S.S. Mailbag: On the Defensive

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to jump the pond in order to take part once again in the NFL International Series. The Buccaneers will face the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in London, and while it will be Tampa Bay's third game in that city it will be their first in the brand new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders christened the facility, from an NFL standpoint, last weekend and now it's the Bucs and Panthers turn to try out a building specifically built with both soccer and American Football in mind.

First visits like this don't come along too often. It's been two years since the Buccaneers last played in a stadium for the first time in their history, as the 2017 season including visits to the new homes of the Atlanta Falcons (Mercedes-Benz Stadium) and Minnesota Vikings (U.S. Bank Stadium). Tottenham Hotspur Stadium will be the 63rd place the Buccaneers have played a regular-season game in their 44-year history.

The last time Tampa Bay won in its first-ever game in a specific facility was three years ago. A visit to the San Francisco 49ers' new Levi's Stadium in 2016 resulted in a 34-17 win for the travelers from Florida. Overall, Tampa Bay teams have won in their first game in a stadium 18 different times. That does not include their own original home, Tampa Stadium, but it does include their current home, Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers beat the Chicago Bears in that latter venue, 27-15, on Sept. 20, 1998, in the first game ever at the brand new stadium.

Obviously, just about every place the Buccaneers went in 1976 and 1977, their first two years of play, was new to them. And since the franchise got off to an infamous 0-26 start that included 14 losses on the first-time-visit ledger. However, the Buccaneers' very first regular-season victory was also an inaugural visit to an opposing stadium, as they beat the Saints in the Louisiana Superdome, 33-14, on Dec. 11, 1977.

The Buccaneers' playoff run from 1997 through 2002 coincided with a good number of teams opening new stadiums, so it was an opportunity for a run of victories in first-time visits. From 2001 through 2005 the Bucs won seven straight games in their first visits to opposing parks, including ones against the Rams, Bengals, Ravens, Lions and Eagles. The most memorable of those was the 2003 season opener, when the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers were sent to Philadelphia for a Monday Night Football rematch of the previous year's NFC Championship Game. It was a rare road opener for a defending champ, but the Bucs took care of business anyone in a dominant 17-0 victory over the Eagles in their new digs, Lincoln Financial Field.

The Buccaneers aren't getting a crack at an opponent's new stadium this week; in fact, Tampa Bay is technically considered the home game in Sunday's contest. But it is another chance to leave a new stadium with only good memories for now.

Now let's get to your questions.

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.

Right now, who do you think the best player on the team is, with the biggest plays?

- huntercb101, via Instagram

Well, Hunter, that's really not a very difficult question since you prefaced that with "right now." It's pretty obvious that Chris Godwin on offense and Shaq Barrett on defense are having the best seasons to this point. That doesn't mean they will definitely be the offensive and defensive MVPs by season's end, or even that they are the players on each side of the ball that our next opponent is most concerned with.

But simply put, you can't argue with a league-leading 9.0 sacks or a league-leading six touchdown receptions. In both of the Buccaneers' wins, and in the Giants game that was so close to a win, they both played critical roles. Barrett won NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors and was gathering buzz at the end of September as a potential Defensive Player of the Year Candidate. Godwin is third in the NFL in receiving yards and he's probably the single biggest offensive breakout around the league this year.

I think both Barrett and Godwin will have competition in this category by the end of the season. Mike Evans is helping Godwin and everybody else on offense by drawing extra coverage in almost every game, but he's going to get his opportunities and we all know what he's capable of. I think the interior of the Buccaneers' line has played well, particularly in the run game, and at some point the general public is going to realize how good left guard Ali Marpet is. And, of course, if the season goes well from here on out it will almost be impossible for Jameis Winston not to be the key player on offense.

On defense, Lavonte David is off to a good start and he's clearly comfortable in a defense that is structurally a lot like the one in which he had his incredible five-interception, seven-sack All Pro Season in 2013. Depending upon how opposing offenses choose to handle Barrett, and how the eventual return of Jason Pierre-Paul affects his numbers, David might end up with the more impressive all-around stat line when it's all said and done. And now that Devin White is returning, let's see in five or six weeks from now if he doesn't look like one of the keys to the Bucs' defense. Speaking of which…

Is Devin White back in the starting rotation?

- b.n.b_24, via Instagram

Yep, Head Coach Bruce Arians said on Monday that White would be playing this week against the Panthers, and then on Wednesday indicated that White would be back in the starting lineup. Arians made a point of commending veteran Kevin Minter on his play in White's absence but referred to the rookie as a "special player." The Bucs have been eager to get him back on the field.

White was inactive for two games after injuring his knee just six defensive snaps into the Thursday night game at Carolina in Week Two. He was active for the last game in New Orleans but didn't play a snap. The Bucs only had him up in case of emergency since the inside linebacker ranks were thin with Jack Cichy also out, but they did not intend to play him against the Saints. The Bucs took the cautious route in bringing their first-rounder back because, as Arians also said earlier this week, his future is too important to the team to risk it over a game or two now.

View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 6 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.

Will we see more coverage and less blitzing this week?

