When Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones blocked the wrong Jacksonville defender in the third quarter last Sunday, leading to a sack of Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers only turnover of the game, Bruce Arians' made a swift decision.
"RoJo missed a blitz pick up and that is it," said Arians. "You don't get to play anymore. Simple."
Arians' remark was more matter-of-fact than harsh, and it's clear that any punitive move for one such mistake was limited to the game at hand. Jones and the coaching staff have plenty of time before the next contest to get Jones on the right page in the blocking scheme so that he can stay on the field and contribute to a running game that, though not statistically impressive this season, is healthy enough in Arians' estimation.
The Buccaneers had just 74 yards on the ground in Jacksonville but they got 133 just the week before in Atlanta.
"That was a good physical front [in Jacksonville]," said Arians. "We could have run the ball differently a little bit in Jacksonville instead of right at Calais [Campbell] all the time with a tight end. But I don't have any concerns about the running game right now. RoJo's still our starter and we'll get him going."
Peyton Barber got all the first and second-down work in the backfield after that missed blitz pick-up by Jones and the Buccaneers will continue to use both backs as they have all season. But Jones took over the starting job at midseason and that isn't going to change now…assuming that mistake proves to be an outlier. The Buccaneers view the upcoming game – and every one after that if they continue to win – as an elimination game, essentially the beginning of their playoffs, which means one turnover could prove to be the season's effective end.
"I just reaffirmed to him he's my guy and, hey, we're in the playoffs right now," said Arians of his conversations with Jones this week. "We can't have that. If you have that, you're standing next to me."
Quarterback Jameis Winston called Jones "a baller" and said he would come back fine from last Sunday's experience. He also made it the task of everyone on offense to make sure there are no issues in the protection schemes.
"Like I say every week, we all make mistakes," said Winston. "We are going to continue to get better. We're always going to build on the positives and eliminate the negatives. That just comes with me and him working [and] comes with him putting in extra time after practice. But he has been an excellent player for us this year, so we just want to keep his confidence [high]. He'll keep on doing what he does and we are going to fix that collectively because everyone has their hand in that. It's not just on him."
Mazzi Wilkins is not the first product of a Tampa high school to suit up for the hometown NFL team – Vernon Hargreaves played at Wharton High in Tampa, for one example. Wilkins is also not the first player from the University of South Florida, located in Tampa, to play a home game in Raymond James Stadium as both a collegian and a pro. In fact, one of his current teammates, Jason Pierre-Paul, also played for USF, as did Ryan Benjamin, the long-snapper on the Buccaneers' 2002 Super Bowl team.
Wilkins is not even the first person to play high school football in Tampa and play college football at USF and get into a regular-season game for the Buccaneers. But he is just the second, and if he sees action this coming Sunday against Indianapolis he'll be the first player to do all of that and get into multiple games for Tampa's NFL club. Previously, the only player who hit the high school-USF-NFL Tampa trifecta was linebacker Nigel Harris, who got into one regular season for the Bucs in 2017. Harris played at nearby Hillsborough High School.
Wilkins was a star cornerback for Plant High School, a football powerhouse located on the same Dale Mabry Highway as Raymond James Stadium, about three-and-a-half miles down the road. He helped Plant reach the state Class 8A semifinals in 2013, his senior season. He then chose USF, which is north of Raymond James Stadium and also plays its home games in that same venue. Wilkins started for two years for the Bulls and was invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game but wasn't drafted this past spring. He didn't immediately sign with an NFL team as an undrafted free agent, either, though he did participate in the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract.
That exposure proved when the Buccaneers had to waive/injured a rookie corner they did sign as an undrafted free agent, Jalen Allison, just days before the start of training camp. Allison's spot went to Wilkins and the former USF standout did enough with it in training camp to get signed to the Bucs' practice squad to start the season. He was then promoted in Week 10 after the release of Hargreaves.
Wilkins was inactive for his first two games on the 53-man roster but he got a chance to play in Jacksonville last weekend when wide receiver Scotty Miller was sidelined by a practice-field hamstring injury. Wilkins stepped right in on special teams, playing 12 snaps in that capacity, and then in the fourth quarter he got his first opportunity on defense, making two tackles in just nine defensive plays.
And that officially put Wilkins into a fraternity of two with Harris. Now Wilkins will work on making his appearance for the hometown team more than just a cameo.
"At the moment, I wasn't really thinking about it," said Wilkins of finally seeing action for the Buccaneers. "But now, looking at it, it's a great feeling. Not many people can say they did all of that. Obviously I didn't choose the situation, it kind of chose me, so I'm just embracing it and going forward."
Wilkins said he definitely was a Buccaneers fan growing up and he particularly enjoyed watching Ronde Barber, the cornerback who was named a Hall of Fame semifinalist earlier this month. More recently, while at USF, Wilkins began to feel as if that hometown team could use his own services.
"I felt like once I got into my college career, seeing how this team was, I just thought I could definitely make an impact," he said. "Plus, I've been here all through college so it all just seems right. I'm very happy to be here."
Every team prepares for specific game situations during practice, devoting entire periods to areas such as red zone defense and third downs. The Buccaneers are no different, of course, but it appears that, lately, those practice-field lessons are starting to stick for the team's very young defense.
"I think defensively, we're finally understanding situational football a lot better," said Arians. "Guys' communication, short-yardage, red zone, third down is becoming really fun to watch and watching the growth. Obviously, [we've been] rushing the passer extremely well for the last few weeks, but again on the back end, we're holding our guys [and] we're covering our guys."
The statistics back Arians up, particularly on third downs and in the red zone.
Tampa Bay's third-down defense has been excellent in 2019, ranking fourth in the NFL with a conversion rate allowed of 33.6%. But it has been extremely good during the past four weeks, during which the Bucs have gone 3-1, especially on attempts that need more than six yards. The Bucs allowed a rate of 35.3% through the first eight games but that has dropped to 30.2% in the last four, even with New Orleans converting seven of 13 in the one loss in that span.
That was primarily due to the Saints consistently getting into third downs of three or fewer yards, in which they were six-of-seven. In those same four games, Tampa Bay's opponents have faced 28 third downs needing seven or more yards and have converted exactly one of them. That is likely the result of the strong pass rush Arians mentioned.
As for the red zone, the results have improved significantly over the last month as well. In those four games Tampa Bay's defense has faced 15 drives that reached inside their 20 and allowed only six of them to result in touchdowns. Four of those 15 have ended in turnovers; the Bucs' defense had all of one red zone takeaway in the first eight games of the season.
At the season's midpoint, Tampa Bay was allowing 61.3% of opposing red zone drives to end in touchdowns and 93.5% to end in points of some kind. Overall, the Bucs were allowing 5.23 points per trip inside their 20. In the last four games, those numbers have dropped to 40.0% touchdowns, 73.3% scores and 3.87 points per trip.