Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: A Tighter Race

This week, Buc fans want to know where the team stands in the chase for the NFC South crown, if there is a better way to defend a 'Hail Mary' and how the backfield might shape up in a few weeks.

A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' game against the Bears.

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 tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

This week, we start with a look at the NFC South standings after Sunday's very favorable chain of outcomes, in particular noting possible tiebreakers. After the Bears hit the rare 'Hail Mary' completion in the Bucs' win Sunday, fans also want to talk about how to defend that play. Finally, we note the potential return of Charles Sims and what it might mean for an offensive backfield that could go from very thin to very crowded. Let's get to it.

1. Moving Up the Standings?

Man, was I happy to see this question! What a great 30 minutes or so it was late Sunday afternoon. If I can share my own experience, I was at in the press box at Raymond James Stadium for most of the game but went down to the sideline with about six minutes left in the fourth quarter. When I left my seat, my game story outline referred to the Buccaneers keeping pace with the rest of the NFC South, as the other three teams were winning, too. A few minutes later, on the sideline, I saw on the giant new BucVision boards that Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans were all losing by that time. Needless to say, that story needed a bit of a rewrite at the top, and I happily gave it one.

](http://www.buccaneers.com/news/article-1/Buccaneers-Power-Rankings-Week-11/39090ee1-c29b-4c7c-97a8-7af731ced134) A failed fourth-down in Philly, a couple of enormous interceptions in Charlotte and a crazy extra point attempt in the Bayou and suddenly the Bucs' position in the NFC South looked a lot rosier. Tampa Bay picked up a game on all three of its division mates, and now the standings look like this:

Team

REC

GB

DIV

CONF

DIV GMS. LEFT

Atlanta

6-4

-

3-1

4-3

@car, NO

Tampa Bay

4-5

1.5

2-1

4-3

NO, @no, CAR

New Orleans

4-5

1.5

1-1

3-2

@car, @tb, tb, @atl

Carolina

3-6

2.5

0-3

3-4

NO, ATL, @tb

There are a couple different ways you can display tied teams in a list of standings. You can simply list them alphabetically, acknowledging that any alleged tiebreakers are far from being complete at this point. Or you can go ahead and use the status of those tiebreakers as they stand now, which is how the NFC South is currently displayed on NFL.com and ESPN.com. Obviously, I'm choosing the latter here.

So, in essence, that's already the answer to your question. Yes, the Buccaneers' record in intradivision games (2-1) is better than that of the Saints (1-1), so they get the top spot in that pair of tied teams. Right now.

The first tiebreaker between two teams in the same division is head-to-head results, but the two Bucs-Saints games are still to come, in a three-week period in December. The second is winning percentage in division play, the third is winning percentage common games and the fourth is winning percentage in conference play, which is why I included a column for that in the table above.

But here's the thing: This is really only relevant in terms of how we want to display the standings right now. If it makes you feel good, Dustin, to say that the Buccaneers are in second place today, than go for it. More power to you. It matters little to Tampa Bay's playoff hopes, however, beyond the fact that they have already won two of their three division games. That's undeniably a good and helpful thing.

See, the tiebreaker between the Buccaneers and the Saints is probably only going to matter if they end up tied for first in the NFC South at the end of the regular season, with Atlanta falling behind them and Carolina not catching up. The more likely scenario is that either the Bucs or Saints will end up fighting it out with Atlanta at the end, and the tiebreakers against the Falcons will be more relevant.

Sure, the Bucs and Saints could end up tied in a Wild Card scenario, but given the rest of the NFC standings – particularly the NFC East with its four above-.500 teams – the likelihood of a Wild Card tie between just the Bucs and Saints isn't high. If they end up in some kind of tiebreaking scenario with multiple teams from different divisions, different tiebreakers come into play first.

And, again, the Bucs and Saints still have two games left against each other. If either one sweeps, that's the obvious tiebreaker between the two, and it would almost certainly knock the other one out of contention.

