Tom Brady's performance is the biggest story to come out of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 45-20 win in Las Vegas in Week Seven, and not only because he passed Drew Brees for the NFL's all-time lead (for now, at least) in touchdown passes. Buccaneer fans have voted to give Brady the Game Ball after the win thanks to his five overall touchdowns, four through the air and one on the ground, and overall flawless play.
Brady did not win his second NFC Offensive Player of the Week award, which instead went to Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray, who was indeed phenomenal in the Cardinals' 37-34 win over Seattle on Sunday night. Who knows? If the start times of the Bucs and Cardinals games hadn't been switched and Tampa Bay had still gotten the Sunday night spotlight, maybe Brady would have been the choice.
The other player in that Game Ball poll was Devin White, who had three sacks and 11 tackles against the Raiders. White was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week, his first time winning that particular award, although he was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in both November and December last year.
And it's fitting that the spotlight is shining on a Buccaneer defender because Tampa Bay's defense has put on quite a show the last two weeks. Facing Green Bay and Las Vegas teams that came in averaging 38.0 and 30.2 points per game, respectively, the Buccaneers allowed a total of 30 points to the Packers and Raiders. (Green Bay went right back to scoring 35 points in their next game in Houston.)
The Buccaneers made it through those games against explosive offenses still ranked third in the league in yards allowed and eighth in points allowed. By some other measures, Tampa Bay has at least a claim to having the league's best defense. That includes DVOA by Football Outsiders, which has the Buccaneers ranked first in the league in defensive DVOA, and by a pretty healthy margin. The Bucs rank first in pass defense and second in run defense, which seems like a pretty good combination.
One thing that Tampa Bay's defense has done very, very well this season is limit big plays. We will define "big plays" here as runs of 10 or more yards and completions of 20 or more yards. The Buccaneers allowed six such plays (two rushing, four passing) in Las Vegas, and that's actually noteworthy for being a high number on the Bucs' ledger for the past calendar year.
Beginning with the home game against New Orleans in mid-November of last season, the Buccaneers went 13 straight games without allowing any opponent to record more than four "big plays" in a single contest. The Raiders broke that streak but that only serves to highlight what a great run it was. The turnaround after the midway point last season was remarkable. Consider that in the first nine games of 2019 the Bucs' defense surrendered at least five big plays in every contest and averaged nearly seven big plays allowed per outing.
A comparison of the first seven games of 2019 and the first seven games of 2020 shows how much the team has improved in containing big plays in its second year with Todd Bowles at the helm of the defense.
Through the first seven games of 2019, the Buccaneers had allowed 16 runs of 10 or more yards, one for a touchdown. Through the first seven games of 2020, the Bucs have allowed seven runs of 10 or more yards, none for touchdowns.
Through the first seven games of 2019, the Buccaneers had allowed 28 completions of 20 or more yards, five for touchdowns. Through the first seven games of 2020, the Bucs have allowed 18 completions of 20 or more yards, three for touchdowns.
The Bucs' defense turned the corner under Bowles around halfway through the season in 2019. This year, they don't really have to turn a corner as they have clearly already arrived. But a continued suppression of big plays in both the rushing and passing games would definitely help this team reach its postseason goals.
Now on to your questions for this week.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
So asking these questions is clearly going to break the streaks but how is the offensive going vs tampa/league streaks on:
Goal to goal attempts for touchdowns
Red zone trips for scores
The current streaks can't be far off tampa, if not league, records.
And on the defense what are the records close to being broken. The streak on holding running yards below 100 is there for the losing, but what else is in range?
Lee (via email to email@example.com)
The subject of Lee's email read "dangerous questions," and it's clear that he believes in the power of jinxing these things by talking about them too much. I get that way a lot, too, but unfortunately my job doesn't allow me to ignore these things. I have to write and talk about them because they are some of the best things going on right now for the Buccaneers.
There's also the matter of how much I enjoy questions like this, ones that require a deep dive into statistical databases. So jinx be damned – let's do this!
//sitcom squiggly lines to evoke the passage of time
Oof, this is a tough one. It's easy for me to get the Buccaneer information on goal-to-go results and red zone results – at least over the last two decades – because I've been keeping a week-by-week file on red zone results since the 1997 and goal-to-go results since 2000. Let's just go back to 2000, because as you will see that's also the limit of the league-wide information I could find.
