S.S. Mailbag: The Benefit of Hindsight

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense created two turnovers in last Sunday's win over Arizona, both of which occurred in the second half and both of which ended Cardinals drives that had already penetrated the Buccaneers' red zone. Lavonte David's strip and recovery against David Johnson at the Bucs' 11-yard line kept the game tied at 20-20 at the end of the third quarter. Jamel Dean's interception at Tampa Bay's eight-yard line with four minutes left kept Arizona from adding to its four-point lead and gave the ball back to the offense for the game-winning 92-yard touchdown drive.

Obviously, both of those takeaways were critical to the outcome. They were also the first two red zone turnovers created by the Bucs' defense since Week One against San Francisco. As I noted earlier this week in Data Crunch, I was able to do the research on Buccaneer red zone takeaways back through the 1990 season, and I didn't find a single other game in which Tampa Bay managed two of them.

(To be clear, when I mentioned "red zone turnovers" I mean takeaways that ended drives in which the opposing offense had already snapped the ball from a yard line inside the 20. There are plenty of turnovers that take place inside the 20 – say, a deep pass from midfield that is intercepted at the 10 – but we are only discussing turnovers that end what are known as "red zone possessions.")

Simply put, red zone takeaways are huge. NFL coaches frequently point out how important turnovers in general are to a game's outcome, but their importance gets magnified when they end what appear to be certain scoring opportunities for the opposition.

Tampa Bay didn't win that game against San Francisco in which Carlton Davis recovered a Deebo Samuel fumble at the Bucs' six-yard line just before halftime, but the Buccaneers also committed a red zone turnover in that game. In each of the last six games in which the defense has recorded a red zone takeaway and the offense has not committed one, the Buccaneers have won. Here's a couple examples:

In 2015, in a Week Eight game at Atlanta the Falcons had a first down at the Bucs' six-yard line in the second quarter, with the game tied at 3-3. Two plays later, Matt Ryan and Mike Person botched a snap and Jacquies Smith recovered the loose ball for the Buccaneers. Seven or three points on that drive could have made a big difference in a game that went to overtime before Connor Barth won it with a 31-yard field goal.

In 2016, the Buccaneers were in a 14-14 tie at Carolina in Week Five. The Panthers got a first down at the Bucs' one-yard line with nine minutes left and tried to get it in with a pass to tight end Greg Olsen, but Brent Grimes intercepted it. The Bucs got into position for a go-ahead field goal on the subsequent drive but Roberto Aguayo missed from 46 yards. However, Aguayo got another chance and won it with a 38-yarder as time expired.

In 2017, the Buccaneers beat the Dolphins in Miami, 30-20, in Week 11, but the game was closer than that score would indicate because Adarius Glanton scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery as the home team tried a desperation pitch-around play on a kickoff return as time expired. Prior to that, the Dolphins took their first possession of the game into the Bucs' red zone and had a first down at the 12. On third-and-seven, Justin Evans made an acrobatic interception of a pass intended for DeVante Parker in the end zone. Those saved points proved crucial when the game developed into a 20-20 tie late in the fourth quarter. Patrick Murray's 35-yard field goal with four seconds left provided the winning points.

So, in summary, my master thesis is that takeaways in the red zone are good. Use that as you will.

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.

View photos of the Buccaneers 2019 Color Rush Uniforms to be worn against the Saints, featuring LB Lavonte David.

Scott

I am not convinced that Byron Leftwich is an upgrade from Dirk Koetter calling plays. I understand why they couldn't keep the previous offensive staff but I am expecting an offensive decline next year with the new bunch in place. Am I wrong?

Robert Smith, via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com

If the wording on this one seems strange, that's not Robert's fault. Somehow I just uncovered this email even though it arrived on January 18…you know, 11 months ago. My apologies to Robert; we do make a point of trying to respond to every email that comes in for the mailbag but this one slipped through the cracks.

That said, from my perspective this worked out just great. This would have been a lot more speculative in January and I would have had to do a lot more guessing. And there would have been some statistical evidence to lend weight to Robert's prediction. As it turns out, though, we can answer this one with real numbers, with the benefit of nine games of evidence.