The point is, there are a lot of games left to play, particularly ones pitting two NFC South teams, so true tiebreaker strength is still just starting to shape up. That's why I included that final column in the above table. There are some nice notes in there for the Buccaneers, particularly as opposed to the Saints. By virtue of early-season road wins in Atlanta and Carolina, the Bucs are in a good spot, with just one trip within the division left. The Saints, meanwhile, still have to visit all of their division foes, starting two days from now at Carolina. That's a tough road to travel.

So, to summarize that long answer, Dustin: Yes, the Bucs have the current tiebreaker over the Saints and thus technically second place in the division, but there are so many remaining variables that the distinction doesn't mean much yet.

2. A Prayer of a Throw

Scott…So, great win on Sunday. So good to finally get a home win. I was there and that was actually the first game I got to this year, so you guys should probably make sure I'm at every game! Just kidding. Like I said, the game was great …….. but that Hail Mary. Ug. I always thought teams don't play the right defense against that play – they put so many players back in the end zone that the quarterback ends up with all day to get in position and throw. I'd rather come after the QB and not give him time to set it up and time for all those guys to run down the field. What do you think?

Thanks, Mark L., Tampa (via email totbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Two things I'll reiterate at the top, because I've said each of them multiple times before. One, I'm not a huge fan, in most situations, of questioning play-calling because I think we often base our opinions of a call on its results, and we only remember the examples that fit into our already-formed theories. I'm including myself in that; we all do it. Two, despite all I just said in the previous two sentences, second-guessing calls is part of the enjoyment of being a sports fan. Nothing wrong with that, and the players and coaches can't always be right, even if they all know a lot more about football than I do.*I make that second point because I have to admit that I often have the same reaction you do, Mark, when I watch a 'Hail Mary' pass attempt. It seems like, on almost every such play, the quarterback waits for a minute in the pocket, then escapes easily upward and to the right or left, giving him time to set his feet and get off a good heave into the end zone. As you noted, that also gives all his targets a chance to get all the way down the field, too. However, I looked at the tape of that play and the Buccaneers rushed four down linemen. It wasn't a blitz, but neither was it one of those three-man line approaches that make me cringe. There actually was pretty quick pressure off both edges, but unfortunately Jay Cutler found a seam to escape up and to his right. So while the result was the exact thing that fits into my preconceived notion of how that play often unfolds, it wasn't because the Bucs' took away a pass-rusher or didn't come after the quarterback hard. READ: MIKE EVANS RELEASES STATEMENT*

Now, I suppose you could say that the Bucs could bring an extra blitzer, and if they had, perhaps Cutler's initial scramble would have failed. I do believe there are some defensive coaches out there (Gregg Williams comes to mind) who believe in bringing extra pressure in such situations to try to stop the play before it happens. But I think more coaches believing in making sure that they have every option covered down the field.*With a quarterback and five O-Linemen back near the line of scrimmage, that leaves five potential targets to run down the field, and seven defenders to cover them. You have to make sure you've got the numbers for the jump ball in the end zone (the Bucs had five defenders to the Bears' four pass-catchers in the end zone when Cutler's pass came down) and you have to be alert to any trailers in case the offense tries something shorter and trickier. Every extra blitzer cuts a little into your numbers advantage in the open field. *

Now look again at the end of that play on Sunday. Until the last instant, it worked the way it was supposed to, although letting Cutler escape was unfortunate if not necessarily surprising. The Buccaneers have two leaping defenders who get to the ball first, with Bears wideout Alshon Jeffery jumping a bit in front and underneath them. The ball is first contacted by Bucs safety Chris Conte, and when I saw the play live I thought Conte tried to catch it. On the replay, it's clear his hands are moving forward in a batting motion. With the sea of body parts in motion as the ball arrives, Conte's efforts are not successful, as it instead squirts between his arms and falls behind him.*Even then, it takes a pretty remarkable reaction by Bears wide receiver Cameron Meredith, who manages to bat the deflection with one hand and then haul it in with the other as he falls on his backside, barely inbounds. Don't we usually see the ball bouncing off harmlessly as a frustrated receiver pounds his fists into the grass, wishing the deflection had been just a little closer to him? It's difficult to find any useful data on the success rate of Hail Mary passes. A 2012 analysis by Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics is occasionally referenced, and it would seem to indicate that an attempt from the 50-yard line, where the Bears snapped on the last play of the first half on Sunday, has about a 2% chance of succeeding. Somebody at BYU gathered nine years' worth of examples in college last year after the Cougars pulled off a Hail Mary and came up with 403 attempts, 10 of which were successful. That's about 2.5%. READ: MCCOY NOMINATED FOR SPORTSMANSHIP AWARD*

