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S.S. Mailbag: Pick Your Punching Bag

Mike Evans is on pace to break the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' single-season receiving yardage record and join Randy Moss and A.J. Green as the only players in NFL history to open their careers with five straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Earlier this year, DeSean Jackson broke a record previously held by the G.O.A.T., Jerry Rice. O.J. Howard looks like a rising NFL star at the tight end position and fellow 2017 draftee Chris Godwin has 533 yards and is taking advantage of virtually every opportunity to show he's a long-term answer at the receiver position. Cameron Brate remains one of the top touchdown producers at the tight end position over the last three years.

Here's something Head Coach Dirk Koetter said about the Buccaneers' collection of pass-catchers on Monday, after being asked about Brate's declining targets in recent weeks:

"Whoever is getting catches – we talk about the guys who aren’t getting catches. It’s a fact, we have at least six really high-quality receivers – four wideouts and two tight ends. We try to have stuff in the game plan for all of those guys."

Now return to the first paragraph and count how many pass-catchers I mentioned. Five, right? So who is the sixth player in Koetter's count above? Well, that's obviously slot receiver Adam Humphries, and I think he's the exception to Koetter's very good point above. That is, we don't talk a lot about Humphries when he is or isn't getting a lot of targets. I think part of that is, whenever a coach is asked about the former Clemson receiver, the answer is usually along the lines of, "Adam Humphries is just a really good football player."

That's not exactly a quote with a shot to go viral, but the sentiment is a good one: Maybe we only have a certain level of expectation for Humphries because he arrived as an undrafted free agent and, even before that, as a tryout player in a rookie mini-camp. The above quote says, in essence, don't be surprised by what he accomplishes because, well, Adam Humphries is just a good football player.

So let's take a moment to look at the 2018 season for Humphries, as he heads towards unrestricted free agency in the offseason. He is tied for second on the team with 40 catches and is third with 491 yards. He is the team leader in yards gained after the catch (YAC) because he is so adept at weaving through traffic on a screen pass, as he did for a 39-yard gain on first-and-30 on Sunday. Humphries has 279 YAC this year, with an average of 7.0 per catch.

We might have a certain level of expectations for Humphries, but the fact is that he appears to be getting even better. Since Week Six, when the Buccaneers came back from their bye week, Humphries has racked up 390 receiving yards. That's the 15th-most among all pass-catchers in the NFL, putting him right between Josh Gordon and Emmanuel Sanders.

No, you didn't ask me about Adam Humphries, but I thought you'd like to go. Now on to your actual 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.

I see you're a Notre Dame fan, Tim. Is there any way we can travel back in time to last April and somehow convince the Colts not to take Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson so that he falls one more spot to the Buccaneers? Because I truly believe the Bucs would have picked him if he was available rather than subsequently trading down and going with Washington DT Vita Vea. I think adding Nelson to the current group would be one way to make the offensive line better.

But that's not going to happen, of course, and in speaking to your first question, there aren't likely to be any changes. We're 10 games into a 16-game season, the trade deadline is passed and the Buccaneers have the personnel that they have. The only possible changes would be to elevate one of the three current reserves – Alex Cappa, Mike Liedtke or Leonard Wester – to a starting spot, and if the team's coaches thought the line would get better by doing so they would have already made that change.

Could there be any changes coming to the line in the offseason? That's certainly possible, but I would suggest that the Buccaneers feel they have long-term solutions at three spots: left tackle Donovan Smith, left guard Ali Marpet and center Ryan Jensen. Marpet already got a new contract and Smith could be one of the next names on the list. Jensen is in the first year of the big deal he got in free agency last March. I mean no disrespect to Demar Dotson in making that list – I'm actually a Dotson fan – but of course he's 33 and currently under contract for just one more season after this one.

However, I would also like to disagree, at least to a certain degree, to your basic premise that the Buccaneers' offensive line is "stinking up the joint." I think it's fair to take to task any unit on a team that is 3-7 and has lost seven of its last eight games. That's true of the offensive line, which has been far from perfect. But I also think it is just as far from "stinking up the joint."

From a most basic standpoint, I don't believe that an offense could be leading the league in yardage and be ranked eighth in points scored if the offensive line was a disaster. Somehow, Buccaneer quarterbacks have had enough time to throw for 3,610 net yards, the most ever by a team through 10 games. Don't we have to grant the offensive line at least some credit for creating a clean pocket more often than not.

By the raw pass production numbers, the Buccaneers' line is right in the middle of the pack, or a little better, ranking 13th in sacks allowed per pass attempt, at 6.57%. The league average is 7.20%. Now stop for a moment and picture the type of passing attack that the Buccaneers employ. It is a lot more "vertical" than many NFL offenses, with fewer of the quick underneath throws that allow less time for a quarterback to be pressured. The Buccaneers lead the NFL in passes caught between 15 and 19 yards downfield. Those plays take longer to develop, which means that Buccaneer linemen have to hold their blocks longer than most teams. Despite that, they are still in the upper half of the league in terms of protection.

I'm not going to try to tell you that the running game has been particularly good this year, and you can include the offensive line when you're handing out blame for the problem. That said, it's kind of unusual timing to be calling for O-Line heads to roll because of the ground game

right now, because that part of the attack seems to be getting better in the second half of the season. The Bucs are just now coming off their best running game of the season, in which Peyton Barber found enough open seams to crack 100 yards and the team as a whole went for 151 and 5.1 yards a pop. Since Week Six, Tampa Bay ranks 16th in the NFL in rushing yards per game and 17th in yards per rush. League average may not be the goal, but it also doesn't "stink" and it's a pretty good complement to the high-powered passing attack.

