Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Big Game Week | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about Tom Brady's touchdown ceiling, the quest to contain Alvin Kamara, the team's state of mind heading into New Orleans and more

ss mailbag

The 2021 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 6-1 after pile-driving the Chicago Bears, 38-3, in Week Seven. As you have probably heard, that's the first 6-1 or better start to a season in franchise history. That's obviously very good for the defending Super Bowl champs; since 1990, when the NFL's playoff field expanded to six teams in each conference (it's now seven each), 87.0% of the teams that started 6-1 have gone on to make the playoffs and 71.0% of them have won their division.

But not all of those 6-1 teams were also defending Super Bowl champs. And that's where the picture gets even rosier.

I went through each of the seasons for the 54 reigning champs that came before the 2021 Buccaneers to see how they fared through their first seven games and what that meant for their eventual fortunes. Not every Lombardi Trophy winner went on to successful follow-up seasons. The 2003 Buccaneers, for instance, went 7-9 and failed to return to the playoffs after the 2002 squad won Super Bowl LV. Those Bucs were 4-3 at this same point in the season, so things are already going better this time around.

Of those 54 defending-champion teams, six were 7-0 through their first seven games of their follow-up season. Here's how they fared:

  • One won the Super Bowl (the 1998 Broncos)
  • Two lost the Conference Championship Game
  • Two lost in the Divisional Round
  • One lost in the Wild Card Round

Twice as many of those 54 teams found themselves where the Bucs are now, at 6-1. And they're eventual results are extremely encouraging. Those 12 teams did this:

  • Four won the Super Bowl (the 2004 Patriots, the 1989 49ers, the 1975 Steelers and the 1973 Dolphins)
  • Two lost the Super Bowl
  • Two lost the Conference Championship Game
  • Two lost in the Divisional Round
  • Two lost in the Wild Card Round

So no previous defending champion has started 6-1 and missed the playoffs, and a third of those teams went on to win another title. That's good. As for the defending champs who didn't win at least six of their first seven, they are broken down below.

5-1-1 (1 team):

  • One won the Super Bowl (1967 Packers)

5-2 (14 teams):

  • Two won the Super Bowl (1993 Cowboys, 1979 Steelers)
  • Three lost the Super Bowl
  • Two lost the Conference Championship Game
  • Four lost in the Divisional Round
  • Three failed to make the playoffs

4-3 (8 teams):

  • Two lost in the Divisional Round
  • One lost in the Wild Card Round
  • Five failed to make the playoffs

3-3-1 (2 teams):

  • Two failed to make the playoffs

3-4 (7 teams):

  • One lost the Conference Championship Game
  • Two lost in the Divisional Round
  • One lost in the Wild Card Round
  • Three failed to make the playoffs

2-5 (3 teams):

  • Three failed to make the playoffs

1-6 (1 team):

  • One failed to make the playoffs

So, overall, no defending champion that lost at least three of its first seven games went on to repeat as champs, or even made it to the Super Bowl. The Bucs have already avoided that fate, and their 6-1 start puts them in company with some very successful reigning champs.

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 tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Congrats to TB12 on breaking 600! Realistically how many do you think he could end the season with?

- Bucs_Uk (via Instagram)

…and…

Is Tristan Wirfs already the best tackle in Bucs history?

- Bucs_Uk (via Instagram)

These questions aren't really related, but they were sent in by the same person so I'll lump them together to get us started here.

For anyone who didn't see the historic Tom Brady moment (yet another historic Tom Brady moment, I should say) in Week Seven, he became the first quarterback in NFL history with 600 regular-season touchdowns, which is really an incredible number. I've always found Cy Young's MLB-record 511 wins to be nearly incomprehensible because it would take a player more than 25 20-win seasons to break it. (It was a different game around the turn of the century, obviously). Well, if any quarterback is ever going to join Brady in the 600 Club he'll have to do something like 20 30-touchdown seasons or 15 40-touchdown campaigns. I'm not even sure Patrick Mahomes can do that.

Anyway, a minor game-ball kerfuffle followed that 600th touchdown, and then so did TD throws number 601 and 602. So now we're on Tom Brady 700 Watch. You think I'm kidding but if he plays a couple more seasons after this one 700 is definitely on the table.

How close will he be to that number by the end of this season. Well, let's break it down.

Brady currently leads the NFL with 21 touchdown passes with seven games played and 10 to go. That makes for a very easy "on-pace" projection: If he maintains his current average of 3.0 touchdowns per game he'll finish the season with 51. You have every right to be leery of on-pace projections before the season has even reached its midway point, but 51 is still a perfectly reasonable guess.

Brady threw 40 touchdown passes through 16 regular-season games in 2020 and by this same point in the season he had only (haha) 18 of them. The largely agreed-upon storyline before this season began was that now that Brady has a very firm grip on Bruce Arians' offense – it all came together in the last quarter of last season – he should be able to start 2021 hotter than he did last year. That has proved to be true. Brady already has four – FOUR! – games with four or more touchdown passes this season. He had three such outings in the entire 2020 regular season and only in his 50-TD campaign of 2007 has Brady ever had more of those in one season.

