S.S. Mailbag: Defensive Musings

ss

Would you like to look at and contemplate the meaning of some statistics? Yes? Cool, I have some for you below. By the way, their preseason statistics, but they look just like the real ones.

Sorry about the bait-and-switch. If you've ever been burned in, say, fantasy football because you drafted a player based on preseason performance, you know how meaningful stats compiled in August are. Or, more to the point, are not. Still, sometimes you can find some worthwhile nuggets at the bottom of a stream of preseason stats. Let's take a look at some of the numbers that stand out about what the Buccaneers have done so far through two games and decide how much we think they mean.

1. Jameis Winston's 120.4 passer rating.

Is this meaningful? I'm going to go with mildly encouraging. He's only thrown 10 passes, and in the first outing in Pittsburgh the Steelers rested a lot of their defensive starters. Still, it's sometimes hard to tell how well your starting quarterback is doing just by watching practice. Winston's early work at least looks like he's carrying over his strong finish to last season.

2. 22 accepted penalties.

Is this meaningful? I think you'd get a yes if you asked Head coach Bruce Arians. It seems to be his number one, uh, talking point aimed at his players in the last couple weeks. This is most meaningful to any players who have drawn multiple penalties; too many and you'll be moving farther away from 53-man roster consideration.

3. Tanner Hudson's league-leading 13 receptions and 177 receiving yards.

Is this meaningful? Yes, I think so. Arians has made it clear that Hudson needs to improve his blocking and clean up his work on special teams, and those are very important considerations when guessing whether or not Hudson makes the 53. But those numbers and the impressive nature of some of his catches can't be ignored. He's definitely raised his profile since the start of camp.

4. Matt Gay's three-for-three start on field goals.

Is this meaningful? Definitely. Field goals are one part of the game that should be pretty similar in preseason and regular season. Not only has the rookie started out strong (and also done well in practice) but his first kick was a 55-yarder in Pittsburgh and his most recent one was a 48-yard game-winner to beat the Dolphins in the final seconds.

5. Defensive 28.6% third-down rate.

Is this meaningful? Probably not. The sample size (28 tries) is awfully small and the majority of the first two games have been played by reserves against reserves. This is definitely an area in which the Bucs need to improve this year, after ranking 22nd with a rate of 40.3% last year, and there's plenty of optimism that Todd Bowles' scheme and some added talent will produce better overall defensive results. But holding Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Cam Newton under 30% will be a much more difficult task.

So, there you go. Some encouraging numbers but nothing to put too much stock into just yet. Now let's get 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.

Actually, before I get to some new questions, let me take a moment to revisit one from two weeks ago because circumstances in the interim have proved my initial answer wrong. Here's the original question:

As a rookie it was discussed the Devante might be a good stand up pass rushing linebacker. Since versatility can be important to a player making the team I wonder if he has been getting some snaps as an OLB in this new defense?

- Jim Griffiths of Lenoir, NC, via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com

In my defense, I gave Jim credit at the time for asking a good question and correctly recalling that the Buccaneers touted Devante Bond's pass-rushing ability when he was drafted a few years back. However, I went on to write that I expected the coaches to leave him at inside linebacker because Todd Bowles is not shy about blitzing players from that position. My thought was that the Bucs could find out if Bond had pass-rushing potential without actually changing his position.

Welp, they changed his position. It happened recently and, again in my defense, even Bond was surprised by the move. This is what he said after Friday's win over Miami, in which he in fact played outside linebacker and even collected a sack:

"They literally pulled me out of a meeting and said, 'Bond, take your stuff, bring your books, [we're] moving you to another room.' I'm like, 'What's going on?' But I definitely took it and ran with it. This is something I played in college so I'm happy. … Honestly, that's the position I want to play."

Arians said that outside linebacker/edge rusher was Bond's natural spot. You can read more about that in Carmen Vitali's "Three Takeaways" story from Friday's game. The point is, Jim here was ahead of the game, showing off a keen football mind. I had a chance to jump onboard and agree with him, and I missed the boat. If you've got any other suggestions, Jim, send 'em my way. Now on to the new questions.

Hello Scott,

A couple of months ago, I e-mailed you guys a question about our new defense and what I consider to be a very confusing issue with the personnel on the field for the base package. I used the example of the basic look of the defense from the '79 team to attempt to illustrate the defenses that I have watched for decades as opposed to what seems to be taking place now. I'm not sure if the e-mail was missed, but I never heard back or read anything on the various columns about my question.

