The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense has played two of its best games in the past two weeks, and I don't think it's a coincidence that this surge came as safety Jordan Whitehead returned from a calf injury.
As I mentioned in our Salty Dog podcast last week (hey, give us a listen sometime!), I happen to think that Whitehead is one of the most underrated players on the Buccaneers' current roster. As it turns out, I'm not alone in that thought; more on that in a minute.
Whitehead missed the season opener with a hamstring injury and the last two games with calf strain, but in 12 contests he has produced 64 tackles, five tackler for loss, two interceptions, seven passes defensed, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble. Those are perfectly good numbers, but I don't think they adequately illustrate how well Whitehead has played this season and how infectious his passion for the game is among his teammates.
That's why I was thrilled to see Carlton Davis's eyes light up on Wednesday when, after practice, he was asked just how good Whitehead is. Since I can use this mailbag intro for anything I want, this week I'm going to use it to share what Davis had to say about his teammate, including a rather entertaining story from a few years back.
First, tell us a little about Jordan Whitehead's level of play, Mr. Davis.
"I honestly think he is one of the best strong safeties in the league, hands down," said Davis. "He is definitely underrated. He is an explosive strong safety. His run stop is phenomenal. The things he brings to our defense [are] incomparable. There are just not enough words to express how much I appreciate having him on the field with me, the energy he brings and just his style of play. It's the style of defense that we play, and he embodies that with how he plays the game.
"That guy, I don't even know what to say about him. He is a great player for us, and it sucks that he is underrated and doesn't get the attention that he should get."
Well, Whitehead is due to become an unrestricted free agent after this season, so chances are he's going to get some well-deserved attention from (hopefully) the Buccaneers or another team. Davis, also a potential UFA, would obviously like to remain teammates with Whitehead, something he realized in the very first game they played together.
After his answer about Whitehead above, Davis was asked if he's ever worried about catching some friendly fire when his teammate is laying out the hits. Davis laughed and then said, "So, uh, funny story." And indeed it was.
"Our rookie season there was our first preseason game, and prior to the game we were talking about how we were going to approach the game and how we were going to go out there and make a statement and show people we could play. And the whole time he was telling us that he was going to knock somebody out.
"And, you know, talk is cheap, so I said, 'Alright, yeah, I hear you.' And then literally the first play of the game, he runs past me to hit the running back and knocks the running back out, and almost knocked himself out, too. At the moment I knew his talk wasn't cheap, it was all cash. It was all cash. I've had about 10 more experiences like that since that moment of him running to guys right in front of my face and it was like witnessing a car wreck. So it was really traumatizing and I'm honestly grateful I play defense and I don't have to go against him."
I believe Davis meant it was Whitehead's first play of the game, because Davis started the game but Whitehead did not. The Dolphins got the ball back with 24 seconds left in the first quarter and it appears from the names in the play by play that both teams began substituting heavily at that point, beginning with Brock Osweiler coming in at quarterback for Miami. And, yes, on the first play of that drive, Whitehead is credited with the tackle on running back Kalen Ballage, and it's the first mention of Whitehead in the play by play.
That play also brought on the end of the quarter, so it's unclear if Ballage had some difficulty getting up, though he did get the ball again on the first play of the second quarter. In any case, he apparently took quite a blow from Whitehead because it still makes Davis shudder to this day.
So I can't really tell you by the numbers why Whitehead is so good, but his teammate certainly did a good job of painting the picture on Wednesday.
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.
Is it possible that Mike Evans could return this week against the Jets?
- jrivero79 (via Instagram)
It's possible and I think Evans was hoping that would be when he'd get back on the field, but his placement on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday certainly complicates matters. Evans has time to come off that list before the game but there is no guarantee that he will. And even if he does, he will have missed the week of practice, which means little chance to see how well he can move around following his Week 15 hamstring strain.
For that reason, I'm skeptical this is the week Evans will return. Personally, that bums me out because I was hoping he would get a chance to stretch his career-opening streak of 1,000-yard receiving seasons to eight. He already holds the record in that regard with seven but he could also join four Hall of Famers and one likely future Hall of Famer – Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt – as the only players with eight consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons at any point in his career. Evans needs 101 more yards to get there.
That's just me, though. I am certain that any individual statistical goals will not be a factor in any way in the decision of when to bring back Evans or any other injured Buccaneers. It is far more important for Evans to be healthy for the playoffs at this point.
I really think the Buccaneers are going to play it safe with this one and, given the lack of preparation time, will hold Evans out at least one more week even if he's off the COVID list. Then the question becomes if there is any reason for him to play in Week 18. Let's revisit that next week.
What team will the Bucs most likely see in the Wild Card round?
- christopher_kenkoff_48 (via Instagram)
There are actually quite a few possibilities because there is still much to be determined in the conference playoff seedings.
What we know for sure is that the Buccaneers will be one of the top four seeds and will play at home against one of the Wild Card teams. We also can guess that the Bucs will not be the one seed and get the first round bye because too much needs to happen for that to become a reality. FiveThirtyEight.com tabs Tampa Bay with a 2% chance to grab that top seed, and that's partially because it requires the 12-3 Packers to lose to both the Vikings and the Lions over the next two weeks.
So, realistically, we're looking at the second, third or fourth seed for Tampa Bay, and all of those really are quite realistic. The Buccaneers do not control their own destiny here; if the Cowboys and Rams each win their last two games, Tampa Bay will be locked into the four seed no matter what they do. The Bucs need either the Cowboys and the Rams – or both – to lose at least one game to have a chance to move up.
