When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers return from their Week Nine bye they will have completed exactly half of the NFL's 2021 schedule, even if they still have more games remaining than they've played thus far. It's a good place to draw a line and compare and contrast what has happened so far this season, and what is still to come, and that's the point of this year's Midseason Review Roundtables with me, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and Team Reporter Casey Phillips.
The first half of the season had some big-time challenges, most notably road games in Los Angeles and the Buccaneers own personal house of horrors, the Superdome (last year's playoffs notwithstanding). There was also the matter of a stressful run of injuries, particularly in the secondary, which Casey expounded on in Wednesday's roundtable. Navigating COVID remains a challenge for every team, and there's also this matter of every single opponent wanting to come in guns blazing against the defending champs.
Still, the Buccaneers are 6-2, in first place in the NFC South and about to take part in an NFC playoff seeding race that is shaping up to be epic. (That was my focal point in Wednesday's roundtable.) There will be more challenges, such as a rematch with the Saints and the Bucs' first look at Buffalo's Josh Allen. This is also everybody's first experience with a 17-game season, the effects of which are anybody's guess at this point.
So what is the biggest challenge awaiting the Bucs over the next nine weeks? Well, we have three specific questions to address in these 2021 Midseason Reviews, and that's what we're going to tackle today. Here's the Roundtable schedule:
Wednesday: Biggest Surprise of the Season's First Half
Thursday: Toughest Challenge Awaiting in the Season's Second Half
Friday: Predicting the Buccaneers' Second-Half MVP (Non-Brady Division)
As noted yesterday, order matters since we are not allowed to duplicate answer, and each of us gets to go first once. This time, it's Casey.
Casey Phillips: Locking down the division title early
The insanely competitive NFC currently features four teams with just one loss. This does not feel like a field you want to face on the road the entire way to a Super Bowl the way the Bucs had to last year. So essentially my biggest challenge combines Scott's and my takes from Wednesday's roundup. Because of how the NFC looks this year, you want to be on top of your division and as healthy as possible to face these teams at full strength when it really matters. Ideally that means you would love to have the division locked down as early as possible to coast a little at the end of the season and rest some people.
Then the question becomes, can the Bucs get healthy enough or play well enough through injuries these next few weeks to have the record they need to stay comfortably at the top of the NFC South. With four of the last six games of the schedule being against division opponents, it's much harder to feel like you have the division locked up early on. The next three games the Bucs have are against teams with a combined record of 7-17, so they need to take care of business in that stretch before hitting all those division games and the Bills thrown in the middle, which should be by far the toughest matchup of the back half of the schedule.
Scott Smith: Getting the defense humming again
Listen, the Buccaneers' defense has been pretty good. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA chart (which is a very well-respected metric), Tampa Bay has the seventh-best defense in the NFL so far, ranking fourth against the run and 11th against the pass. That might be a little lower than you expected on the former and a little higher than you expected on the latter, but it all combines for a -7.0 defensive DVOA that ranks just a bit higher than Chicago and Pittsburgh, for comparison. The Bucs are also tied for third in the NFL with 14 takeaways – even after getting none in New Orleans, crucially – and are third in points off turnovers.
And yet…and yet, I just don't feel like the defense is truly humming yet, like it was at the end of last season. Obviously, the Chicago game was a blowout and a defensive gem, but the Bears rather famously have an offense stuck in neutral right now. The defense didn't get the crunch-time stop it expected to get last Sunday in New Orleans against Trevor Siemian, and it nearly didn't finish the game off in New England against Mac Jones. The Falcons and Eagles games were a little too close for comfort in the second half when they could have been early blowouts.
I know these sound like champagne problems, and that's fair. The Buccaneers are 6-2, they've held three of their last five opponents to 17 points or fewer and they have faced some pretty good offenses so far, particularly the Cowboys and Rams. They have also held up quite well defensively despite a rash of injuries, particularly in the secondary. Casey discussed this in Wednesday's Roundtable – the adjustment to a constantly changing cast of characters in the defensive backfield has been impressive.
But I think the defense is capable of much more, particularly in terms of taking down the quarterback and generating big plays. The Bucs are just 26th in sacks per pass play, at 5.28%, and while I know that sacks aren't the only measure of defensive pressure, they are pretty effective at stopping drives and creating turnovers, as we saw in the Chicago game. The New Orleans game was frustrating in this regard, as it seemed like a good number of plays initially looked like they were going to put the quarterback in distress only to see him escape or get the ball away just in time. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Bucs only generated four pressures on the two Saints QBs, including none on the 22 plays on which more than four defenders rushed the passer.
The Buccaneers averaged three sacks per game during their eight-game winning streak to close out the 2020 season, and got double-digit takeaways in five of their last six outings. They generated absolutely huge turnovers in the Divisional Round win at New Orleans, the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay and the Super Bowl at home. They were humming. The Bucs' 2021 defense has been good for most of the first half and at times very good. I just don't feel like it is truly humming yet, and that's where they need to be to make a deep run again. Getting some injured players back would surely help.
Carmen Vitali: Cut down the penalties
While I agree that the defense is capable of more like Scott said above, he also noted that it actually is performing better than you probably thought statistically through eight games of the season. It's certainly not a weak point by any stretch of the imagination, even if they have room to improve in the pass rush. And with the offense on the production tear it's on, what's the only thing that can stop the Bucs?
Well… it's the Bucs.
And that's what happened in New Orleans. The Bucs committed 11 penalties that gifted the Saints 99 yards. That perhaps more importantly translated into six first downs and helped New Orleans extend drives that ended in points on the board. That made it infinitely harder for Tampa Bay to get and keep any sort of momentum and in a more unquantifiable way, was a little demoralizing in a hostile environment. So far this season, the Bucs have committed a league-high 62 penalties, totaling 580 yards and giving away 22 first downs. More than that, those penalties have resulted in 108 nullified yards for the Bucs. More than yards, penalties have nullified big plays, too. Against the Saints, it was a penalty that nullified an Antoine Winfield Jr. interception in the end zone, if you recall.
And listen, we know this team is capable of a lot more discipline. They showed that last year following the Week Four loss to the Chicago Bears, after which they became one of the least penalized teams in the league. I'm hoping that after New Orleans, a similar thing happens. Because right now, I see penalties as this team's Achilles Heel and the path to rectifying the situation isn't as cut and dry as perhaps other improvements given that penalties can be somewhat subjective. You can't just tell players to practice a certain drill or look out for this key to avoid the variety of infractions they can commit. But with a coaching staff that preaches fundamentals, I have to think this ship will be righted sooner rather than later.