Pictures of the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday, December 14th.
In their eight wins this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have averaged 370 yards and 24.4 points per game. They've compiled a 46.2% success rate in those eight games combined, recorded 22 first downs per game and had an average time of possession of 33:19.
Clearly, the Buccaneers' offense has contributed in a big way to the team's success this year. That's no surprise, given that the 2015 squad finished fifth in the league's yardage ranking, got a 4,000-yard performance from a rookie quarterback and returned virtually every important piece intact, including the play-caller. In contrast, the defense was thought to be a work in progress after a rough 2015 campaign and a complete overhaul of staff and system.
And, in fact, there were some rough times for the defense in the first half of the season, particularly during a five-day stretch that included high-scoring losses to the Raiders and Falcons. However, Mike Smith's crew has been the story during the team's five-game winning streak, allowing an average of 12.8 points per game since Week 10. Meanwhile, the offense has been held below 20 points in three of those five games and has had a harder time taking advantage of scoring opportunities than it did in the season's first half.
All of which has led to a bit of hand-wringing, most of it outside of team headquarters, about the Buccaneers' offense and whether it would be able to produce enough over the next three weeks to make the playoff chase a success. While not pleased with some of the results on offense during the winning streak, the Buccaneers have no doubt they can begin putting up better numbers right away.
"We're not far at all [from producing more]," said quarterback Jameis Winston. "The biggest thing is finishing drives and there's a lot of stuff that comes with finishing the drive, but that's what we have to harp on. It's tough, when you're winning games you feel good about yourself, but it always shows it humbles you, it shows you that there's always room for improvement."
Tampa Bay had one of the league's best ground attacks in 2015 behind Doug Martin, the NFL's second-leading rusher. A slew of backfield injuries have made that difficult to duplicate in 2016, though the team has certainly not abandoned the run, handing off an average of 33 times per game during the winning streak. Most obviously missing has been the breakaway runs; the Bucs led the league in runs of 20 or more yards last year but are tied for 27th in that category in 2016.
"We've got to do a better job in the perimeter blocking, we've got to do a better job up front, better job with our tracks and reading it – it's everything," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "You've kept hearing me say this every week: we just haven't had the explosive runs. If you don't have those explosive runs, you're going to average around three, three-two, three-four a carry. You get those explosive runs, that's what blows up your average. We haven't had those, you just haven't seen them. Saw them last year, we're just not getting those."
As we noted two weeks ago, Winston has been the NFL's most prolific passer in the completion range of 10-19 yards. That has worked for the Bucs' offense, but they certainly would like to add in some bigger "chunk" plays, and that would be easier if the running game frightened the opposition more, leading to play-action opportunities. Tampa Bay's offense tied for eighth in completions of 20 or more yards in 2015 but have dropped to 27th this year.
"Well we've got to get those, that's a big part of our offense, is to create explosive plays," said Winston. "But we've just got to keep going at them because a yard difference with a run, 12 yards is an explosive run. We have had a lot of 11-yard runs, also I've had a lot of 15-yard passes, but 16 yards is an explosive play."
One thing the Buccaneer offense has done very well since the fifth week of the season is avoid turnovers. After giving it away 11 times in the first four games, the Bucs have done so just eight more times in the past nine games, in the process rehabilitating their turnover ratio from a league-worst -9 to +6, tied for sixth-best. The Bucs want to get the ball downfield more but not at the expense of that advantageous ratio.
"If you start with what we're doing well, we're protecting the football," said Monken. "So, there is a fine line. When you're winning at the end of games, there are plays where you're trying to shrink the game, so you have fewer chances. When you're behind, you're going to garner more explosive plays and end-of-game situations. So, you're going to shrink some of that, but obviously we have to continue to try to be as explosive as we can be and continue to try to run the ball more and more effectively, like we are capable of. Continue to find ways to be explosive without turning it over, which is hard. You want to be explosive without putting yourself at risk because that formula's been good."
While Doug Martin was responsible for most of the Bucs' big plays in the rushing attack in 2015 – and has seemed just on the verge of breaking the big one since his return five weeks ago – Mike Evans is the obvious candidate to pump up the deep passing game. Evans is among the league leaders in every receiving category but has had his two lowest yardage totals of the season in the last two weeks. He says the connection has been just a bit off and is certain it can be re-established.
"We're just a little bit off on some things," said Evans. "But we've got time. We're still winning, though. We're finding ways to win and that's what counts. We're on the brink, though. That's what we've been working on. We've put in a lot of hard work to do that, and we will. Hopefully the ball will start turning our way on offense."
* Safety Chris Conte has returned to practice after missing two weeks with a chest injury, which has created the proverbial "good problem" for the Buccaneers' coaching staff.
Before he was hurt late in the Bucs' Week 12 win over Seattle, Conte had helped kick start the team's winning streak with a pick-six against Chicago in Week 10 and a game-changing end zone interception in Cincinnati in Week 11. Fifth-year veteran Keith Tandy has started the past two games in Conte's spot and merely ended each with a final-minute interception while also leading the team in tackles.
In the only game in that stretch that neither Conte nor Tandy picked off a pass, safety Bradley McDougald nabbed one to seal the Seattle game. Koetter did not reveal how the Buccaneers would employ that trio of play-making safeties but didn't appear to be paralyzed by the decision.
"I don't think you can ever have too many good football players," said the coach. "I haven't been on that team yet that had too many. So, when we get too many players to figure out how to play them, then we'll have real problems. But we don't have real problems right now; that's a good situation to have."
Tandy was able to step in so ably for Conte because he has always taken his game preparation seriously, no matter what his expected role on Sunday was. That makes the current situation easy for him to handle; he doesn't plan to change a thing.
"I try to go about my week the same way I always go about it," said Tandy. "When you get your chance, just make sure it's not a drop-off from the guy in front of you. Then come back ready to work the next day and get ready to go.
"It's definitely an exciting time to be around this locker room, I can't lie about that. But once again, you want to make sure you come back to work and make sure nothing's changed. We're still in the meeting room communicating and staying focused on the task at hand."
- Conte was part of a short, five-man**injury report**for the Buccaneers to start the week, and only two Tampa Bay players were held completely out of practice on Wednesday.
One of those was starting right tackle Demar Dotson, who along with wide receiver Adam Humphries remains in the NFL's concussion protocol. Both Dotson and Humphries missed last Sunday's win over the Saints but Humphries appears to be farther along in the protocol process, as he practiced on Thursday and Friday of last week and was full-go on Wednesday. One hurdle Dotson will have to clear before exiting the concussion protocol is a return to the practice field.
The other Buccaneer who did not practice on Wednesday was Gerald McCoy, who has been playing through a foot injury. McCoy has seen very little practice time the past two weeks but has still appeared in each of the last two games and has been as productive as ever. Tight end Luke Stocker, who missed the last game with an ankle injury, rounds out the Bucs' injury report; he did return to practice Wednesday on a limited basis.
The Cowboys' first official injury report of the week is more than twice as long as Tampa Bay's, featuring 12 players, half of whom did not practice on Wednesday. The six players held out include three who are listed as starters on Dallas' depth chart, although cornerback Morris Claiborne has not played since late October due to a groin injury. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (back) and left tackle Tyron Smith (back/knee) also got the day off.