You recall that season, probably. Brady throwing bombs to a rejuvenated Randy Moss and finishing with the first 50-TD-pass season in NFL history. Well, he had five games of four-touchdown passes in that season and I think it's a reasonable bet that he'll match or exceed that in 2021, particularly with one extra game to play with.

Of course, we're just playing with numbers in a vacuum here. In reality, the strength of the Bucs' competition will play a big role in shaping Brady's final numbers. The Bucs have a big showdown in New Orleans this weekend against the 4-2 Saints, but after that they only have two games left (including one more against the Saints) against opponents that currently have winning records.

Moreover, the Bucs aren't exactly facing a murderer's row of strong pass defenses. Among the teams still on Tampa Bay's schedule are ones with pass defense rankings of 32nd (Washington), 27th (N.Y. Jets), 20th (the Saints, twice), and 19th (Atlanta). The Bucs' only three remaining games against top-10 pass defenses (at least at the moment) are against Buffalo in 14 and Carolina in Weeks 16 and 18.

I also think, mostly because Bruce Arians and Brady and other Bucs offensive players say it fairly often, that there has been some meat left on the bone recently. The Buccaneers' red zone touchdown rate of 65.71% is good but not elite – it ranks ninth in the NFL – and shouldn't they be elite in that regard. What teams have a better collection of red zone weapons than the Buccaneers with Brady, an offensive line that is playing very well, Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski and Cam Brate, to name a few?

Simply put, Brady is getting and should continue to get lots of opportunities to throw touchdown passes. The Buccaneers have thrown 86 passes inside their opponent's 30-yard line, which is by far the most in the league. The Bills are second at 68. There's a bigger gap between first and second on this list than there is between second and 17th. However, Tampa Bay's completion percentage on these throws is just 60.5%, which ranks 22nd in the league. I would expect that to improve.

Even if we take a more conservative route here, the numbers are still encouraging. In 27 games in Arians' offense, counting the postseason, Brady has averaged 2.63 touchdown passes per outing. If he roughly matches that for the next 10 games – and why wouldn't he? – that's about 26 more touchdown passes. He's at 21 now, so that final total would be 47.

So I'm going to split the middle between those two projections and count on a couple more 4-TD games as Brady finishes the 2021 regular season with…49 touchdown passes. That would be pretty amazing considering that the team record was 28 as recently as three years ago.

As for your Wirfs question, that's Buccaneers blasphemy! (It's also well-earned praise for the young star.) I mean, if you were choosing the next player to go into the team's Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium, based solely on the careers they have had so far, would you choose Wirfs? Of course not, you can't put a guy into that group after 23 games! (I will admit I've already been in some debates about whether Brady would go in if he played just two or three seasons in Tampa, and the guesses have mostly been yes.)

Well, you know who is in the Ring of Honor? Iron man tackle Paul Gruber. Meanwhile, Donald Penn is the only Buccaneer offensive tackle with a Pro Bowl on his resume. Wirfs doesn't have one of those yet, though Arians said on Wednesday that the second-year man is "having a Pro Bowl season so far, knock on wood."

Now if you're asking me if Wirfs is the most talented offensive tackle in franchise history or if he has a very real chance of eventually being the top tackle in team annals, now we have something to discuss. His incredible level of play in his first two seasons – only one sack allowed so far in 23 regular-season games – suggest he has many amazing seasons ahead of him. It's quite realistic to think that, at some point, we'll be thinking of Wirfs as the best tackle in team history. To be honest, it's not a particularly deep group. If you want to come to Tampa and end up as the best cornerback or linebacker or defensive tackle or maybe even receiver, you'd better also play well enough to get a bust in Canton. But the tackle title is within reach.

Let's just not get ahead of ourselves. Wirfs looks like he has the goods to be one of the best tackles in the NFL for a long time, but he needs to actually do that before we can put him on top of the Bucs' mountain.

What will our defense need to do to stop Alvin Kamara and the New Orleans offense?

- I_love_katie22 (via Instagram)

Answer the first half of that question and you will have answered the second half as well. To keep the Saints' offense from having a big day, the number-one job by a country mile is to keep Alvin Kamara in check. Particularly with Michael Thomas not in the lineup, the Saints don't have another game-wrecker on offense anywhere close to the same level as Kamara.

Now let's be clear: A defense can discuss, plan and practice the things they believe or necessary to stop (we should probably say "limit" instead of stop) Kamara and he will still often succeed anyway. After practice on Wednesday, Arians said the key for the Bucs on Sunday was containing Kamara and then laughingly agreed with a follow-up question asking if that was "easier said than done."

So what are we saying? Well, for one thing Buccaneer defenders need to run to the ball. There aren't many cornerbacks who are going to get Kamara down on their own; defenders like Devin White, Lavonte David (if he plays) and Antoine Winfield, Jr. will be key because they have the speed and instincts to get to Kamara in time and the strength to bring him down when they do.

