When first-year head coach Greg Schiano began watching films of the 2011 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he was struck by how sloppily the team played en route to a 4-12 season.
Schiano and his coaching staff stressed ball security throughout the offseason and training camp and the results are apparent as the Bucs (5-4) enter Sunday's game at Carolina (2-7) with four wins in their past five games.
"His philosophies are still the same as they were at Rutgers – take care of the ball,'' said Bucs WR Tiquan Underwood, who played for Schiano at Rutgers. "It has paid good dividends because we've been doing pretty well in the turnover battle.''
Pretty well is an understatement.
Tampa Bay's two interceptions in Sunday's 34-24 victory against San Diego improved the Bucs to plus-11 in turnover ratio, fourth in the NFL behind the Patriots, Bears and Giants. Those three clubs have combined for a 19-9 record, while the bottom three teams in turnover differential (Chiefs, Eagles, Bills) were a combined 7-19 heading into Monday night's Chiefs-Steelers matchup.
With one 5-yard penalty and no giveaways, the Bucs basically played a mistake-free game against the Chargers, who had 65 offensive snaps compared to only 43 by Tampa Bay.
"Taking care of the football and taking the ball away is why we won the game,'' Schiano said Monday. "To me, that's No. 1. Take care of the football and you give yourself a chance to win.''
Quarterback Josh Freeman has been particularly careful during this five-game stretch, throwing 13 touchdown passes and only one interception in that span.
"Josh is maturing every day and every game,'' Underwood said, "and it's a sight to see. As he gets better, we follow his lead.''
Game of adjustments
You don't rush for 251 yards and four touchdowns at Oakland without attracting the attention of upcoming opponents.
That's what happened to Bucs rookie RB Doug Martin on Sunday, when the Chargers stacked the box with an extra defender in an effort to contain the dynamic first-round draft pick out of Boise State.
"I don't like it,'' Martin said of San Diego's defensive game plan, designed to frustrate the NFC's No. 3 rusher. "Now we've got to get in the film room and find ways to get around that. I'll take it as a sign of respect.''
Martin was still productive against San Diego, gaining 68 yards in 19 carries and adding 51 yards on three receptions, including a first-quarter flip he turned into a 42-yard gain to set up Tampa Bay's first touchdown.
The Bucs had possession for only 23:19 as the Chargers converted 10-of-15 third-down situations.
"It was a funny feeling because we weren't on the field as much as we wanted,'' said Martin, who ranks second to Minnesota's Adrian Peterson in total yards from scrimmage. "Rivers did a good job of controlling the clock. It was a little weird, but we made the most of our opportunities.''
Land of hope and dreams
For players like Underwood, CB Leonard Johnson and RT Demar Dotson, it's refreshing to be with an organization that doesn't play politics with the depth chart.
Underwood is a former seventh-round pick by Jacksonville, while Dotson and Johnson are undrafted free agents. They are now playing extensively for the Bucs, ahead of high draft choices Arrelious Benn (second round), Myron Lewis (third) and Jeremy Trueblood (second).
"There's a feeling that you have a chance here, no matter if you're a first-rounder, a free agent or in between,'' Underwood said. "As a player, that's all you want. We all know how this business is at times, but we all signed up for it and we understand it. If you work hard and play well, you'll get a chance to play in Tampa.''
CB Eric Wright tweaked a previous Achilles injury in the opening quarter Sunday and couldn't return, Schiano said. …Freeman leads the league in average yards per pass attempt (8.27), a key indicator of quarterback efficiency. …Vincent Jackson (21.4) and Mike Williams (18.3) rank 1-2 in yards per catch among players with at least 25 receptions. …The Bucs are seeking their first four-game winning streak since 2008, coach Jon Gruden's last season in Tampa. …Jackson, Johnson and LT Donald Penn will lead a group of Tampa Bay players and cheerleaders Tuesday on a visit to Northwest Elementary School in St. Petersburg from 1-3 p.m. to speak about the importance of good health and fitness.