Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Super Bowl LV is Here | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about injured players, improved players, Chiefs players and the most challenging players in the Super Bowl

mailbag

On a wall inside the AdventHealth Training Center, a few feet down from the doors to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room, is the following inscription in large type: "One Team One Cause." In between the two halves of that motto is an image of the Lombardi Trophy the Buccaneers won in Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season.

Every player on Tampa Bay's 2020 team, which will face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV on Sunday, wants a trophy like the one on that wall above everything else. Even Tom Brady, who already won six Super Bowl rings. How the Bucs go about achieving that goal – who wins MVP, who has the most impressive stats – is irrelevant.

And good for them. But I like stats and records and I will enjoy going through the milestones and individual achievements that were part of this championship quest after it's all said and done. As such, in case you also care about team postseason records, I thought I would share with you some that could be broken on Sunday, and which Buccaneer players could go down in franchise history.

View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Super Bowl practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.

Sean Murphy-Bunting. With an interception in three consecutive games, which is already a team record, Murphy Bunting has already tied the Buccaneers' career postseason record in that category. He's currently even with Donnie Abraham, Dexter Jackson and Dwight Smith, but one more would put him alone at the top. Murphy-Bunting could also become the first player in NFL history with an interception in four straight games in a single postseason.

Tom Brady. Brady has already broken the team's career record for postseason touchdown passes with seven, topping the five that Brad Johnson had in four games in 2001-02. Now he needs just 13 more passing yards to take that record from Johnson, too (872 to 860) and I think we can feel pretty good about that one. In addition, it would take a very surprising turn of events for Brady not to finish this postseason with the best passer rating in Bucs' playoff history. He's currently at 90.8 and the next player on the list is Johnson, at 66.5.

Leonard Fournette. It's a longer shot for Fournette to become the Bucs' all-time postseason rushing leader, as he would need 131 yards in the Super Bowl to pass Mike Alstott (341). However, Fournette, who starts the Super Bowl at 211 rushing yards, only needs nine more to pass Warrick Dunn for second place on the list. Fournette could also move as high as second on the list in yards from scrimmage with 75 more in the Super Bowl, in the process passing Michael Pittman, Keyshawn Johnson and Warrick Dunn.

There are even more Buccaneers who could set single-season playoff records for the Buccaneers. For instance:

Shaquil Barrett has 3.0 sacks in this postseason, all of them coming in the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. The Bucs' record is 4.0, by Simeon Rice during the 2002 run to the Super Bowl XXXVII victory.

Jaydon Mickens has 147 kickoff return yards this postseason. The record is 172 by Aaron Stecker in 2002, with Isaac Hagins second at 165 in 1979.

Fournette has three total touchdowns so far in the 2020 playoffs, two rushing and one receiving. Mike Alstott holds the record at four during the 2002 postseason.

Fournette and Chris Godwin have 14 catches each so far this postseason. That has already tied Keyshawn Johnson's record from 2002. It's a race between the two to set the single-postseason record.

For the record, some 2020 Bucs have already set the team's single-season playoff records in certain categories, including Godwin (223 receiving yards), Fournette (211 rushing yards and 313 yards from scrimmage), Devin White (26 tackles), Ryan Succop (32 points) and Tom Brady (pretty much all of them).

It's true that nothing matters, statistically, beyond the points on the scoreboard for the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. Still, there are a number of individual records that could fall in service of winning that scoreboard battle, and I'll be keeping my eye on all of them. 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.

In your opinion, who has improved the most from game one to this week?

- @jesus.htown, via Instagram

That's a really good question, but a tough one too. Rookies who get a lot of playing time in their debut seasons are usually the best bets as the answer to this type of question, and if you had asked me this a year ago I probably would have said Sean Murphy-Bunting or Jamel Dean. Both of those guys were playing a lot better (and a lot more) in the last month of that season than they were in the beginning.

The problem this year is that the Bucs' two main rookie contributors, first-round offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and second-round safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. were so good right out of the gate that it would seem almost insulting to hit them with the most-improved tag. Wirfs was dominant against great edge-rushers right from the beginning and stayed that way until now. Winfield made a bunch of splash plays early and was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in September.

