Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Expecting a Turnaround? | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Buccaneers fans have questions about the possibility of the Bucs turning things around in the second half, the plan with Tristan Wirfs out and more

mailbag

We've all been there. You and some buddies are watching your favorite football team in a very tight contest; maybe they're desperately trying to cling to a small lead or in the latter stages of a big comeback. Your opponent has the football and time is starting to run short. You need something to shift the momentum or turn the tide.

It's at this point that you turn to one of your buddies, or one of them turns to you, in order to say this: "We could really use a turnover right about now."

I have witnessed more than 500 Tampa Bay Buccaneers games and have not been alone for any of them (mostly because I'm usually in the press box). I would estimate I've expressed that thought or had it expressed to me at some point in about half of them. And just because it's been said so many times, every now and then your team does get the big takeaway that you need at a crucial moment. This literally occurred just three weeks ago, when the person sitting next to me at the game in Munich said it about three snaps before Devin White had the key strip-sack of Geno Smith in the Bucs' win over Seattle.

But you know what? I've got to stop expecting this kind of serendipitous moment to happen. Like ever. And the reason is that NFL teams just don't turn the ball over as often as they used to.

The reason this is on my mind is that the Buccaneers are in one of the most confounding streaks I've ever seen. For what is now going on seven games, neither the Bucs nor their opponents seem capable of creating a takeaway. Over those seven games, the Buccaneers have recovered one fumble and intercepted one pass. In the same span, their opponents have recovered one fumble and intercepted two passes*.

(* That one interception, by Mike Edwards last Sunday in Cleveland, was about as non-turnovery as a turnover can be. It was on a Hail Mary pass that came on fourth down and was the last play of the first half. There would literally be no difference in the effects of the play if Edwards catches it or knocks it to the ground. ** One of those two interceptions was extremely fluky, as it was on pass thrown by Leonard Fournette in Tom Brady's direction in a failed trick play in Munich.)

To illustrate just how confounding this streak is, allow me to pull two lines from the "Buccaneers by the Numbers" release the team's communications department puts out after every game, in this case the one they prepared four games into the season:

* [Sean Murphy-Bunting's interception] was Tampa Bay's ninth takeaway of the season, tied for third most in the NFL. Since the start of the 2019 season, Tampa Bay has 91 takeaways, the third most in the NFL.

* The Buccaneers' six interceptions this season are tied for fifth most in the NFL.

So basically, ever since Todd Bowles arrived as the defensive coordinator, the Buccaneers have been one of the best teams in the league at forcing turnovers. In Bowles' first season as the head coach, that remained true for the first four games…then the lights went out and nobody's been able to locate the switch since. There have been a total of 20 takeaways in the Bucs' 11 games so far, 11 for and nine against them. (So, I mean, at least the ratio is good.) That's fewer than two per game. Is that rare?

You bet. I searched every team season since the 1970 merger and found only 15 instances in which one team ended a season with an average of two or fewer combined turnovers per game. That would be 32 or fewer in every season from 1970 through 2020, 34 or fewer last year, 18 or fewer in the nine-game 1982 campaign and 30 or fewer in the 15-game 1987 season. The latter two were both shortened by player strikes.

And you know how I said turnovers are going away? Well, guess what: All but one of those seasons has happened since 2014. The outlier is the 2006 Washington team, which only committed and collected a total of 29 turnovers. The Seahawks and Eagles did it just last year, with 31 and 32 combined turnovers, respectively, in a 17-game season. Probably the most notable season on this list is the Saints in 2019, as there combined total was so low because they only committed eight giveaways in 16 games. They produced 23 takeaways and unsurprisingly went 13-3. The 2017 Patriots also went 13-3 after producing a turnover ratio of +6, 18 for and 12 against. The 2020 Packers turned it over only 11 times in 2020 and got 18 from their defense and went 13-3. The least successful team on this list is the 2020 Houston Texans, who set the record for fewest combined turnovers in a season since the merger with 27. Unfortunately for that 4-12 squad, only nine of the 27 went in their favor.

