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S.S. Mailbag: Riding the Optimism Train

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, 24-17, using four interceptions and four sacks to keep Cam Newton from lighting up the scoreboard. The Buccaneers actually allowed more yards to the Panthers in Week 13 (444) than they had in Week Nine in Charlotte (407), but they surrendered a third as many points after losing that road game, 42-28.

Those four drive-killing takeaways were the obvious reason for that difference – plus Carolina's three-for-eight success rate on third downs – and the steady pressure applied by the defensive front created several of those turnover opportunities. In contrast, Tampa Bay's offense had its third-lowest yardage output of the season.

Still, I'd like to call your attention to three plays by the Buccaneers' offense that made a big difference:

1. Third-and-11 at the Carolina 13, 0:20 left in the first half. Jameis Winston scrambles to his right and fires a high and hard pass to wide receiver Chris Godwin in the back left corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

2. Third-and-11 at the Tampa Bay 39, 8:36 left in the third quarter. Winston hits Godwin again, this time on for 18 yards on the sideline for a first down at the Panthers' 43. That preserves a drive that ends in Peyton Barber's one-yard touchdown run to give the Buccaneers their final points of the game.

3. Third-and-17 at the Tampa Bay 18, 0:59 left in the third quarter. Winston scrambles up and to his left and fires a completion to tight end Cam Brate right at the first down sticks. Though the Buccaneers eventually punt on the drive, they chew nearly four more minutes off the clock first and get enough yardage to kick it all the way down to Carolina's 13.

That's three conversions of third downs that needed more than 10 yards, and those are relatively rare. To get three of them in one game is very rare. I have been breaking down the Buccaneers' game-by-game third-down conversions by several different measures since 2000, including one that tracks the length of the conversions. Sunday's game against the Panthers marked just the third time in those 19 seasons that the Buccaneers offense has converted three third-down tries of 11 or more yards.

The Buccaneers will try to keep their slim playoff hopes alive (more on that below) by running the table during the final quarter of the season. To do so, they'll need to maintain their prolific ways on offense and continue what appears to be the beginning of a defensive turnaround. Their prowess on third downs, on both sides of the ball, could prove to be a winning edge in that endeavor. The Buccaneers rank first in the NFL in offensive third-down conversion rate, at 49.3%, and they're not completely hamstrung when they have to pick up long third-down tries. Tampa Bay has converted 27.3% of its tries from 11 yards and beyond this year, second in the NFL only to the Chargers' 28.0%.

On defense, a recent hot streak has lifted the Buccaneers all the way to 10th in third-down conversion rate, at 37.4%. And Tampa Bay's defense is also quite good on third-and-long, having allowed a conversion rate of 7.9% on tries of 11 yards or more. That's third-best in the league behind only Minnesota and Washington.

That's an unsolicited look at one of the Buccaneers' sneakier strengths, and something that could help immensely in the difficult challenge that lies ahead. 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. As you'll see from time to time, I also unilaterally appropriate for myself – as any good pirate captain would – questions I like that are meant for our Insider Live show or are simply responses to one of my previous tweets. I've also taken to stealing emails meant for our Salty Dogs podcast. As always, if you specifically want to get a question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

This question was sent at 4:04 p.m. ET on Sunday, which by my calculations was exactly one minute before the game ended at Raymond James Stadium. Therefore I'm going to assume that Luis is referring to the specific group of defensive backs that played in that contest, one that was seriously rearranged by injuries.

The Buccaneers went into their game against Carolina with cornerbacks Brent Grimes, Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart on the shelf due to injuries, and since the loss of Vernon Hargreaves in Week One, those three have ostensibly been the team's top cornerbacks. Without them, Tampa Bay started Ryan Smith and De'Vante Harris as the outside cornerbacks and kept Javien Elliott in the slot, where he has been playing since Stewart was knocked out by a foot injury five games ago. The only other healthy corner available on Sunday was first-year man David Rivers, who had just been promoted from the practice squad two days earlier.

Meanwhile, Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead started at safety but Evans left the game in the first half after reaggravating the toe injury that had kept him out of the previous two games. Isaiah Johnson stepped in for Evans but then left the game in the third quarter to be evaluated for a concussion and did not return. Andrew Adams, who had been playing as something of a hybrid linebacker in sub packages moved to safety on base downs, and then when he was in a sub package Josh Shaw came in to play next to Whitehead.