The other rookies who have played a bit are third-round running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn and fifth-round wide receiver Tyler Johnson. But playing time hasn't been consistent for either one and there was no real noticeable season-long rise in their production.

Statistically speaking, one of the clear answers is Tom Brady. His passer rating in the first two weeks was around 80 and it tended to go up and down for the next couple months. He threw seven of his 12 interceptions in November but then only one over the next six weeks, and he was absolutely on fire nearly every week after the bye during the Bucs' seven-game winning streak. But, again, I think it would be a bit insulting to give this title to Brady. I don't think the 21st-year veteran really needed to "improve" at any point; he was merely becoming more and more comfortable in the offense and in sync with his pass-catchers. That had to happen on the fly with no offseason program or preseason games played.

I guess at some point I have to stop explaining who I'm not picking and move on to the actual answer. The obvious one to me is Leonard Fournette. His production has obviously spiked tremendously down the stretch and, yes, a lot of that is due to opportunity. He missed some in the first half of the season with an ankle injury and the Bucs brought him back from that slowly, thinking in the long term in regards to the season and when he might be needed. He was also a healthy scratch in one game as the Buccaneers took a look a the rookie Vaughn.

Meanwhile, Ronald Jones averaged 5.1 yards per carry during the regular season and was repeatedly endorsed as the starter. Then Jones was hit by a broken finger, a stint on the COVID list and a quad injury and the Bucs turned to "Playoff Lenny" to keep the run game relevant. Fournette has done more than that, leading the team with 313 yards from scrimmage in the postseason, scoring three times and averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Dating back to Week 15 of the regular season he has six touchdowns in the last six games.

Again, some of this is obviously just a matter of opportunity, but I also think Fournette is performing better on a per-down basis now than he was earlier in the season. It appears that he's seeing holes better and setting up blocks, and there have been a lot fewer unproductive carries. Fournette had one 100-yard rushing game during the regular season, in Week Two against Carolina, which was made possible by one 46-yard breakaway touchdown. Otherwise, he only averaged more than four yards a carry in one other regular season game. He had a decent opportunity in the middle of the season but in one game against Carolina had just 19 yards on eight carriers and the next week 17 yards on seven totes against the Rams.

Look at him now: 4.89 yards per carry in the Wild Card win at Washington and 4.58 in the NFC Championship Game at Detroit. And, in addition to more effective runs of the four-to-six yard variety he has also started to create some big plays. His 20-yard touchdown run against the Packers was a matter of sheer will and a highlight we're going to be coming back to for years. Fournette is running with a purpose right now and I'd say he's clearly the player who has progressed the most from the beginning of the season until now.

I did consider one player on defense, and it's one of the team's best players: inside linebacker Devin White. That's not to say White was playing poorly at the beginning of the season. I simply feel like he has taken his game to another level down the stretch, particularly in terms of making big plays. In the last four games he has played, a stretch frustratingly interrupted by two weeks on the COVID list, White has recorded 48 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks, six quarterback hits, three passes defensed, one interception and two fumble recoveries. Wow.

Which player will be key in slowing down Kelce and Hill?

-@jwills_93, via Instagram

There isn't a single player who is the answer to that question, so allow me instead to name one individual who is key to the Bucs' efforts to contain Chiefs record-breaking tight end Travis Kelce and speed-demon wideout Tyreek Hill: Todd Bowles.

If you look at the first game between these two teams in Week 12 – in which Hill set career highs with 13 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns and Kelce did what he normally does with eight catches for 82 yards – there was no single defender that the Bucs used on either guy. Carlton Davis was in coverage on Hill on 19 of his 46 routes but that still left a majority of them in which the Bucs were in zone or another man was on Hill. As for Kelce, he was covered on 16 routes by Sean Murphy-Bunting and 10 by Jordan Whitehead. Five of Kelce's catches for 56 yards came when Lavonte David was the nearest defender over the middle of the field, quite possibly in zone coverage. David is one of the best cover linebackers in the league but Kelce is an absolute master at finding open spots on the field. I'll let appreciative fellow tight end Cameron Brate describe the Kelce effect:

"The Chiefs trust him to kind of freelance and get open – just him and [Patrick] Mahomes their connection is pretty special. He's just incredibly talented at finding ways to get open, super-creative as a receiver. He's playing basketball out there, using his body and flipping guys around. You just don't see tight ends move around like that and use their creativity to get open. He does it multiple times a game. He's pretty special."

