Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Next Challenge | S.S. Mailbag 

This week, Bucs fans have questions about the Saints' most challenging players, the similarities and differences between the 2002 and 2020 teams, and more

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In 17 games so far this season, including the Wild Card playoff win last Saturday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' passing attack has surpassed 300 net yards eight times. That's pretty impressive! In fact, that ties for the most such games by any team this season, though the Bucs have played one more time than two of the three teams they're tied with (Kansas City and Houston). Buffalo has also done it eight times in 17 games.

Of course, this isn't actually a new development for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay's passing attack actually had fewer 300-net-yard games this season than in each of the last two. The Bucs had nine such games last season and a whopping 11 in 2018, engineered by quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick. The difference this year is that 300 net passing yards is a good thing.

The Bucs went 7-1 in those eight games this year, the only loss coming against the defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs by a 27-24 score in Week 12. Over the previous five seasons, Tampa Bay had gone 12-20 in the 32 games in which it topped 300 net passing yards. The difference is likely that the Bucs weren't piling up the passing yards this year in the service of trying to come back from early deficits in many games.

The Buccaneers got well past the 300-yard mark last weekend in Washington and won, continuing that regular-season trend. What other statistical indicators have been associated with wins for the Buccaneers this season? Glad you asked!

The big one, of course and to nobody's surprise, is turnover ratio. The Buccaneers have won the turnover battle in nine of their 17 games so far, and are 9-0 in those games. The Wild Card game did not fall into that group as each team had exactly one takeaway. The Bucs are now 3-2 in games with an equal ratio and 0-3 in games with a negative ratio.

Here are a few others, all of which include the Wild Card game. The categories in bold are ones that held true in that playoff win:

·    10-2 in afternoon games

·    12-3 when scoring 21+ points

·    6-1 when holding opponents to 20 or fewer points

·    8-0 when leading at halftime

·    9-1 when leading after three quarters

·    8-2 when the team rushes for 100+ yards

·    8-2 when committing 5 or fewer penalties

·    10-2 when allowing 2 or fewer sacks

·    9-1 when record 3+ sacks on defense

·    5-0 when Mike Evans gets 100+ receiving yards

·    6-0 when Rob Gronkowski scores a touchdown

So, don't turn it over, get Mike Evans into triple digits, get the ball to Gronkowski in the end zone, keep the penalties down and rush for over 100 yards as a team – there's a winning formula for Sunday night in New Orleans. Sounds easy enough.

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. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

How will our running back situation look Sunday if Rojo and McCoy don't play?

- edw1n_bibi, via Instagram

Well, first of all it appears that LeSean McCoy will be back after missing last week's game due to illness (not COVID related). McCoy took part in practice without limitations on Wednesday and would almost surely be active for Sunday's game if Ronald Jones is not available.

However, Jones may be available. He did not practice on Wednesday due to the quad injury that unexpectedly kept him out of the Wild Card game on Saturday, but Head Coach Bruce Arians said he hoped to have Jones back on the field by Thursday. If that happens and he could also practice on Friday, he too would be a pretty good bet to play.

But to answer your question, there's a pretty good blueprint to what the Bucs' approach to the backfield would be if Jones and McCoy are out. You only have to rewind to last weekend to find it. McCoy had already been ruled out for Saturday's game in Washington and then Jones was a surprise "DNP" after he aggravated what had apparently been not a particularly concerning quad injury. He was a full participant in practice all week.

With Jones and McCoy unavailable, Leonard Fournette shouldered most of the load and acquitted himself quite nicely. Fournette ran 19 times for 93 yards (a fine 4.9-yard average) and also caught four passes for 39 yards. His 132 yards from scrimmage was the second-most ever by a Buccaneer in a playoff game. The Bucs couldn't have asked for much more. And Fournette may be hitting his stride at just the right time in part because he's got fresh legs after rushing just 97 times and catching 36 passes for a total of 133 touches. That's an average of about 10 touches per game, as he played in 13 regular-season contests. In contrast, Fournette had 341 touches last season in Jacksonville and averaged 22.2 touches per game over his first three seasons.

