The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will finish their 2017 season on Sunday with a visit from the New Orleans Saints. To end the campaign on a high note, the Buccaneers need to finish drives more effectively.
With quarterback Jameis Winston humming since his return from a shoulder injury, the Buccaneers' offense has been moving the ball well for the past four weeks, averaging 390 yards per game, sixth-best in the NFL. Winston has led the team on a high number of long drives thanks to a 53.5% third-down rate that ranks second in the NFL in that span. Unfortunately, in the most significant offensive category – points scored, the Buccaneers are middle of the pack in that same time frame, averaging 20.3 points per game.
The problem, of course, is that too many of those effective drives have stalled before they've reached the end zone. The Bucs penetrated Carolina's 20-yard line a season-high six times last Sunday but netted only one touchdown out of those trips. That allowed the Panthers to remain close enough to win the game with a last-minute touchdown.
"Lately, we've been doing a better job on first and second down, so your third downs have been more manageable," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "You're not in the third-and-10-pluses, you're in the third-and-four, five, six range or even third-and-short. But that needs to carry over into the red zone, because if you're settling for field goals, that means you're not getting your third downs in the red zone like you need to."
Winston is the NFL's highest-rated passer over the last four weeks, and the two best single-game completion percentage marks of his career have come in the past two weeks. The one time the Buccaneers did score a touchdown from a snap in the red zone last Sunday was when Winston scrambled away from pressure and fired an 18-yard strike to wide receiver Bobo Wilson. The Buccaneers need more such plays from Winston and the offense, and his recent body of work suggests he's capable of delivering.
"Well, Jameis has been throwing the ball with accuracy, he's been throwing the ball on time, he's been throwing the ball with touch," said Koetter. "That's what you would want him to do, and I think more than anything else, Jameis – at least from a throwing standpoint – has gotten a little bit more healthy here late in the year."
The Buccaneers won't get a postseason invite with a win on Sunday, but they could end on a satisfying note by snapping a five-game losing streak that has included three three-point losses and one overtime defeat. Tampa Bay could also play spoiler against the Saints, who have clinched a playoff berth but are still trying to beat Carolina out for the NFC South division title. A win on Sunday would give the Saints that crown, but the Bucs don't need any spoiler motivation to push them maximum effort in the finale.
"It doesn't make any difference at all," said Koetter of the game's playoff implications. "New Orleans has earned everything they've got, but that doesn't affect us in any way. Our job is to go out there and play the best we can play and try to come away with a victory. That doesn't affect us, what New Orleans has."
What the Saints have that will affect the Buccaneers is the best backfield tandem in the league. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have combined for 24 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards from scrimmage this year, and they both had strong games against Tampa Bay in Week Nine. While Ingram is the best option to run between the tackles and Kamara is the superior pass-catcher, each of them is also quite good at the other task. Ingram had a strong 2016 campaign, as well, but the third-round selection of Kamara this past spring has taken the Saints' backfield to another level.
"We did a lot of work on [Kamara] and we loved his explosiveness coming out of Tennessee," said Koetter. "You could see that he was outstanding in the open field, you could see that he could catch the ball. The thing that was kind of a mystery is, he had never really been the feature back at Tennessee. He had always kind of been playing in an alternate role, and we weren't sure about his power and his durability. But, wow – everyone in the league passed on him twice because he's a third-round pick, and he's shown everyone that he's not only a speed back, not only a third-down back. He can really do it all."
Kamara's 75 receptions are second on the team and he has picked up 662 of his 742 receiving yards after catching the football. Kamara ranks third in the NFL in yards after the catch, and Ingram ranks seventh. Opposing teams know that Drew Brees is going to throw to his backs but the plays still work because there are plenty of other ways the Saints can attack defenses.
"[Saints Head] Coach [Sean] Payton has always done a really good job with his screen game," said Koetter. "I think that's just one of the things that makes their offense tough to defend, especially now that they're running the ball so good. You know you have to defend the back-shoulder throws down the field from Brees, you know you have to defend their run game, and anytime you commit too much to rushing Brees, they'll hit you with the screen game."
The Saints will have a slightly different cast blocking for those screens on Sunday, as left tackle Terron Armstead is out with a thigh injury. When Armstead missed a start three weeks ago, the Saints moved left guard Andrus Peat to tackle and played Senio Kelemete at guard. The Saints' seven inactive players are Armstead, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, running back Jonathan Williams, center Cameron Tom, wide receiver Austin Carr and defensive end Kasim Edebali. Armstead, Hendrickson and Hoomanawanui are out due to injury.
The Buccaneers have three players out due to injury, as well, as defensive end Robert Ayers (shoulder), linebacker Devante Bond (ankle) and wide receiver DeSean Jackson (ankle) were unable to go. In addition to those two, the Buccaneers' deactivated quarterback Ryan Griffin, cornerback David Rivers, guard Adam Gettis and defensive end Patrick O'Connor. Godwin is expected to make his second consecutive start in place of Jackson.
The Buccaneers and Saints kick off at 4:25 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The game will be televised regionally by FOX and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.