Mike Evans has 464 receiving yards through the first six weeks of the season, good for 11th in the NFL and a pace that would lead to a tidy little 1,237-yard campaign. If he gets anywhere close to that mark he would join Randy Moss as the only players in NFL history to start their careers with six straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
So, Mike Evans: good as ever.
However, this could also be the first season since his 2014 rookie campaign that Evans does not lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in receiving yards. That's because teammate Chris Godwin has arrived as a full-fledged NFL star in his third season and is currently leading the entire NFL with 662 receiving yards. He's on pace for 1,765 yards, which would break the team record of 1,524 that Evans set just last year. In terms of yards, Evans and Godwin form the most productive duo of wide receivers in the entire NFL.
Are they the best duo in franchise history, too? Let's just say they're well on their way. Below you'll find the most productive single-season duos in Bucs history in a variety of statistical categories, including receiving yards.
Receptions: 174 in 2001 by Keyshawn Johnson (106) and Warrick Dunn (68)
Receiving Yards: 2,380 in 2012 by Vincent Jackson (1,384) and Mike Williams (996)
Rushing Yards: 1,935 in 1979 by Ricky Bell (1,263) and Jerry Eckwood (690)
Passing Yards: 5,358 in 2018 by Jameis Winston (2,992) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (2,366)
Touchdowns: 21 in 2012 by Doug Martin (12) and Mike Williams (9)
Interceptions: 16 in 2001 by Ronde Barber (10) and Donnie Abraham (6)
Sacks: 29.5 in 2000 by Warren Sapp (16.5) and Marcus Jones (13.0)
Tackles: 376 in 1997 by Hardy Nickerson (194) and Derrick Brooks (182)
The combined passing yards record is a little gimmicky; ideally, you don't really want two quarterbacks throwing for that many yards apiece, but it does outpace any single-QB, single-season output so far.
For the record, the interceptions and sacks categories were pretty easy to guess. I started with those seasons at the top of my list and never had to cross them off as I went through all the others. That said, I would have bet a few bucks that the top rushing duo would have been one of the Thunder and Lightning seasons. It was close; Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott rushed for a combined 1,872 yards in 1998, but that wasn't enough to unseat Bell and Eckwood.
I was also a little surprised that Evans and someone weren't the touchdown champs. Evans and Adam Humphries got close to the receptions mark last year, with 162. I was not at all surprised that the top tackle duo in team history was Hardy Nickerson and Derrick Brooks. Those two used to have a playful competition over who would win the tackle title each year they were together.
Okay, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
How often has the free kick rule been used, and is it something that we should try more with Gay's leg?
- celow27leo, via Instagram
For those reading who don't know what Celow (CeeLo?) is talking about, he's referring to the extremely obscure play that happened in the Buccaneers game against Carolina in London last weekend. The Panthers' Joey Slye got to try a 60-yard field goal at the end of the first half on what resembled nothing more than a kickoff. Allow me to explain the rule.
Any time a team fields a punt with a fair catch they have two options. One, they can start an offensive drive, and that's what teams do 99.99% of the time, and the only thing I'm not sure of is how many 9s to put on the end of that decimal. Two, they can elect to try a free kick from the spot that the ball was caught. There is no snap on a free kick and no typical offensive and defensive alignment. Everyone on the defense must line up at least 10 yards back from the line of scrimmage, and the kicking team spreads out, too, with a holder holding the ball in place. If it goes through the uprights, it's a successful field goal and three points.
If you've watched any kickoffs in recent years – and no one would blame you for making a fridge run during kickoffs since they've become the most boring play in football – you'll know that kickers routinely boot the ball long enough to be around the goal posts, and that's from the 35-yard line.
In fact, earlier in Sunday's game, Slye had glanced a kickoff from the crossbar. The Panthers had every reason to believe that he could make this kick from a kickoff setup, and indeed he had the distance but pushed it just a little to the right.
Slye's attempt was the first fair catch free kick attempted in the NFL in six years, since San Francisco's Phil Dawson tried and missed a 71-yarder at the end of the first half against the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 26, 2013. It's been 43 years and counting since someone made a fair catch free kick, that being the San Diego Chargers' Ray Wersching against the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 21, 1976. That was a 45-yarder. It's a good sign that this is an obscure play when both examples I've used so far involved a team that has since moved to a new city.
There are not good records kept on fair catch free kicks, but the best I can find is that there have been 25 of them since 1925, and only a dozen since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The one on Sunday appears to be the first one in a Buccaneers game; the Bucs themselves have never tried one.
And that' why the second half of your question is essentially irrelevant. Yes, Matt Gay's strong leg would be a huge asset if the Bucs were ever in position to try one of these kicks – he's already made from 58, 54 and 52 yards this season – but it's not really a strategy a team can choose to use more often just because they have a kicker like Gay.
Here's a hint as to why: The last eight fair catch free kicks, dating back to 1980, have all been attempted with somewhere between five and zero seconds left in the first half. (That's another obscure but important thing about this play – if time runs out as the fielding team is making a fair catch, they can still have an untimed down if they choose to go for the kick.) See, the situation has to be just right for a coach to choose this option. It's almost always going to be at the end of the first half, not the end of the game, because it would only make sense at the end of the game if you're trailing by three points or less or the game is tied. The Panthers were up by 10 when they tried their kick and were hoping to tack on a three-point gift before halftime.
If there's any decent amount of time on the clock, most coaches are going to elect to try to get closer for a higher-percentage field goal or potentially go for a touchdown. The Panthers fair caught that punt at the 50. If there had been, say, 30 seconds left they easily could have moved Slye considerably closer before he had to kick a traditional field goal.