Again, I am really trying to understand how this new defense works; If the traditional DE's are now considered to be OLB's, then I guess that Todd Bowles is basically designing what I would consider to be rather innovative defense (based on my 44 years of watching Buc Football and the NFL in general). So, am I to understand that moving forward, the new defense will basically have 5 Defensive Linemen on the field most of the time (at least in the base package) and only 2 Linebackers? Of course I realize that they are calling the JPP's and the Carl Nassib's of the world "OLB's", but let's be real, they're DE's. It just seems a bit strange to me to always (or most of the time) play with 5 D- linemen and only 2 Linebackers. What can I say, I guess that I have an old-school traditional football mentality and I am having a hard time embracing this new defensive thought process. Can you shed any light on this concept for me, it would be greatly appreciated.

Again, Russ Randolph

Santa Clarita, CA (Tampa native), via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com

I don't know what happened to your original email, Russ, but I definitely missed it. Apologies, and glad you tried again.

I think this may all just be semantics. I see that you don't want to call an edge player like Carl Nassib an outside linebacker, but that's what they are traditionally called in a 3-4 defense. And their job is to rush the passer off the edge on some plays, stand up against the run on others and drop into coverage on still others. Some of the Bucs' OLBs will do that last job more frequently than others – Jason Pierre-Paul will be rushing the passer on most of his snaps when he returns to the lineup – and that will be based on where each player's strengths prove to be.

If you want to call them defensive ends and say we have five defensive linemen on the field in the base package, then go right ahead because, yes, you will see that. Last Friday against Miami, on the first defensive snap of the game, the Bucs had down linemen Ndamukong Suh, Beau Allen and Will Gholston on the field, flanked by "OLBs" Noah Spence and Nassib. That left only two of what you would probably traditionally call linebackers, Russ, those being Devin White and Deone Bucannon (filling in for an injured Lavonte David).

Now, realize that this changes when the Bucs go to a nickel package and an "under" front. You know that a nickel package adds one more defensive back to the field, going from four to five. In the Bucs' previous 4-3 defense, the player who would usually come off when the extra DB came on was the strongside linebacker, which meant the defense went from a 4-3-4 look to a 4-2-5.

And that last part is still what happens in the team's new defense. In this case, it's one of the down linemen who comes off the field. If you want to think of the Bucs base front (with three down linemen and two OLBs) as a 5-2-4, then it still changes to a 4-2-5 in the sub package. In the first week of the preseason, the Steelers started the game with a three-receiver set so the Buccaneers' defense started in the sub package. Suh and Gholston were still on the field but cornerback M.J. Stewart replaced the nose tackle.

If you happen to catch a glimpse of the alignment before the snap in this package, Russ, it will probably look pretty familiar to you. It now looks like a traditional 4-3 front, all though the two outside linebackers (or DEs in your book) are often standing up rather than in three-point stances. Spence and Nassib stayed on the field in Pittsburgh when the defense started in a nickel.

Keep in mind, too, that this is now the more common defensive package in the NFL. Because of the prevalence of three-receiver sets in today's offenses, teams are now in the nickel (or some other sub package with extra DBs) more often than they are in their base.

You said that you were drawing from your experience of watching the Bucs' defense from back in that Lee Roy Selmon era. You probably know this, but for any fans who do not, Tampa Bay identified as a 3-4 back then and stayed that way through 1990. Since 1991, the Bucs have identified as a 4-3 defense…until this year with the arrival of Arians and Todd Bowles. Bowles, of course, would tell you that the Bucs do plenty of both, but the depth chart is definitely arranged in a 3-4.

The thing I'm unclear on here is why those 1979 memories would lead you to believe that this 3-4 is something different than what it has traditionally been. Those teams listed three down linemen, two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers. I went back and watched some footage from 1979 and there were definitely clips of outside linebackers David Lewis and Cecil Johnson lined up at the line, outside the three down linemen. Lewis had 4.5 sacks that year, so he clearly spent some time rushing the passer. There was one very exciting clip of Johnson rushing around the edge and hitting a Giants quarterback from behind to force a fumble. Now, Lewis and Johnson were definitely more traditional linebackers than Nassib or JPP, but we're still talking about the 3-4 defense here.

Probably the source of confusion here is those two guys, Nassib and Pierre-Paul, right. They look awfully big to be linebackers and one wonders how much prowess they will have in coverage. But some of the other guys on the depth chart at OLB – Spence, Shaq Barrett, Devante Bond – are more of the 6-2 and 240 to 250-pound variety.

Now, Todd Bowles is definitely innovate and creative and good at getting his defenses to disguise what they're going to do. I'm sure you're going to see some new stuff this season that you haven't seen from a Buccaneers' defense in a very long time. Personally, I'm pretty thrilled about that. But I don't believe that you're watching the evolution of a 3-4 defense into something revolutionary.

Hope that helps, Russ.

How is the offensive line looking?

