Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Down to the Wire | S.S. Mailbag

This week, as the division title chase reaches a critical point, Buccaneers fans have questions about the Panthers' biggest threat, potential adjustments on the offensive line and more

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Since the stunning hire of Tom Brady in 2020, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' story, on the surface, has mostly been about offense. The Buccaneers led the NFL in points scored over the 2020-21 seasons, and even though it was the defense that dominated in their Super Bowl LV triumph, it was still a celebrated fact that the team scored 30-plus points in each of their last seven games, all victories.

This was a seismic shift for a franchise that has mostly been defined by periods of defensive greatness. The Buccaneers' first Super Bowl season, in 2002, was the product of a defense that allowed, amazingly, only 12.3 points per game and has already placed three players in the Hall of Fame, with possibly one more to come. Even the franchise's first taste of playoff action, in the late '70s and early '80s, was mostly about a Lee Roy Selmon-led defense that terrorized the rest of the league. Selmon is also in the Hall of Fame. There are no offensive players in the Hall who played the majority of their careers in Tampa. Even Hall of Fame Head Coach Tony Dungy was mostly known for his defensive prowess.

Even this season, which has been far more of a struggle than the last two but could still end in another playoff run, the top storyline has been the Brady-led offense, though not always with a positive bent. Scoring is way down from the previous two seasons and the search for answers to fix that issue has been front and center. The Buccaneers still have Brady and a talented set of skill-position players, so the difficulty in finding the end zone has been a season-long frustration that has dominated the headlines.

But here's the thing: Not only this season but in the previous two as well, the most critical factor in securing a victory for the Buccaneers is not scoring points, but preventing them.

Consider, for example, this season's outcomes. The Bucs' highest scoring game this season was against Kansas City, in Week Four. They lost that one, 41-31. Their second-highest scoring game this season was a 34-23 loss to the Bengals in Week 15. Their third-highest scoring game this season was a 27-22 loss to Baltimore in Week Eight.

In contrast, the Buccaneers of the Tom Brady era almost always win when they hold opponents below 20 points. They have done so eight times this season and are 7-1 in those games (the exception was the 14-12 loss to Green Bay in Week Three, which seems like an eon ago). In contrast, the Denver Broncos have held 10 opponents below 20 points this season but are just 4-6 in those games.

Over the last three seasons, Tampa Bay's defense has held opponents to fewer than 20 points in 23 games, including the playoffs, and won 21 of those. They're 19 of 21 in the regular season in that category, and their .905 winning percentage in such games ranks seventh in the NFL in that span.

At this point, you may be screaming at your screen something along the lines of, 'Duh, Scott! It's pretty much common sense that allowing fewer points is going to lead to more victories.' And that's true to a point. I'm just trying to point out that allowing fewer than 20 points has been a clearer path to victory for the Bucs than scoring 20 or more points. The Bucs are 26-8 in the latter category in the Brady era, for a .765 winning percentage. Obviously, there is some overlap in those categories, such as the 31-9 win over the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. We can separate them out. The Bucs have played 20 regular season games over the past three years in which both teams scored 20 or more points, and are 12-8 in such contests. They've played seven games in the same span in games in which neither team reached 20 points. That's a .600 record in the former category and .714 in the latter.

The Buccaneers gave up 21 points to the Carolina the first time they played them this season, and lost. Hopefully the defense comes up with another under-20 game in the rematch on Sunday.

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.

G'day Scott. Your mailbag answer about the draft order being a crapshoot raised an interesting question. It seems to me that the relevant choice is contingent upon the position and perhaps whether their defense or offense. While some rookie QBs get thrown into the ring, others get a year or two to develop. What Is the a significance of the other 21 positions rookies entering as starters according? (I think that's clear. Capeesh?)

- Anton Smith (via email to*tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com*)

Okay, I actually emailed Anton Smith back to clarify what he was asking me to research, and he agreed with this interpretation: Is the question how soon players at different positions become starters relative to their draft position? Like, do top 10 cornerbacks generally start sooner than ones taken later in the first round?

So that's the task. To be completely honest, my answer is going to be more anecdotal than complete. A truly researched answer to this question would take a lot more time than I have available right now. So instead I'm just going to look at the last five drafts for a surface answer. Hopefully, it will be representative of the truth.

Let's split the players into three groups: Those taken in the top 10, those taken with picks 11-20 and those taken with picks 21-32. And to save even more time I'm just going to look at four positions: cornerback, wide receiver, edge rusher and offensive tackle. I had a feeling before starting that edge rusher was going to lean heavily to the top-10 players being the sure-fire starters, while cornerback and wide receiver would be more volatile. Wasn't sure about the tackles. Let's see if I was right.

Over the past five seasons, these are the cornerbacks drafted in the top 10. Derek Stingley, Ahmad Gardner, Jaycee Horn, Patrick Surtain, Jeff Okudah, C.J. Henderson and Denzel Ward. That's a pretty star-studded group. Okudah took a while to get going but apparently is playing very well this year. C.J. Henderson didn't last long in Jacksonville but is now starting in Carolina. Otherwise, those are all home runs and Day One starters.