Defenses may also choose to use more Cover 1 and Cover 3 schemes against Kamara and the Saints because both of those approaches bring one of the two safeties down into the box as an extra run defender and someone who can get to the flats to try to stop the back on dump-off passes. The tradeoff in Cover 1, of course, is that it makes it easier for the opposing passing attack to hit big plays downfield. However, the Saints' offense is much more adept at getting the ball into Kamara's hands in the open field than it is in creating downfield completions. So far this season, New Orleans is dead last in passing plays that gained 20-plus yards, with only 11 of them. The Bucs will surely respect the speed of such receivers as Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harris, but they will worry more about containing Kamara, particularly in the passing game.

The good news is that the Buccaneers are well-equipped to keep Kamara in check on the ground, where he had been doing the majority of his damage this season before last Monday. Kamara is absolutely a dangerous runner between the tackles, but the Bucs have done a very good job of shutting down the league's top backs over the last three years. They lead the league in run defense for the third year in a row, even after the 100-yard blip against Chicago's Khalil Herbert last week. Last season, for instance, the Buccaneers held Kamara to 56 yards on 21 carries in two regular-season meetings.

The scarier part for the Bucs this week is when the Saints throw it to the Kamara. They are very good at getting the ball into his hands with open field in front of him. It will largely be up to the linebackers – both inside guys like White and outside guys like Joe Tryon-Shoyinka – to keep track of Kamara and where he is going and try to limit the number of times when he gets the ball with room to run. And then, ultimately, the Buccaneers have to tackle well. They need to get Kamara on the ground when they have the chance, because if you let him loose you may not see him again until he's in the end zone.

Scott,

People seem to be sleeping on the Saints who are 4-2 after playing 4 road games in their first six games and they are still a really talented football team with one of the best coaching staffs in football. And I also worry the Bucs might be feeling themselves a little too much after trouncing a Bears team with a mediocre offensive line and a bewildered rookie quarterback and might be walking into a beatdown like the one they suffered in week 9 of last season.

James P. Taylor (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

James actually sent a much longer question than this but I edited out about 60% of it because I just wanted to address this part. The rest of it was a well-thought-out analysis of how the Bucs' and Saints' strengths matched up against each other and how the Bucs might have to look for some different matchups to get the kind of edge they usually would have with the likes of Mike Evans against an average corner or Shaq Barrett against an average tackle. It was good stuff, but just too much for me to unpack here.

But James is also a bit worried about the team's state of mind and I think that's worth discussing.

First of all, I definitely think it's fair to say a good number of people have overlooked the Saints to this point in the season. The reason, probably, is that there have been so many NFC teams are off to really good starts and that has largely overshadowed a Saints team that might be just as dangerous as ever. There are five teams in the conference with one or fewer losses, which makes New Orleans the sixth team in the standings right now. The 7-0 Cardinals and Kyler Murray are a huge story, the Bucs are the defending champs and off to their best start ever to a season, the Rams now have Matthew Stafford and the Cowboys and Packers are always going to be the center of attention when they're doing well.

So then here we have the 4-2 Saints, who could pull to within a half-game of the NFC South lead with a win on Sunday but they no longer have Drew Brees and Jameis Winston probably doesn't move the national-attention needle the same way that Murray or Stafford or Aaron Rodgers or Dak Prescott do. Or Tom Brady, of course. And the Saints aren't really winning because of Winston, who is playing very well in Sean Payton's offense but guiding the NFL's 31st-ranked passing attack.

The New Orleans defense is one of the best the Bucs will face all season; Arians said it's the best one from top to bottom on the schedule this year. That defense was key to the Saints winning 12 games and the division last year, and even with the departure of sack leader Trey Hendrickson it may be playing at even higher level this year. Inside linebacker Demario Davis is one of the best players in the NFL who rarely gets talked about. And any offense that has Kamara is always going to be a threat to have a big day.

But none of this means the Bucs are underestimating or overlooking the Saints. How could they? New Orleans has beaten them five times in a row in the regular season and won the last four division titles. In fact, I would dare to say that they're a bit more dialed-in this week than most. Tight end Cam Brate essentially admitted to that after practice on Wednesday.

"No question," said Brate. "You can definitely tell, just coming into the facility today and going out to practice, there definitely is a heightened sense of urgency. It's not like college where it's a Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, but it's a team that we have struggled with in the past few years. We know how big of a game it is. We know how physical of a team they are, so it is a big week. The coaches have kind of emphasized that but we know that as players, too. It's a big one."

I don't get even the slightest notion that the Buccaneers are riding too high after their win over Chicago. In fact, if anything I've heard multiple times this week that the players don't feel like they played anywhere close to their best game. And they surely know the difference between playing at home against a struggling team and playing on the road against the four-time defending champs in a crazy Superdome environment.

Finally, I don't think last year's disastrous Sunday night game against the Saints was caused by the Bucs 'feeling themselves a little too much.' At the time they were only a half-game up on the Saints, had just barely escaped with a two-point Monday night win over a scuffling Giants and had already lost pretty handily to New Orleans in Week One. Was anybody pegging the Bucs as Super Bowl favorites at that point? Not by my recollection. It was, as you say, truly a beatdown and perhaps the Bucs did sleepwalk their way into that one for some reason, but it wasn't because they were reading their own press clippings, and they're not doing that this year either.

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