This year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' bye week falls roughly one-third of the way into the season. Or, using the manner that Lovie Smith prefers to break up a football campaign, it arrives just after the Buccaneers opened the second quarter of the season, fortunately with a victory over Jacksonville.
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With 11 games still to play, there is still much to be determined about this particular Buccaneers season, though the streaking Falcons and Panthers are making the division race a critical issue earlier than expected. Though the Bucs hoped and expected to have more than two wins at the bye, their victory over the Jaguars on Sunday kept them very much in the playoff hunt. While NFC South leaders Atlanta and Carolina are 5-0 and 4-0, respectively, the second Wild Card spot is currently occupied by the 2-2 Minnesota Vikings. At 2-3, the Buccaneers are just a half-game behind the Vikings.
Tampa Bay players and coaches still have their sights set on the division title, of course, and they have four more games to play against other NFC South teams. The bye week should give several injured players time to heal and provide reinforcements for the remainder of the season, and a confident mood remains in place at One Buccaneer Place. It is difficult to predict which way Tampa Bay's season will turn when the team takes the field again in Week Seven.
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So let's begin by looking back. With some to reflect during the bye week, let's examine the team and it's three phases – offense, defense and special teams – to see where it has succeeded and where it needs improvement.
Where the Bucs have done well:** Tampa Bay is getting outstanding production out of its tailback duo of Doug Martin and Charles Sims. Those two have combined for 540 rushing yards, 287 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Through five games, that's an average of 165.4 yards from scrimmage and about seven points per outing. Martin and Sims have combined for more yards from scrimmage than any other pair of running back teammates in the NFL to this point. Even when game situations have taken the Bucs farther away from their rushing attack than they would like, both Buccaneer backs have run well. Martin is the top-rated halfback in the league by Pro Football Focus and he's tied for second with the 19 broken or missed tackles he's created. Sims is PFF's 11th-rated running back, and it's fourth-rated back in the passing game.
"As we talk about our football team, we haven't been consistent," said Head Coach Lovie Smith prior to the Jacksonville game. "Doug Martin, though, has. It's been pretty much the same type of play from him each week. In order for that to happen you have to say that we've done some good things up on the line to have holes for a running back to be able to run. His play has been consistent throughout. We will need that. We just need everyone to have consistent play like that. We've talked from offseason, training camp on, Doug has gotten himself in a position to play well each game and that's what he is doing."
Indeed, while Martin and Sims have done a good job of creating their own chunks of yardage, they've also played behind an offensive line that has come together more quickly than expected despite employing two rookies and, lately, three injury replacements. Starting right tackle Demar Dotson is on short-term injured reserve, starting center Evan Smith hasn't played Since Week Two and stalwart left guard Logan Mankins missed the Week Five contest with a groin injury. Gosder Cherilus, Joe Hawley and Kevin Pamphile have stepped in at those three spots respectively and have helped the Bucs rank 11th in rushing offense while allowing just four sacks over the last three weeks. Meanwhile the rookies at left tackle – Donovan Smith – and right guard – Ali Marpet – have more than held their own.
"Those two guys are rookies, too – let's not forget it," said Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter. "I would say Donovan [is] right on schedule and Ali [is] probably ahead of schedule. Those two guys are going to be good football players for the Bucs for years to come."
Quarterback Jameis Winston has had the ups and downs one might expect from a rookie who is learning how to play the game's most important position at its highest level. His last two games have included a four-interception outing against Carolina and a coolly efficient, 13-of-19, no-turnover day against Jacksonville. But Winston has made enough impressive throws for the team to remain very excited about his future. Winston has shown the ability to unlock the team's big-play potential, as the Buccaneers rank ninth in the NFL in plays of 10 or more yards and tied for seventh in plays of 20 or more yards. The Bucs are gaining a full yard more per pass play this year over 2014 (7.72 to 6.75), which is a significant improvement.
Where the Bucs hope to improve: Winston's overall passer rating is still just 77.6 despite the big plays, mainly because he has thrown seven interceptions and completed just 56.6% of his passes. However, he's been over 60% in three of the Bucs' five games, including both victories, and all but one of his interceptions came in losses to Tennessee and Carolina. The Bucs are already seeing steady improvement from Winston; they simply hope to see more.
