FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The 2013 preseason was nearing its conclusion and as far as Buccaneers left tackle Donald Penn was concerned, that conclusion could not come soon enough.
As the preseason dragged on, Penn grew weary of all the questions being asked about a Bucs offense that was running like a Pinto on a flat tire. He was certain the onset of the regular season would change that.
Well, guess what?
Two weeks into the regular season, the questions have not ceased. In fact, after the offense stumbled like a drunken Gasparilla reveler during consecutive losses to the Jets and Saints to open the season, the questions are coming more regularly and with greater urgency.
“It’s frustrating, because our defense has really been playing great,’’ Penn said. “There are just some things we have to correct on our side. But it’s definitely up to us to pick up the slack.’’
This is not how it was supposed to be.
After ranking ninth in the league in total offense last season, the Bucs fully expected to be one of the league’s most potent offenses this season with Pro Bowl guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks set to return from injuries and most everyone else back for a second season in coordinator Mike Sullivan’s offensive scheme.
Instead, Tampa Bay enters today’s game at the New England Patriots ranked 29th in total offense and 27th in scoring with 31 points.
So, what’s gone wrong? Well, just about everything — from injuries and illnesses such as the staph infection that sidelined Nicks the first two games to insults such as the ones they endured when they couldn’t get a play off during their opening series against the Jets.
“It’s hard to put a finger on any one particular scheme or concept or player or coach,’’ Sullivan said. “There’s been a multitude of little issues here or there that have occurred, and oftentimes at the most inopportune times.’’
Timing, certainly, has been an issue. When the transmitter in quarterback Josh Freeman’s helmet went out four plays into the first possession of the season, the Bucs suddenly found it impossible to even get a play off on time.
They were called for consecutive delay-of-game penalties while they tried to correct the problem, whistled for a false start one play after that and called for three more pre-snap errors in the 18-17 loss to the Jets.
Throw in four more pre-snap penalties in last week’s 16-14 loss to the Saints and only the San Francisco 49ers (11) have been penalized more for pre-snap timing mistakes.
“The false starts, things like that, they’re inexcusable,’’ Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. “We can’t do that stuff. It’s frustrating for both the players and the coaches, and I’m certain we’ll get it fixed, but it has hurt us.’’
Injuries have hurt, too. The Bucs haven’t had Nicks so far — he is expected to start today — and Davin Joseph admits he’s been a bit rusty since returning from a 2012 season-ending knee injury.
Tampa Bay also hasn’t had tight end Tom Crabtree so far and played the opener without fullback Erik Lorig.
Without Crabtree, who the Bucs consider their best option as a pass-catching tight end, Freeman has been forced to throw almost exclusively to wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. That has made the passing game less diverse, more predictable and easier to defend.
Lorig’s absence hampered the running game against the Jets, who held running back Doug Martin to 65 yards on 24 carries.
“I’m not trying to make excuses, but when you don’t have Carl Nicks in there and you don’t have Erik Lorig in there, it’s hard to run the ball,’’ Williams said. “You saw that in the first game, for sure.
“People don’t realize it, but Erik Lorig is a big part of our running game. ... He comes back (last week) and the whole running game changed.’’
With Lorig active against the Saints, Martin gained 144 yards on 29 carries for a per-carry average of 5.0 — nearly double his mark from the previous week.
While the running game has finally gained legs, though, the passing game has remained mostly grounded. The 10th-best passing team in the league with a 249-yard per game average last year, the Bucs are averaging only 149 yards this year.
Freeman has taken the brunt of the blame, of course. He has thrown only two interceptions, but he has only two touchdown passes to go with a 45.3 completion percentage and 63.0 passer rating, numbers that rank 33rd and 30th in the league, respectively.
“Josh has struggled a little bit,’’ Schiano said. “But I don’t think it’s just Josh. It’s our whole offense. We’ve been out of sync. We haven’t scored points, and in this league you need to score points.’’
It’s hard to score points when you can’t move the chains, and that has been a problem. The Bucs have converted 11 of 29 third-down tries (37.9-percent).
Against the Saints, Freeman was 3-for-11 on third-down throws, but several others could have completed. Two were dropped by Jackson. One was completed to Williams, who failed to keep both feet in bounds. And one was completed for first-down yardage, but wiped out by an illegal formation penalty. Freeman also completed two third-down throws in which the receiver failed to reach the first-down marker.
Though it didn’t come on third down, a 73-yard touchdown pass was wiped out by an illegal motion penalty.
“We have to make those plays,’’ Freeman said. “The reason we don’t get the first downs can’t be on us. It has to be because they made a great play to stop us. So, cleaning up the illegal procedures, the drops and those things — sure, they happen over the course of a season — but finding a way to limit them is a big part of our focus.’’
Amid all the problems, Freeman put the Bucs in position to win each of their games. He led them on a field goal drive for a 17-15 lead with 34 seconds left against the Jets, only to watch the defense surrender the winning field goal with 2 seconds left. Against the Saints, he directed a seven-minute drive that put Tampa Bay in position to extend a 14-13 lead in the final 70 seconds — but Rian Lindell missed a 47-yard field goal try and New Orleans kicked the winning field goal on the game’s final play.
In both games, the Bucs elected to run on late third-down plays when picking up a first down would have allowed them to use more of the game clock. Against the Jets, Martin was stuffed for no gain on third-and-3 from the New York 19-yard line with 50 seconds to play. Against the Saints, Martin gained 3 yards on third-and-6 from the Saints’ 32-yard line with 1:56 to play.
Schiano and Sullivan defended the decision to run against the Saints, saying Martin had run the ball well that day and they believed it was the best approach in that moment.
“You have to go with the decision you feel is right at the time, and you can’t beat yourself up over it,’’ Sullivan said. “Ultimately, it didn’t work out for us. But, again, what we’re focusing on now is how to solve some of the other issues.’’
Schiano thinks his team has made substantial progress in that area.
“It’ll come,’’ he said of the offense. “We just have to go out and work on it and be more detailed, more focused. It’s clicked before. It’s not like this group hasn’t done it before. We just need to get it going, and soon.
“We need to do it during the week and carry that over to the game field on Sunday, and I have a feeling we will. I’ve got a feeling our guys will do that, and if we do, it will be a relief.’’