IT SURE WAS NICE TO GET A BREAK!
The Buccaneers were one of the last teams in the NFL to get a bye this season. It’s been a long, stressful 12 weeks since the 2020 season began with that road loss in New Orleans. Now here they are, sitting at 7-5 for the first time since 2016 and in the middle of a wildcard race. It’s unusual territory for Bucs fans. Normally at this time of year, we’re starting to think about which player we want with our top ten draft pick. This year, we’re thinking about the playoffs and the possibility of being the first team ever to host a Super Bowl.
I’ve already talked about what happened in the Chief’s game, so no need to rehash that or the fact that the Bucs lost their last two games at home and three of their last four games. In this “special edition” of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, I’m going to review the first three quarters of the season and preview the final quarter playoff push.
Ronald Jones II
After his first two seasons where he totaled 195 carries for 768 yards and 7 touchdowns, “RoJo” now has 162 carries for 820 yards and 5 touchdowns through 12 games this year. He’s averaging 5.1 yards per carry, which is almost a full yard more than last season. He is currently fourth in rushing yards behind Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook and James Robinson. And he’s tied for third in the league with Alvin Kamara, Phillip Lindsey and Kyler Murray with 6 runs of 20+ yards this year, trailing just Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry.
Jones is on pace for the first 1,000 yard season of his career. I think he’ll reach that mark over the next two games. The Bucs should be looking to give him more touches over these final four games. In the five games this year that he’s had 17+ carries, he’s rushed for 100+ yards in four of them. So look for Jones to get more touches over the next few weeks, especially since the Bucs are facing the 23rd, 27th and 28th ranked defenses in total yards given up.
The Run Defense
Under Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers defense has been like trying to run through a brick wall. They are the #1 ranked run defense in the NFL having given up just 890 rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns in 12 games. Their 3.3 yards per carry average is tied for the best in the league with the Saints. And they’ve only given up 3 runs of 20+ yards all year. The only team with less is the Rams (2).
The Pass Defense
The Bucs young secondary has been heavily criticized over the last two years. Last year, it was for good reason. This year, it’s not. It’s true, the Bucs have the 22nd ranked pass defense in the league allowing 255.8 yards per game. To put that number into perspective, the Rams are 1st with 198.2 yards and the Seahawks are 32nd with 309.8 yards. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Did you know that the Bucs have the fourth most pass attempts by opponents with 38 per game? The only teams getting thrown at more are the Raiders (38.3), Titans (39.9) and Seahawks (44.6).
Did you also know that the Bucs have the second highest percentage of pass plays run against them at 64.39%? Only the Seahawks have a higher percentage (64.85%).
Despite being assaulted through the air almost more than any other team in the league, this Bucs secondary is allowing the fifth lowest yards per completion (9.7). They’re also tied with the Saints for second in the league for opponents interceptions thrown with 1.2 per game. Only the Steelers are better at 1.5 per game. All things considered, this young group of defensive backs have held their own pretty well for most of this season, and they’ll only get better from here.
It’s looking like Jason Licht and the Buccaneers have had yet another really solid draft this year. Their first two picks, right tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield Jr are studs. Their next two picks, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and wide receiver Tyler Johnson have contributed some and look like they could be valuable pieces in the future. And their 6th and 7th round picks, defensive tackle Khalil Davis and linebacker Chapelle Russell are still on the roster. In fact, the only 2020 draft pick NOT on the roster is their second 7th round pick, running back Raymond Calais who was signed by the Rams after being waived by the Bucs.
The most impressive of the class though has been Wirfs. Pro Football Focus (PFF) has him ranked as the third best rookie in the NFL behind Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson and Patriots guard Michael Onwenu. In fact, some draft experts have said that if they had a draft do-over, Wirfs would be a top five pick. He received a perfect grade from PFF for his game last week against the Chiefs where he did not allow a sack or even a QB pressure on 45 pass block snaps. On third and fourth down this season, out of 144 pass blocking snaps, the rookie has allowed just 4 QB pressures and zero sacks. It looks as though Jason Licht has found his right tackle of the future. Now if only he could find a matching one for the left side, they’d be in business.
Tampa Bay has had it’s fair share of kicking woes over the last ten years. That might even be putting it lightly. But now it seems that the Bucs have FINALLY found a reliable kicker in Ryan Succop. This season, he is 22 of 24 on field goals and 36 of 38 on extra points. His 22 field goals made is good enough for 7th in the league and his .917 FG percentage ranks 7th among kickers with 20+ attempts. His only two misses both came from beyond 40 yards out and he’s a perfect 15 of 15 from inside 40 yards. The rest of the team may have had it’s ups and downs this season, but it’s been a nice change not having to close our eyes and cross our fingers for every kick.
Even though they had a rough start to the season, the Bucs have really cleaned up their act with the penalties. Tampa is ranked 12th in the league in penalties averaging 5.6 per game, with the Patriots leading the NFL at just 3.8 per game. Last year, they were one of the most undisciplined teams in football committing a ridiculous 8.3 penalties per game.
One of their biggest offenders early on was left tackle Donovan Smith. He got flagged 7 times in the first five games this season, but he’s really tightened things up committing just one penalty over the last seven games.
The Playoff Hunt
It’s been 13 years since we’ve been talking playoffs in Tampa Bay, at least for the Buccaneers. It’s not a sure thing by any means. As it sits right now, they have a 79% chance of making the playoffs. However, a win over the Vikings on Sunday would boost that number up to 93% since Minnesota is in the wildcard hunt as well. If they lose, their chances drop to 56% and they’re going to start needing some help.
