S.S. Mailbag: Airing It Out

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The 7-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take on the 6-9 Atlanta Falcons on Sunday to close out each team's 2019 season. Second place in the NFC South is on the line, though it's debatable how much motivation that provides. There will be no playoffs this year for the Buccaneers or the Falcons.

That said, there seems to be no let-down in either team. Head Coach Bruce Arians keeps insisting that, "For us 8-8, tastes a whole lot better than 7-9."

Meanwhile, the Falcons may be playing for their coach's future, and Matt Ryan thinks one more win would do a lot for the team's future overall. Says Ryan: "The biggest thing is, especially with a young football team, is that it creates belief." And: "I think that belief is very powerful."

So there's no reason to believe that any players are coaches in either Tampa or Atlanta are giving much thought this week to draft position. That doesn't mean we can't take a look at the possibilities.

Based on the current standings heading into the final week, the Buccaneers would pick 17th. Draft order for the first 20 spots (for the non-playoff teams) is determined by reverse order of the overall standings, and ties are broken by strength of schedule (SOS) numbers. Additional tiebreakers are applied if SOS doesn't get it done, but it usually doesn't have to go past that. The Buccaneers are one of five teams tied at 7-8, and since their SOS of .500 is second-highest in that group they would pick fourth out of those five. There are 13 other teams with worse records.

However, a lot could change on Sunday, as there are a whopping thirteen teams going into the weekend with records between 6-9 and 8-7. Two of those 13 will end up in the playoffs and thus won't affect the top 20 picks, but that's still a lot of possible variance. Here are the Week 17 matchups for all 13 of those teams, some of which play each other:

N.Y. Jets (6-9) at Buffalo

Cleveland (6-9) at Cincinnati

Chicago (7-8) at Minnesota

Atlanta (6-9) at Tampa Bay (7-8)

Pittsburgh (8-7) at Baltimore

Washington at Dallas (7-8)

Oakland (7-8) at Denver (6-9)

Tennessee (8-7) at Houston

Indianapolis (7-8) at Jacksonville

Arizona at L.A. Rams (8-7)

Philadelphia (8-7) at N.Y. Giants

There are nine teams that will definitely be ahead of the Buccaneers in the draft order even if Tampa Bay loses on Sunday because they can't get to seven wins. In addition, the 6-9 New York Jets can get to seven wins but their strength of schedule (.475) is sure to remain worse than that of the Buccaneers (.500). Also, if Denver wins to get to 7-9 they will have beaten Oakland, pushing the Raiders to 7-9, and the Raiders have a significantly worse SOS (.473) than the Buccaneers. So, realistically, the 12th spot seems to be the highest possible finish for Tampa Bay in the 2020 draft order.

On the flip side, a Buccaneers win pushes their record to 8-8, which would definitely put the four current 6-9 teams (Jets, Broncos, Browns and Falcons) ahead of them in the draft order. So now the ceiling for the Bucs' pick starts at 14. Losses by Oakland, Dallas, Indianapolis and Chicago would make them all 7-9, which would push the Bucs down to at least 18. Of the four 8-7 teams still in playoff contention (Pittsburgh, L.A. Rams, Philadelphia and Tennessee), only Pittsburgh has an SOS (.502) that is reasonably close to Tampa Bay's .500. None of those teams is playing each other, so it's conceivably for all five to lose and if the SOS worked out right the Buccaneers could be picking as low as 19th.

That's a pretty big range, 12th to 19th, to still be on the table with one week to play, and the fact that so many games factor into the final SOS numbers makes it difficult to pin down even with that finite of a schedule. The Buccaneers will be doing everything they can to beat the Falcons on Sunday, but one way or another they're almost certain to move from their current draft spot of 17th.

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 some of the top photos from the Buccaneers' Week 17 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.

Scott,

Enjoy reading and listening to all your insight on the Bucs!

Question: O.J. Howard is made to sit the pine when he bungles passes that end up in the arms of defenders. Ronald Jones has to sit when he misses his blitz pick-ups. Peyton Barber has to sit after fumbling. Vernon Hargreaves had to sit after not hustling. I love that coach Arians holds guys accountable! So, when is he going to hold Jameis Winston accountable? Do you think we should bring in a veteran backup next year (like a Ryan Fitzpatrick or an Andy Dalton) who could capably manage a game (effectively distribute the ball to our plethora of talented players) after we have to sit Jameis for his 3rd, 4th, or 5th pick of the day?

Thanks. I hope to hear SOMETHING about QB accountability from you sometime.