And, of course, the kick has to have some reasonable chance of success. Green Bay's Mason Crosby tried a 69-yarder in 2008 and had the kick on target but it fell just a bit short. Washington's Mark Moseley tried a 74-yarder in 1979, which seems like hubris to me, but then again a kickoff from the 35-yard line that hits the crossbar has traveled 75 yards, so I guess it's possible.
So, no, Matt Gay's strong leg is not going to lead the Bucs to start trying a bunch of fair catch free kicks. But if the opportunity ever arises – and history suggests that's unlikely – he'll have a good shot at making it.
Do you think JPP will be playing at the next home game?
- jacobjilyman, via Instagram
When JPP returns, will it change how we use Shaq Barrett?
- celow27leo, via Instagram
I think there's hope that happens, Jacob, and there are a couple little hints that make me think it's possible. First, the Buccaneers made an effort to get Jason Pierre-Paul back on the field this week, even though the rest of the team is off enjoying the bye week. There are no practices this week, but a couple of coaches and a couple practice-squad linemen joined JPP on the field to get him some work. The Buccaneers didn't have to start his 21-day roster exemption this week. They could have waited until next week when the rest of the team is around, and that would have given them another week on the far side of that window to make a decision.
Second, the Buccaneers released outside linebacker Devante Bond a couple days ago. They released wide receiver Bobo Wilson on the same day but have already replaced that spot by promoting wide receiver Amara Darboh from the practice squad. At the point of this writing, the Bucs have not replaced Bond, either in terms of his spot on the 53-man roster or his spot in the outside linebacker rotation. Are they saving that spot because they believe it's possible they'll be activating Pierre-Paul next week?
And Celow (two questions in the same mailbag – nice!), I think the return of JPP can only help Barrett, who remains tied for the league lead with 9.0 sacks even though he's seen a healthy dose of double-team blocks and chips the last two weeks. If and when Pierre-Paul returns to his 2018 form, he's going to be a player the opposing offense has to account for, which will hopefully draw some attention away from Barrett. And we've all seen what Barrett can do when he's getting a lot of one-on-one pass rush opportunities.
Through the first six games, only four players have seen snaps at outside linebacker for the Bucs: Barrett (372), Carl Nassib (375), Anthony Nelson (118) and Bond (32). The first thing I would expect Pierre-Paul to do is eat up those Bond snaps and perhaps some of those going to Nelson, although I know the coaches are high on the rookie from Iowa.
And then, yes, Pierre-Paul is going to take some snaps from Nassib and Barrett, maybe a little at first and then more as he rounds back into playing shape. But that's a good thing. Nassib and Barrett have played 84% and 83% of the team's defensive snaps so far, respectively, and those are relatively high numbers. It's more than a good number of players on the NFL's sack leaderboard, including Myles Garrett, Mario Addison, Clay Matthews, Za'Darius Smith, Robert Quinn and Jamie Collins.
So I don't think JPP's presence is going to change how the Buccaneers use Barrett, just how much, and even then not by a huge margin. A rotation of JPP, Barrett and Nelson, with some additional help from Nelson, sounds like a very good setup to me. Barrett will presumably see fewer double-teams and potentially have fresher legs in the fourth quarter.
What do the guys need to do between after the bye week to get a W in Tennessee?
- itz_anthony_5, via Instagram
Well, it's a lot of things, Anthony, but if you want one main answer I'd say, focus on the details.
Head Coach Bruce Arians has consistently praised his players for their in-game effort in his postgame locker room talks. That hasn't been an issue. They're fighting hard, and when they don't get the results they want, it matters to them. That's a good start. However, after this most recent game Arians has challenged the players to be better prepared. Mistakes are being made, big and small, and Arians chalks that up to insufficient preparation.
The Bucs' defense ranks last in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, and the secondary has clearly had its struggles in recent weeks. Some of that has been the product of poor communication and small mistakes in coverage decisions – playing too far off the line, undercutting a route instead of playing over the top, etc. Rookie linebacker Devin White made a rookie mistake in the last game, his first since Week Two, on a play that ended up freeing Christian McCaffrey for a 25-yard touchdown on a little screen pass. Those types of things are to be expected from young players from time to time, but better preparation will hopefully eliminate most of them.
The pass protection has not been particularly good the past two weeks, and in London that contributed to Jameis Winston's turnover problems, though Arians said the quarterback was to blame for some of the seven sacks he took. It's true that the Buccaneers have faced two of the league's better defensive fronts the past two weeks against the Saints and the Panthers, but it doesn't get too much easier next week. Tennessee's defense is tied for ninth in the NFL in sacks per pass play. So the protection needs to be better if the Bucs are to play more mistake-free football against the Titans, and that involves more than just the offensive linemen. Arians said the running backs hard their worst game of the season in London in terms of pass protection.
The Bucs might still be without two of their O-Line starters in Tennessee if Alex Cappa and Demar Dotson are not ready to go. That's a concern given the Titans' pass rush and the results of the last game, but another week of practice with the current lineup, with Earl Watford and Josh Wells on the right side of the line, will hopefully lead to a better prepared unit, and presumably the backs and tight ends will be more helpful in protection this time around.
And, of course, the Bucs will go only as far as their quarterback can take them. Winston is coming off his worst game of the season, in which his too-frequent efforts to make something out of nothing led to six giveaways. It is virtually impossible to win in the NFL with that many turnovers negating anything good the offense is doing and continually putting the defense in bad situations. So to get that W in Tennessee, Anthony, the Buccaneers need Winston to play more like he did in Weeks Two-Four, when he was not only piling up yards and touchdowns but also consistently making the right decisions.