Dallas finishes with a home game against the Cardinals and a trip to Philadelphia. I imagine they will be favored in both games but a loss in either one would be hardly surprising. The Rams finish with a trip to Baltimore and a home game against the 49ers. The Ravens are so ridiculously injured that it's hard to feel to confident about that one, but they somehow remain competitive most weeks. On the other hand, San Francisco, amazingly, has beaten the Rams five times in a row, including an impressive 31-10 decision in November.
The Buccaneers are favored by 13 points this weekend in New Jersey and will likely have a similar spread for their final home game against the Panthers, a team they just beat 32-6. I'm not counting any chickens before they hatch, but it's perfectly reasonable to think the Bucs will win out. If that happens and if the Rams lose one game, the Bucs will jump up to the two seed no matter what Dallas does. If Dallas loses one game and the Rams win out, the Bucs will move up to the three seed but won't be able to catch L.A. If both the Cowboys and Rams lose, the Bucs will be the two seed.
Like I said, all of those are very reasonable outcomes, so it's hard to say with confidence if the Bucs will be the second, third or fourth seed in the NFC, and that of course will be half of the equation in determining their first-round matchup. The other half is how the three Wild Card teams shake out.
So let's look quickly at each possibility. If the Bucs get the two seed, they will play the last of the three Wild Card teams. Right now that is Philadelphia, which like San Francisco is 8-7, and the 49ers win that tiebreaker because they beat the Eagles in Week Four. Chasing the Eagles are the Vikings, Falcons and Saints. Philly will probably dispatch of a banged-up Washington team this week but will find it tougher to beat the Cowboys. The Vikings have to go to Green Bay before finishing up with the Bears. The Falcons play at Buffalo and at home against the Saints. The Saints get Carolina at home before that game in Atlanta.
You probably don't want to hear this, but my best guess to come out on top in that group of four is the Saints. The other three teams seem likely to lose at least one game, while the Saints will have a good shot to beat the Panthers and Falcons if they have Taysom Hill back at quarterback. Of all those teams, I think the Saints have the single best unit in their defense. New Orleans also has an absolute hammer of a tiebreaker in their strength-of-victory number if it comes to that, which it very well could.
However, the Saints did lose to Philadelphia in Week 11, so if it's only those two teams in a tie, the Eagles would prevail. So now I'm hedging my answer and think it's about 50-50 between the Saints and the Eagles in the seventh seed.
If the Bucs end up with the three seed they are most likely to end up facing San Francisco. I don't expect the 49ers to slide from the sixth seed, nor do I think they'll catch the Cardinals or Rams, whichever one doesn't win the West.
That also means that if Tampa Bay stays in the four seed it is likely to draw the Rams or Cardinals. My guess is that the Cardinals will not be able to overtake the Rams to get back into first in the West, so the team traveling east to Tampa will be Arizona.
With injuries piling up, which depth players will the Bucs look to in the playoffs as they try to repeat?
- _dannycolen_ (via Instagram)
Could the Bucs ask players to play different positions due to mounting injuries? (ex. OL plays DL, DBs play WR, etc.)
- bucs_uk (via Instagram)
Similar questions, so let's group them together.
We've already seen the beginning of the answer to the first question, as Cyril Grayson was the player to get the most additional work in the absence of Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, and Ronald Jones and Ke'Shawn Vaughn both saw their exposure go up significantly with Leonard Fournette down.
Grayson was the most interesting of the players to step up for the Buccaneers in Week 16, as I don't think many people saw that coming. It was no surprise to see the second-year player elevated from the practice squad, but I assumed he would be there for depth and would get just a handful of snaps. With Breshad Perriman also out with COVID, the general assumption was that it would be Antonio Brown and Scotty Miller on the outside and Tyler Johnson in the slot.
Instead, it was Grayson who took nearly all the snaps as the second outside receiver. We subsequently learned that this was partially because the coaching staff loves his blocking, which is a huge piece the team lost with Godwin going down. It doesn't hurt that he used his track-star speed to get free for a 62-yard catch on a touchdown drive, either. Now that we know Grayson is in the coaches' good graces due to his willing blocking, I would assume he would remain in the plans, at least until Evans returns. Perriman's potential return this week does complicate things (in a good way), though.
Jones and Vaughn also could remain in the new roles we saw on Sunday, at least four a few more weeks. Jones has become the lead back and will likely get the bulk of the carries each week, but Vaughn showed that he can produce when spelling Jones and if he can catch a few passes he could carve out more of a role on third downs.
The answer to the current absence of Lavonte David is obviously Kevin Minter, who always gives the Bucs steady play when either David or Devin White are unavailable. Unless Minter is injured, I doubt he will cede any playing time to rookie 'backers K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard.
Then up front we have the issues with starting edge rushers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. Barrett is sidelined until at least the playoffs with a knee injury and the shoulder injury that Pierre-Paul has been gritting through all season appears to be catching up with him. He was out for the last game and is in serious doubt for this one after not practicing on Wednesday.
That obviously means more playing time for rookie outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, who I might consider the most important player who needs to step up his production in coming weeks. The Bucs are tied for the NFL lead in sacks but that won't be easy to maintain while Barrett is out. The Buccaneers need Tryon-Shoyinka to provide some semblance of the game-changing pressure Barrett often provides. The biggest new opportunity, though appears to belong to Cam Gill. Anthony Nelson will get more snaps, as well, but Gill should go from just a handful of reps a game to more like 20 or 30. Barrett only missed one half on Sunday but Gill still got in on 28 snaps.
As for the second question, no I wouldn't expect any position switches to help out injury-ravaged positions, at least not of the type that you used as examples. With the season coming to an end and the do-or-die games just ahead, I don't think this is when you would try to see if a defensive tackle could play guard or a DB could play receiver. That seems like more of an offseason project. At most, you might see some flexibility in the secondary, such as Richard Sherman playing safety, or an interior lineman like Will Gholston or Ndamukong Suh could help out with snaps on the edge.