FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — If adversity brings teams closer together, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might have the tightest locker room in the National Football League.
After dropping eight of their past nine games dating to last season, the Bucs are being severely tested as a group heading into a Week 4 home matchup against Arizona.
“Right now, we all have to stick together,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said after Sunday's 23-3 setback to New England left Tampa Bay at 0-3. “It's a long season and we can still control our destiny from here on out. You can't point the finger. You've got to look at yourself in the mirror and see what you can do better. All I know is winning solves a lot of problems.”
Eight of the Bucs' 22 starters Sunday boast at least one Pro Bowl berth, but Tampa Bay's chances of ending a five-year playoff drought are already dim.
“We've got to be better, simple as that,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “As a defense, we gave up 23 points. If we hold them to zero, we win. Bottom line, we didn't do what we're supposed to do. There's something missing that we have to figure out. I don't know what it is, but I do know that if we separate and don't stick together, it can't get better.”
The Bucs realize the recent flurry of national reports suggesting discord within the organization won't end until victories stack up.
“Falling apart isn't really an option right now,” said defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who posted one of Tampa Bay's three sacks against Tom Brady. “Leaders have to step up and followers have to follow. You can't listen to the outside voices, because we know what's coming. Our only choice is to put our head down and keep going.”
Going for it on fourth down
Before Sunday's game, the Bucs hadn't attempted a fourth-down conversion this season.
Despite a change of tactics, they still haven't made one.
The Bucs went 0-for-4 on fourth down at Gillette Stadium. One failure, in particular, came back to haunt them.
The Patriots had just taken a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter when Tampa Bay faced third-and-1 at the New England 38-yard line. After Vincent Jackson failed to hold on to Josh Freeman's accurate pass deep down the left sideline, Doug Martin was stuffed for no gain running behind Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks.
The Patriots then drove 62 yards in 10 plays en route to a 14-3 advantage.
“We just have to finish,” said Martin, who made a lot of his 88 yards on his own against a stingy defense. “Everybody has to do their job and follow through. We have to put points on the board.”
On Tampa Bay's three other fourth-down opportunities, Freeman couldn't complete passes under a heavy rush.
“I think we stepped up big-time today with the challenge of Doug Martin running the rock,” Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “We forced them into some situations we knew we could win in.”
New England quarterback Tom Brady was the happy beneficiary of Tampa Bay's fourth-down failures.
“Tampa got stuck a few times in the fringe area going into the wind and had to go for it because it's too short to punt it and too long for a field goal,” Brady said.
Changing of the guard
After his first game action in 11 months, Carl Nicks can't wait to hit the field again.
Tampa Bay's Pro Bowl left guard played for the first time since suffering a toe injury last October that shelved him for the final nine games of the 2012 season.
“I held up pretty good,” said Nicks, who was matched up for much of the afternoon with Patriots Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. “I got a little winded out there in the first half, but then I got my second wind. This was a good game to help me get that wind back. My toe felt fine.”
Nicks was recuperating well from toe surgery before a MRSA staph infection last month set him back and delayed his return until Sunday. For the first time in a regular-season game, Nicks and fellow guard Davin Joseph lined up together, but the combination couldn't spark Tampa Bay's dormant attack.
“Missed opportunities are the story of our season,” Nicks said. “We've got to tune it up and make corrections. We can't finger point, because we win as a team and lose as a team. What we need to do is go back to the drawing board and figure some things out.”
“Yeah,” Nicks said. “Like yesterday.”