Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Race to the Finish | S.S. Mailbag 

This week, Bucs fans have questions about the team's chances to sweep the last four games, the production of rookie Antoine Winfield, Jr. and more

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In the introduction to last week's mailbag I noted a handful of Tampa Bay Buccaneers players who have the potential to break some of the team's single-season records in 2020. Most notably, Tom Brady needs six touchdown passes over the last four games to break Jameis Winston's 2019 record of 33 and Mike Evans needs two more touchdown catches to break his own team record of 12 in that category.

It's not surprising that Brady and Evans are both closing in on team records because they have certainly helped each other out a lot. That has been particularly true in the red zone. While Evans' per-game averages for receptions (4.0) and yards (51.1) are the lowest of his seven-year career he has still been a critical part of an offense that has the weapons and the capability to really spread the ball around.

Both Brady and Evans rank among the best in the NFL at their positions in red zone production this year. Brady's 23 touchdown passes on plays snapped inside the opponent's 20-yard line are second in the league, trailing only the 26 recorded by Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. Brady has also not thrown an interception on a red zone play this season. His passer rating of 108.9 ranks fourth among all passers with at least 50 throws in that part of the field.

View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 14 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.

Meanwhile, Evans has scored nine of his 11 touchdowns on passes originating inside the red zone, easily the most by a Buccaneer this year and the third-most among all NFL players. Evans has those nine scores on 11 total receptions, which in turn are the fifth most by any player so far this season. Brady has definitely looked his way when nearing the end zone, as his 17 targets are the third among all players.

The Buccaneers will need this kind of red zone production and efficiency on Sunday when the Minnesota Vikings come to Raymond James Stadium. As I noted earlier this week in our Scouting Report on the Vikings, Minnesota's defense may not have particularly good rankings in a number of categories but it has been outstanding in the red zone. The Vikings rank third in the NFL with a touchdown-allowed rate of 51.2% on red-zone drives.

As I then added in today's Game Preview, that sets up what could be the game's deciding battle of strength on strength, as Tampa Bay's offense has been the sixth-best in the NFL in converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns, at 71.1%. However, That rate has dropped from nearly 80% to its current mark over the last four weeks, so the Buccaneers will be looking to get their red-zone groove back against an opponent that will make it very difficult to do so.

Evans could get his record this Sunday and Brady could close in on his. If they do so by hooking up once again on a red-zone TD pass or two, the Buccaneers will have a much better chance of getting a crucial win to start the playoff stretch drive.

Now on to your questions for this week.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Can you see the Bucs making it to 11-5?

- @_kr0wnz_ (via Instagram)

Well, of course I can see it, kr0wnz. I'm not saying it's the most likely outcome but it also doesn't seem like a particularly outlandish potential result, either.

What you're asking me is if the Buccaneers can win four games in a row against one team with a 6-6 record and two with sub-.500 records (including the 4-8 Falcons twice). The Buccaneers have already won three games in a row twice this season, and if they could have made one or two more plays at the end of that frustrating Week Five contest in Chicago, that would have been a seven-game winning streak. There's no reason to think they can't win four in a row now.

Well, okay, there is one reason to think they won't do that, and it's the fact that the Bucs have lost three of their last four games. It's worth noting that all those losses came against current division leaders (New Orleans, Kansas City and the L.A. Rams) but still, there have been areas of the team's performance that have been subpar and troubling in that span.

What I'd like to believe is that the problems in those games – most notably starting slowly on both offense and defense – can be fixed and that the bye week will give the Bucs a clean slate and a chance to get back to the way they were playing between Weeks Two and Eight. That team looked like one of the top contenders in the NFL.

The Buccaneers don't have an especially troubling injury report right now. Yes, they lost tight end O.J. Howard and defensive lineman Vita Vea and those absences hurt, but the Bucs have already had time to adjust to those changes. I would imagine every contender in the league has already had to adjust to the loss of one or two key players. But the roster the Bucs are taking into the final four-game stretch is much healthier at receiver than it was a month or two ago and still has its other 10 original starters on defense. Injury luck, good or bad, can quietly have a lot to do with which teams are left standing in the playoff race at the end.

The Buccaneers also have a quarterback with a history of clutch performances and an incredible will to get his team where he wants it to be. Tom Brady has been through all kinds of playoff races and Bruce Arians believes that experience is going to help the whole team.

"He's a fantastic competitor," said Arians of Brady. "I love that about him. He's been there and done it and he's helped so many of our guys who haven't [been there] believe that they can. That's a huge part of it and I couldn't ask any more out of him."

To play devil's advocate, though, it isn't easy for any team to win four games in a row to close out a season. The 2002 Buccaneers were obviously a very good team – they have a Lombardi Trophy to prove it – and they got on a roll at the end of the season. However, they only won three of four, falling to Pittsburgh in the penultimate weekend. The 2005 Buccaneers were in a crowded playoff race entering the season's last quarter and won three of their last four, including a critical road victory at Carolina in Week 14. However, they lost at New England the next weekend to Brady and company, 28-0. The 1999 Tampa Bay team that went to the NFC Championship Game won three of its last four, too, but mixed in was a weird 45-0 loss at Oakland. All of those teams answered the bell and finished very strong in tight playoff races, but none were quite able to run the table in the final quarter.

Overall, I'm optimistic about how this final stretch run is going to go, as I think we're going to see the Buccaneers come out of their bye week with clear heads and the type of focus they need to get back to how they were playing around midseason. I think 11-5 is definitely possible, but again, it may not be the most likely outcome.