- marco\a\dieguez, via Instagram

The fact that you ask if we will see "less" blitzing this week leads me to believe you felt like the Bucs blitzed a lot in New Orleans last Sunday. See, that was the opposite impression I got during the game. I didn't think we brought extra pass-rushers very often at all. That's just the way it felt to me at the time; I understand that sometimes we only see the evidence that supports what we already believe. You also have to keep in mind what a blitz is: Extra pass-rushers. Sometimes a defensive scheme may look like a blitz because one of the inside linebackers, for instance, rushes the quarterback at the snap. But if one of the front four (or five) drops back off the line into coverage, then you're not actually seeing a blitz.

Since it doesn't do much good to just go with my gut feeling or yours, Marco, I decided to look it up, using a stat service used by the NFL called Sportradar. According to their analysis, the Buccaneers only blitzed on 16 of 67 plays in that game. That was probably a good idea, because the Saints averaged 8.56 yards per play when the Bucs blitzed, as compared to 6.27 when they didn't (neither of which is a particularly good number, but still). Notably, the Saints converted five of six third-down attempts against the blitz and three of nine against no blitz. Those yardage numbers are a bit skewed because you're not going to blitz if you think a run is coming, and indeed 96 of the Saints' 112 rushing yards came on no-blitz plays.

I honestly don't think the Bucs are likely to blitz less often than 23.9% of the time, the average from Week Five (16 of 67 plays) when they face Carolina this weekend. For a guide, we can see how Tampa Bay chose to attack the Panthers when they played them in Week Two and won, 20-14.

Now that was a heavy blitz game for the Bucs' defense. Carolina ran 73 plays of offense and the Bucs blitzed on 34 of them, according to Sportradar. The overall results were better than they were against the Saints, obviously, as the Bucs only allowed 14 points. However, the Panthers results against the blitz were still better per play, as they averaged 6.74 yards on those snaps and 3.15 yards per play when the Bucs' didn't blitz. Again, that's a bit skewed by the run/pass skew; all of Carolina's rushing yards came on no-blitz plays, and those were mostly very low-yardage plays. The Bucs' third-down defense was good in both categories, allowing three of nine to be converted when blitzing and zero of nine when not blitzing.

Now, I'm not trying to tell you that because the Bucs blitzed the Panthers a lot last game that they'll do it again in the rematch. For one thing, it behooves a defense to do things that the opponent isn't expecting. If Carolina goes into the game expecting to face a lot of blitzes, the Bucs could have some success by disguising plays so that they look like blitzes when they actually are not.

Also worth noting, of course, is that the Panthers have a different man under center than they did in Week Two. The Bucs are facing second-year man Kyle Allen this time around, not Cam Newton. As you might expect, a young quarterback with four career starts (all wins, by the way) has performed better on plays in which he has not been blitzed. However, it's not like he's actually been bad when blitzed. Allen's passer rating this season on no-blitz plays is 113.7. On blitz plays, it's 98.7.

What will be the biggest challenge in London?

- connor.sams, via Instagram

The biggest challenge facing the Bucs in London is Christian McCaffrey. That would be the case if the game were being played in England, in North Carolina, in Florida or in a hermetically-sealed dome with artificial gravity on the surface of the moon. Once the Buccaneers and Panthers get to game time on Sunday, they'll be taking a field that is 120 yards long and 53 yards wide, with lines in all the places they're used to seeing them. It will just be a game then and clearly if you want to beat the Panthers you have to start by containing McCaffrey. The Bucs were the last team to do that and that was the last game Carolina lost.

But I don't mean to be glib. There are real challenges to playing a midseason game in London. The Bucs obviously understand that because they've asked their sports science staffers to lead the way in devising a plan for the trip, and their plans have included altering pre-trip sleep schedules, glasses that protect the eyes from blue light, compression garments and exercise on the flight, and more.

And there is simple fatigue associated with long travel, time zone changes or not. Not only do the Bucs have an eight-and-a-half hour flight to London, but then it will also be an hour-long bus ride to the hotel. Staying fresh through all that, and getting body clocks adjusted to the time zone so that the players feel rested and ready to go on Sunday afternoon is definitely a challenge. Of course, it's a challenge for both teams.

Do you think Jamel Dean will get more CB play time?

- jumpgangdread, via Instagram

Eventually this season? Yes definitely. In this game? That's a strong maybe.

The Buccaneers' secondary has struggled and the coaches are looking for solutions. That can obviously include lineup changes, and we already saw one last week when Sean Murphy-Bunting replaced M.J. Stewart as the nickel corner to start the game. Of course, the ejection of Carlton Davis in the second quarter caused more in-game adjustments and Stewart ended up playing quite a bit anyway.

Could more changes be coming soon? I'm sure you've heard Bruce Arians' postgame comments about the secondary being "soft" in the New Orleans game. I don't think Arians is calling his players soft; I think he's saying that some of them definitely played soft in that game. And clearly he wants that to change. If it doesn't, then somebody else is going to get a shot.

Other than Ryan Smith, who just returned from a four-game suspension, the one corner who hasn't gotten a shot yet is Dean, mostly because he missed most of four games with an ankle injury. Arians has already said that Dean will be back in action this week; of course that could just mean special teams this week, but you never know. Dean is the fastest of the Bucs' cornerbacks, which is a huge asset at the position, and Arians called him a "big, physical" corner earlier this week. That sounds like just what he's looking for.

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