Robert might have had some concerns after looking at the numbers the Arizona Cardinals produced in 2018. Steve Wilks, who was the Cardinals' head coach for just that one season, retained Byron Leftwich on his staff after the retirement of Bruce Arians. Arians had hired Leftwich as his quarterbacks coach in 2017. The Cardinals began last year with Mike McCoy as the offensive coordinator but Wilks fired McCoy after seven games as the offense was struggling badly. Leftwich took over as the OC and the play-caller but the Cardinals didn't change their offensive scheme or, of course, their player personnel. So, while the offense did improve a bit after that change, going from 220.7 yards and 13.1 points per game to 257.8 and 14.8, the results still were not very good. The Cardinals had the worst offense in the league, but it's hard to blame that on Leftwich.

When Arians came out of retirement to coach the Buccaneers, he brought Leftwich in to be his offensive coordinator and, notably, gave up play-calling duties for the first time. So Leftwich gets another shot at calling plays, but this time with the scheme Arians has developed, and with a whole offseason to work with the Buccaneers on it. And I think it's fair to say that the 2019 Buccaneers have a more talented group of offensive players than did the 2018 Cardinals, who rebooted this year with Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray.

Now, Robert could have been right, to some degree, without his prediction actually being a bad thing. The Buccaneers were third in the league in yards per game last year (415.5) and 12th in points per game (24.8) but they were also 27th and 31st in those categories, defensively. The Buccaneers could afford to average fewer yards, certainly, if they still scored about the same and saw significant improvement on defense.

However, so far I'd say it would be a stretch to say the Buccaneers' offense has declined in 2019 with Leftwich calling the plays. Sure, the yards per game has come down to 385.6, but that's still seventh-best in the league and it's essentially irrelevant because the team's scoring is up, and not just a little. The Bucs are now scoring 28.9 points per game, which is third-best in the NFL. Any coach in the league would give up yards for more points.

The 2019 Buccaneers are also a bit better in the red zone this year, getting touchdowns on 61.8% of their trips, up from 60.0% last year and good for ninth in the league. You can decide if you want to give Leftwich the credit for that rise, but I think if that had declined significantly he'd probably be getting a share of the blame for his play-calling, whether it was fair or not.

If we're looking for other ways to give Leftwich some credit, how about the usage of Ronald Jones in the passing game. Jones was once considered a question mark as a pass-catcher due to unreliable hands, but he16 catches for 201 yards this year, with a very nice 12.6-yard average. The Buccaneers have found a way to unlock more of Jones' potential after his very rough rookie season.

But really, it comes down to points, right? That's the bottom line. Through the first nine games of the Bucs' first season with Leftwich calling plays, they have scored 260 points. That's tied for the most the team has ever had through nine games. They had the same amount at this point in 2012. Last year, the Bucs had 232 points through nine games. That's a significant improvement. Of course, the defense has struggled again this year, so it hasn't translated into as many wins as one might expect. All the other teams in the top 10 in scoring this season have winning records, and combined they've gone 60-24.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, yes the Buccaneers' offense has 21 giveaways this season, so it's been far from perfect. But last year at the same point the Bucs had turned it over 25 points.

Anyway, Robert, my apologies once again for overlooking your email for 11 months. It was a perfectly legitimate question at the time but I certainly have the vast benefit of hindsight here.

Which season was Mike Evans breakout season?

- jhazard21, via Instagram

Given that Mike Evans jumped right into the NFL with 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns as a rookie, an argument could be made that he broke out in his first season and simply hasn't looked back. However, I think I would vote for 2016, his third year.

Evans built big expectations with his rookie performance, and he did improve to 1,206 yards. However, his catch percentage actually dropped a bit from his first year, as did his yards per target, and he only scored three touchdowns. Evans took some heat that year for a few too many drops, as well.

That touchdown thing is capricious, as a lot of receivers see wild swings in that category from year to year. Consider Calvin Johnson, likely an eventual Hall of Famer. He followed up one 12-touchdown season with a five-touchdown campaign, and later set a career high with 16 scores in 2011 only to be held to five the next year.

