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 trade deadline, third-down difficulties and the offense's role in early-game deficits. Let's get to it.
1. Deadline Deals?
If elite defensive ends – heck, elite players at any position – were routinely available in the middle of an NFL season, it would sure make the trade deadline a lot more interesting. As it is, the NFL's in-season trade market is by far the least impactful of the four major sports. That has always been true and it will probably never change.
Here, take a look at the players that have been traded around the deadline in the last five years:
CB Johnthan Banks (Detroit from Tampa Bay)
LB Jamie Collins (Cleveland from New England)
TE A.J. Derby (Denver from New England)
LB Kyle Van Noy (New England from Detroit)
RB Knile Davis (Green Bay from Kansas City)
TE Vernon Davis (Denver from San Francisco)
LB Jonathan Casillas (New England from Tampa Bay)
S Mark Barron (St. Louis from Tampa Bay)
LB Akeem Ayers (New England from Tennessee)
DT Isaac Sopoaga (New England from Philadelphia)
T Bryant McKinnie (Miami from Baltimore)
WR Mike Thomas (Detroit from Jacksonville)
So what can you learn from that list, other than that if you want to trade for or trade away a player your first call should be to the Patriots? I don't think I see an elite player on that list. Vernon Davis fit that category at one point in his career, but not when he was traded in 2015. Jamie Collins was a Pro Bowler the year before he was traded and was still just 26 at the time, so he probably comes the closest. He's had three sacks in 12 games as a Brown so far; Kyle Van Noy has had 4.5 sacks in 14 games for the Patriots since that trade. Akeem Ayers had four sacks in half a season in New England. That's about it for the pass-rushers on that list.
I could almost at random from Head Coach Dirk Koetter's midweek press conferences and probably find a question about adding players at a certain position, along with his standard response. Paraphrasing, it would read along the lines of this: "Once the season has begun, your guys are your guys. This is what we have. We just have to coach them up."
This isn't something that's unique to the Buccaneers, nor does it indicate that the team's player personnel department is leaving any stones unturned. If there was a player who could help the Buccaneers that was deemed tradeable by his current team, I'm sure that Jason Licht and his staff would study that possibility from every angle. Though bringing in players at the trade deadline hasn't been common, Licht has shown no hesitation to use the trade option. The swap to get guard Logan Mankins just before the 2014 season is a memorable one.
It's just a matter of supply and demand, and there usually isn't any supply. League-wide parity isn't helping, either. Twenty-two of the 32 teams have records between 4-2 and 2-4 with about 60% of the season still to be played. Who are your sellers? There are only a couple realistic options as trade partners. Furthermore, when you talk about an "elite defensive end," you're talking about one of the most valued commodities in the league. Teams use very high first-round draft picks just with the hopes of landing an elite pass-rusher. If they have a player that is already established as elite at that position, they aren't likely to be motivated to trade.
I am purposely not speculating about any specific teams or players here, because this is the Buccaneers' official website and there's always the minor worry that some player discussion could be considered tampering. That said, I am of the opinion that there isn't going to be an elite defensive end available via trade within the next week. If you think I'm wrong and want to suggest a name, please feel free to do so.
By the way, the trade deadline falls on Halloween day this year. It's at 4:00 p.m. ET next Tuesday, October 31. If only you could trick-or-treat for pass-rushers.
2. Third-Down Problems?
It really has declined, and that's surprising.
Last year, the Buccaneers' defense led the entire league by allowing opponents to convert juts 34.4% of their third-down attempts. That was great! The league average was 39.7%. With the same coaching staff and scheme, much the same cast on defense with a few additions and no real notable subtractions, and a greater understanding of Mike Smith's defense across the board, one could have expected that to remain a strength in 2017.
Instead, the Bucs have plummeted to 31st in the league rankings in that category, allowing opponents to convert on 49.4% of their tries. The fact that opposing teams are succeeding almost exactly half of the time they face a third down is one of the most significant reasons that the Bucs' defense is allowing 408.5 yards per game.