- Tangomerlot, via Instagram

By the numbers, pretty good, at least in terms of the starting unit. I have to admit it's a small sample size, though. Jameis Winston has been sacked just one time, and according to Head Coach Bruce Arians, that was the result of an assignment error on a new protection scheme the offense had just installed, and had only practiced to that point at walk-through speed. You may remember the play; it's the 11-yard sack by outside Jerome Baker that ended the first drive against Miami and pushed the Bucs out of field goal range. Baker came in completely unblocked; any time you see a "free rusher" like that, you can bet somebody missed their assignment.

I don't want to overstate it, though. Winston's only had 11 dropbacks so far, and he did escape some pressure on two others to get yardage scrambling. Overall, though, he's had time to throw and has used it to compile a 120.4 passer rating. The Bucs' rushing numbers overall have been underwhelming – 82 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry – but they've been pretty good for the first time. On the two drives by the starting offense so far, the team has run 11 times for 58 yards, 5.3 yards per carry. That does include Winston's two scrambles, but Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones have picked up six or more yards on five of their nine combined carries. The running lanes have been there.

Beyond the numbers, I find a couple of other things encouraging. One – and everyone knock on wood – the whole first team is out there, working together in every practice and starting both games so far. In recent years, the Bucs have had to wait for that line to come together in August and early September because one or more of the starters was dealing with relatively minor injuries. Last year, for instance, left tackle Donovan Smith was out for the second half of the preseason and only just made it back on the field for the opener. Right guard Caleb Benenoch missed time, too. If there's any unit on the team that needs to develop a chemistry together, it's the offensive line.

One other thing: Second-year man Alex Cappa seems to be settling in nicely at right guard, which was a trouble spot for the Bucs' last year. The Bucs have established starters at the other four positions; if Cappa can give the team a higher level of play at the fifth one, the line should be better in 2019 than it was a season ago.

All of that said, I'm not sure the depth behind the starting five has been overly encouraging. This is what Arians had to say about that very subject earlier this week:

"It’s still something we’re looking at, whether it’s on somebody else’s team or our team. You guys have got to realize there’s 31 other teams out there, so don’t count numbers on our team because there’s other guys on that waiver wire. They’re picking it up, they’re getting better."

View some of the top photos from Buccaneers preseason practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.

Speed Round!

Will the starters play more than one series?

- Bucsbigboi, via Instagram

Yes, the Buccaneers should play their starters on both offense and defense for at least two series in Friday's game against Cleveland. How long they play after that will likely depend upon how well those first two series go. Typically, starters play the entire first half in the third week of the preseason, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Coach Arians pull his first unit a little earlier than that. Some Bucs coaches in the past have even give the starters the first drive of the third quarter, just to see how they handle coming back out after halftime, but I don't expect that to happen this year.

Who’s starting in the backfield?

- Keilghoran, via Instagram

By which I assume you mean who's the starting tailback, since the rest of the backfield is the quarterback, and we know that's Jameis Winston, and there is no fullback anymore. And my answer to that is Peyton Barber. The vastly improved play of Ronald Jones has been one of the best sights of training camp and the preseason, and I think that has solidified the plans to use those two as a one-two punch. But Barber hasn't done anything to lose the job so I think he continues to start.

Now, Arians has said that he would ride the hot hand if either of the backs gets on a roll, so I do think there is potential for Jones to usurp the top spot from Barber during the season. We'll see.

Will we see Jack Cichy play more snaps?

- Piece_falls, via Instagram

Again, I'm making an assumption here, in this case that we're talking about Cichy playing more on Friday night, not in the regular season as a whole. And there are two competing factors here. One, Devante Bond has been moved from ILB to OLB, giving the Bucs one less player for the ILB rotation that includes Cichy; and Bond may not play Friday due to a minor injury. But, two, the defensive starters will play longer than in the previous two games, reducing the overall number of snaps available to reserves. Even with Lavonte David still out, that's still more snaps for Devin White and Deone Bucannon, with Kevin Minter behind them. All in all, that probably washes out to a little more playing time for Cichy this week.

Now, next week, in the final preseason game? That should be Cichy's big chance. David won't play, and the same could be true of White and Bucannon, and maybe even Minter. If so, the ILB rotation might just be Cichy, Emmanuel Smith and Corey Nelson.

Who will have the starting CB positions for week 1?

- Cuban_bossman, via Instagram

So far, the coaches haven't wavered from the lineup they started training camp with: Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis on the outside, M.J. Stewart in the slot. I believe that's how the Bucs will start the regular season, but I wouldn't be surprised to see rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean push for more playing time.

**

The countdown to season kickoff is on! The Bucs are kicking off the NFL’s 100th season with a FREE Tim McGraw pregame concert for all fans with a ticket to the home opener on Sept. 8! Get your tickets today.

Related Content

Advertising