|Bucs may be without Winston versus Bills|
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, woefully deficient away from home this season, already were facing a stiff challenge heading into Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. Now they might be forced to play without quarterback Jameis Winston.
The Buccaneers (2-3) lost Winston to a sprained shoulder joint in a 38-33 loss against the Arizona Cardinals, when they fell behind 31-0 early in the third quarter. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter has not ruled out Winston as Sunday's starter, but the third-year player has been limited at practice, leaving most of the work for veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has made 116 NFL starts.
The Bills (3-2), whose hold on first place in the AFC East slipped away during their bye week, said they are preparing for both quarterbacks.
"Jameis can make things happen with his arm and feet and Fitzpatrick, we've seen him before and know what he can do," Bills linebacker Preston Brown said. "No matter who's out there, we have to be prepared and come in with a good game plan."
Fitzpatrick passed for 290 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions after Winston departed with his injury against the Cardinals. Winston has made 37 consecutive starts for Tampa Bay since becoming the NFL draft's No. 1 overall selection in 2015.
"The way I understand it, he (Winston) will be medically cleared to play," Koetter said. "I know Jameis can handle a lot of pain. I think it will be, 'Does Jameis feel like he can play at the level he needs to play at?' The No. 1 thing in all of this is that Jameis' long-term health has to be the No. 1 thing."
Even if Winston isn't the starter, it's possible that the Bucs might roll the dice and feel confident with him as the backup. Ryan Griffin, injured in the preseason, isn't eligible for a return until Week 9 and the Bucs didn't immediately move to sign another quarterback.
Fitzpatrick has played for six other NFL teams, including the Bills from 2009-12, where he went 20-33 as a starter.
"That's why you have an experienced backup," Koetter said. "That's why you have a guy like that. Jameis likes to take every rep in practice, so you need a guy that's not a developmental guy that can go in without getting any reps. Other than a handful of plays, Ryan went in and did a good job."
But not good enough.
Koetter already was concerned with Tampa Bay's road performance in Week 2, when the Bucs fell behind 28-3 in the third quarter en route to a 34-17 defeat at Minnesota. The first-half effort at Arizona was similarly dismal.
What would Koetter have done differently?
"Miss the plane," he said in a non-smiling attempt at humor. "We did things that bad football teams do. Right now, we're a bad football team.
"The lesson is we've got to start faster. We've turned into this team that looks like gangbusters in the fourth quarter, but does not look like gangbusters in the first quarter. It's a four-quarter game. We've got to start faster."
Tampa Bay's defense will regain linebacker Kwon Alexander, who missed the past four games with a hamstring injury. Including a four-game suspension at the end of his rookie season in 2015, the Bucs are 1-7 without Alexander in the lineup.
Alexander's return will bring Tampa Bay's linebacker corps back to full strength. Lavonte David, who had missed two games with a sprained ankle, returned a fumble 21 yards for a touchdown against the Cardinals.
As for the Bills, they have been a pleasant surprise in the early season with victories against the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos, while allowing an NFL-low 74 points (and an average of 14.8 points) through five games.
Bills first-year coach Sean McDermott acknowledged his team's strides, but said more work must be done.
"When you go up against great competition, your flaws get exposed and your weaknesses get highlighted," McDermott said. "We have to learn from those opportunities."
McDermott said he'd like to see more productivity from the running game, which is averaging only 3.4 yards per carry. LeSean McCoy (279 yards) is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry and hasn't scored a touchdown.
"We need to move the chains and score," McCoy said. "It's time to get this thing going. It's time to get myself going."
Quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who has averaged 570 yards rushing in the past two seasons, has only 121 this season. Taylor has completed 62.5 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and two interceptions.
"Tyrod has had some very good days and playoff caliber moments," McDermott said. "You want to see the offense move and grow as the season goes on. The most important thing to me is ... that we are an effective offense that can move the ball. That's all I care about. Whatever it takes, whether it's the run or the pass, you have to be able to move the ball down the field in some way, shape or form."
With a victory against the Bucs, the Bills will move to 3-0 at home, continuing a point of emphasis. McDermott said his players tap a sign in the hallway each time they go onto the field. It reads: "Defend our Dirt."
"They know what it means," McDermott said. "There's a lot of sweat equity that's been put into this football field and this team, whether it's the players or the fans."
Regardless of the opposing quarterback, McDermott said the Bills are facing a difficult test.
"This is a good team coming in here," McDermott said. "They've got weapons all over the field. It's another big challenge for us. It's at home, so we look forward to getting back here and playing in front of our fans."