Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Five Steps to the Playoffs

The Bucs believe they are primed for playoff contention after just missing the postseason last year…Here are five areas of potential improvement that could put them over the top.

The best photos from this week's OTA practices.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers approach the 2017 NFL season with the belief that they are legitimate playoff contenders, perhaps more confident in that notion than they have been in years. New Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick felt the vibe the first time he came to work at One Buccaneer place on Tuesday, noting "the energy in this building and I think the confidence of the guys."

Of course, it's a reasonable belief, given that Tampa Bay was the last NFC team eliminated from playoff contention last season, losing the final spot to Detroit on a third-level tiebreaker. The 2016 Buccaneers finished 9-7 – including a 6-2 mark in the season's second half – and could probably take the next step into the postseason field with one more win in 2017. The Bucs aren't setting their sights on the absolute minimum improvement they need, obviously, but it's encouraging that the gap is that small.

How might the Buccaneers close that gap and come up with one or two or three more wins in 2017? Last season, they essentially ended up on a landing just below the postseason floor, with a short staircase up to the next level. Let's say that staircase has five steps, which we'll identify below. If the Buccaneers can take each of these five steps in 2017, they will likely make it to the next floor.

1. Get More YAC.

We've already discussed the topic of YAC – yards after catch – in relation specifically to wide receiver Mike Evans. Evans was one of the best receivers in the league by almost any measure, but his average YAC of 1.8 per reception was the lowest among the NFL's 23 1,000-yard receivers. Evans is masterful at making plays downfield – as evidenced by the fact that every single one of his third-down receptions resulted in a first down in 2016 – but he would like to create more big gains after the ball is in his hands.

But it goes beyond Evans. The Buccaneers would like to create more YAC across the board, and they took a big step in that direction during free agency by signing explosive wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Jackson was third in the league in average YAC last year and he ranks fifth among all players in that category since he was drafted by Philadelphia in 2008. His arrival should instantly improve a passing attack that averaged 4.0 yards after the catch in 2017, second-worst in the NFL.

Slot receiver Adam Humphries was the only Bucs pass-catcher to rank anywhere among the league leaders in average YAC because he proved very good at taking quick tunnel-screen passes and weaving upfield through traffic. In all, Tampa Bay's offense generated 1,433 yards out of the catch, which represented 34.4% of its overall passing yardage on the season. That was the lowest percentage of any team in the NFL; Atlanta's passing attack, in contrast, got 48.0% of its yards after completion, and the Falcons were only 11th in the league in that category.

Some of that is a function of scheme, of course, and some of it – especially in Evans's case – has to do with efficient work in the red zone. A pass that is caught in the end zone, which is an Evans specialty, by definition can have no YAC.

Adding Jackson and seam-stretching tight end O.J. Howard will help, and the Bucs think rookie receiver Chris Godwin is capable of moving well after the reception to create explosive plays. Tampa Bay's YAC totals will also go up if Jameis Winston, in his third season, improves on his deep ball accuracy. If Jackson gets behind defenses the way he has throughout his career and Winston can hit him in stride, that will be a great source of YAC. A better rushing attack (more on that later), will make that job easier for Winston by adding bite to his play-action fakes. Dirk Koetter's offense has shown great promise in his two seasons in Tampa, even without a lot of yards after the catch. Add that to the mix and the Bucs could have one of the most dangerous attacks in the league.

2. Keep Opposing Backs Out of the Second Level.

The Buccaneers' run defense was not particularly strong in 2016, ranking 22nd in both yards allowed per game (117.2) and yards allowed per carry (4.39). That was a shame because better results in the ground game would have produced more third downs (and more long third downs) and Tampa Bay had the very best third-down defense in the NFL in 2016.

As such, the team has made moves to get stouter up the middle with the additions of such players as defensive tackles Chris Baker and Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, linebacker Kendell Beckwith and safety J.J. Wilcox. Re-signing defensive end Will Gholston, the team's best run defender on the edge, was also a key move as the Buccaneers try to do a better job of keeping opposing runners from getting to the second level of their defense.

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Not all of that is a matter of size; sometimes an opposing back gets through the line due to a breakdown in gap integrity. Tampa Bay's defense was better overall in the second half of last season – by a significant margin – which is an indication that the players started becoming more comfortable in Mike Smith's defense and in communication with each other. However, the team's run-defense numbers didn't change much; the Bucs allowed 117.9 rushing yards per game through the first eight contests and 116.5 through the last eight.

It's not that the Buccaneers were overwhelmed along the or particularly shoddy tacklers on the back end. Football Outsiders ranked the Bucs' defensive front as 26th-best against the run last year, but fifth-best in power running situations and ninth-best in preventing open-field yards. Where Tampa Bay had trouble, by FO's estimation, was in that second level, between five and 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, where the team ranked 27th in terms of rushing yards allowed. That overall picture jibes with the rushing big-play numbers allowed by the Buccaneers' defense: Tampa Bay ranked 27th in runs of 10 or more yards allowed (54) but tied for ninth in fewest runs of 20+-yards allowed (seven).

It's easy to see, then, why the Bucs wanted to be tougher in the middle of their defense. The scheme is good, the tackling is solid but too many backs were breaking through the first line of defense to get into the second level last year. Prevent that more effectively and the Bucs will have more opportunities to let their third-down defense go to work.

3. Run Like It's 2015.

Dirk Koetter wants to run the ball. That was evident in 2015, when he came aboard as the team's offensive coordinator and unleashed Doug Martin and Charles Sims for a huge combined season. It was less obvious in 2016 when the running game cratered, losing nearly 35 yards off its per game average from the previous year and falling from fifth to 24th in the NFL rankings.

