At 3-5, both teams are off to frustrating starts that have coaches Todd Bowles and Mike Vrabel searching for answers to saving seasons gradually slipping away from clubs accustomed to contending for playoff berths.
The Bucs have lost four in a row, their longest skid since 2019. The Titans have dropped three of four following a 2-2 start and haven’t won a road game in nearly a year.
The latter isn’t necessarily comforting for Tampa Bay, which is 1-3 at home entering Sunday’s matchup at Raymond James Stadium.
The Bucs won three of four games to begin the season, but have struggled at home as well as on the road while going 0-4 since their bye week.
“I don’t care where we win. We just need to win a game,” Bowles said.
“There is a lot of ball left. We’re just through the halfway mark of the year,” Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield added. “We’ll learn a lot of lessons from these games that we’ve lost in a row, and we will be stronger for it.”
Tampa Bay’s hopes for salvaging the season are buoyed by the fact no one’s threatening to run away with the NFC South.
The Bucs won the division with a losing record in 2022. And despite wavering lately, they remain in close pursuit of New Orleans (5-4) and Atlanta (4-5), the two rivals ahead of them in the standings.
Bowles is confident his team will rebound from faltering late in a 39-37 loss to C.J. Stroud and the Houston Texans.
Stroud threw for five touchdowns and a NFL rookie-record 470 yards passing, capping the performance by leading a 75-yard, winning drive in the final 46 seconds.
“We play together and we stay together. We go through ups and downs together. We’re a close-knit group,” Bowles said. “There’s progress being made by the offense. There (was) progress being made by the defense. We’ve got to just play all together at the same time.”
The suddenly struggling Bucs defense is facing another rookie quarterback this week as the Titans have turned to Will Levis to try to turn their season around.
The Bucs are 7-5 against rookie QBs since Bowles arrived in Tampa Bay as defensive coordinator in 2019. Levis is 1-1 as a replacement for an injured Ryan Tannehill (high ankle sprain) the past two games.
“You prepare for the team, not the quarterback,” Bowles said. “The quarterback is a product of the system that the team is running, so you get ready for the team.”
The Titans are in a stretch of playing only one game in Nashville over a seven-week period. That included a “home” outing in London, where Tannehill was injured, leading to Levis getting an opportunity to replace him.
Sunday is the second of a three-game road swing before Tennessee finishes the season with five of seven at home.
“We need to find a way to win against Tampa Bay,” Titans defensive lineman Jeffrey Simmons said, sizing up Tennessee’s situation.
“That’s the assessment. That’s what it is,” the two-time Pro Bowl selection added. “Find a way to beat Tampa Bay.”
The Titans made it official Tuesday that Levis is their quarterback moving forward. The 33rd pick overall out of Kentucky tossed four TD passes in his debut in a win over Atlanta on Oct. 29.
He completed seven passes of 20 yards or longer in last week’s 20-16 loss at Pittsburgh, the most for the Titans since Tannehill had seven in the 2022 season opener against the New York Giants.
Tennessee no longer resembles the defense that was the NFL’s stingiest against the run in 2022. The Titans have given up at least 139 yards rushing in four straight games. The Buccaneers are averaging just 78.3 yards rushing per game.
JUST SCORE MORE
The Titans are winless on the road this season, going 0-4 after losing their last three on the road a year ago. They haven’t won a game away from Nashville since last Nov. 17, a prime-time victory at Green Bay.
Their biggest issue this year, though, has been finding a way to score more than 16 points. That’s the most they’ve managed on the road this season, as well as their point totals in each of their last two road losses.
Tampa Bay has also had scoring issues. The offense scored a season-high 37 points last week at Houston after being limited to 37 combined in losses to Detroit, Atlanta and Buffalo the previous three games.
Receiver Chris Godwin was asked if losing to the Texans left a bad taste in his mouth.
“To be honest, you have to treat it like any other game. Win, loss, or draw, you have to move on to the next game,” Godwin said. “You can’t hold on to it but for so long, because then you are setting yourself up for failure for the next week.”
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa Walker contributed.
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