Still, whether a receiver has much control over his TD total or not, it's obviously a better year when he scores more often. And so I would say that it was 2016 when Evans put it all together with a 1,321-yard, 12-touchdown campaign that earned him his first Pro Bowl invitation. I think it was in this season that he started to be mentioned in the conversation about the best receivers in the league along with the likes of Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, A.J. Green and so on.

Injuries played a bit of a part when Evans's totals dropped to 1,001 yards and five touchdowns in 2017, but that proved to be just a minor dip, and it certainly wasn't a bad season. He came back with his best year yet in 2018, setting a franchise record with 1,524 yards and scoring eight more times. That was certainly his best season to date, but it was just another step up from his breakout of two years earlier. He also went back to the Pro Bowl. Evans looks like he might be putting together an even better year in 2019, but again, now we're talking about a steady climb, not a breakout.

Why is Scotty Miller not more involved, even though he's one of the fastest revivers on our team?

yrnelijah, via Instagram

My question to you, yrnelijah, is just how involved you think Miller should be involved at this point in his rookie season? How many snaps would be the optimum number?

Right now, Miller is getting about a dozen snaps of offense per game, or at least he has in the last three games. When Breshad Perriman was out for two whole games, Miller was the most-used third receiver and he averaged about 35 snaps per game. The Buccaneers surely aren't looking for reasons to take snaps away from Mike Evans or Chris Godwin, so Miller's playing time would have to come primarily in place of Breshad Perriman or in four-receiver sets. The Bucs don't do a ton of the latter because they have two very good tight ends and a running back (Jones) who is starting to get more involved in the passing game.

My more direct answer to you, though, is that speed isn't everything. Miller is definitely fast, very fast, and he's quick, too, and that's why the Bucs liked him enough to use a sixth-round pick on him back in April. But a lot of receivers take a while to get acclimated to the league, especially when they're not huge guys with a wide variety of elite skills like Mike Evans. I think the Buccaneers are definitely looking for ways to utilize Miller's speed, and his role will develop over time. You just can't expect it to happen overnight. Miller did have one very nice play in Sunday's win over Arizona, getting down the seam and making a catch between two defenders for 28 yards. Overall, though, the Bucs have thrown the ball in his direction 16 times and that's only resulted in five catches. Until player and team can improve that success rate, you can't expect the playing time or the targets to rise very quickly. I do think it will happen eventually, though.

Can we still make the playoffs?

- kid_tarzan, via Instagram

…and…

What are the chances we win out and make the playoffs?

- celow27leo, via Instagram

Well sure, kid, the Bucs could still make the playoffs and yes, celow, it would likely take winning out to do so. That said, I'm not going to work too hard to get your hopes up because 3-6 has rarely been a launching spot for the playoffs in NFL annals.

I mean, it's certainly possible. It's been done before, including once this decade. Since the NFL went to its current 16-game season in 1978, there have been 180 teams that started the season 3-6, and four of them went on to make the playoffs. That's only 2.2%, but it's not zero.

Three of the four teams that went form 3-6 to the playoffs did indeed win out and finish 10-6, most recently the RGIII Washington Redskins of 2012. The 1995 Detroit Lions, of Scott Mitchell fame*, and the 1994 New England Patriots did the same. The 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars are the real outlier, in more ways than one. That was only the second season of the Jaguars' existence, as they were an expansion team that went 4-12 in their inaugural season of 1995. Not only did Jacksonville go 6-1 down the stretch to finish 9-7, but they won a tiebreaker over the Chiefs to get into the playoffs and then advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game!

(* That's a joke. The 1995 Lions much more famously employed Mr. Barry Sanders.)

The problem for the Buccaneers – I mean, other than needing to win at least six and probably seven of their last seven games – is that it doesn't look like 9-7 will do it this year in the NFC. It's a very top-heavy conference this year with the 8-1 49ers, the 8-2 Packers and Seahawks, the 7-2 Saints and the 7-3 Vikings. That's five teams that are likely to win at least 10 games; the Niners would have to go 1-6 the rest of the way to fall short of 10 wins, the Packers and Seahawks 1-5, the Saints 2-5 and the Vikings 2-4. I'd file all of those under "unlikely."