I don't know how solidly you want to trust those numbers, but they do seem to fit in with my general feeling about the play. It rarely works, nor do teams really expect it to, but you have to try something, and every now and then you catch lightning in a bottle. That's what the Bears did on Sunday. I'm not against your idea of trying a different approach with maybe one more pass-rusher, Mark, but I do believe that the way the Bucs chose to defend this one will work almost every time.3. Crowded Backfield Just wondering if Charles Sims can come back this year and if so will the Bucs actually end up with too many guys to hand the ball to. – Jim Howard (via email totbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Hmm, usually if I get an email question instead of a tweet, I assume it's because the questioner needed more room to flesh his or her thought out, like Mark did above. This one is just 133 characters! Could've been a tweet. Of course, not everyone's on Twitter.*Yes, Sims can return to the active roster this season if the Bucs choose to use their one "designated for return" injured reserve exception on him. Tampa Bay has seven players on IR at the moment, and Sims looks like as good a bet as any of them to get that designation. If the Bucs do choose to bring Sims back, the best-case scenario has him first eligible to play in a game on Dec. 11, against the Saints. A player who is "designated for return" cannot begin practicing until six weeks have elapsed from the day he was placed on injured reserve. He can't play in a game until eight weeks after that date. Sims was placed on I.R. on October 10, early on the same Monday that the Buccaneers later beat the Panthers in Charlotte. That means the first day he could be eligible to return to practice would be Nov. 21, and the first day he could be eligible for the active roster is Dec. 5. Just as with the PUP list, the process begins by a team declaring a 21-day window for the player to practice without counting against the 53-man roster. The Bucs *could start that 21-day window later than Nov. 21, or they could start it on Nov. 21 but not activate Sims until Dec. 12. READ: WINSTON PUTS BUCS' OFFENSE INTO HIGH GEAR**

The second half of your question was prompted, I assume, by the return of Doug Martin this past Sunday. Which: Yay! Jacquizz Rodgers, who signed with the Buccaneers just after Week One of the regular season and then turned into a godsend when both Martin and Sims went down with injuries, has missed two games with a foot injury but will hopefully be back soon. Rodgers rushed for 324 yards over a span of three starts before suffering his injury, helping the Bucs win two of those contests.*Martin suffered a hamstring injury in Week Two and only returned to action in the most recent game. With all those various backfield injuries, the Buccaneers also have Peyton Barber and Mike James on the roster, and they had rookie Russell Hansbrough in the mix, too, before he was waived on Saturday. Midseason addition Antone Smith also filled in well for several weeks but is now on injured reserve with Sims due to a knee injury. *

So, barring no other moves, if Sims returned from IR and Rodgers recovered from his injury, the Buccaneers would have five tailbacks from which to choose: Martin, Sims, Rodgers, Barber and James. Jim's apparently wondering if that's too many good options, making it a tough decision for the Bucs' coaching staff.* *I really don't think it would be that big of a problem. The Bucs might end up keeping four or five tailbacks on the roster at any given time, but if that whole cast is healthy you have to remember how well the Martin and Sims duo worked out in 2015. In my mind, they have to be your top two options, working in tandem like they did last year, if all else is equal. Now, given the misfortune that Martin and Sims have had with injuries this year, and the fact that Sims might need some time to get fully back into top form, the coaches might choose to lean on the two of them a bit less than they did in 2015. If that proves to be the case, well, they certainly know they have a strong fill-in option in Rodgers.

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