a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast. He’ll get in a light workout, such as jogging, take a nap and then start stretching in the afternoon.

“You can’t just sit around all day because once it’s time to play, you just can’t pop up and get ready because you’ll probably be drowsy all day. You’ll probably be lagging and dragging around,” David said.

But it’s a balancing act.

“You’ve gotta get yourself ready, but like, how early do you really start to lock in and get yourself ready mentally, the adrenaline, all that stuff?” said running backs coach Todd McNair, who played eight years in the NFL. “Sometimes you wait until you get to the stadium, and sometimes it kicks in a little late. You have to wrestle with getting prepared too long, getting prepared too early … maybe a little mental burnout on the day.”

David, however, sees the lengthy wait as a positive. Take the Rams, for instance. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay loves to use pre-snap motion and play-action, which can get anxious linebackers out of position.

“It gives you time to knock out some things that you may have questions about coming into that game,” David said. “You’ve just gotta find time to do something. In my opinion, you can’t just sit around and wait for the game to come.”



Ryan Clark and Stephen A. Smith debate whether Tom Brady’s offense or the Buccaneers’ defense has the bigger impact on Tampa Bay’s success.

What do the numbers say

In non-prime-time games, the Bucs’ offensive efficiency, which measures success on a per-play basis, is 81.9, according to ESPN Stats & Information. There are currently only two other teams with offensive efficiency ratings above 80 this season: the Kansas City Chiefs (86.0) and Green Bay Packers (81.9). But the Bucs’ offensive efficiency in prime-time games is 35.6.

In seven non-prime-time games, the Bucs have averaged 4.28 offensive touchdowns per game (30 total). In their three prime-time games, they have scored a total of three.

In non-prime-time games, the Bucs’ third-down conversion rate is 49.5%, whereas in prime time, it’s just more than half that, at 25.7%. In non-prime-time games, their red zone touchdown efficiency is 75.8%, and in prime time, it’s 42.9%.

In non-prime-time games, the Bucs have a league-best 50% tight-window completion rate. In prime-time games, it’s 21.1% — 26th in the league.

Slow starts have been a problem on offense. In the first halves of their seven non-prime-time games, the Bucs have had a total of four turnovers. They’ve recorded four turnovers in the first halves of three prime-time games. Opponents have also scored 21 points off turnovers in the first halves of the Bucs’ seven non-prime-time games, and in their three prime-time games? Also 21 points.

On defense, the Bucs have given up an average of 1.57 red zone touchdowns per game in non-prime time. That number shoots to 3.33 in prime time.

‘We haven’t been one of those teams’

Is there something unique to prime-time games that winners seem to figure out? Do coaches handle those games differently or have a proclivity for trick plays or more aggressive blitzes? Arians doesn’t think so.

“I think the teams that are in prime time year in and year out [are successful],” Arians said.

His point is valid. Of the top five winningest teams the past five seasons in prime time, all five are in the top seven of prime-time games played in that span.

  1. Seattle Seahawks: 15-5 (.738)

  2. Pittsburgh Steelers: 14-5 (.737)

  3. Philadelphia Eagles: 15-6 (.714)

  4. Kansas City Chiefs: 16-8 (.667)

  5. New England Patriots: 15-8 (.652)

The Bucs are 24th, with 10, and they’ve gone 3-7 in those games.

“We haven’t been one of those teams, so we’re learning about that,” Arians said. “We have a couple players who were — AB [Antonio Brown], Tom [Brady] and a few other guys have been in a ton of prime-time games. The rest of the ballclub, you have to learn how to play then because it does ratchet up a little bit.”

Including the postseason, Brady has played in 78 prime-time games — the most of any active quarterback in the league since 2001 and second most of any active player, behind Las Vegas Raiders tight end Jason Witten. Brady is 51-23 in those games (.689).

The eight starters on the Bucs’ offense not named Brady, Brown (37) or Gronkowski (33) have played in a combined 59 prime-time games, so there’s a huge gap in big-game experience.

“I gotta lead, and I gotta go out there, and I gotta show up,” Gronkowski said. “I’m a guy that’s been in prime time many times, so if we want to turn it around, it definitely starts with a guy like myself, who has plenty of experience of playing at night.”

The Bucs will need to figure things out, as every game matters at 7-3 — especially conference games. Not only are the Bucs fighting to win the division, but they’re also fighting for playoff seeding, as only the top team in each conference secures a first-round bye. Playing against an NFC East opponent is also much more attractive than an NFC West foe.

Gronkowski wants his team to treat all games the same, though.

“It’s just another football game, and that’s how we’ve gotta treat it. You can’t let it get to your head that it’s a prime-time game, that you’ve gotta do this, you’ve gotta do that,” he said. “No. It’s just another football game. It’s just at night this time. We’ve gotta show up and do what we’ve been doing all year, no matter what time the game is. There are just no excuses.”

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