"Experience teaches you everything," said Lovie Smith after the win over Jacksonville. "You can talk, talk, talk about it, but you have to get in that situation. Again, I talked last week about sticking your hand in the fire a little bit and seeing what it does to you. When you're as smart of a quarterback as Jameis is and our football team is, when you're part of turnovers, you see how much it hurts a ballclub. You have to take notes."
Because Winston has shown some of the erratic play of a rookie, and because the running backs have performed so well, the Buccaneers have not yet taken enough advantage of their three 6-5 pass-catches, Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. In Seferian-Jenkins' case, that's because he's been out with an injury since Week Two; he had 139 yards and two touchdowns in the first two games but the Bucs have not gotten much out of the tight end position since he went down.
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Evans' season also started slowly due to a preseason hamstring injury, and Winston is only slowly working the dynamic second-year receiver into the game. Jackson had a 147-yard game against Carolina in Week Four but has been held below 55 yards in each of the other four games. All three of those big and fast pass-catchers have as much potential to put up big numbers as they always have, but Winston and the Buccaneers haven't consistently taken advantage of their talents.
Photos of Jameis Winston through his first 5 games as a Buccaneer.
Though they've done well on third downs in the last two games (48.7%), early struggles in that area have the Bucs down at #26 in the league rankings in that category. That has, at times, kept the Buccaneers from sustaining drives; the team is tied for 25th in the NFL in 10-play drives, with a total of six. Better results in the running game the last two weeks have produced a higher percentage of short third downs, which has helped that conversion rate and led to longer possessions, resulting in more points and yards. The Bucs averaged 308 yards and 16.3 points per game through the first three weeks, then 390 yards and 30.5 points per game in the last two.
Tampa Bay has not been good enough in the red zone so far this season, though again, recent weeks have produced better results. Overall, the Buccaneers have found the end zone on just 50% of their drives that breach the opposing 20-yard line, which is tied for 19th in the NFL. Thanks to some woes in the kicking game that have since been corrected (more on that below), the Bucs have also had four red zone trips, out of 18, that came up totally empty. Tampa Bay has just one fewer red zone incursion than its opponents but their 18 trips have produced an average of 4.28 points each, while their opponents' 19 trips have produced 5.84 each.
Where the Bucs have done well: **The Buccaneers believe that defensive success starts up front, and they have started to get some very solid production from the pass rush. After a six-sack game against Jacksonville, Tampa Bay's defense ranks sixth in the league in sacks per pass play, and its total of 15 sacks is tied for fifth in the NFL. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (4.5 sacks) and defensive end Jacquies Smith (4.0) have led the way, as expected, and the team may have uncovered a surprise contributor on Sunday in Howard Jones, who turned in two sacks in his first NFL game. Despite dealing with a shoulder injury for several weeks, McCoy is the third-ranked pass-rushers among DTs in the NFL, according to PFF.
Overall, the Buccaneers rank eighth in the NFL in yards allowed, sixth in passing yards allowed and fifth in yards allowed per play. They have assimilated a rookie into the play-calling position fairly seamlessly, with fourth-round pick Kwon Alexander starting every game at middle linebacker. Alexander leads all NFL linebackers with six passes defensed, and linebacker Lavonte David has added another four PBUs. Though they have not been satisfied with how many turnovers they have produced to this point (eight, to tie for 12th in the league), they have created quite a few takeaway opportunities and believe they'll take better advantage of those going forward. The Bucs have recovered just five of their opponents' 12 fumbles, and they have failed to hold on to several potential interceptions.
The Bucs' run defense, overall, belongs in the section below, but some of the yardage has been the result of opponents keeping the ball on the ground in the second half of games to protect leads. On a per-carry basis, the Bucs are allowing 3.9 yards per tote, which ranks a respectable 16th in the NFL. Tampa Bay's defense has had a good number of stops behind the line of scrimmage, leading the NFL in negative-yardage plays and tying for fifth with 17 run stuffs.
After a rough start, the Buccaneers have significantly improved their defensive results on third downs, allowing only five conversions in 19 attempts over the past two weeks. Despite one notable breakdown on fourth-and-18 in the win over Jacksonville, Tampa Bay's defense has mostly done a good job of preventing the big plays. Opponents have 17 plays of 20 or more yards against the Buccaneers so far, or just over three per game, and that ranks eight in the NFL. When the opposition tries to throw deep – here defined as a throw on which the ball is in the air for more than 20 yards – they haven't had much luck; opposing QBs have a 4.9 passer rating against the Buccaneers in that situation, best in the league.