Whew! That's a lot of moving parts, and a lot of new faces. Harris, Elliott, Rivers, Adams and Shaw are all players who have been added to the active roster since the season began, which means they've had to learn on the job while the season has progressed. With all of that in mind, it's impressive that the secondary produced four interceptions (three by Adams) and played a part in breaking up 10 passes…and, of course, helped hold Newton and Panthers to 17 points.

Clearly energized by the exciting style of defense he was witnessing on Sunday, Luis suggests that the Buccaneers have finally found some good answers in the secondary and should continue to use the same lineup for the next four games. The first part of my response, Luis, is this: They may not have much of a choice.

We don't as of yet know the extent of the injuries to Evans (toe), Grimes (knee), Davis (knee) and Stewart (foot). We know that Evans and Stewart have already missed decent chunks of time with their current ailments. We won't know until later in the week how far along Johnson is in the concussion protocol. So the Bucs may be facing Drew Brees and the Saints' high-flying attack with the same cast in the secondary as they finished the last game with, and then Luis will get his wish.

The second part of my response, however, would be to caution against getting too excited about a single game. Those guys definitely deserve the praise that Luis and others are sending their way, and you could even say that they have earned a longer look. But one game is an awfully small sample size to assume that this particular lineup is going to produce similar results every weekend.

Personally, I'd like to see as many of the injured players get cleared to play as possible, and as soon as possible, because you can never have enough depth, especially at cornerback. Even if you wanted to see more from the likes of Harris and Smith, you need contingency plans if they get hurt, too.

But I'm not trying to rain on your parade, Luis. The makeshift secondary did indeed have a good game on Sunday and the Buccaneers won, so you should be singing their praises. Sing away!

What’s our playoff % chance? Thanks! 

- Bobby (via email to saltydogs@buccaneers.nfl.com)

As you can see from the note above, this question was not tweeted at me for the mailbag but was instead sent by email in order to be answered on our Salty Dogs podcast. And answer it we did! However, the podcast won't be posted until Wednesday morning, and I also figure there are some mailbag readers who won't get around to listening to it anyway. It's an interesting enough topic to explore it here in the mailbag, too, so here we go.

Remember – Bobby asked. I didn't come here to try to convince you that a 5-7 team that has one quarter of the season left to play is a strong bet for a playoff spot. Even after winning the last two games and thereby keeping their postseason hopes alive, the Buccaneers are still decided underdogs to be playing in January.

But again, Bobby asked, and I assume that's because he's still holding out hope. For anyone out there who feels the same way, here's how the NFC playoff picture looks right now:

1. L.A. Rams (11-1)…Have clinched the NFC West

2. New Orleans (10-2)…NFC South leaders, have division nearly clinched

3. Chicago (8-4)…NFC North leaders

4. Dallas (7-5)…NFC East leaders

5. Seattle (7-5)…Holder of first wild card spot

6. Minnesota (6-5-1)…Second wild card spot

7. Carolina (6-6)…Tiebreaker edge over Philadelphia*

8. Philadelphia (6-6)

9. Washington (6-6)

10. Tampa Bay (5-7)

(* Washington has a head-to-head tiebreaker over Carolina, but in a three-way tiebreaker with two teams from the same division, the first step is to pit the division foes against each other until only one remains. Philadelphia wins that tiebreaker thanks to Monday night's win over Washington, though the two teams will still play again in Week 17.)

So the Buccaneers are 1.5 games behind Minnesota for the second Wild Card spot. That doesn't seem like an impossible gap to make up, especially because the Vikings still have games left against Seattle and Chicago. The problem for the Buccaneers, though, is that they have to jump over four teams, not just one, to get into that sixth spot. That means a lot of results have to go their way over these final four weeks. And that's why the nifty Playoff Odds chart on the Football Outsiders website only gives the Buccaneers' a 2.1% chance of making it into the dance. Those odds went up by from 0.7% to 1.9% after Sunday's results, then nudged up just a bit more after Philadelphia beat Washington.

Those low odds take into account, of course, that the Buccaneers will almost certainly have to finish the season on a six-game winning streak to have a shot. But if we're holding onto some hope of the Bucs making it to the playoffs, then we're implicitly choosing to believe that it's possible for them to run the table. So let's look at it from that vantage point: How likely is a playoff berth for Tampa Bay if it does win its last four games?