But that's looking at results, not intent. The Buccaneers ranked seventh in the NFL in rushes per game in 2015…and in 2016. They ran the ball just as frequently on first down last year as the season before, ranking in the top five in the NFL in that category in both campaigns. Koetter, now the head coach, tried just as often to run the ball last year, he just didn't get the same sort of success out of his backfield.

Some of that was the result of injuries. Both Doug Martin and Charles Sims lost significant chunks of the season to injury. Martin was also inactive in Week 16 and suspended in Week 17 for a violation of the league's substance policy. He sought treatment for his issue after the season and has come out of it feeling stronger both mentally and physically. If he remains a big part of the team's rushing game in 2017 (following three more games on suspension) and is in the form that led to his 1,400-yard campaign in 2015, that would be an instant boost to that sagging ground game.

The Bucs didn't just stand pat on Doug Martin, though. They re-signed Jacquizz Rodgers, a surprisingly good fill-in as a lead back when Martin and Sims were out last year, and used a fifth-round draft pick on productive Boise State back Jeremy McNichols, who looks like a Martin clone. With Sims returning to full health and second-year man Peyton Barber showing some promise, the Bucs' ground game has depth to work with.

Meanwhile, the offensive line, which has mostly the same cast as last year, might get a bit of a re-shuffling. The team is trying out guard Ali Marpet at center, which could lead to an interior trio of him, right guard J.R. Sweezy and left guard Kevin Pamphile. That would give the Bucs a much bigger middle of the line, which could help with the power running game.

That is needed to clean up a problem that kept Winston and the Bucs' offense from fully reaching its potential last year: First-down efficiency. The Bucs ranked 27th in the league in percentage of first-down plays that gained at least four yards, and the biggest problem was the ground game. Tampa Bay's 3.36 yards per carry on first down was the fourth worst in the NFL. In 2015, that number was 4.90, second-best in the league.

Despite that, the Buccaneers were quite good on third downs, thanks in large part to Winston, particularly in his better-than-expected ability to extend plays and complete passes on the run. Tampa Bay converted on 43.9% of its third downs on offense last year, the sixth-best mark in the NFL. Winston helped them rank third in third downs of six or more yards, at 33.0%. That's nice, but the Bucs would like to face a lot more short third downs. Tampa Bay had only 14 third-and-ones last year, fourth fewest in the league, and only 34 tries from 2-3 yards, tied for 18th fewest in the league. On the other hand, Winston and company faced 163 third downs of 10 or more yards, most in the NFL.

More success in the ground game, particularly on first down, could unlock a very explosive offense overall.

4. Defend the Pass More Aggressively on First Down.

Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, the team's 2016 first-round draft pick, had a promising debut season, and he steadily got better, as one would expect from a talented rookie. At one point in the season, Buccaneer coaches urged Hargreaves to play more aggressively, to let those natural talents lead him to big plays. That is the message for Hargreaves again as the 2017 season approaches.

That's a good idea for the Bucs' secondary as a whole, especially on first down. Last year, the Buccaneers ranked 17th in the NFL in completion percentage allowed, at 63.3%. That number went up to 67.6% on first downs only, however, which was 25th best in the NFL. The Buccaneers were very good at taking the ball away last year, especially in the season's second half, and they ranked third in the NFL with an overall interception rate of 3.1%. However, that rate was only 1.9% on first down, which was only 17th-best in the league.

Improving on those first-down results will be easier if the Buccaneers' defense is indeed more stout in the middle against the run, as discussed above. Having to devote fewer defenders to the box would allow more back-end coverage on pass-catchers, which should make the corners feel a little more comfortable on the edge. Aggressive cornerback play is inherently more risky when the defense has a single-high safety look in place.

Cornerback Brent Grimes was one of the league's best at contesting throws last year, leading the NFL with 24 passes defensed. The slot corner job is up for grabs, but whoever wins the spot will be part of a secondary that will hopefully be less gracious on first downs in 2016.

5. Make More Field Goals.

There aren't a lot of fancy statistics needed for this one. It's a pretty simple fact: Making field goals at a 71.0% clip in a league that overall hits on 84.2% of its tries puts a team at a serious disadvantage.

Obviously, rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo struggled as a rookie. As such, the team has brought in veteran Nick Folk to compete with Aguayo. The fact that Tampa Bay used a second-round pick on the young kicker in 2016 will not factor into the final decision; the most efficient player will get the job.

If the Buccaneers had kicked field goals at a league-average pace last year, they would have made 26 of their 31 tries, which would have added 12 points to their overall total. That may not seem like much, but four extra field goals in a league in which a high percentage of games come down to the wire could have made the difference between 9-7 and 10-6, and 10-6 would have meant the playoffs. If the Bucs made 87% or more of their tries last year, as the top 10 teams in the league did, they would have had five more field goals.

Specifically, the Bucs need a little more range on their scoring potential. Aguayo made all five of his kicks in the 20 to 29-yard range and 13 of 15 from 30 to 39 yards. It was 40 yards and out where the Bucs got only four successes in 11 tries. That's 36.4%. The league average was 71.7%.

Aguayo is obviously a talented kicker and he seems quite ready to battle with Folk for the job. His rookie season might eventually be seen as a blip in an otherwise fine NFL career. But whichever player is the Bucs' kicker in 2017, the team needs better results than it got last fall.

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