Fournette definitely thinks that has made a difference.

"Yeah, I'm good," he said on Wednesday. "I'm fresh to be honest. I think my total carries for this year is around 100 – usually around this time I'm at 300-something to be honest. Like I say, 'Everything happens for a reason.' I'm just happy to be a part of the team. [I am] doing my job to help the team get to where we want to be and what we want to win."

Fournette was on the field for 63 of the Bucs' 74 offensive snaps (85%) against Washington, and part of the reason is that he has developed into a pretty strong blocker in pass-protection. Rookie running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn was on the field for 12 plays and got five carries for 21 yards. Given that he fumbled in the second half for the Bucs' only giveaway of the game, he probably wouldn't see his share of the offense go up significantly, though I don't that one turnover would make the coaches keep him off the field entirely. The Buccaneers also got 30 yards on a pair end-arounds by Antonio Brown and Scotty Miller, so there are some other creative ways to move the ball on the ground if the Bucs are without RoJo in New Orleans.

Which Saints player will be the toughest challenge?

- @aydenlower_, via Instagram

The Saints are 13-4 and playing at home in the Divisional Round because they have a lot of very good players, and that's true on both side of the ball. Just to name a few on offense: Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Emmanuel Sanders and pretty much the entire offensive line. On defense: Trey Hendrickson, Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, Demario Davis, Marshon Lattimore and Malcolm Jenkins. In his own category: Taysom Hill.

Can I at least have one player each on offense and defense to make this easier? It's my mailbag, so I'm saying yes.

Actually, it's not that hard on offense. Alvin Kamara is the player that opposing defenses really have to stop if they want to have a chance at slowing the Saints down. It might have been a tie with Thomas last year, but with the usually prolific receiver struggling with an ankle injury for most of the season Kamara became far and away the focal point of the Saints' attack. He led the team in both rushing and receiving yards and scored 21 touchdowns. 21!

Kamara can be lethal with the ball in his hands and the Saints know how to get it to him quickly and with room to run. He ran essentially twice as many screen routes as any other player in the NFL this year and was by far the NFL leader with 731 yards after the catch. Kamara can simply elude tacklers in the open field but he's not afraid of contact and can break tackles for extra yardage as well. Brees doesn't throw the ball downfield particularly often anymore, so the biggest threat to the Bucs' defense is Kamara eating up chunks of yardage on quick passes and runs around the end.

Since I'm not yet sure if Hendrickson is going to play or be at full strength on Sunday after missing the last game with a knee injury, I'll skip him for now. I know Lattimore has had some really good games against Mike Evans and will probably draw that assignment again but the Bucs have so much pass-catching talent that they can still move the ball even if one particular player in that group is held in check. Jenkins has become more of a pass-rushing threat since returning to the Saints this year so the Bucs will need to keep an eye on him when he's around the line of scrimmage.

However, the Saints defender I would be most worried about is the wily old veteran, Cameron Jordan. The Saints sacked Brady five times during the two regular-season meetings; all the Bucs' other 14 opponents combined for seven sacks of Brady. Now, Jordan didn't have any of those sacks and his season total of 7.5 is his lowest since 2016, but don't let that fool you. He's the one leading the charge for that New Orleans pass rush, and he's (virtually) going back to the Pro Bowl this year after another strong season.

Jordan is already known for playing with a relentless motor and never taking a snap off. I can only imagine that his intensity level goes up in the playoffs; in 10 previous postseason games he has 5.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits. It has been quite evident over the last five weeks that Brady can absolutely shred just about any defense if he is given a good amount of time to throw. I truly believe he can do the same against the Saints' very good defense, especially now that he and his receivers have developed a much better feel for each other. The one thing that would stop that: A large amount of pressure from the Saints' defensive front. And I think Jordan is the one most likely to apply that pressure on Sunday.

