The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit their season's halfway point with a 2-6 record and the frustrating feeling that they could be a much more viable playoff-race candidate in the second half but for a small handful of plays in close games.
As it is, the Buccaneers would likely need to run the table or come close to have any shot at the postseason in 2019. For that to be possible, the second half will need to feature fewer turnovers, a stingier secondary and a new trend in which it is the Bucs and not their opponents making the key plays at the end of those close games.
Of course, it wouldn't hurt if some of the team's most promising players also had bigger second halves. With established stars like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David likely to continue doing their thing, a breakout or two (or how about three!) could make a big difference in the Bucs' fortunes.
As it so happens, the Buccaneers do have some players who appear to be strong candidates for second-half breakouts. Here are three:
1. RB Ronald Jones
This is the most obvious choice based on what the player has shown in the first half and how much more of an opportunity he is going to get in the second half. Jones got his first career start last Sunday in Seattle, taking over for Peyton Barber, and Head Coach Bruce Arians said he's going to remain the starter moving forward.
In the first seven games of the season, Jones averaged roughly 11.5 touches per game, and on only one occasion did he play more than a third of the team's offensive snaps. In his first start, Jones logged 20 touches – 18 carries and two receptions – and was on the field for 55% of the snaps. Jones is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 15.5 per catch (that latter number probably not sustainable over a larger sample size), so it's pretty clear what nearly doubling his number of touches would due for his production.
And Jones might end up getting even more than that, because his coaches believe he's getting better every week now that he's had a taste of success following a lost rookie season.
“He just started coming into his own," said Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich. "He started growing and understanding what it’s like to be a professional. He started really getting rid of the silly mistakes [and] the young mistakes. He started focusing more on his craft and getting better. You saw it as he had success within practice, you see him push himself more and that’s what normally happens with a young guy. They’ve got to have a little success here, then they push, a little success there, then they push.
"I think he’s a kid that believes now. He’s a kid that believes he’s an exceptional talent. He’s an explosive guy, a very explosive guy, and he’s just working on his game, working on his craft, trying to become a better football player every day. You see it every day when you go out to work."
Tampa Bay's most effective offensive weapons this season have been wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and quarterback Jameis Winston is coming off one of his best games in the overtime loss at Seattle. That trio is sure to remain the primary engine for the offense, but Head Coach Bruce Arians has made it clear in the past that his preference is to have a more balanced offense.
The Bucs' rushing attack as a whole – with Jones at the center of it – should have an opportunity to make that happen in the season's second half. Of the final eight opponents the Bucs play, including Atlanta twice, six of them currently rank 18th or worse in pass defense, and five rank 21st or worse and area giving up around 120 yards per game or more. Four of those opponents are allowing more than 4.5 yards per carry, as well.
Jones' 4.1-yard average probably undersells how quick and explosive he's been this season. He had three carries between 10 and 15 yards in Seattle, all involving quick cuts in the second level of the defense. His 72-yard game in the Bucs' Week Four win over the Rams also included 54 and 24-yard runs that were brought back by penalties.
"Imagine if those had [stood]," said Leftwich. "It just goes to show what he can do when given the opportunity and we’re going to try to give him some opportunities to make those types of plays consistently.
"Like B.A. said, he’s earned the right to get these opportunities," said Leftwich. "Nothing that Peyton did, but we’re going to put him out there and see how he plays. He’s been playing well for us, he’s an explosive player [and] a young player who’s always working on his game. Those game situations are good for him too because a lot of these are new to him too, because he didn’t play a lot last year, so this is really his first time being out there consistently and you can see the improvement day-in and day-out."
2. LB Devin White
When the Buccaneers drafted White fifth overall – the highest pick they had ever used on a true off-the-ball linebacker – they envisioned him making plays all over the field, including in coverage and on the pass rush. They inserted him directly into the starting lineup and expected the rookie to gradually start producing more and more such moments.
