The Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored 511 points during the 2021 regular season and allowed 353. That produces a +158 scoring differential that is the best in franchise history. You will not be surprised to learn that the Buccaneers' two previous Super Bowl teams, the 2002 and 2020 squads, rank second and third on that list.
Obviously, outscoring your opponents by a greater margin than the two championship teams in franchise history is a very good sign for this year's Buccaneers. The rash of injuries over the last month – most recently Tristan Wirfs' ankle sprain – is a splash of cold water but there are certainly reasons for Tampa Bay fans to be optimistic about a potential repeat.
To state something else that is very obvious, outscoring your opponents by a lot is a sign of a very good team. Stats analyst in both baseball and football (and probably other sports that I'm not as plugged into) point out that close games can be something of a coin flip depending upon a few plays at the end that could go either way. Teams that can routinely win by wide margins don't have to worry about that. And so it is no surprise that scoring differential is a great way to predict who will make it to the biggest games at the end of the year.
The last five Super Bowl winners, including last year's Bucs, have finished in the top five in the NFL's scoring differential rankings. Seven of the last eight are in that category. Sixteen of the last 20 conference championship game participants, and 31 of the last 40, have been in the top five in scoring differential. That group also includes 16 of the last 20 Super Bowl participants.
Here is this year's top five in scoring differential, in terms of points per game:
1. Buffalo: +11.4
2. Dallas: +10.1
3. New England: +9.4
4. Tampa Bay: +9.3
5. Kansas City: +6.8
The Buccaneers' upcoming opponent, the Los Angeles Rams, are sixth at +5.2. Dallas and New England have already been eliminated so the Bucs and Rams are both among the top four remaining in scoring differential. Should be a fun game.
This got me thinking about what stats were most shared by the Super Bowl contenders this season in particular. Scoring differential is clearly one of them, but is there anything else that ties the last eight teams standing together. Let's take a look.
It's not rushing yards, I can tell you that. The Buccaneers just eliminated the NFL's top rushing team in 2021 and only three of the top 17 in that category are still alive. Passing yards are a significantly better predictor, as six of the top nine teams on that list are still alive. Here are some other interesting stats as to how they relate to teams in the final eight in 2021:
· Turnover ratio: Only three of the top 10, surprisingly
· Third down success rate: Six of the top 10, including the top three
· Sack rate allowed: Five of the top 10, including the top three
· Yards gained per play: Six of the top 10, including four of the top five
· Rush Defense: Six of the top 10
Surprisingly not very predictive: interception and sack rate on defense. Only four of the top 10 defenses in interceptions and three of the top 10 in sack rate are still alive. I'm not sure what it all means. It's just food for thought at this point. I guess the point is score more than your opponent. Sounds good to me. Go Bucs!
And 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 email@example.com.
Who would replace Tristan Wirfs if he is unable to play on Sunday?
-rique_tb (via Instagram)
Well, we already witnessed the answer to that question last Sunday, as Josh Wells came in to play right tackle after Tristan Wirfs suffered an ankle injury. Wirfs tried to come back in at one point, admirably and probably because Wells was playing through an ankle injury, too, but it didn't work out. If Wirfs is out and Wells is cleared to play, the latter would obviously be the choice. Frankly, those two and Donovan Smith are the only players specifically listed as tackles on Tampa Bay's depth chart.
That obviously begs the question of where the Buccaneers would go next. The only other tackle in the building is first-year man Brandon Walton, who is on the practice squad and has never taken an NFL snap. He could figure into the depth equation this weekend if he is elevated to the active roster, but it's not likely he's Plan A or Plan B for an injury issue during the game.
We got some clarity on this issue on Monday when Head Coach Bruce Arians revealed what the team's plan was at right tackle if Wells hadn't been able to grit through his injury. If both Wirfs and Wells were out, the Buccaneers would have moved starting right guard Alex Cappa to right tackle and inserted Aaron Stinnie at right guard. Cappa played tackle throughout his college career but that was at the Division II school Humboldt State. He would have been the Bucs' best choice but it would have been a great challenge for the fourth-year player.
That said, the Buccaneers would be in good hands on the interior line with Stinnie, who made a name for himself taking over at right guard for Cappa in last year's postseason. In that case it was Cappa who went out with an ankle injury in the Wild Card game at Washington. Stinnie started the last three playoff games, including Super Bowl LV, and was so effective that he earned the right to challenge Cappa for the starting spot in training camp. Cappa was able to hold onto his job and has been excellent this season, but Stinnie provides the Bucs with a known asset if there are any issues with the guard spots.
What do the Bucs have to do differently from week 3 in order to beat the Rams this week?
-dramakingjackson (via Instagram)
Two things: Start faster on offense and get off the field on defense on third downs.
That was a weird game for the Buccaneers, who started the season with two dominant offensive outings in wins over Dallas and Atlanta. The Bucs had a 94-yard touchdown drive on their second possession against the Cowboys and a 70-yard touchdown drive to open their Week Two game against the Falcons. Given how hot the Tampa Bay offense was over the last two months of the 2020 season, including the playoffs, this wasn't surprising at all.