These are the cornerback picks in the 11-20 range: A.J. Terrell, Damon Arnette and Jaire Alexander. Terrell and Alexander are stars and were immediate starters. Arnette was a disastrous pick who is currently out of the league.

These are the cornerback picks in the 21-32 range: Trent McDuffie, Kaiir Elam, Caleb Farley, Greg Newsome, Eric Stokes, Noah Igbinoghene, Jeff Gladney, Deandre Baker and Mike Hughes. Definitely a mixed bag here. McDuffie, Newsome and Stokes all qualify as immediate starters and the latter two are highly-regarded players. It's too early to tell on McDuffie, who has had some injury issues. Elam has been in and out of the starting lineup as a rookie. Baker did start right away but struggled mightily and was cut after his first season. The others have not established themselves as starters. Not that it's at all relevant to this conversation, but Gladney was killed in a car accident this offseason.

Now the receivers. Your top-10 group is Drake London, Garrett Wilson, Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. I think we can all agree that the last three were instant stars. It's too early to call that on London or Wilson but both did quickly become starters and Wilson is closing in on 1,000 yards.

The 11-20 gang is comprised of Chris Olave, Jameson Williams, Jahan Dotson, Treylon Burks, Kadarius Toney, Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb. Injury factors complicate things with Williams, Burks and Toney and none were immediate starters. Ruggs did start right away but is out of the league and awaiting trial after causing a car accident that killed a woman. Olave, Dotson, Jeudy and Lamb all quickly became starters.

The receivers in the 21-32 range are Rashod Bateman, Jalen Reagor, Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk, Marquise Brown, N'Keal Harry, D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley. That's a pretty strong group with the exceptions of Reagor and Harry. Bateman, Jefferson, Aiyuk, Brown and Moore all quickly established themselves as starters. It took a bit longer for Ridley and he is currently on a year-long suspension for gambling, but he was previously a rising star.

On to the edge rushers. The top-10 picks are Travon Walker, Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Chase Young, Joey Bosa, Clelin Ferrell and Bradley Chubb. The only outright miss here is Ferrell, but he did start right away and for most of his first two seasons. In fact, all of these guys were starters from the jump, and most have been very good.

The 11-20 group includes Jaelen Phillips, K'Lavon, Chaisson, Rashan Gary and Marcus Davenport. None of these guys started right away as rookies, though Gary and Davenport developed into strong players.

The guys in the 21-32 range are Jermaine Johnson, George Karlaftis, Kwity Paye, Payton Turner, Gregory Rousseau, Montez Sweat and L.J. Collier. Not a bad group overall. Karlaftis, Paye, Rousseau and Sweat were all immediate starters. Turner and Collier were not.

Finally, the offensive tackles. In the top 10 we have Ikem Ekwonu, Evan Neal, Charles Cross, Penei Sewell, Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills and Mike McGlinchey. All of these guys started immediately and a couple are already star-caliber players. Clearly, if you draft a tackle in the top 10 you're intending to step right into the lineup.

The following tackles fall in the 11-20 range: Trevor Penning, Alex Leatherwood, Rashawn Slater, Mekhi Becton, Tristan Wirfs, Austin Jackson, Jonah Williams and Kolton Miller. Penning got hurt before the season and hasn't played much and Leatherwood started at guard for the Raiders and flamed out quickly. Becton has barely played the last two seasons due to injuries but did start right away as a rookie. Slater, Wirfs, Jackson, Williams all became immediate starters, and Wirfs is a superstar.

And the 21-32 pick group consists of Tyler Smith, Christian Darrisaw, Isaiah Wilson, Andre Dillard, Tytus Howard, Kaleb McGary and Isaiah Wynn. Smith, Darrisaw, Howard, McGary and Wynn all quickly became starters. Wilson was a complete bust and quickly out of the league. Dillard has not really established himself as an NFL starter to this point.

I guess you can draw your own conclusions from that. I may have to walk back my comments about the difference between the 10th and 20th picks just a bit, as the evidence above does tend to suggest that top 10 picks almost all quickly become starters, whereas it's more hit and miss in the middle and late parts of the round. That said, there are plenty of star players in the second and third categories above, and I stand by the assertion that earning a spot in the playoffs is far more important than jumping up 10 spots in the next year's draft.

Who is the biggest threat to us on the Panthers?
@pocket_schweitzr (via Instagram)

I would say the element that worries me most about the Panthers this Sunday is their run game. They for 173 yards on the Buccaneers in a 21-3 win in Week Seven, which was more yards than they got through the air. Success on the ground seems to be the biggest determining factor in their wins; yes, people sometimes misunderstand the causation in wins with lots of rushing yards, in that in some cases a team that is winning big will then run the ball more. In the Panthers' case, though, I think they are running to win ballgames.

Carolina has topped 100 rushing yards in eight of there games this season and are 6-2 in those contests. They've failed to reach 100 yards in seven games and are 0-7 in those contests. And when I say they are getting over 100 rushing yards, I don't mean 105 or 110. In their eight over-100 games they have actually averaged 199.1 rushing yards per outing. Wow. Their last four victories have included rushing performances of 232, 185, 223 and 320 yards.