In case you don't know what Lee is referring to, the Buccaneers' offense has opened the 2020 season with a couple of pretty remarkable streaks concerning the results once they penetrate the opposition's red zone and also when they manage to get into a first-and-goal situation.
Specifically, the Buccaneers have scored on all 28 of their red zone drives so far this season, joining Kansas City as the only two teams to remain perfect through seven weeks. The Chiefs have done so on 29 drives so they get the top spot in that table.
Additionally, the Buccaneers have scored a touchdown on all 20 of their goal-to-go drives so far this season. That red zone note above is pretty great but this one just blows me away. I've been following it during every game since about Week Four and I can't believe that it just keeps going. Twenty first-and-goal opportunities, 20 touchdowns. Not once has a third-down pass tipped away or a Tom Brady sneak stuffed.
What I can't tell you, Lee, is how those streaks of 28 and 20 stack up against league records. I simply cannot find a way to get that information, at least without devoting days of sifting through stats to collect the information. What I can tell you is how those two streaks stack up to the rest of the league in terms of streaks to start a season. In other words, have any other teams ever gone 28 red zone drives into a season before failing to score, or gone 20 goal-to-go drives into a season without failing to get a touchdown?
Radar360, a stat service used by the NFL, has red zone and goal-to-go results tables for all the teams dating back through the 2000 season, and you can find out which team each year went the most drives into the season before failing by simply widening your search range by a week over and over until you have the answer.
So here are the answers:
The Buccaneers streak of 28 straight red zone drives with a score to start a season is indeed impressive but it's not the record over the last 20 years and a handful of teams have done better. In fact, five teams have had streaks of 30 or more drives to start a season in that span. They are:
1. 2016 Lions – 36 straight scoring red zone drives
2. 2003 Chiefs – 35 straight scoring red zone drives
3. 2015 Patriots – 34 straight scoring red zone drives
4. 2016 Raiders – 32 straight scoring red zone drives
5. 2014 Chargers – 30 straight scoring red zone drives
You see the 2015 Patriots on that list, which means this isn't even the best season-opening red zone streak in Brady's career. Figures.
Now, the goal-to-go touchdown streak? That's a winner!
Since the Bucs got to 20-of-20 in seven weeks, I started with a Weeks 1-7 range when I searched each season. Since 2000, there were 22 other teams that were still perfect on touchdowns in goal-to-go situations after seven weeks, but none of them had come close to 20 such opportunities in that span. The next highest was 11-11, and the average number of qualifying drives for those 22 teams was 6.4.
After that, I just kept widening the week range until I came to the last team that was still perfect on goal-to-go situations. And through the last 20 years, no other team has ever started a season with a perfect 20-for-20 on goal-to-go situations. The closest was the 2018 Carolina Panthers, who scored touchdowns on their first 17 goal-to-go drives.
In case you were wondering, these two streaks are definitely records for the Buccaneers, through the available data back to 2020. Tampa Bay's longest season-opening streak of scoring on every red zone drive was previously 23, in 2000. The team's longest season-opening streak of scoring touchdowns on every goal-to-go drive was previously 11, in 2016.
Lee's right about the Bucs' streak of holding opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Tampa Bay has now done that to 13 straight foes dating back to last year, which is easily a franchise record and is just two of the longest streak since the merger. I covered this in my Data Crunch article on Monday – one more game added to this streak would tie the 14-game run that the Ravens had between the 2000 and 2001 seasons, and two more would tie the post-merger record set by the Eagles over the 1991 and 1992 campaigns.
Those are the only ones I've got, Lee. The Bucs streak of two games without allowing a sack and two games without turning the ball over are both at or near team records but that's not particularly impressive and not close to any sort of league records. Actually, there is one more to watch if you combine those two statistics. This is just the second time in team history that the Buccaneers have played two consecutive games without turning the ball over or allowing a sack, the other one occurring late in 2001. As it turns out, that's also the longest such streak by any NFL team since the sack became an official statistic in 1982. Before the Buccaneers, the last team to do it was the Rams a year ago.
How do you see our backfield shaping out? A Chubb-Hunt scenario?
- @denverjoseph95 (via Instagram)
Well, what exactly do we mean by a "Chubb-Hunt scenario?" A relatively even split of carries between the starter and the first reserve, both of whom are obviously talented running backs? With one guy maybe having a bigger role in the passing game? And the coach occasionally riding the hot hand if he has one during a particular game?