Joel, via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com

Whoa, Joel's coming in kinda hot here! Well, actually he came in very nicely – and thank you for the kind words, Joel – before going out kinda hot. Sort of like a reverse month of March: In like a lamb, out like a lion. I'm not sure why I'm personally being called out here; I don't recall skipping a question of this variety before, and anyway I'm not the person who can hold any Buccaneer accountable for his play.

But, of course, his real question here is about Bruce Arians doing so. I think the problem here is that we're comparing apples to oranges. Or, to be more specific, a bushel with just a couple apples and only one that we know is crisp compared to a bag full of oranges with several that look and feel tasty. When O.J. Howard had a rough start to a game against the Saints, Cam Brate was right there ready to pick up the slack. When Jones messed up a blitz pickup, the Buc could simply shift more of the usually-shared backfield load to Barber. There were other cornerbacks who could step in for Hargreaves, and in fact those young players have proved to be quite capable down the stretch.

But when a team has a passer that they believe has a chance to be a long-term franchise quarterback they usually don't have another one waiting in the wings. That's no offense to Ryan Griffin; in reality, we still don't really know what he would be capable of as a starter. So I suppose you could make the argument that the Bucs should have put them in there to find out, but you'd also have to admit that you don't know if that would have made a significant difference. I think Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers would rather try their best to get the most out of Winston and they would also like to use as many opportunities as possible to gather evidence for their critical upcoming decision on the position.

I also think you might be focusing a bit too much on the supposedly punitive nature of all those other examples of benchings you mentioned. Sure, coaches will make a move intended to send a message to a player, but they are also making that move because they think it's in their best interest to win the game currently at hand. If Howard is having trouble that day holding onto the ball or Jones is missing protection assignments, you improve your chances of winning by putting in a player who will not make those mistakes. The message sent to the player is, you need to correct those mistakes in order to get back into the lineup, and with the exception of Hargreaves, all of those guys were back in the thick of the Bucs' plans the very next game.

So, should Arians sit out Winston with the idea of making him understand that those interceptions are bad? I'm pretty sure everybody already knows that. And then, message delivered, put Winston back  in the next game? I don't really see what that would accomplish. Arians clearly believes that the Bucs' best chances of winning a game after Winston throws an interception or two is to leave him out there so he can bring the team back. And Winston has actually done that on several occasions this year! There is reason for Arians to believe. Even in this last game, with the terrible start and the four interceptions, and with Winston's two Pro Bowl receivers on the sideline, the Bucs were still in the game right down to the end after a big comeback. Winston threw his fourth interception to end the Bucs' last real chance at a game-winning drive, but prior to that Arians obviously still felt like Winston gave his team its best chance to win at that moment.

Believe me, Joel, just like every player in this very bottom-line business Winston will be held accountable for his play, good or bad. It will come in the form of longer-term decisions rather than a mid-game benching. That's true in terms of what the team chooses to do in the coming months regarding Winston's contract status. It also could be true, as you suggest, in terms of what sort of competition the Bucs choose to foster at that position moving forward. If you recall, Arians said he purposely did not want to bring in a Fitzpatrick type this year because he didn't want Winston looking over his shoulder. Perhaps there will be a different strategy after Arians has got to spend an entire season evaluating Winston's play.

I get the frustration of watching a game in which Winston throws multiple interceptions, and there have obviously been too many of them this year. I also understand both sides of the current debate about whether Winston should continue to be the long-term answer. All of that is more than fair. But I don't think the problem is Arians not holding Winston accountable for his mistakes the way he does with other players.

How do you think your offense will perform without the WRs?

- jacobilyman, via Instagram

Well, just to be clear, the Buccaneers won't be playing without wide receivers on Sunday. It will just be playing without Pro Bowl wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, as well as speedy rookie Scotty Miller. All were felled by hamstring pulls in Weeks 14 and 15. That's a particular share for Evans and Godwin, who would have at least had a shot to chase 1,500 yards together.

Also, this question was sent in before the Week 16 game against Houston, which would have been the first time Evans and Godwin were both out, so it was certainly relevant at the time. I think it still is, but now I have some actual evidence to work with to answer it following that game against the Texans. The Bucs will have the same group of pass-catchers in Week 17 as last week, except with Jaydon Mickens swapped in for Ishmael Hyman. Those two switched spots between the practice squad and the active roster this week. The starters are now Breshad Perriman and Justin Watson, and in addition to Mickens the Bucs have Cyril Grayson and Spencer Schnell, two other very recent additions who both made their NFL debuts last week.