How do we match up with the Vikings?

- @cade.walters24, via Instagram

As is the case in most games, the Bucs match up very well in some areas and not as well in others.

The encouraging thing is that Tampa Bay's most consistent strength of this season, and of last year too, is it's run defense. Even some of the best running backs and rushing attacks have failed to crack Tampa Bay's defensive front and the Bucs have basically spent the majority of two seasons holding teams below 75 rushing yards.

That's a good match for Minnesota's greatest strength: Dalvin Cook. When the Buccaneers played the Chiefs two weeks ago, Kansas City barely even tried to run the ball, with only 16 handoffs to running backs compared to 49 passes by Patrick Mahomes. And that was in a game win which Kansas City quickly got up by 17 points. It sure appeared as if the Chiefs didn't think challenging the Bucs' run defense was the best way to go, and their strategy worked. Minnesota isn't going to do that. The Vikings are one of the most ground-heavy teams in the league and they have run the ball on close to half of their offensive snaps. That success sets up Cousins to have great success on rollout and bootleg passes, which is how he's near the top of the league with an average of 8.5 yards per pass attempt.

Not many teams have stopped Dalvin Cook this season, and few have even slowed him down. It won't be easy for Tampa Bay this Sunday either, but at least they're very well-equipped for the fight.

I also like the matchup up front when the Buccaneers are on offense. Tampa Bay's offensive line, which should have a healthier Donovan Smith at left tackle after the bye, has provided Brady with very good protection most of the year. The Buccaneers rank second in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play in 2020, at 3.37%. Brady has only been sacked once in each of the Bucs' last three games, and I would rate the Rams' and Chiefs' pass rushes ahead of that of the Vikings. Minnesota's defensive front no longer features the likes of Everson Griffen or (at the moment) Danielle Hunter, and their leading sack producer on the season, Yannick Ngakoue, is currently playing for the Ravens. Minnesota's defense is 25th in sacks per pass play and has just 21 sacks on the season overall.

Not everything looks as rosy on paper, though. Minnesota subtracted Stefon Diggs from their passing attack over the offseason and somehow got better, thanks to the incredibly season that rookie wideout Justin Jefferson is putting together. If the Buccaneers' secondary was playing as well as it was late last season and early this season, I'd say the matchup looks pretty good but that defense has given up a high volume of yards in recent games and will have to show it is back to top form before we can feel fully confident in this matchup.

In addition, Minnesota's defense has been extremely good in the red zone and on third downs this season, and those are two key areas in which the Bucs have struggled over the last month or so. Tampa Bay's offensive red zone numbers are still quite good overall, and its third-down rate is above average, but that's largely on the strength of very good production in the season's first half. Again, that track record gives me some confidence that the Bucs can do well in these areas against a tough Minnesota defense, but they'll have to reverse those recent trends.

So, there's some good and some bad in this matchup, Cade, but there's also some hope that the worrisome matchups won't prove to be so bad after all.

We haven't heard Winfield's name as much in the past few games.. has his role changed or is he not playing as well?

- Daniel (via Facebook)

I don't think it's really either of those things, Daniel, so I hope that wasn't an either-or question.

The first question is whether Antoine Winfield, Jr., the second-round safety who started his debut season off like gangbusters, has hit the much-discussed "rookie wall." As would have it, both Bruce Arians and Winfield himself gave their opinions on that issue this week.

Said Arians: "I joked about it with him the other day, but no. He's been more and more prepared than most rookies for the length of the season. I don't see it at all in his practice habits or his gameplay."

Added Winfield: "Not at all – I'm still enjoying it. A lot of people have kept coming up to me to ask if I've hit it yet, [but] I'm like, 'No, I don't even know what you're talking about.' I love playing football, so a rookie wall with me – I don't think there is one."

What I think is driving the perception of a drop-off in play for Winfield is that he made a number of splashy plays in the first month of the season, enough to earn him NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors, in fact. It has been a while since we've seen him come up with a sack or an interception or a key pass defensed, and Winfield himself said that he needs to produce more turnovers down the stretch. If you want to technically count that lack of big plays as a drop-off in his play, I guess that's fair but I feel like those types of plays can be fickle. Carlton Davis picked off three passes in the Bucs' first five games but has "only" one since. Devin White had 5.0 sacks in a three-game span at midseason but has none in the four games since.

Winfield's tackle production is as good as ever, though, so he's still finding his way to the football with regularity. He's had at least seven tackles in four of the Buccaneers' last five games, which is awfully steady production. As he continues to be around the football, the big plays will come.

As for his role, he hasn't really been pressed into service as the slot corner lately like he was a few times early in the season. When the Buccaneers played without Jamel Dean in the last game they kept Sean Murphy-Bunting on the outside and used Ross Cockrell in the slot. If you look at Winfield's pre-snap location heat map on NFL Next Gen Stats, it has gradually become more focused on the free safety spot in the deep middle.

The Buccaneers' next game is against Minnesota, the team that employed his father for the last nine years of his excellent 14-season career. That's how the younger Winfield grew up a big Vikings fan and ended up playing his college ball at the University of Minnesota. One would surmise that the rookie safety will be hyped to play his dad's old team on Sunday, though he didn't go overboard in his description of the experience on Wednesday, calling it, "cool." Perhaps this is the game where the splash plays will return and Winfield will have a shot at winning another Rookie of the Month award with a strong stretch run.

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