S.S. Mailbag: Of Slot Corners and Hot Finishes

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The new year is still almost two months away and I need to make a resolution, so let's declare this a Thanksgiving resolution instead: I resolve not to use this mailbag intro to write about Mike Evans and Chris Godwin yet again. That's probably wiser than making a Thanksgiving resolution about moderation in the consumption of food or drink.

Anyway, Evans and Godwin, who have been mailbag crutch for three weeks running, aren't the right examples for what I intend to explore this week. Both of those Tampa Bay Buccaneers receivers had huge first halves to the 2019 season, and there's a good chance that they'll do the same thing in the second half, too. The player I want to look at instead is second-year running back Ronald Jones.

Jones has had a good first half to 2019, as well, particularly in comparison to how his rookie season went. The best evidence for that is the fact that he was finally inserted into the starting lineup in Seattle last Sunday, and it's a job he's likely to hold onto moving forward. He is the team's leading rusher and he's also averaged 15.5 yards on his eight receptions so far.

From a purely counting standpoint, though, Jones' statistics at the halfway point are not overwhelming, which is mostly a matter of opportunity. He has 381 rushing yards and three touchdowns, which if duplicated in the second half would produce a perfectly fine 762-yard, six-TD campaign.

But what if Jones' second half is significantly more prolific than the first half, based on an uptick in the snaps and handoffs coming his way down the stretch? Could Jones get his first 1,000-yard rushing season? He would need to average about 77 yards a game to get there, which seems reasonable after his first start produced 67 yards. In the four games this season in which Jones has logged at least a dozen carries he's averaged 73 rushing yards a game. He would need to pick it up, but not by much.

So, is there precedence for such a season in Buccaneers' history? I aimed to find that out. Specifically, I wanted to know which Buccaneer running back had the biggest positive difference between his second-half and first-half rushing totals? So I looked it up.

There have been six instances in Bucs history in which a running back had a second-half rushing output that was at least 400 yards better than what he did in the first half. (There were only 14 games in 1976 and 1977, so those would be seven-seven game splits, but there are no relevant examples from those seasons anyway.) Here's each of those six seasons, in chronological order, and how it went down:

1. Errict Rhett, 1994…284 in the first half, 727 in the second half, 443-yard difference

The Buccaneers drafted Rhett out of Florida in the second round that year but put him in a timeshare to start the season with Vince "Pookie" Workman, who they had grabbed as a restricted free agent from Green Bay in 1993. Rhett did not start until the ninth game of the season. He had 10 or fewer carries in four of the first eight games, and even when he did get his first start and a 20-carry share in Game Nine, he produced only 20 yards. Then came a breakout 112-yard game at Detroit in the 10th game and from that point on Rhett got very hot. He had four 100-yard games in the last seven weeks, including a 192-yard game at Washington. This was the case of a rookie hitting his stride and a coaching staff realizing that he needed to be fed the football.

2. Errict Rhett, 1996…29 yards in the first half, 510 in the second half, 481-yard difference

This season is a completely different story. Rhett followed up his strong finish to his rookie season with a 1,207-yard campaign in 1995 and then chose to hold out for a new contract at the beginning of 1996, Tony Dungy's first year at the helm. The Bucs instead chose to cobble a rushing game together from Reggie Brooks, Jerry Ellison and rookie fullback Mike Alstott. Rhett eventually returned and played in nine games and ended up as the team's leading rusher.

3. Warrick Dunn, 2000…366 in the first half, 767 in the second half, 401-yard difference

The story here was an injury, but not to Dunn. This was a prime Thunder & Lightning season, with Dunn and Mike Alstott leading the way to 2,066 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground for the team. At the midway point of that season, Alstott had 395 yards and Dunn had 366 but neither had recorded even a single 100-yard game. Then Alstott got hurt and missed three games and part of another and the Bucs leaned more heavily on Dunn. He had outings of 105, 145 and 210 yards, all in the last five weeks of the season.

4. Thomas Jones, 2003…79 in the first half, 548 in the second half, 469-yard difference

After the 2002 Super Bowl season, the Buccaneers engineered a swap of failed draft picks with Arizona and came out on the winning end in a big way. Tampa Bay had used a third-round pick in 2002 on Michigan WR Marquise Walker, but Walker never saw the field as a rookie. The Cardinals had used the seventh-overall pick on Jones in 2000 but had never gotten more than 511 yards out of him in a season. Those two players were swapped for each other, and it turns out Jones actually was good. The '03 Bucs had Super Bowl-repeat aspirations and probably didn't expect much from Jones so they mostly stuck with Michael Pittman in the first half. But Jones had a 134-yard game on just nine carries in Week 10 and he eventually took over as the starter down the stretch before departing in free agency the next year.

