TAMPA — If coach Lovie Smith has a formula for winning that he’d like the Buccaneers to follow, it probably looks a lot like what went down at the beginning the second quarter Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium.
On the first play of the quarter, tackle Gerald McCoy broke through the Miami Dolphins front and sacked Ryan Tannehill, forcing a fumble that end Michael Johnson grabbed and ran 6 yards to the Miami 25.
Four plays later, with a further-revamped offensive line offering the time and protection he didn’t have a week ago, quarterback Josh McCown delivered a 7-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
The combination of the defensive takeaway and the quick-strike score gave the Bucs their first lead of the preseason, and though it didn’t hold up during a 20-14 loss, it was an indication of what the Bucs are capable of.
“That’s exactly how you want to draw it (up),’’ Smith said of the scenario that resulted in a 7-3 lead. “It’s about taking the ball away. And after you take it away, it’s about getting a touchdown, and we were able to do that there.’’
That they were, but this being the Bucs, something always seems to get in the way of tangible progress.
On this night it was a rookie mistake by wide receiver Mike Evans, the Bucs’ first-round draft pick.
Evans put the Bucs in a position to extend their lead on their next possession, leaping high to grab a Mike Glennon pass, breaking a tackle and then running the final 25 yards for what appeared to be a 42-yard touchdown.
Just as he was about reach the goal line, though, Evans was caught from behind by cornerback Brent Grimes, who punched the ball out of Evans’ right arm and watched as it rolled out of the end zone for a touchback.
“It was a great play to get it down to there,’’ Smith said later. “But Mike will keep it in his outside arm the next time and hold on to it a little bit tighter. As a rookie you learn from mistakes like that.
“But our rookies are doing too many good things for me to really harp on that right now. The thing is, whenever you keep score you want to win and we didn’t, but I think we can build on this as we head into Buffalo.’’
The Bucs didn’t win because their reserves on both sides of the ball failed to play at the same level as the starters — they were outscored 17-7 over the bulk of the final three quarters of play.
Still, the Bucs walked away from their first game under Smith at Ray-Jay feeling as if they’d taken some significant strides toward solvency, particularly on the offensive side.
McCown, for example, was far more efficient this time out, completing five of seven passes for 46 yards and the touchdown, and it was largely because his offensive line gave him a chance to be more efficient.
Unlike last week against Jacksonville, when he was constantly under siege throughout a little more than a quarter’s worth of work, McCown had time on several occasions to set up in the pocket, find a receiver and step into his throw.
“It was better,’’ McCown said. “It was more of what we need to start looking like. We’re still not there yet, obviously, but it’s a good feeling to finish with a touchdown. It was Buc football.
“I mean, that’s how we want it to be. Coach Smith and I were talking about that — takeaways and touchdowns. That’s what we have to do. The defense got (the ball) for us, gave us some field position and we were able to punch it in.”
That McCoy made the play that allowed that to happen didn’t come as much of a surprise. If anyone on the roster looks like he’s ready for the start of the regular season, it’s the Bucs’ two-time Pro Bowler.
In addition to the sack-fumble, McCoy also had a quarterback hit and a 5-yard tackle for loss. He has four tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits and two tackles for loss in a little more than two quarters of preseason play.
The first-team defense, meanwhile, has yet to allow a touchdown in two games. And though it’s a small sample size — a little more than two quarters of play — it’s an indication this unit is ready to roll.
“We did all right,’’ Johnson said. “Miami came out doing some things, getting the ball out a little quicker than usual, and they were able to move it a little bit. But we just stayed focused and kept trying to contain and play hard.
“When you just continue to play hard, good things will happen. And as you could see, we were able to get the turnover. Gerald made a great play and we were got the ball back for the offense, which led to a big score.’’
McCoy said his sack-fumble came as a result of him reading the offense and waiting for the right opportunity to take advantage of the game plan the Dolphins put together for him.
“I was beating (the guard) inside, but they were bringing help, bringing the center over to help,’’ McCoy said. “This time they gave me a one-on-one and (the guard) over-set me. But that’s our job: Get the ball out.
“It just makes it so much easier on the offense. You put them on a short field. I mean, the offense and the defense are supposed to complement each other. If our offense has a long drive, it gives us a break and puts us in a position to keep them backed up.
“And if they’re backed up, the defense has to keep them back so the offense has a short field. They go hand in hand. We’re all just trying to work together.’’