So what was Jameis Winston and the Bucs offense able to do without Evans, Godwin and Miller last week. Well, they still put up 435 yards, which was their fourth straight game over 400. The passing game still generated 335 yards, though the biggest difference was on the scoreboard; the Bucs lost 23-20 and scored about nine points less than their per-game average coming into Week 16.

Winston did it by relying heavily on Perriman as his new number-one and then spreading the ball around to a wide variety of targets. Tight end O.J. Howard was targeted seven times, though that connection could have been more efficient, as it produced just three catches for 46 yards. Watson also had a career high 10 targets and a touchdown, but he and Winston seemed to have some trouble on balls thrown further down the field. Those are plays in which it seems clear now that Winston had a very good rapport with Evans and Godwin. He seems to have developed that with Perriman over the last month – Perriman's nine catches of 20 or more yards in the last four weeks is the most by any player in the NFL – but understandably doesn't have it with the other receivers.

Running back Ronald Jones also caught three passes and then Winston was able to get one very important play each out of Hyman and just-promoted tight end Codey McElroy. Hyman caught a 31-yard pass and McElroy a 30-yarder, both inside the 10 to set up touchdowns. That's probably what one should expect from any of the very new guys on the roster – they're not likely to have a large package of things they're ready to do but each of them could have a few specific things they're ready to run in the right situations.

So I think that's what one should expect from the Bucs' passing game in the season finale. Perriman is likely to get the most targets, particularly mid-range and downfield; the tight end position will be utilized a bit more than it was before; the running backs will catch some short passes and hope to make something out of them, and the inexperienced players will make a couple contributions here and there. It worked reasonably well last week against Houston's 30th-ranked pass defense and hopefully it will again versus the Falcons' 23rd-ranked pass defense.

Who will be the biggest x-factor Saturday with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin out?

- cwadirondack, via Instagram

This is sort of an addendum to the last question. I think I mentioned all of the potential targets for Winston other than tight ends Cam Brate and Tanner Hudson and running backs Peyton Barber and Dare Ogunbowale. There are a lot of possible answers to this question.

The biggest factor period, will not be any of those pass-catchers but Jameis Winston, of course. With a league-leading 4,908 yards plus 30 touchdown passes and 28 interceptions, Winston is obviously the source of the best and worst things the Bucs' offense has produced this year. But I think the term "x-factor" is probably being used here to identify a less obvious player who will make a big difference in how the offense operates on Sunday.

Again, I got this question before the last game…man, does it make it a lot easier to answer them that way! I know, that's cheating, but I thought the question could just as easily be applied to Week 17. I would say what proved to be the x-factor for the passing game against Houston was the ability of Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich to find a way to get a couple of big plays out of such unknown and unproven commodities as Hyman and McElroy. As such, it would be easy just to guess that maybe former track star Cyril Grayson will be targeted with some deep balls this week, potentially turning in a big play or two.

But I'm not going to go in that direction. I believe the x-factor this Sunday will be O.J. Howard. I think the amount that the Bucs can get out of their athletic tight end could really swing things in one direction or another. It won't necessarily be easy; according to Football Outsiders, Atlanta's defense is 11th best in the NFL at defending tight ends, and in the first Bucs-Falcons meeting in Week 12 Howard and Brate were held to a combined one catch for 12 yards.

But I believe the Bucs will try. It seemed obvious that Howard and Brate would be picking up some of the Evans and Godwin slack going into the last game, though Leftwich made a good point earlier in the week when he said it was important not to force it to those tight ends just for the sake of doing so. And it did seem to come pretty naturally when the tight ends were targeted a combined 13 times against Houston.

I expect to see the same sort of attention paid to the tight ends, if not more, this Sunday. Brate, of course, had the big fourth-down dropped pass against Houston, which was shockingly uncharacteristic of the sure-handed tight end, and Leftwich said he was eager to put Brate back into another similarly important situation. Brate is a great security blanket for Winston and a real threat to score from the 20 in.

Howard has seen his production rise a bit after a slow first half, and he has 16 catches for 226 yards over the last four games. Even if the Falcons have a pretty good defense against tight ends, Howard has the type of speed and athleticism to create mismatches down the middle of the field. And, after Perriman, he's probably the Bucs' best bet to create big plays in the passing game this season.

If Howard comes through with one of his most productive games of the year, that could really help Winston and the Bucs' depleted offense match Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and company in what could be a shootout. If the Bucs are unable to get the ball into Howard's hands it may be hard to keep up.

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