If you rank every NFL season from 1970 to 2021 and discard the nine-game 1982 season, the eight season from 2014 to 2021 are the ones with the fewest league-wide turnovers (2020 has the record at 665). Last year was the NFL's first 17-game season, raising the total number of games played per year from 256 to 272, and it still featured the fourth-fewest turnovers ever at 706. This season, NFL teams are on pace to produce 675 turnovers.

So  you can keep saying it. I know I will. We could really use a turnover right about now. Just don't expect to have your pleas answered.

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.

Has there been a season in recent years you would compare to how this season is going so far? Is there time to turn it around?

- @brody_bernstein (via Instagram)

Well, if I have to stick with the "in recent years" qualifier, probably the most hopeful answer I can give you is the 2016 season. That was Dirk Koetter's first season at the helm and the Bucs started out 3-5 and then got back to 5-5 through 10 games, just like the Bucs did this year. The problem that season had more to do with defense, as the Bucs gave up an average of 29.0 points per game through the first half of the season. They got that under control in the second half of the season, allowing 17.1 points per game, and at one point reeled off five straight wins. The 2016 Bucs eventually finished 9-7 but did not get a playoff berth, with Atlanta winning the division at 11-5.

Going back a bit further, Tony Dungy's 2001 team was 5-5 after 10 games and had yet to win consecutive contests. The Bucs had signed veteran quarterback Brad Johnson after two seasons of relatively ineffectual quarterback play had kept the league's best defense from making it to the Super Bowl. The Bucs offense was up and down through the first half of the season – as was their vaunted defense, to be fair – but the Bucs closed out the season on a 4-2 that was really more like 4-1 because the final game against Philadelphia didn't matter and both teams used backups. No matter who won it, the Bucs already knew they would be playing in Philadelphia the following weekend in the Wild Card round. That Tampa Bay team finished 9-7 and in third place in the old NFC Central but did at least make it to the postseason.

The truth is, there never really has been a season like this for the Buccaneers because they are simultaneously performing well below expectations but are also in first place. The Bucs don't have to "turn it around" by that much to remain on pace for a playoff spot through the NFC South title. The playoff odds on FiveThirtyEight.com still give the Bucs a 71% chance to make it in the playoff field.

But I think what you are asking me is if the Bucs can turn it around to such an extent that they are once again the legitimate Super Bowl contenders that they were thought to be coming into the season. That 2001 example really doesn't turn out to be all that inspiring because even though that team did make the playoffs it also made a quick exit with a 31-9 loss in Philadelphia. (They would get their revenge in a big way a year later.) At least this year's team would have the advantage of opening the postseason at home if it has won the division, and at the moment the most likely first-round matchup for the Bucs would be the Cowboys, who they beat back in Week One.

I do think it is possible for the Bucs to improve down the stretch, though it may be tough to get all the way back to the sort of offensive results the team had become used to over the last two seasons. The league's 32nd-ranked rushing attack has shown some signs of life lately but is probably never going to be a consistent force. And after all the change the Buccaneers' offensive line has had to endure, losing Tristan Wirfs, even if it's only for three or four weeks, isn't going to help. That said, between Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Julio Jones, Leonard Fournette, Rachaad White and Cade Otton, there's enough there for the offense to finally catch fire a little bit down the stretch.

Meanwhile, barring significant injuries, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with the Buccaneers' defense save for a weird inability to close out games. If that group can find a way to finish – maybe by getting a few dang turnovers here or there? – it would rank among the league's best.

And finally, I would never give up on this team turning things around as long as Tom Brady is in the building. Brady recently said that, for him, playing and losing is better than not playing at all, but you and I both know he haaaaateslosing. If anybody can will this team to the places it wants to go, it's him. We saw that on full display in last season's incredible but ultimately doomed comeback in the playoff game against the Rams.

Who will replace Tristian Wirfs for the time being?

- @ackmatvei (via Instagram)

At the time I'm writing this, the Buccaneers have not had a practice open to the media yet and Head Coach Todd Bowles hasn't spoken to the media since Monday. So this is an educated guess but I expect it to be Josh Wells. Since 2019, every time either the left tackle or the right tackle missed a game, Wells was the first choice to replace him. We saw this in Week Two when Donovan Smith was injured and Wells stepped in at left tackle against the Saints.