How do this year's team stats compare to 2003's SB run?

- @colbyrhiggins

Depends on which ones you're talking about. For the most part, they don't look much like that Super Bowl team's statistics at all. That 2002 team had a legendary defense that put up incredible numbers on that side of the ball but an offense that was mostly middle of the pack before picking up steam in the postseason. This year's team has the best scoring attack in franchise history and a collection of offensive weapons that Jon Gruden would have salivated over.

Before I give you the comparison, I just want to clarify that we're talking about the 2002 team here. I know the three playoff games were played in January of 2003, and that's surely what you meant, but I think you want me to compare the full season stats of these two teams and I didn't want any readers to get confused.

Anyway, the big difference is in the scoring charts. This might be hard to believe in this day and age, but the 2002 Buccaneers held their opponents to 12.3 points per game. That was an incredible performance and the best in franchise history but it was also a different era. The Bucs easily led the league in that category but Philadelphia also allowed only 15.1 points per game and nine different teams kept their opponents below 20 per game. This year, the leading scoring defense in the NFL belonged to the Rams, who held opponents to 18.5 points per game. Only three teams kept the opposition below 20 per game this season. The Bucs were eighth at 22.2.

Meanwhile, the 2002 Buccaneers ranked 18th in scoring offense with 21.6 points per game. Actually, that's even a little bit misleading because the defense helped with that, too, scoring five touchdowns of its own. Karl Williams also scored on a punt return. Kansas City led the league in scoring with 29.2 points, which would have ranked eighth in 2020. This year, there were a league-record five teams that averaged more than 30 points per game, including the Bucs, who were third at 30.8.

So, really, the best way to look at this is to compare each team to the norms of its era. As such:

The 2002 Buccaneers scored 21.6 points per game and the league average was 21.7. Tampa Bay was 0.4% worse than the league average in scoring.

The 2002 Buccaneers allowed 12.4 points per game and the league average was 21.7. Tampa Bay was 75.0% better than the league average in scoring defense.

The 2020 Buccaneers scored 30.8 points per game and the league average was 24.8. Tampa Bay was 24.2% better than league average in scoring.

The 2020 Buccaneers allowed 22.2 points per game and the league average was 24.8. Tampa Bay was 10.5% better than the league average in scoring defense.

So, on one had, the 2002 was above average in preventing points and (slightly) below average in scoring them, while the 2020 team was above average in both categories. However, the 2002 team was so much better at preventing points than the average team that I think you have to give it the edge in this comparison.

Neither team had a dominant running attack or one lead back who got over 1,000 yards. Their rushing totals were pretty even, 1,557 in 2002 to 1,519 this year, but this year's team did have a better per-carry average, 4.1 to 3.8. Each team had exactly one 1,000-yard receiver (Keyshawn Johnson and Mike Evans) but the 2020 is much deeper in pass-catchers and had roughly 1,000 more passing yards and 17 more touchdown receptions.

Both teams had good pass rushes, but the 2020 version finished with 48 sacks to 43 for the Super Bowl team. The biggest difference on that side of the ball was the takeaways. The 2002 Buccaneers intercepted an incredible 31 passes, more than double the 15 Tampa Bay had in 2020. That, too, is partially due to changes in the game, as interceptions across the league have gone down sharply in the last couple decades. Still, that 2002 team held opposing passers to an overall passer rating of – get this – 48.4. That remains my single favorite statistic from the 29 season I've worked for the Buccaneers. The 2020 Buccaneers allowed an opponent passer rating of 94.8.

If the 2020 Bucs are going to join their 2002 predecessors as Super Bowl winners, they're certainly not going to get there in the same way. Tampa Bay won its first title on the back of one of the best defenses of all time, one that already has put two players into the Hall of Fame and has two more among the finalists for enshrinement this year. The most obvious potential Hall of Famers (or in some cases, locks for enshrinement) are on the offensive side of the ball for the 2020 team, led by Tom Brady. Both teams played an exciting brand of football, but in very different ways.

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