As for Hill, the conundrum is how closely a defender wants to guard him at the line. If you try to press and don't slow him down it's nearly impossible for a cornerback to catch up if he runs a go route. Meanwhile, if you lay off by two many yards Mahomes will just zip a quick pass to him and let Hill pile up the YAC with his water bug moves.

So that's why I say Todd Bowles is the key. The Bucs won't be using one particular defense against Hill and Kelce or one particular defender on each one. They won't go all two-high safety and they won't go all single-high safety. They won't just press on every play and they'll switch between man and zone. If the first game is any indication, they won't blitz quite as much as they usually do; the Bucs had a season-low 17% blitz rate in that game, probably because Mahomes' career numbers against the blitz are terrifying. Buccaneer players are the ones who are going to have to get the job done on the field Sunday, not Bowles, of course. But he can help by putting them in the right position to succeed as much as possible.

That being said, there are a couple of defenders who are probably going to step up their game the most to try to contain those two Chiefs playmakers. Since Kelce is detached from the line the majority of the time (59% wide or in the slot in the regular season, 56% in the postseason), he basically operates as a jumbo slot receiver a lot. That would make him the responsibility of Murphy-Bunting quite a bit, as was the case in Week 12. The Chiefs like to use him as an isolated Y quite a bit, too, with a bunch formation on the other side of the line, and in that case he could be Whitehead's responsibility. And when the Bucs are in a zone, Davis is probably the best bet to keep Kelce from finding open spots over the middle.

The coverage assignment numbers from Week 12 indicate that the Bucs were not shadowing Hill with a particular defensive back and the Chiefs move him all over. His snaps were split almost evenly between the slot and wide during both the regular season and the postseason, and while he's been split wide left more often than right in the playoffs that too was nearly even in the regular season. It seems like every Bucs corner will get a taste of Hill at some point on Sunday. So if you're looking for a key player in the efforts to keep him in check, it might just be a safety. The Buccaneers switched up their coverages after Hill's explosive first quarter in Week 12 and had more safety help over the top in the last three quarters. A heady defender and big-play maker like the rookie Winfield could end up being the key to defending Hill.

When will we start to learn injury updates?

- @vickers29, via Instagram

The Super Bowl injury report situation took me by surprise a bit this time around. Back in 2002, the Buccaneers and Raiders only had one week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl in San Diego, so the injury report schedule went as usual. Every year since then, including this one, there have been two weeks between the conference championship games and the big one. I thus found out that Super Bowl teams actually do full injury reports for both weeks leading up to the game. During the "bye week," teams are instructed to estimate what their players' status would be if there was a game played on the Sunday before the Super Bowl.

That was at least a little instructive as to how the four players who appear to be Super Bowl question marks have been progressing. The Bucs estimated that safety Jordan Whitehead (shoulder) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) would have been "doubtful" for that phantom game on January 31, so I for one am happy there was a two-week break this time. Inside linebacker Lavonte David (hamstring) and safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. were listed as "questionable."

Now we've moved on to the actual Super Bowl LV week, and I happened to get this question on Tuesday. Since then the Buccaneers and Chiefs have released their first injury reports of this week. That came out on Wednesday afternoon after practice and it contained relatively good news. All four of the players noted above were limited participants in the first full-speed practice, which is definitely a step in the right direction. The only Buccaneer who did not practice on Wednesday was outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, who essentially hasn't practiced in weeks as he and the team try to manage an aching knee. It hasn't stopped him from playing every Sunday (or Saturday).

There will be another injury report on Thursday afternoon and then the big one on Friday. That one includes the game-status designations and will give us a good feel for which, if any, of those four players is in jeopardy of missing Super Bowl LV. You know each and everyone of them will be highly motivated to play – in particular, David, who has toiled nine long seasons to get to this moment – but they also have to make smart decisions. Head Coach Bruce Arians said on Wednesday that all he wanted was for the players to be honest with him about how they are feeling. The worst-case scenario, said Arians, is for a guy to try to play through an injury and then immediately hurt himself in the game, leaving the team down a roster spot the rest of the way.