Wells actually injured his calf in that game and wound up on IR for a while, which led the team to starting young Brandon Walton at left tackle in Week Three. Walton held his own and impressed the coaches, so he could be in consideration as well. However, I expect the coaches will turn to Wells first and keep Walton in a super-sub role where he can back up both tackle spots and potentially play guard if needed. Nick Leverett also has some preseason experience at tackle if the position gets further thinned by injuries.

How can Brady and Evans get on the same page when we are this far into the season?

- @bossedupkng (via Instagram)

I would be more worried about this issue if this were a problem that had been ongoing from the beginning of the season, but it's really more of a recent issue and thus I expect we will eventually look back at it as a minor bump in the road. I mean, we weren't worried about it a month again when Evans was catching everything in sight against Carolina and Baltimore. (Well, almost everything, and Evans' shocking and uncharacteristic drop of a wide-open deep ball in Charlotte wasn't the product of a lack of chemistry between him and Brady.) In those two games combined, Evans caught 15 passes for 219 yards.

After Brady arrived in 2020, Evans immediately had his two best seasons ever in terms of catch rate, hauling in 64.2% of his targets in 2020 and 64.9% of them last year. Now it's true that his catch rate is down to 60.0% in 2022, but he was running at 71.0% through his first seven games (he didn't play in Week Three), before the recent downturn.

The issue of the connection between Brady and Evans being on the fritz became one of the big stories of this week because the misses in the Cleveland game were so visible and were plays that could have changed the course of the game in a big way. I'm talking about the five times Brady threw deep down the sideline to Evans, none of which connected, though one did draw a pass interference penalty. It's hard to say why each of those four non-penalty plays failed, but Brady did take the blame for the last one in overtime in his Let's Go podcast on Monday. The others could have been slight overthrows or miscommunication on routes or any number of things.

Head Coach Todd Bowles acknowledged the issue on Monday and said it had to be fixed because the Brady-Evans connection is crucial to the Bucs' success on offense. How do Brady and Evans get back on the same page? Well, they practice. And they go back to all the same things that have worked well for them through their first two-and-a-half seasons together. It's not a talent issue or a desire issue for either of those players, to be sure, so I'm confident they'll get it worked out.

What is the biggest challenge we face going up against the Saints next week for MNF?

- @jmoneydawg

Overall, it simply seems as if the Saints match up very well with what the Buccaneers are trying to do on offense. Even the Buccaneers' win back in September was a 3-3 game heading into the fourth quarter before the defense started coming up with turnovers in bunches. It could be a challenge simply to score enough points.

But if you want a more specific answer I would go with the Saints' pass rush. New Orleans ranks seventh in the NFL in sacks per pass play and is getting contributions from all over its depth chart. They have produced 33 sacks even though star end Cameron Jordan "only" has 5.5. Off-ball linebacker Demario Davis (6.5 sacks) is a whirling dervish, defensive tackle David Onyemata (3.5) remains criminally underrated and the Saints can bring pass-rushers at you in waves. Tampa Bay's protection of Brady has generally been excellent this year, but now it has to adjust to the absence of All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs, as discussed above. I think they can do it – they only allowed the Saints one sack of Brady in Week Two without Donovan Smith in the mix – but it will definitely be a challenge.

As for the Bucs' defense, it's clear from hearing players and coaches talk on Wednesday that one of the biggest challenges of facing this Saints team is how many different personnel packages they use on offense. Through 12 games so far, the Saints' offense has used 382 unique lineups, by far the most in the league. Obviously, some of that has to do with players going down due to injuries and others stepping in, but every team deals with that. Every team does not have a Taysom Hill to present baffling new looks every week. Even the most common 11-man lineup the Saints have used this season has only accounted for 3.15% of their plays. It's a lot to get prepared for, though at least the Bucs have one extra day this week to study tape and work on their fits during walk-throughs.

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