TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the New Orleans Saints where they wanted them. They held a 14-3 halftime lead, stonewalled arguably the league's best rushing duo in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram and kept Drew Brees out of the end zone.
But a blocked punt by Taysom Hill in the third quarter, two missed field goal attempts by Cairo Santos, penalties from the offensive line and missed connections in the passing game sent the Bucs spiraling downward. New Orleans then scored 25 unanswered points to win 28-14, spoiling what looked to be a breakthrough game and the Bucs' chance to make a statement in a season that had looked to be long gone several weeks ago.
"It's frustrating ... demoralizing," tight end Cameron Brate said. His teammates echoed that same sentiment, with a few profane words overheard in the tunnel as the Bucs players retreated to the locker room.
If only the Bucs (5-8) could have put together four quarters of cohesive football instead of self-destructing; it's a battle coach Dirk Koetter has fought since he became the head coach in 2016.
"When you go into the half 14-3, you've got all the confidence in the world that you're gonna come out of this football game winning it," linebacker Lavonte David said. "When you don't get the job done, it's tough. It's tough on everybody. Everybody takes it to heart. It's something we've gotta learn from. You've gotta play four quarters."
If only the Bucs could have relied on a passing attack that had been the backbone of their top-ranked offense all season, but instead, quarterback Jameis Winston completed 47.4 percent of his passes, the second-lowest completion percentage of his career.
"We've never struggled like that in our passing game. ... We're one of the best passing teams in the league, but we weren't today," Koetter said. "They played tight coverage on our guys all day. They had their guys right up on us."
Wide receiver Chris Godwin, who had 101 receiving yards and a touchdown last week against the Carolina Panthers, was held to only one catch on 10 targets. Leading receiver Mike Evans finished with four catches for 86 yards, but the game's longest reception was Evans' 36 yards on the opening drive. Brate's two touchdowns were the only real bright spot for the Bucs' offense.
Unlike Week 1, when Tampa Bay had more than 400 passing yards, the Saints -- statistically the league's worst pass defense -- mixed up their coverages and took away the Bucs' ability to push the ball downfield.
They were confusing Bucs receivers by playing both man-coverage with outside leverage and two-man coverage with outside leverage, funneling everything inside towards the strength of the defense. Wide receiver Adam Humphries, who had four catches for 42 yards, said it was "rare" seeing two-man with outside leverage.
"[With] two-man, you’re usually getting inside leverage and the out-routes are easier. They were disguising some coverages that it was hard for me to tell what it was."
The offensive line also struggled to protect Winston, surrendering four sacks and 10 quarterback hits.
"Jameis was under duress all day," Koetter said. "[He] got hit too many times today. You can't have your quarterback getting hit that many times, whether it's scrambling, running."
Penalties didn't help. The offensive line had three on one drive alone, including two from center Ryan Jensen, taking the Bucs from a first-and- 10 at the Tampa Bay 43-yard line to a fourth-and-26 at the Tampa Bay 27 (linebacker Kevin Minter would tack on a false start on the punt, pushing them even farther back).
Winston actually had a heated conversation with Jensen on the sideline, and offensive line coach George Warhop and several teammates had to intervene.
"It was just a little argument. We cleared the air right away," Jensen said. "Nothing major. There was frustration -- everybody -- we felt like we had an opportunity to go and really put the pedal down and go. We had my personal foul, we had another holding call -- stuff like that. You can't win football games when you're committing penalties like that."
Winston said that the team shouldn't beat itself.
"Brothers have disagreements. We've just got to get everyone tuned back in and go out there and make sure that we are all for each other. ... We all know that we can't hold ourselves back. As you see, when we are on a roll, teams have trouble defending us."
Now at 5-8, the best the Bucs can hope for is to win out and finish at .500 while praying some teams around them collapse so they might have some glimmer of hope of reaching the playoffs. Both the Panthers (6-7) and Atlanta Falcons (4-9) lost on Sunday.
As the losses mount, Winston, Koetter and general manager Jason Licht also face uncertain futures. Their recent two-game win streak had quieted some of the hot-seat discussion of recent weeks, but now Tampa Bay will hit the road to face the league's top two defenses in the Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys.
The Bucs just have to learn to get out of their own way first.