But I think the question you're asking me is one specific player who is the biggest threat to the Bucs' chances of victory on Sunday, and it's hard for me to pin all that rushing success on one player. Is it a resurgent D'Onta Foreman, who had 165 rushing yards in last week's win over Detroit? Well, maybe, but Chuba Hubbard also had 125 yards on the ground. Is it an improved offensive line with first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu at left tackle and free agent pickups Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett in the middle?

So if I'm supposed to pick one specific player threat, I'm going to switch to the other side of the ball and select defensive end Brian Burns. The former first-round pick is by far the Panthers' most dangerous pass-rush threat; he has 12.5 sacks on the season and nobody else on the defense has more than 4.0. The Panthers only have 31 sacks as a team through 15 games, which ties them for 23rd in the league. Last weekend the Buccaneers had to face Arizona's J.J. Watt after he was coming off a season-best three-sack game against Denver. Now they have to take on Burns, who had 2.0 sacks last Saturday, his second multi-sack game in four weeks.

The problem is that if the Buccaneers can't keep Burns from repeatedly getting into Tom Brady's personal space, it's going to be a problem for the offense. The Buccaneers did not allow a sack to the Cardinals, but there was clearly a lot of pressure, spearheaded by Watt, and that sped up Brady's game. He finished the game with an average time to throw, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, of 2.16. Brady has been getting rid of the ball quickly for the last two seasons, but that was easily the lowest TTT he's had in a single game since NGS started tracking it in 2016.

Quick passes don't have to be a bad thing, and Brady made it work for more than 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns last season. But anyone who watched the Bucs' win over the Cardinals on Christmas night knows that the offense was not really working most of the game. Brady worked his magic in the fourth quarter and overtime to pull out the win, but the Bucs didn't find the end zone until there eight minutes left in regulation.

So that's my concern. If the pocket can't be kept clean, the passing attack may not have time to get very much downfield. And if the Panthers can then keep the Bucs from succeeding on quick throws, the offense may have trouble sustaining drives. The first order of keeping that pocket clean is slowing down Brian Burns.

What adjustments will be made to the offensive line?

- @jai.mcaulay (via Instagram)

Well, hopefully none will be necessary. The Bucs began the week with concerns regarding both of their starting tackles, Donovan Smith with a foot injury and Tristan Wirfs with an ankle injury. Smith didn't play on Christmas while Wirfs returned from a three-game absence and in the process aggravated his injury a bit. Both were able to practice on Wednesday in a limited fashion, though that wasn't enough for Head Coach Todd Bowles to draw any conclusions yet.

"It's early," said Bowles. We'll see how it goes. It was kind of light today, so we'll see once we get into tomorrow and Friday and see exactly where they are."

If Smith and Wirfs can both play on Sunday, there won't be any changes to the lineup. Shaq Mason and Robert Hainsey have each started every game this season, at right guard and center, respectively, and Nick Leverett has settled in at left guard since first seeing some action there the last time the Bucs and Panthers met.

Now, if either one or both of those tackles is sidelined, then we've got some adjusting to do. It would be easier if the Bucs still had their main swing tackle, Josh Wells, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury starting in place of Smith last Sunday and is no longer available. Brandon Walton, who is listed as a backup guard on the Bucs' depth chart, stepped in for Smith and would presumably be the answer again if Smith is out. If Smith plays but Wirfs is sidelined, Walton would likely be the answer at right tackle, too.

Where it gets a little hair is if both regular starters can't play. Then you have Walton at one spot and, it appears the next man in the pecking order is Justin Skule. I say that because the Buccaneers elevated Skule from the practice squad last week to make him the fourth active tackle on game day. Skule does have NFL starting experience; a sixth-round pick by the 49ers in 2019, he started 12 games over the course of his first two seasons in San Francisco. The majority of those starts came at right tackle, and Walton has already started a game this year at left tackle, so if that's your starting duo then they'd probably stay on those sides of the line.

This scenario would probably involve some combination of roster moves and practice squad elevations, because you can't afford to go into a game with only offensive tackles available. The Buccaneers could cross train a versatile player like Leverett to get him ready for a possible in-game slide to that spot, and Leverett has played tackle some in the preseason. The Bucs prepared for that a bit earlier this week by bringing rookie tackle Dylan Cook back to the practice squad. They also added first-year tackle Grant Hermanns to that unit a few weeks ago.

One adjustment you definitely won't see up front this week is the return of Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen to the lineup. The Buccaneers started their 21-day window on Wednesday in which Jensen can practice with the team without counting against the roster limit, which means he could be ticketed for activation at some point over the next three weeks. But Bowles quickly shot the idea of Jensen playing in the his weekend's game. The Bucs are calling his return to practice a "part of the rehab process," and I would be surprised if Jensen plays in the Week 18 game in Atlanta, either. But maybe if the Bucs make it to the playoffs he can be a factor then.

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