EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — For more than 59 minutes Sunday afternoon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers second-year linebacker Lavonte David was arguably the best player on the MetLife Stadium field.
He had made eight tackles, including two for a loss, broken up two passes, intercepted one and laid claim to one of the Bucs' five sacks of Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith.
Then, in the millisecond it takes to finish off one play, David's day changed. So, too, did the outcome of what appeared to be a season-opening victory for Tampa Bay.
In a game littered with mistakes by the Bucs, the one David made in hitting Smith out of bounds at the end of a 10-yard run with seven seconds to play in the game proved the most egregious.
Instead of leaving New York with little more than a Hail Mary option from the Bucs 45-yard line, the roughing penalty David earned set up a 48-yard field goal that Jets kicker Nick Folk nailed with two seconds left.
More than 30 minutes later, David was still sitting in front of his locker, his grass-stained uniform — all the way down to his sweat-soaked wrist bands — still on, staring wide-eyed at the floor in front of him.
“I wouldn't have hit him if I hadn't thought he was in bounds,” David said. “When they threw the flag, it definitely surprised me. We just have to learn from it and move on.”
The Bucs have a lot more than that to learn from Sunday's game. They committed 13 penalties, struggled with some of the most basic communication concepts and failed to mount any kind of an effective rushing attack, which is supposed to be the bedrock of their offense.
The penalties, though, were the biggest problem. Tampa Bay was flagged for nine in the first 19 minutes of the game and twice in the second quarter on third-down plays that kept eventual Jets scoring drives alive.
The first of those was a defensive holding call that helped set up a 43-yard field goal by Folk that cut Tampa Bay's lead to 7-5. The second was an unnecessary-roughness call on safety Mark Barron that helped set up the Jets' only touchdown, a 7-yard pass from Smith to Kellen Winslow that cut Tampa Bay's lead to 14-12 just before halftime.
“I don't think it's a matter of us being undisciplined,” Bucs coach Greg Schiano said of the penalties. “When you're playing hard and playing on the edge, there are going to be some penalties.”
Tampa Bay's offense took two delay-of-game penalties and a false start that derailed its first possession. The drive actually started off well, the Bucs gaining 29 yards in their first three plays, but went backward in a hurry when the transmitter in quarterback Josh Freeman's helmet went on the fritz.
The Bucs thought they fixed those communication issues by changing Freeman's helmet, but more issues cropped up in the second drive on third-and-5 from their 8-yard line. When Freeman clapped his hands to get the attention of receiver Mike Williams, who was lined up on the wrong side of the formation, center Jeremy Zuttah snapped the ball.
Freeman got to the ball ahead of a charging Jets defender, but kicked it out of the end zone before sliding into the goal post. He earned a penalty for an illegal kick, giving the Jets a safety that produced an early 2-0 lead.
“There were a number of times where the microphones went completely dead and I couldn't hear a thing,” Freeman said. “But we still have to find a way to get into a manageable play and run it in those situations.”
The Bucs spent the majority of the game struggling in that endeavor, largely a result of their inability to create an effective play. Running behind an offensive line that featured a rusty right guard in Davin Joseph and without left guard Carl Nicks (toe, staph infection), Doug Martin gained just 65 yards on 24 carries, including 41 on his first 21.
“A few times we hit on some things but it was not the running game we're going to have,” Schiano said. “We just didn't feel like we were in a rhythm. But we better figure that out — and fast.”
The Bucs did figure it out in time to win Sunday. Martin had gains of 17 and 7 yards that, combined with a 37-yard pass to Vincent Jackson, helped set up a 37-yard Rian Lindell field goal for a 17-15 lead with 34 seconds left.
With the Jets out of timeouts, just about everyone on both sides of the field thought the game was over. But Smith followed up a 25-yard pass to Winslow with his 10-yard run, and David delivered the hit that changed everything.
“It's tough, but that's the way it is in the NFL,” said safety Dashon Goldson, who drew an unnecessary-roughness penalty in the first half. “You can't afford to give up penalties like that. It's just one of those things that happens.
“And I know Lavonte, he's not a dirty player, he's a smart player. He was just trying to make a play. It just cost us this time.”