But in Los Angeles, Tom Brady and company came out flat. A false start penalty on third-and-one on the game's opening drive caused that one to fizzle and a third-and-two pass to Giovani Bernard on the Bucs' second possession was stopped a yard short. The Bucs did manage to get a couple third downs on their third drive but couldn't convert on third-and-five. At this point it was still 0-0 on the scoreboard.
That slow start eventually doomed the Buccaneers. They would go on to rack up 446 yards of offense and record three touchdown drives of 75 or more yards, but the Rams found the end zone on four straight drives before and after halftime and the Bucs just couldn't catch up. The final score, 34-24, was even a little misleading as the Bucs score in the game's final 70 seconds to make it a 10-point game.
Even though the game was a little lopsided near the end, this was still a good example of how thin the margin of error is in most NFL games. The Bucs faced a third-and-one and third-and-two on their first two drives but still went three-and-out. Slightly better execution could have made a huge difference. Tampa Bay's defense was very good in the early going and the visitors had a chance to jump out to an early lead. There's a good chance that would have changed the entire complexity of the game. That's just the way it goes.
The Buccaneers have scored at least one touchdown in 12 of their 18 games this season, including last week's Wild Card contest. They have won 11 of those games. The Bucs are also 9-1 when they score first, 9-0 when they lead after the first quarter, 11-0 when they lead at halftime and 12-0 when they lead after three quarters. Getting out in front is a huge advantage for this team.
As for the defense, it needs to do a better job of shutting down the Rams on third downs. Los Angeles was 10-15 on third-down attempts in that game, a 66.7% success rate that is the worst the Buccaneers have allowed in any game this year. The Bucs are 9-2 this year when they hold the opposing team to a third-down conversion rate of 40% or less. The Rams converted four third downs on the touchdown drive that opened the scoring in Week Three.
Will Leonard Fournette be able to play against the Rams after missing the Wild Card game?
-kylie_ayers (via Instagram)
Will Ryan Jensen be able to play this week?
-yk_valleyboi.38 (via Instagram)
Will Sean Murphy-Bunting be able to return this week?
-bucsUK (via Instagram)
Will John Brown be activated for the game against LA?
-daflash19 (via Instagram)
This type of question was a majority of the mailbag this week. The problem is, the timing of this weekly column doesn't lend itself to providing good answers on players whose status is truly in doubt for the upcoming game. And I think it is the case for everyone listed above.
Your questions primarily come in to me on Tuesdays and I write this column on Wednesday afternoons. In a normal week, that is after just one practice and one injury report, and at this point in the season the Buccaneers aren't even practicing full speed on Wednesdays anymore. The walk-through doesn't provide much evidence as to how injured players are doing, which is usually about all Head Coach Bruce Arians can say at his post-practice press conference. The next time Arians talks to the media in these weeks is Friday. At the beginning of this week, Arians said it probably won't be until at least Friday that the Buccaneers have a good feel for whether players like Tristan Wirfs, Ryan Jensen or Leonard Fournette will be cleared to play on Sunday against the Rams.
I can tell you this: Wirfs and Jensen, both of whom sprained an ankle in last Sunday's win, would not have practiced if the team had gone full-speed on Wednesday. Fournette is technically still on injured reserve, though he is allowed to practice with the team, and that means the Bucs don't have to include him on the injury report. As such, his practice status is not something that can be shared here. However, Arians said this on Wednesday when questioned about the team's leading rusher:
"It's still wait and see. Everybody will open up tomorrow and we'll be full speed tomorrow. [We'll] have a better judge then."
Arians previously said that Fournette, who looked as if he might be on track to return to action last weekend, was held out another week because he couldn't get up to top speed without feeling the hamstring injury. Fournette will not come off injured reserve until he gets past that last step. Hopefully that is by the end of this week but there is no way to tell right now.
The Bucs' injury report listed Jensen, Wirfs and Murphy-Bunting (hamstring) all as not practicing on Wednesday had the team gone full speed. We'll see if any of those three can give it a go Thursday, but even if they do the team's trainers will still be waiting to see how that action makes the players feel on Friday.
The last of the four questions above is a little different because Brown, who was signed to the practice squad just last week, is not injured. However, what happens with him on Sunday is almost surely going to be determined by who is injured and if they could play. Both Breshad Perriman (hip/abdomen) and Cyril Grayson (hamstring) were on the injury report as "did not participate" on Wednesday. Grayson has already missed two games with his injury. I don't think Brown will be "activated" – as in, added to the active roster – but he could be elevated from the practice squad for the game and see action. In fact, Arians said on Wednesday, while talking about all the moving parts on the Bucs' roster over the past month or so, that "we found John Brown last week and he might be on the field this week." Obviously, Brown is one of the contingency plans the Bucs brain trust is devising this week. There will be a lot of them. We're not particularly close to knowing which ones they will need by Sunday.