For that answer we turn to the New York Times playoff calculator, which is a lot of fun to play around with, by the way. Be careful, if you click on that link you might be feeding in different scenarios for hours.

You can put in every possible game result for the final four weeks, but all I'm doing right now is giving the Bucs wins in each of the four games. That still leaves 60 other games to be factored in (although a lot of AFC matchups won't have much bearing on the Bucs' fortunes), but the Times calculator runs 41,792 simulations and has the Buccaneers in the playoffs in 68% of them.

Sixty-eight percent! That's pretty good. You can mess around with some cherry-picked results here and there to see how it affects the Bucs' chances. For instance, if you give Seattle a win over Minnesota this weekend and the Giants a win over the Redskins, that 68% figure goes all the way up to 77%. I'm not going to dig any deeper than that right now, but we'll take a further look at these scenarios on Friday here on Buccaneers.com when we resurrect our "Viewing Guide" and tell you who to root for over the weekend.

Well, I'm going to start off by assuming you meant spotlight, because I don't know what a spit light is but I can't imagine anyone wants to step into one.

Just kidding, Branon! Thanks for sending a question from the Grand Canyon State, which I've visited frequently and am quite fond of. A truly beautiful state. And thanks for keeping today's optimism train running! We'll ride it as long as it lasts.

As for facing Brees and Company, that's never, ever easy, particularly over the last two seasons in which they've cultivated a fantastic rushing attack and become far more balanced. The Saints currently rank ninth in rushing yards per game, 11th in passing yards per game, sixth in total yards per game, fifth in yards per play, third in sacks allowed per pass attempt, second in interceptions per pass attempt, third in first downs per game, sixth in third-down success rate, fifth in red zone touchdown rate, second in average time of possession and third in points per game. There's just no crack in the armor here.

And yet Brees and the Saints' offense was finally contained in Week 12, as the Dallas Cowboys held them to 176 yards (!!!) and 10 points, giving New Orleans just its second loss of the season. I'm sure you'll recall that the first loss came at the hands of the Buccaneers in Week One, but the Saints still scored 40 points in that game.

I know what you're saying: That's the Cowboys defense that accomplished that. Dallas' defense is fourth against the run, seventh against the pass, and fifth overall. Dallas is allowing 18.6 points per game, second-best in the NFL. The Buccaneers will not be bringing the Cowboys' defense to the game on Sunday. Their defense has allowed 29.6 points per game to rank 30th in the league.

But what Tampa Bay's defense has been doing in recent weeks is rising through the ranks in terms of pressuring the quarterback. The Buccaneers' 24 sacks over the last seven weeks is the second-most in the NFL in that span (to the Saints…which is an entirely different issue). Branon notes Jason Pierre-Paul, who has 11.5 sacks, but Gerald McCoy and Carl Nassib are playing very well right now, too, and the Bucs are mostly healthy up front and are now able to employ that deep D-Line rotation they envisioned in the offseason.

Dallas is eighth in the NFL in sacks per pass play on defense, while the Bucs have climbed up to 13th. And putting pressure on Brees, which is never easy, is one of the reasons they were able to so thoroughly shut down what the Saints wanted to do last Thursday night. If the Buccaneers can dial up the pressure, they might be able to do the same. Or at least something resembling what the Cowboys did; allowing under 200 yards and only 10 points might be a bit too much to ask, but with the Buccaneers' prolific offense, they could allow 20 points and still have a very good chance at winning.

Note, too, that Sunday's game will be played at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay's defense has been better at home by a huge margin this season. In six road games, the Buccaneers have an allowed an average of 39.8 points per outing. In their six home games, they've more than cut that in half, allowing 19.3 points per contest. At the very least, that's encouraging that the Buccaneers can hold the Saints to fewer than the 40 points they allowed in the Superdome in Week One.

And who needs to step up, Branon? Well, since they've already been doing it, I don't suppose that saying the defensive line needs to bring the heat is saying they have to step up. I'll go instead with those young DBs that Luis was praising above. Assuming that all or some of them will be in the mix again this week, they'll have to face up to an even greater challenge, in the passing game at least, when Brees comes to town.

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