5. LeGarrette Blount, 2010…268 in the first half, 739 in the second half, 471-yard difference

The Bucs got Blount off waivers from Tennessee at the beginning of his rookie season, but at the time they still had Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham. Blount did get immediately into the mix but he wasn't the bell cow back until the second half of the season. He didn't play in the first two games and had just 10 carries over the next two. His emergence actually began before the season's halfway point, with a 120-yard game in Week Seven, but it wasn't until Week 10 that he became the starter and really took off. Blount had three 100-yard games in the last five weeks, including a 164-yard outing against Seattle.

6. Bobby Rainey, 2013…0 in the first half, 532 in the second half, 532-yard difference

This is the biggest split of the six seasons in question but also the least relevant. Rainey didn't log a single carry in the Bucs' first six games of 2013, mostly because he wasn't on the team yet. Tampa Bay claimed him off waivers on October 21 and he didn't play in the next game or get a handoff in the one after that. However, injuries to Doug Martin and then Mike James created an opportunity for Rainey and he seized it in the season's second half.

The example above that seems most statistically similar to Ronald Jones' current situation is Warrick Dunn's 2000, but that half-and-half split was the product of an injury. Nobody wants that to be the reason for a more prolific second half for Jones. Instead, the one that could be duplicated is Blount in 2010. It was at about the halfway point that he clearly emerged as the best option in the backfield and the team leaned on him more and more down the stretch.

Now on 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.

Why are slot and outside corner treated as separate positions on many NFL teams? And what skill set makes players better at one or the other?

- @dasgutdave, via Instagram

That's a good question, David, and the distinction is one that has grown more important over the last couple decades. I would argue that our own Rondé Barber was involved in redefining that position, though it's the ongoing proliferation of the passing game in the NFL that has really made it necessary to find players with a specific skill slot to cover the slot.

I'd compare it to guards and tackles on the offensive line. Some guys can play both positions but even they are likely to be better at one than the other. A left tackle really has to have elite foot quickness in order to have a chance at staying between the top pass rushers and his quarterback. A guard might get away with slower feet, though, if he is particularly strong and powerful and can win leverage battles in a tighter space.

There are a lot of things a slot corner has to be good at, and it's difficult to find players with all of the necessary traits. That's one reason why even some of the best outside receivers in the league are also utilized fairly regularly in the slot. Think of our own Chris Godwin. It's an attempt to get a better matchup if the opposing team is using its third best cornerback in the slot.

First, a cornerback has to have very quick feet, fluid hips and good change-of-direction skills. Routes out of the slot are usually fast-developing and are run by receivers whose top trait is their quick-twitch change of direction, like the Patriots' Julian Edelman. A slot corner has to try to match those routes very closely; if you fall behind on a quick pivot or crossing route by an NFL receiver, you're not going to catch up.

These are generally easier passes for a quarterback, too. A deep out to the sideline is a tougher pass to throw because the field is so wide. It's more likely that a quarterback is going to be a little off his market on a deep out than a quick pass over the middle, so an outside cornerback is sometimes going to have a bit more margin for error in his coverage than a slot cornerback. The outside cornerback also has the sideline to use as something of an extra defender; if he's got inside leverage on a receiver near the sideline, he knows there's only so far that receiver can go in that direction. When you're covering a guy out of the slot, he has a lot more options of where he's going to go, and he's going to do it quickly.

A slot corner also needs to be a good tackler because he's going to be in the middle of the action on running plays more often, simply based on where he's lined up on the field, closer to the offensive line. That corner will also sometimes be the closest defender when an offense throws a screen pass to a running back, so he's got to be quick enough to close that ground and he's got to be tough enough not to get easily blocked out of the play.

I mentioned Rondé Barber earlier. Those who know anything about Barber's (IMO strong) Hall of Fame résumé can probably quote his most impressive career stat: He is the only player in NFL history to record at least 40 interceptions and at least 25 sacks. He actually got 47 and 28, respectively. That is an enormous amount of sacks for a cornerback, and it had a lot to do with him playing in the slot, which he would do in sub packages while also playing outside in the base defense. If you're going to blitz with one of your corners, it makes sense to do it with the one lined up closest to the quarterback. So if you have good blitzing skills, that's another huge plus to playing in the slot. The outside corners are only going to blitz on rare occasions.