That's basically what Cleveland had with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt through the first three games of this season, before Chubb got hurt in the fourth contest. Chubb had 57 carries before he got hurt and Hunt had 50, with Hunt catching eight passes and scoring on two of them compared to three receptions for just 17 yards for Chubb. It's not really a Thunder & Lightning type of scenario in which the two backs have very dissimilar styles. Both Chubb and are big and powerful runners. There's certainly no reason for the Browns to replace Chubb in the starting lineup when he's healthy because he has superstar numbers through his first two-plus NFL seasons. Most impressive is his career 5.2 yards per carry, which he had up to 5.9 in 2020 before he suffered a sprained MCL.
I think you could draw a lot of parallels there with the Bucs' backfield and Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette in particular. Fournette missed Games 4-6 with his ankle sprain (he was technically active in Week Five in Chicago but only was on the field for one kneel-down snap). In the other four games he has rushed 35 times for 173 yards and two touchdowns while Jones has ran 50 times for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
I have to admit that I don't know if either Chubb or Hunt was getting the majority of third-down snaps when Chubb was healthy, but Bruce Arians noted this week that Fournette has taken over from LeSean McCoy as the primary "nickel" back for the Buccaneers. That's one of the reasons he was on the field so much in the second quarter in Las Vegas, as the Bucs were running a bunch of plays out of four-receiver sets. At this point in the season, it does seem like Fournette is a more natural pass-catcher than Jones. In those four games together, Jones has seven catches and Fournette has 13.
Again, we're not talking about a huge contrast of styles here. Jones is listed at 5-11 and 208 pounds but he definitely bulked up over the offseason and weights on the Bucs' roster have not been updated in 2020. Fournette is listed at 6-0 and 228 pounds. Both of them have shown they can run with power this season – in fact, Jones has been among the league leaders in broken tackles and yards after contact – and both have the speed to break away if they get into the open field.
All of which is fine. Arians doesn't necessarily want contrasting styles in his backs. What he wants are at least a couple that he can count on to be productive so that he can rotate them in and keep them fresh for a full 60 minutes. That's what happened in Week Three, when Fournette took over in the fourth quarter and salted away a close game with 103 rushing yards, including a 46-yard TD jaunt. When Fournette then missed the next three games, Jones responded with three straight 100-yard outings. It's clear Jones can handle the full load by himself but I think Arians prefers to use multiple backs when he has the opportunity.
I do think there is still some room for rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn to get more involved this season, so we'll see how that goes. If Fournette continues to do well in the passing attack we may see more games like the one in Las Vegas, in which LeSean McCoy was not called on to play a single snap.
Do you believe the Bucs are the best team in the NFL at this point? If not, where do we need to still improve?
- @willcarcamo (via Instagram)
Allow me to let Tom Brady bat leadoff on this one. Here's what he said on Wednesday:
"We're 5-2 – I don't think everything's been perfect out there. We're fighting and clawing for every win. We've got to obviously take our performance to the next level and that starts in practice. We've got to execute in practice, we've got to trust one another, we've got to communicate through difficult looks."
Let me put it this way: I'm glad that it's least reasonable to ask that question. I think it's premature, but you wouldn't get laughed out of any bar for making that claim. You might be called a bit of a homer. I know I would be called that if I said the Bucs were the best team in the NFL. Fortunately, I'm not ready to do that just yet.
First of all, let's start off with that record. As multiple Buccaneer coaches have said through the years, you are what your record says you are. And 5-2 seems about right for this team right now. Tampa Bay was certainly not the best team in the league through five weeks, when it had committed a league-high 42 penalties and had a negative-four points differential off of turnovers. They were 3-2 then, which felt a little disappointing at the time, particularly when Brady and the offense failed to generate a game-winning drive in a 20-19 loss at Chicago. Injuries were major factor at that time, too.
Since then, of course, the Bucs have turned in two dominant performances against two teams that were playing very well. The 38-10 thrashing of the Packers, who have won their other five games and otherwise are averaging close to 38 points per game, was particularly encouraging. In those game, the Buccaneers committed just four penalties and did not turn the ball over once, and now they have a plus-17 scoring differential off of turnovers.