The Buccaneers would almost certainly have to get in via the Wild Card, as they are four games behind the Saints with seven to go, and with the 5-4 Panthers in between. So that means they have to surpass all but one of the Vikings, Panthers, Seahawks, 5-4 Rams, 4-5 Bears and the non-division winner between the 5-4 Eagles and 5-4 Cowboys. If any two of those teams gets to 10 wins, the Bucs will need to do so, too, and hope for good news in the tiebreakers.

Unfortunately, most teams are 3-6 for a reason, or a couple of reasons. The Buccaneers absolutely believe they are better than their record indicates and have lost a number of games they believe they should have won. It's not hard to find just a small handful of plays that, if reversed, would push the Bucs to, say, 5-4, at which point they'd be very much in the hunt. But you can't reverse those plays, unfortunately, and it seems as if the Bucs will have to get better overall results on defense before they really start winning consistently.

Maybe that has already begun and last week's win was the first of an incredible eight in a row. If they manage that, though, they would be the first team ever to go from 2-6 to 10-6. Therefore, we can hardly call that the most likely end result. But, hey, let's just take 'em one at a time, starting with last week's win, and see what happens! You never know.

Speed Round!

What is the plan for the secondary going forward with the release of Vernon Hargreaves?

- feckhoff_87, via Instagram

Clever Instagram handle.

Anyway, after the waiver of Hargreaves, the Buccaneers' cornerback corps looks like this: fourth-year man Ryan Smith, second-year players Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart and rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mazzi Wilkins, the lattermost of whom was just promoted from the practice squad. However, Stewart is expected to miss three to four weeks with a knee injury and Davis has missed the last two games with a hip injury. If Davis, who practiced in a limited fashion on Thursday, can't go on Sunday the Bucs would be down to the three rookies and Smith.

Murphy-Bunting had already won a starting spot even before the Hargreaves move and Dean is likely to see a lot more action after his breakout game against the Cardinals. Wilkins could figure immediately into the picture in the slot. Don't count out the possibility of the Bucs' employing some packages that put one of their safeties in the slot, either. Mike Edwards, for instance, played all over the secondary in college at Kentucky, and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles said on Thursday that all of the team's DBs get cross-trained at the nickel position.

Who's going to have a big game this Sunday?

- volclx, via Instagram

For the record, my prediction in this regard for the last game was O.J. Howard, and he did indeed have his first touchdown of the game among a season-high four catches, so I think that's at least a partial hit. This game? Hmm. How…about…

…Mike Evans! Somehow Evans is averaging 102.3 yards per game this season despite being held without a catch in the first Bucs-Saints game in Week Five. Evans insists that he doesn't care about the numbers and doesn't need to prove that that last game in New Orleans was a fluke, and I believe him. On Thursday, Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich said that Evans doesn't need something like that to motivate him; he has plenty of motivation already. All true, but by his own words Evans does want the football a lot every game and I think he's going to make that happen on Sunday. It doesn't hurt that Marshon Lattimore is likely to be sidelined with hamstring injury.

One more: Vita Vea. The Saints will be without starting left guard Andrus Peat, too, which should make things a bit easier for the Bucs' interior lineman. And if Vea gets a little more work on offense, as he did to great effect last Sunday, he could end up with big contributions on both sides of the ball.

Do you think RoJo will continue to get work in the passing game?

- nikbarlow7, via Instagram

Absolutely, so take note fantasy football players! Arians has always done a great job of getting his backs involved in the passing game, and it seems as if he, Leftwich and Running Backs Coach Todd McNair are steadily unpacking that potential in Jones' game. Notably, Arians said earlier this week that it's not going to be all screen passes to Jones, that his route tree was growing, giving him more options. I like the sound of that.

Best wide receiver duo in the league?

- Braxton_campbell, via Instagram

The numbers don't lie. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who have 1,764 receiving yards between them, which is more than five entire teams have this season. No other duo is particularly close. In fact, the only two WR combinations who have had more than 1,764 yards through a season's first nine games in NFL history are Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt with the Rams in 2000 and Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders with the Broncos in 2014. That's good company.

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