Anyway, David, it's an astute observation that teams have now gotten to the point where outside corner and slot corner are basically treated as separate positions. Though it's not the case with our current staff, we've even had coaching staffs in the recent past in which the regular corners and the slot guys were tutored by different coaches and often ran separate drills in practice.

Is there any shot at a playoff spot if we win 6 of the next 8 games?

- slicecube, via Instagram

Honestly, Slice – or Cube, if that's what you prefer – I think the Bucs would need to win out, or at least take seven of eight. This answer has nothing to do with how good the Buccaneers are or how likely they are to win six, seven or eight of the final eight games. It's just math, and history…your two favorite classes in high school.

Tampa Bay is currently sitting on a 2-6 record, which means that six wins in the second half would have them finish at 8-8. Historically, it's not impossible to make the playoffs with an 8-8 record, but it's uncommon. Since the NFL expanded its schedule to 16 games (thus making an 8-8 finish possible) in 1978, 131 teams have finished exactly 8-8. Ten of those teams have made the playoffs, most recently Denver in 2011.

We should probably treat this more like seven out of 128 teams, because three of those playoff-bound teams got there by winning their division. Since the Buccaneers are in a division with a 7-1 Saints team, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that an 8-8 record is going to win the NFC South. So Tampa Bay is trying to duplicate the feats of the seven teams who got a Wild Card berth with eight wins. The most recent team to do that was the New York Giants in 2006.

Now consider this: For an 8-8 team to make the playoffs, there necessarily can't be more than five teams in the conference with nine wins at the end of the year. I would say that San Francisco (8-0), New Orleans (7-1), Green Bay (7-2) and Seattle (7-2) are all very good bets to get to nine wins. That leaves only two more spots, which means the Bucs would have to hope that no more than one of these teams gets to nine wins: Minnesota (6-3), L.A. Rams (5-3), Carolina (5-3) and the non-division-winner out of the Dallas (5-3) and Philadelphia (5-4) duo. That's asking a lot. The league standings in general seem particularly unbalanced this year, which is going to make things tougher on a team trying to come back from the bottom half of the standings.

Obviously, things will increasingly look better if you can get to nine or 10 wins. That playoff rate for 8-8 teams was 7.6%, but it goes all the way up to 47.4% (64 of 135 teams) for a 9-7 finish. In the era of the 16-game season, 10-6 is close to a sure thing, with 83.6% of teams qualifying for the postseason with that record. This year could provide some exceptions, however, given that aforementioned imbalance in the standings.

Why didn’t the team pursue offensive linemen and CB’s before the trade deadline?

- realdocwatson, via Instagram

Well, first of all Doc, how do you know they did not? Clearly the Buccaneers did not successfully attempt a trade for any players, but that doesn't mean they didn't try.

That said, I don't think there was anything really in the works at any point. I've said it many times in the past: The NFL midseason trade market is rarely very lucrative. I'll concede this: There have been more trades than usual, 17 of them since the season started. That's partly because certain teams seem more willing to start a rebuild if they are expecting a poor season anyway. But that's dating all the way back to early September and clearly a lot of those deals were not reactions to deficiencies at certain positions that have become apparent as the season progressed, which I think is what you're asking me about in terms of the Buccaneers.

More to the point, it takes two to tango and to add, say, a veteran cornerback the Buccaneers would need to find a team willing to give up one who could still make a difference. Here's what Head Coach Bruce Arians had to say about that prospect on Wednesday:

"There really wasn’t one available. Who was it? There was nobody out there that can still play fast enough to play."

Now, there were a couple cornerbacks traded over the course of a few weeks before the deadline, most notably Jacksonville's Jalen Ramsey. It cost the Rams two first-round picks to get Ramsey, who only has one year left on his current contract. The Rams also traded Marcus Peters to Baltimore, and Peters is on the last year of his deal. Los Angeles traded cornerback Aqib Talib to Miami but Talib is on injured reserve. The Dolphins did that deal in order to get the fifth-round pick that was also included, in a move pioneered by Cleveland with Brock Osweiler.

The Raiders traded Gareon Conley to Houston for a third-round pick in a move that was widely panned on the Texans' side. I'm not sure Conley would have been an answer to the Bucs' issues in the secondary.