If you look closely at the standings, though, you'll see that both the Packers and Seahawks are 5-1, though the Bucs win over Green Bay should be factored in. The Saints are just a half-game back of the Buccaneers and have a Week One win over Tampa Bay in the bag. Until the Buccaneers beat the Saints – which they'll have a chance to do in about 10 days – it's tough to make the claim that they are the best team in their division over the three-time defending South champs.
In addition, the NFC boasts the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, the defending-champion Chiefs at 6-1 and the 5-1 Ravens, who have only lost to the Chiefs. That's quite a trio. Until Kansas City looks more vulnerable than just one loss to the Raiders, I think you have to leave them at the top of the mountain. And if anyone's knocking them off right now it's the league's only remaining undefeated squad, Pittsburgh.
On the other hand, it's actually Baltimore that has the best scoring differential in the league right now, as they have put up an average of 12.5 more points per game than their opponents. Pittsburgh is third and Kansas City is fourth, and do you know which team is second? Yep, your Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And for that reason, I think the Buccaneers do at least belong in this discussion.
I would put it this way: There are a couple of teams that have a better claim to the title of "best team in the NFL" right now than do the Buccaneers. But Tampa Bay is gaining on them and I think there is clear potential for the Bucs to become the best team in the NFL in 2020.
Barring injuries to some key players, the Buccaneers look like a team without any glaring weaknesses. The Bucs have lost tight end O.J. Howard and defensive lineman Vita Vea, two former first-round picks having really nice 2020 seasons, but they've had enough depth (and added some in the case of nose tackle Steve McLendon) to weather those absences without too much trouble.
The run defense is the best in the NFL, even without Vea, and that's no fluke and it's not going away. It's been true since the start of 2019. The pass defense is top 10 and is starting to make big plays on a weekly basis, shooting up to second in the NFL in interceptions. The defense is also second to Pittsburgh in sacks. I haven't even mentioned Lavonte David and Devin White, probably the best pair of inside linebackers in the NFL and the glue holding it all together.
Tom Brady is the G.O.A.T., of course, and he's been playing like it as he gets more and more acclimated to the offense and his new teammates. He has 15 touchdown passes and one pick in his last five games and was just named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month. The offensive line hasn't allowed him to be sacked in three of the last four games and the Buccaneers rank second in sacks-allowed-per-pass-play. Jones and Fournette, as noted above, are a very productive pair of running backs. The pass-catching weapons are plentiful and will soon include Antonio Brown, too. Ryan Succop has given the Bucs the kicking consistency they've long coveted and punter Bradley Pinion is having his best season.
If you value such advanced metrics as DVOA by Football Outsiders, which I already referred to in the intro, you can strengthen your argument for the Bucs' claim to the stop spot. DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) is a bit difficult to explain but FO describes it as a system that "breaks down every single NFL play and compares a team's performance to a league baseline based on situation in order to determine value over average." More explanation here.
By DVOA, the Bucs are the best in the NFL, with Baltimore second and Pittsburgh third. The great thing about the Bucs' rating is the balance – they are ranked first in defense and sixth in offense. They are the only team in the top six in both categories. That seems…promising.
Where do the Bucs still need to improve? Well, the running game could still be a little bit more consistent and dynamic. Tampa Bay is 18th in yards per carry and there haven't been a lot of breakaway runs. They have to prove that their newfound ability to avoid penalties can stick. The turnover differential has gone in the right direction but the defense could still be generating more takeaways.
But I'm really splitting hairs here. If you asked a Tampa Bay coach where the team needs to improve they would say "everywhere." And that's kind of the point here. The Buccaneers are not being dragged down by one or two big problems, like you might say the Vikings are with their pass defense or the Cowboys are with their turnover issues (not to mention their new QB void). The most glaring example here would be the Seahawks, who are very, very good despite having a defense that is getting extremely bad results. Seattle is 5-1 and has the NFL's top-ranked offense led by a transcendent quarterback in Russell Wilson. Wilson keeps them in every game and usually wins those games at the end. But Seattle's defense is the worst in the NFL in yards allowed, the worst in passing yards allowed and the 10th-worst in points allowed. If I wrote for the Seahawks and you asked me this question, it would have been a much simpler answer.
And that's a good thing. What the Buccaneers need is overall progress in all areas, not any magic fix. Maybe a month or two from now we'll be able to say they're the best team in the league and not have to qualify it. Fingers crossed.