The Bucs could actually clinch a playoff spot in the next two weeks if everything happens just right. They would have to win both games over the Vikings and Falcons. The Cardinals and Bears would have to lose both of their games. The Lions would have to lose to the Packers. And the 49ers would have to lose one of their two games. If all that happens, the Bucs are in.
One of the more frustrating things about this season so far has been the inconsistency on both sides of the football. One week, the offense is clicking on all cylinders and can’t be stopped. The next, they struggle putting points on the board. One week, the defense shuts down a high scoring Packers offense. And a couple weeks later, they give up 260 yards passing in the first quarter to the Chiefs.
It seems like this team is still looking for it’s identity, especially on offense. I’m hoping that they used this bye week to figure out what this team is all about and how they want to finish this season.
One of the reasons the Bucs have five losses is because of their poor starts to games. They are ranked 17th in points scored in the first quarter with 5.4 (Dolphins lead the league with 8.2), while also being ranked 31st in points allowed in the first quarter with 7.5 (Vikings lead the league with 3.2). The only team allowing more points in the first quarter are the Dallas Cowboys at 7.9 points.
Luckily, both the offense AND defense step up their games AFTER the first quarters. The offense goes from 17th in the first (5.4) to 8th in the second (8.8), to 6th in the third (6.0) to 8th in the fourth (8.4). The defense is even better going from 31st in the first (7.5) to 20th in the second (7.8), to 10th in the third (3.8), to 4th in the fourth (4.2). That’s the Inconsistency that I talked about earlier. If the Bucs could play consistent football for all four quarters, then we’d be talking about a much different season right now.
Overall, the Buccaneers have been pretty lucky when it comes to injuries. Unfortunately, the few they have had were to key players. They lost tight end OJ Howard and defensive tackle Vita Vea early on in the season. Neither loss seems to have effected the team too much, but it does make me question what might have been had those injuries not happened.
The New Guys
One of the more disappointing aspects of this team has been the lack of production from running backs Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy. Neither guy has made much of an impact on offense. In fact, McCoy has barely played a snap over the last three games. In 12 games, Fournette now has 69 carries for 271 yards and a 3.9 yards per carry average. He also has 28 catches for 171 yards. I thought that Fournette would start out as the third down back this year, but end up taking Ronald Jones starting spot eventually. That’s not happening. Jones has solidified his starting job, while Fournette’s touches have lessened. Meanwhile, McCoy has all but disappeared from the Bucs offense. He has 6 carries for -1 yard and just 10 catches for 61 yards this year.
Bucs fans have been through just about everything over the years. We’ve endured losing on a level that most fan bases will never experience. In fact, I do believe the Buccaneers are the losingest franchise in all of professional sports. Yet we come into every season optimistic and hopeful. We expect winning football every year. And in nearly every season, we end up disappointed as usual. This season, despite being 7-5 and in the playoff hunt, I feel like this year has still been somewhat disappointing. Maybe expectations were just too high. Maybe there was too much preseason hype. Like Bruce Arians said, people were already trying to hand them the Lombardi Trophy before the season even started. I had the Bucs finishing 12-4 this season when the schedule came out. I thought that was a realistic number. Obviously, that’s not happening. But they could still go 11-5, which would be their best record since the 2005 season.
After signing Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy and Antonio Brown the expectations were through the roof. Especially for the offense. I expected this year’s offense to set NFL records. I expected this year’s offense to be unstoppable. Yet they have struggled to get things going for much of the season. It was understandable given the unusual circumstances this year. No OTA’s. No preseason games. Shortened training camp. There wasn’t time for them to build that chemistry needed to be a potent offense. So we have them time. Four games. Six games. Eight games. Now twelve games later, we’re still waiting on that chemistry to happen. We’re still waiting on this prolific offense to take the league by storm.
Tom Brady is currently 7th in passing yards and 4th in touchdowns, but he’s also tied for the third most interceptions in the league as well. The only two quarterbacks with more are Carson Wentz (15) and Kirk Cousins (12). The Bucs are also 7th in points per game (28.7), just 3 points behind the league leading Packers (31.7).
The offense hasn’t been bad. It’s just been disappointing. And that’s not what any of us expected with all of this firepower. Hopefully, they’ll come out of this bye week firing on all cylinders and can take advantage of playing some not so good defenses over their last 4 games.
It’s been a long season so far, full of ups and downs. The Bucs are 7-5, sitting in 6th place and in control of their own playoff destiny. Should we be disappointed with 7-5 right now? When you consider the fact that three of those losses came by a total of 7 points to three teams that are in the playoff race and that the Bucs have had the third toughest schedule in the league so far, I’m not so sure we should be. We should be happy that we’re even talking about the playoffs this late in the season. Usually we stop talking about making the playoffs by Week 5. And it’s not just about getting into the playoffs. Towards the end of the Bucs/Chiefs game, Tony Romo mentioned that he wouldn’t be surprised to see them playing each other again in Tampa at the end of this season.
He may not be wrong.
If this team can come out of this bye week healthy and focused, then they could end up being one of the hottest teams in the league going into the postseason. The Bucs are one of the most complete teams in the NFL. Now if they could just start playing complete games on a consistent basis, they could really do some damage. They’ll get a nice test when they take on the 6-6 Vikings at Raymond James Stadium this weekend. The road to the tournament starts on Sunday.
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!