Unfortunately, White suffered a knee injury just a few weeks into the Bucs' second contest, which essentially cost him four games. Similar to Vita Vea, who had a slow start to his rookie season due to a significant training camp leg injury, White had some catching up to do when he got back on the field. It's an even bigger issue for White since his on-field duties involve calling the defensive plays, but the Buccaneers think White can have a much stronger second half of the season, just like Vea did last year.
"He’s healthy again and he’s turning the corner," said Arians. "He’s caught back up. When a young guy comes out of there and misses two or three weeks, it’s hard to catch back up. Just the speed of the game itself – wearing a [knee] brace for the first time in your life – all those little things."
White provided some of those splash plays in his most recent game, setting a new personal best with 12 tackles and also forcing a pair of fumbles by running back Chris Carson. The first came on an eye-opening play on which he ran Carson down from behind in the open field and chopped the ball out at the end of a 59-yard run. That play, plus an unfortunate moment in which he was flagged for interfering with tight end Jacob Hollister in the end zone on a very deep pass, were indications of the unusual speed White brings to the inside linebacker position. As he gets more acclimated to the NFL and learns the defense more thoroughly, can play it more instinctively, he will unlock the potential that speed brings.
The Buccaneers also think White's natural leadership skills will become more and more useful, even on a defense that already has such clear leaders as Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib.
"It will progress to that over time," said Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. "I think experience carries a MIKE [there] over time. It’s still not going to defer anything from Lavonte, JPP and Carl being leaders, but as you get more comfortable at the MIKE position – the more vocal you get and the more you understand the defense – it kind of naturally takes itself over. He is in the middle of that now, but…he is getting better every day."
3. TE O.J. Howard
The prominent storyline for Howard in recent weeks has been the hamstring injury that has kept him out of the Bucs' last two contests. Right before Howard suffered that injury in a practice following the bye week, however, there were two other common questions regarding the third-year tight end: When would he become more involved in the offense, and was the team entertaining trade offers for him?
The trade deadline has passed and Howard is still here, and the Buccaneers clearly still see great potential in the fast, athletic and agile tight end they drafted 19th overall in 2017. Before he saw his 2018 season end six games early due to a fluky ankle injury, Howard was starting to unlock that potential, earning Pro Bowl buzz as he averaged 16.6 yards per catch (a league-best for tight ends) and showing he could make plays down the seams against mismatched linebackers and safeties. Howard also scored 11 times in his first 24 NFL games, an indication that he could be a valuable red zone threat.
However, Howard started out his third season slowly, at least from a statistical standpoint. The new coaching staff was actually playing him more than he had ever been played before, putting him on the field for more than 80% of the team's offensive snaps. He was contributing value in the blocking schemes but had just about three targets per game, half of what he had gotten the year before. Arians, Leftwich and Winston all contended that Howard's turn was coming, though Arians did note a couple dropped passes that had hurt the tight end's cause.
"Yes, it’s coming," said Leftwich. "It’ll come within this system – it will happen naturally. We want it to happen organically. I’ve just got to continue just putting him in position to make plays. I’ll do a better job of putting him in different positions so he can make more plays, but we want it to happen organically. We’re always trying to put every guy in position, so we won’t do anything more or less. I think it will naturally happen as the offense evolves, as we get better understanding of what we’re trying to do week in and week out."
Howard is returning to the lineup this Sunday in Arizona and as the team continues to look for a consistently productive third target in the passing attack behind Evans and Godwin, there is an opportunity for him to step up and have a much bigger second half. Winston won't have to force it in Howard's direction because opposing defenses are still having trouble figuring out to stop both of those receivers, but hopefully some more opportunities for Howard will come about in that organic manner Leftwich is looking for.
"Those two guys are really working," said Winston of Evans and Godwin. "I’m happy to have O.J. Howard back in the mix. We’re clicking right now as far as passing the football, especially with our main guy. When your big guy is having success, it makes the defense panic a little bit, so when your big guy is doing his thing and being the five-star receiver that he is, it allows everyone else to focus in on not getting out of their comfort zone, just doing their job and being able to play good football."