The other players traded were mostly receivers (Mohamed Sanu, Emmanuel Sanders, Zay Jones) or defensive linemen (Leonard Williams, Michael Bennett, Genard Avery) and some of those players were available because they had fallen out of favor on their previous teams for a variety of reasons. There were many other names thrown out in the trade rumor mill, some of them players you would expect to really help a new team, but nothing came to fruition on them. That included such cornerbacks as Patrick Peterson, Josh Norman, Chris Harris, Desmond Trufant and Darrius Slay. Maybe you would have liked one of those players on the Bucs' roster but there's no indication there was ever a chance of that happening. Also remember this: The Buccaneers weren't the only team that could have been in the market for a cornerback. With plenty of CB-needy teams out there, guys like Peterson and Norman still weren't moved.

On top of all that, I think the Buccaneers believe they have the young core of DBs they can develop into a good secondary over time. I would say that the coaches expected things to progress more quickly in that area than it has, and that's frustrating. But there have been a lot of draft assets put to that position and there's still plenty of time for it to work out.

As for the offensive line, that's a very tough spot to get a guy at midseason and work into your offense. A deadline deal for a veteran blocker would probably be made more with an eye on next season and beyond…and with Washington not dealing Trent Williams I'm not sure there was anything really available on the market. In addition, that seemed like a more glaring need a couple weeks ago when Demar Dotson and Alex Cappa were both out with injuries. Dotson and Cappa are back and the protection was clearly better last Sunday in Seattle, even in that hostile environment.

Speed Round!

Will Shaq Barrett be the NFL sack leader?

- itz_justdom

Barrett currently is the league's sack leader with 10.5, a half-sack ahead of Cleveland's Myles Garrett. There are another six players who have 8.0 sacks are more and are therefore just one big game away from moving to the top, and another three who have 7.0 or more. Personally, I would take the field against any single player on that list, including Barrett. And if you had to pick one, it would certainly be tempting to choose one of the guys who has finished at or near the top before in previous seasons, like Chandler Jones or Cameron Jordan.

Of course, I think Barrett has as good a chance as anybody on that list, and I guess his odds are a little bit higher because he is currently in the lead. Also, he's got eight games left to play (as does Garrett), while the next five guys on the list all have just seven games left. That's an advantage for Barrett (and Garrett).

Another thing in Barrett's favor: JPP is back. Jason Pierre-Paul has played two games since returning from the NFI list and he already has 1.5 sacks and five quarterback hits. You know who else has 1.5 sacks in those two games? Shaq Barrett. After starting the year with an incredible run of 9.0 sacks in the first four games, Barrett was shut out two weeks in a row as opposing teams began to treat him as the top threat on the Bucs' front and sent extra blockers his way. That's harder to do, however, with Pierre-Paul also prowling around the backfield.

One potential thing not in Barrett's favor: The Bucs could be without outside linebackers Carl Nassib and Anthony Nelson for a bit. Neither has practiced this week. That will make it easier for opposing defenses to key on Barrett and JPP, and if they play anywhere near the number of snaps they did in Seattle it will be hard for either to keep his legs fresh. The Buccaneers have signed Sam Acho and Kahzin Daniels to pump depth back into the position, but it's too early to make any predictions about what they will bring to the table.

Highest point of the season?

- anthony straughn, via Instagram

Well, wins are all that really matter so they only possible answers are the games at Carolina and Los Angeles. The 55-40 win over the Rams was a lot more fun but as a single moment I'll take the fourth-down stop by Vernon Hargreaves of Christian McCaffrey to seal the narrow win over the Panthers in front of a national audience in Week Two. Hopefully my answer to this question will have some other really good options by season's end.

Who will be the starting TE for this week?

- l3lrugrat, via Instagram

Both O.J. Howard and Cam Brate have participated fully in practice this week, so I think you can anticipate them both being back in the starting lineup this week. The Bucs list two tight ends as starters on their depth chart, and while Antony Auclair has gotten a bunch of starts because the team likes his blocking in two-TE sets, Auclair is now on injured reserve. So it should be Howard and Brate.

What’s your favorite type of protein bar?

- captainrellik, via Instagram

Not applicable. Never had one I enjoyed.

Are the Bucs the best 2-6 team all time?

- captainrellik, via Instagram

I think this question is meant as an insult, but I'll bite anyway…and enjoy it as much as a protein bar.

This year there are two 2-6 teams at the halfway point, and the Buccaneers have played the league's toughest schedule in the first half so I'll give the mantle to them over the Browns. The best team to start a season 2-6 in the current era of 16-game seasons would have to be the 1978 Chargers, who started the second half of the season with four straight wins, dropped one contest to the Chiefs and then finished with three more victories. That got them to 9-7…and left them one game out of the playoff picture. See, slicecube? I think the Bucs need to run the table, and if they do, captainrellik, we'll be able to declare them the best 2-6 team ever.

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