For most NFL teams, in most in-season weeks, Tuesday is the player's day off. It's a chance to rest, regroup and – win or lose the previous weekend – turn the page to the next opponent.
It's also a perfect time for us to discuss the hottest topics surrounding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And for that reason, the One Buc Mailbag is back! Every Tuesday, I'll be fielding a handful of questions from the fans, but you can send them in all throughout the week. The easiest way is to hit me up on Twitter (@ScottSBucs, using #BucsMailbag), but if 140 characters aren't quite enough to get your point across, you can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week, we discuss the state of the Bucs' re-shuffled receiving corps, the upcoming opportunity to establish a home field advantage and the impact of Jacquizz Rodgers' performance on the team's handling of Doug Martin. Let's get to it.
1. Slotting the Wideouts
So this was tweeted early last week, presumably after Justin had heard that Vincent Jackson was going to injured reserve, Donteea Dye had been promoted from the practice squad, Cecil Shorts was returning from his hamstring injury and Louis Murphy was beginning to practice in anticipation of coming off the PUP list. (Eventually, Dye would be released and Freddie Martino would be promoted from the practice squad to play on Sunday.)
I'm not exactly sure to which three players Justin is referring. One is surely Adam Humphries, who was and still is the Bucs' starting slot receiver, even after all of those moves. Perhaps he also meant Dye and Shorts, although both of those two have played on the outside; Dye did so for the Buccaneers last year. He might even have been referring to Murphy, who's not on the active roster yet but hopefully will be soon. Murphy has had some success in the slot during his NFL career, most notably in Carolina, but he's also produced for the Buccaneers when asked to fill in for Jackson or Mike Evans the last couple years.
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Whether I'm getting the exact names right or not, I think Justin's point is clear: With Jackson out, would the Buccaneers be able to find a good replacement in the flanker role from among a group of receivers who don't exactly fit the same profile as the number 83? That was actually a major topic of conversation last week as members of the media tried to get some answers as to how Dirk Koetter would handle all the moving parts in his receiving corps.
Now that the Buccaneers have played a game without Jackson, and had a decent amount of success in the passing game, the answer is a little more clear, at least in the short run. With a relatively short amount of time to plan around Jackson's absence, and with a number of receivers who were either inexperienced or recently sidelined, the approach was to divide and conquer. Koetter and company came up with specific roles for each of four players – Humphries, Shorts, Martino and Russell Shepard – and plugged them into the game when it was time to use that part of the playbook. As Shorts mentioned in the middle of last week, he was comfortable with his knowledge not necessarily of the whole playbook, but of the specific gameplan for that week.
"We had plays tagged," Koetter said after the 49ers game, noting the relatively even number of snaps played by those four in the flanker role. "We were working it out with four guys and the reps bear that out."
Obviously, that led to a lot of substitution during the game, which was evident even to the untrained eye. It's possible that continuing with that approach might lead to a bit of predictability in the play-calling. On the other hand, Koetter and his coaches could counter that by giving those receivers different parts of the playbook from week to week. I would suspect that, as the season progresses, roles will become more defined and you may have one or two receivers who ends up with more of the playing time. Shepard, who caught five passes for 77 yards and a touchdown, appears to be the first one who has made a case for a bigger role, but the others will get their opportunities in the weeks to come.
2. A Happier Home?
I'm glad you added that parenthetical caveat, Mike, because I'm not crazy about the word "winnable." ALL the Bucs' remaining games are winnable, and they're ALL potential landmines, as well. At the beginning of the year, I bet the prevailing opinion would have been that the Buccaneers would beat the Rams at home in Week Three but lose to the Panthers in Charlotte in Week Five. The opposite happened.
But I'm not trying to pick on Mike here. It's definitely fair to say that, when the 2016 schedule came out, it looked like the Bucs had a particularly tough stretch before the bye week followed by a more manageable run in the middle of the season. And the Bucs did indeed begin that post-bye slate with a convincing road win against the one-win 49ers. The thing is, this question was sent in AFTER that game, and here are the Bucs' next five opponents, with their win-loss records so far:
- Oakland (5-2)
- Atlanta (4-3)
- Chicago (1-5)
- at Kansas City (4-2)
- Seattle (4-1-1)
If we are putting games into "winnable" and "not winnable" categories, which are the ones on that list that look easy? Obviously, the Bears are having a tough go of it so far, but three of those other four teams are currently in first place or tied for first in their respective divisions. Perhaps the Atlanta game jumps out because the Buccaneers have already beaten the Falcons on the road. However, let's not forget that the Falcons have also won three road games this season.
Still, I'm not trying to be pessimistic here. I just think we have to take the approach that coaches and players always preach and look at this situation one game at a time. The Raiders are a tough opponent this coming Sunday, to be sure, but a win would put the Bucs back over .500 and, if the Packers can help out a little bit in Atlanta, maybe into sole possession of first place in the NFC South. That would certainly set up a very exciting Thursday night matchup with the Falcons in Week Nine.
Alright, I've spent five paragraphs essentially arguing about Mike's choice of the word "winning," when the point he wants to make is that this is a good opportunity for the Buccaneers to finally re-establish that home field advantage they've been lacking for years. As good as Tampa Bay has been on the road this season, the team is 0-2 at home; the playoffs are nothing more than a pipe dream if the team can't at least get back to .500 on home turf.
Mike is right – this is the part of the schedule where it has to happen. Four home games in the next five weeks and only one more road trip until December. If the Bucs don't use this run to establish a good home record, it will probably be too late when they get their December division home games against the Saints and Panthers. The Buccaneers are the only team in the NFC that has the advantage of four home games over the next five weeks – it's their best chance to make a move.
Mike's actual question was, is this "the perfect opportunity to fix our home struggles?" Forget which games seem "winnable" or not on paper; four home games in five weeks is definitely that opportunity.
3. A More Cautious Approach?
I think the Bucs are thrilled with how well they've been able to run the ball the last two weeks with Jacquizz Rodgers, and those results have definitely made it easier to bear Doug Martin's absence. However, I don't believe it changes the team's approach in how it handles Martin's return from injury.
See, I believe the Buccaneers are already very cautious with hamstring injuries. Martin suffered his injury in Week Two and did not look like he was even in consideration for a return until Week Seven, which was this past weekend in San Francisco. He had a setback before that could happen, the details of which have not been shared, but it presumably occurred during part of his rehab efforts. It did not come from the Bucs rushing him back into game action.
When it is determined that Martin is ready to return, I fully expect him to play in the very next game and step right back into his starting role. You can appreciate what Rodgers has done and be thankful that he's on the team, and still acknowledge that Martin is, as Koetter often says, one of the best running backs in the league.
Yes, Rodgers has been great the past two games and the Bucs are lucky to have him. However, I think Martin's absence from the lineup would be the exact same length whether Rodgers was in a Buccaneer uniform or not.