Arians said his fingers were crossed that all four could play. I'm going to join him in the crossing of the fingers.

What do you think our biggest challenge is going into this game?

- @calytonnichols17, via Instagram

I am of the opinion that the Buccaneers offense will be able to produce a high number of yards and points if the protection holds up for Brady, and with the way the offensive line has been playing down the stretch, that seams like a good bet to happen. It's not as easy to predict that Tampa Bay's defense, which is admittedly also playing quite well right now, will be able to contain the Chiefs trio of Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill.

That's no knock on Todd Bowles' crew. Mahomes has proved difficult for any team to stop and he is the main reason the Chiefs have won 25 of their last 27 games (25 of his last 26 starts) and are knocking on the door of consecutive championships. Kelce and Hill are very hard to contain and they put up big numbers in Tampa in Week 12, but the biggest problem is Mahomes because he can do things NFL defenders rarely have to worry about when facing other quarterbacks. No-look throws, back-pedaling flicks of the wrist, passes thrown on the run and back across to the other side of the field…and so on.

Specifically, I think the biggest challenge for the Buccaneers is keeping Mahomes from making big, improvisational plays on the run. And I don't really mean scrambles, although he did run for 308 yards and two touchdowns this year. I mean throws on the run, something he does better than any quarterback in the league, even Aaron Rodgers at this point. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Mahomes threw for 951 yards on the run (at speeds of eight miles per hour or more), which was 84 more than the next quarterback on the list. That includes 13 touchdown passes, also the most in the NFL.

Given the shakeup at the Chiefs' offensive tackle positions and the level at which edge rushers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are playing, it seems like there is an opportunity for the Bucs to get pressure off the edge and somewhat disrupt this explosive Chiefs passing attack. But all of that will be for naught if Mahomes simply escapes that pressure, breaks containment and starts chucking improvised intermediate and deep passes down the field. The challenge, then, is putting pressure on Mahomes without letting him turn that into an advantage. Personally, that's my number-one concern on Sunday.

Not counting Sunday, who do you think has been the MVP of our season?

- @dennisdobronte, via Instagram

I'm only going to touch on this one briefly because it's pretty obviously Tom Brady, right? The Buccaneers defense did improve its numbers somewhat, year over year, from 2019 to 2020. The Bucs improved from 15th to sixth in overall yards allowed, though it was really just an improvement of 16.8 yards per game. The Bucs did allow 94 fewer points this year than in 2019, but a lot of that had to do with the steep drop in giveaways. Opponents scored seven defensive touchdowns against the Bucs last year, just one this year. Overall, Tampa Bay reduced its "points off turnovers" from 128 (the most in the NFL) in 2019 to 76 this year. I would say the Bucs' defense in 2020 played about as well as it did during the second half of 2019…and that's a good thing.

Meanwhile, the Bucs dropped from first in the league in passing yards in 2019 all the way to second, in both cases finishing around 300 yards per game. The 2020 team set a franchise record with 30.8 points per game, up 2.2 from 2019. Most critically, though, the Tom Brady-led offense set a new Buccaneers single-season for fewest turnovers, with 17. After the Buccaneers committed a league-high 41 giveaways in 2019, that made all the difference in the world. It mean four more wins in the regular season and a chance to battle for the Lombardi Trophy.

Look, when your quarterback throws for 5,493 yards, 47 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a passer rating of 100.4 (all with postseason included), you win 14 games and make it to the Super Bowl, you really don't have to spend much time looking around for the MVP. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence that Brady's leadership and experience made a huge difference in what the rest of the players in the Bucs' locker room thought was possible. That theme has been heard over and over again in this week's round of Zoom interviews with players and coaches. Arians said the arrival of Brady helped the team finally believe it could win the whole thing.

If I were rounding up a list of team MVP candidates for a vote, I would probably include Brady, Mike Evans, Ali Marpet, Devin White, Lavonte David and Shaquil Barrett. They've all been instrumental into getting the Buccaneers where they are now, but the most indispensable player has to be Tom Brady.

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