Where the Bucs hope to improve: While Tampa Bay is in the top 10 in the league in yards allowed, it ranks 19th in points allowed, at 29.6 per game. The defense has been stingy for good portions of several games, but issues have tended to steamroll from time to time. Tennessee had a two 21-point runs in Week One, Houston recorded three straight scores to end its comeback win in Week Three and Jacksonville quickly turned a 20-7 deficit into a 24-20 lead last Sunday. One of the issues has been red zone defense, where Tampa Bay ranks 30th with a 73.7% touchdown percentage allowed. Improvement has already begun in that regard, however; opponents found the end zone on their first eight trips inside the 20 this season but have done so on just six of 11 since.
Lovie Smith has been the least satisfied with the back end of the defense, perhaps mostly because of the lack of takeaways, as the team is in the top 10 in passing yards allowed. The secondary has had to weather injuries to Johnthan Banks, Major Wright, Mike Jenkins and, most recently, Chris Conte, and has used a lot of different players, but Smith expects more out of that group. Against Jacksonville, there were some issues with missed and broken tackles, as well, including several on that aforementioned fourth-and-18 conversion.
"We haven't played well enough – it's as simple as that," said Smith. "No, I'm not pleased at all. Simple as that. We've had opportunities to take the ball away more times. A game like yesterday, to finish on a note like that was discouraging. Where there were missed tackles and just your play on the ball. So we're not where we need to be on the back end right now, it's as simple as that, but we'll keep working on it."
By the numbers, the Bucs have had more trouble against the run, though they're coming off their best effort of the season in that regard. After giving up 186 yards to the Texans and 133 to the Panthers, the Bucs find themselves ranked 25th in the league against the run. Opposing running backs have gained four or more yards on 47.7% of their carries against Tampa Bay, which ranks 28th in the league.
The Bucs won the turnover battle against Jacksonville, 2-0, and scored on defense for the first time this year, but Smith expects more big plays from his defense. And while the offense shares at least equal blame for this, the Buccaneers have committed 48 penalties, second-most in the NFL and nearly 10 per game.
Where the Bucs have done well:** With one glaring exception, Tampa Bay's special teams efforts have been solid to superb for most of the season. And the team believes it has addressed that one major issue with the re-signing of kicker Connor Barth.
Running back Bobby Rainey has been a revelation in the return game, going from a player who was mainly valuable for his trustworthy hands to one who is consistently making a positive difference in the field position battle. With an average of 29.9 yards per kickoff return and 13.3 yards per punt return, Rainey ranks third in the NFL in the former category and sixth in the latter. Rainey and New Orleans' Marcus Murphy are the only players to rank in the top 10 in both categories.
First-year punter Jacob Schum, seeing his first NFL regular-season action, has been a solid contributor, as well. He ranks near the bottom of the league's gross punting average chart, but he has put up a net average of 38.5 or better in four of the Bucs' five games. The last game against Jacksonville was the exception, and that was largely because he was punting from around midfield. Schum has put five punts inside the 20 without hitting a single touchback. The Bucs' coverage team has helped, holding opposing return men to 3.7 yards per try, third-best in the NFL.
Where the Bucs hope to improve:* Actually, the Buccaneers believe they already *have improved in the key area about to be discussed here, but taken as a whole the team's placekicking numbers have been subpar.
Tampa Bay started the season with rookie Kyle Brindza as their kicker and were excited about his powerful legs. Brindza was a huge asset on kickoffs, nearly automatic with his touchbacks for several weeks, and his brief stint with the team included four successful field goals between 54 and 58 yards, counting the preseason. However, he struggled with his accuracy in consecutive losses to Houston and Carolina, missing a total of six field goals and two extra points.
That prompted the return of Connor Barth, who made an immediate difference. In his first game back, against Jacksonville, Barth made all three field goal tries, the longest from 47 yards out, and all three extra point attempts. He even surprised everyone by blasting all eight of his kickoffs into the end zone, producing five touchbacks in the process.
Not much else has been a struggle for the Bucs' special teams. The team would probably like a little more distance on Schum's punts but can't complain about the net results, for the most part. Barth will have to prove he has made a permanent improvement on kickoffs or the team's coverage kickoff coverage unit will come into play and they have allowed some longer returns in recent weeks. Overall, the Bucs rank 21st in the league, allowing 25.6 yards per attempt.