Now, why is this happening? In some ways, problems on third-down defense are just the same as saying problems on defense period. A missed tackle or errant run-fit doesn't come about in a different way on third down than on second down. It just tends to hurt a little bit more. And that has been the problem for Tampa Bay this first half of the season - what Koetter calls "self-inflected" problems. Mental errors, missed assignments and poor tackling.
Pictures of some of the Panthers' top players.
Toby, you ask if it's a coaching issue or an execution issue. I'm confident that any coach on the Buccaneers' staff would say it's both. On Monday, Coach Koetter described the critical 44-yard reception that Deonte Thompson had late in that last-minute loss to Buffalo on Sunday. He said the play call was what the team wanted in that situation and it was adequately communicated to all the players. The problem was, the safeties did not line up on the landmarks they were supposed to be on, which ultimately made it impossible for either of them to get to the sideline in time to help out the cornerback on that play.
If a coach and a player are watching that piece of game tape together, the coach can tell the player specifically what he did wrong on that play, and that's obviously pointing out an execution error. Ultimately, though, coaches feel responsible for getting their players to execute to the best of their abilities, so they would also consider the breakdown a matter of coaching. This is what a coach means when he stands up at a press conference and says, "It starts with me." Koetter has said those words several times in recent weeks because he's taking responsibility for getting his team ready to play at their best.
So the defense as a whole can improve if mental errors and missed assignments are reduced, as is obviously the team's goal in the weeks to come. If they can succeed in that effort, then the third-down rate allowed should start to move back toward the league average, if not necessarily as good as it was last year.
An issue that may be tougher to resolve, however, is the pass rush. The Buccaneers have recorded a league-low seven sacks so far this year. Since the majority of third-down plays are passing plays, this is more of an issue on third down. The Buccaneers may be able to improve their third-down numbers, as I just mentioned, but there could be a cap to that improvement if they don't begin to get more pressure on the quarterback.
3. Full-Team Responsibility?
Oh, sure, sure. That's definitely a valid point and I bet Jameis Winston would be the first one to say exactly that. That's what he likes to call "complementary football." The offense can also make things tougher on the defense by turning the ball over, which is what happened at the end of the Buffalo game.
Turnovers haven't been too big of a problem for Winston and the Bucs' offense overall this season, though. The more persistent issue has been not finishing drives in the end zone, especially in the first half of games. At halftime of the Buffalo game, the Buccaneers had 216 yards and 14 first downs to 206 and 11 for the Bills, but the home team had a 10-6 lead. Each team had only had to punt once. Tampa Bay got at as far as the Buffalo 37 on each of its first four drives but ended up with two field goals, one fumble and one punt. Contrast that with the second half, in which Winston and company got to the Bills' 40-yard line or closer on each of its first four drive and came away with three touchdowns and a punt.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' Week 7 matchup with the Bills.
Right now, the Buccaneers' offense ranks second in the NFL in total yards and first in net passing yards. That's rarified air for a Tampa Bay attack, not something that longtime fans of the team are used to, and it's very exciting. However, the Buccaneers are 10th in points per game. That's still quite good, but you would like to see the yardage and point rankings correlate a little better. Better work in the red zone would help; Tampa Bay has averaged 4.52 points per trip inside the 20 this season, which is 21st in the league.
The Bucs have scored 60 points in the last two games combined but have no wins to show for it. Part of the problem is that 41 of those points have come in the fourth quarter. Faster starts on offense would help the Buccaneers avoid the early deficits they've had to overcome in recent weeks.
All of that said, it's easier to see this being corrected. There's so much potential in the Bucs' offense right now that they will likely start scoring as regularly in the second quarter as they have been doing in the fourth quarter. As an example, the Bucs settled for a short field goal on their second drive in Buffalo after a third-down pass from the seven was incomplete, intended for Cam Brate in the end zone. The play was mostly well-executed, though the pass perhaps could have been thrown with a little more arc. Still, it took an incredible diving play by safety Jordan Poyer to bat it away. Sometimes the other side just makes a good play. So the Bucs' ended up with a mostly well-executed drive that came within inches of being a touchdown and giving the team a 10-3 lead. I'd bet on Winston and Brate finishing that drive in the end zone the next time it happens.