So, no, I don't think there are any imminent changes to the starting offensive line for the final six weeks of the season, and there probably shouldn't be. I highly doubt that I can convince you that the Bucs' offensive line is a strength, Tim, but I hope I could maybe get you to back away from "stinking up the joint" just a bit.

Gerald McCoy is good Mega Man, like third-most sacks by a defensive tackle since 2013 good, and that's not cherry-picking a time range to make him look better. He has 4.0 sacks this year, which is tied for seventh among defensive tackles, despite missing two games with an injury. Look at it this way: You would say Jason Pierre-Paul is having a good season with his 9.5 sacks, right? Well Pierre-Paul has 15 quarterback pressures, just two more than McCoy and with two more games played. A higher percentage of Pierre-Paul's disruptive plays have led to actual sacks, but McCoy is still being disruptive in the backfield, too.

But one – or even two or three – players playing at a high level isn't necessarily going to keep a defense from having problems. Koetter said on Monday that he thought the amount of pressure the defensive line has generated this season has been fine, particularly considering that early deficits in multiple games have allowed opposing offenses to choose when they wanted to throw. Pass rushes work best when the defense knows the opposition needs to throw more often.

Behind that line, the linebackers have been decimated by injury. The Buccaneers played the Giants without any of the three linebackers they expected to start heading into the 2018 offseason – Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander and Kendell Beckwith. Meanwhile the secondary lost Chris Conte and Vernon Hargreaves early and is without Justin Evans at the moment, and it has been forced to rely on a lot of young and inexperienced players. Those growing pains have shown at times and the Bucs have given up too many explosive plays, which is an offense's quickest way to pile up points.

Please don't read this as an excuse, but I think we all have to adjust our thinking a little bit to the reality of the modern NFL. I assume you watched that awesome Rams-Chiefs showdown on Monday night, and if you didn't I'd advise you to watch the replay on NFL Network tonight at 12:30 a.m. ET or Wednesday night at 8:00 a.m. ET. It was great. Well, that was the highest-scoring game in the history of Monday Night Football. The average points scored in an NFL game this year is 48.8, easily the most in any season in league history.

Now, as I said, that can't be used as an excuse because even in that altered landscape, the Buccaneers are giving up the most points in the league. It's just a part of the equation to the answer of the question, Why so many points? Maybe we can take a bit of solace that the next three games are at home because the problem has been worse at home. Tampa Bay is giving up 39.8 points per game on the road but 22.5 per game at home.

The biggest part of the answer is that same thing that is at the root of just about everything that has gone wrong for the Buccaneers this season: Turnovers. Tampa Bay ranks last in the league with a negative-23 turnover ratio that, frankly, is mind-boggling. Koetter called the Bucs' six takeaways and 29 giveaways "ridiculous numbers," and he's right. The Bucs are the first time to be that far down in turnover ratio after 10 games since 1970.

Turnovers by the offense hurt the defense in multiple ways. In the most straightforward way, they can lead directly to points, as was the case on Alec Ogletree's pick-six in the third quarter on Sunday. The defense had nothing to do that that, but those seven points are added right into the team's totals and those numbers are used to judge the defense.

What happens more frequently is that turnovers lead to short fields, and Tampa Bay's defense, whatever its strengths may be, has not been good at all with its back to the goal line. Put that into the equation for too many points, Mega, because the Bucs have allowed touchdowns on 33 of 37 opponent red zone trips this year and 17 of 18 goal-to-go situations. Those numbers are almost as wacky as the turnover ratio, and if they were even league average the Bucs would have a lot more field goals mixed in there and the point total would go down.

Then you have the lack of takeaways on defense. The Buccaneers' third-down defense has actually not been that bad; at a 39.1% success rate allowed it ranks 16th in that category. That's one way to get off the field. The other main way is to get turnovers. Think of all the times this year that Tampa Bay's offense has driven down into scoring territory – especially early in recent games – only to have a prime scoring opportunity blow up into a turnover. The opposing defenses probably didn't feel good about the way they had played in allowing the Bucs' offense to march right downfield, but in the end it didn't matter because they came up with the big takeaway when they needed it. Tampa Bay's defense hasn't done that, not even once in the last seven games.

So the factors are myriad, Mega Man: Injuries, youth in the secondary, turnover ratio, changes to the game. They all add up to unacceptable results.

As for the rest of your tweet, looks like you're getting your wish on Winston this week and I would bet he will remain the starter for the rest of the season. And I don't think there's any reason to doubt he's going to throw it to Mike Evans A LOT.

In next year's draft? No one, because the Bucs won't be picking in the top five. Right now there are three 2-8 teams, and then the Buccaneers are one of five teams at 3-7. Ties in the NFL draft order are broken by strength of schedule, with the teams having the weakest figures going first. The Giants and Jets both have weaker strength of schedule numbers than the Buccaneers right now, so they would be picking ahead of Tampa Bay. That's five teams right there.

So the Bucs aren't in the top five right now and they're not going to be there at the end of the season. I'm guessing you disagree, but I'm still optimistic that the Bucs can win a good number of their final seven games. This turnover drought has to end, and when it does that will make the difference in what will surely be a handful more close games. That's just my guess, of course, but that's what I'm going with.

As for the draft, no matter where the Bucs are picking I'd like to see an offensive or defensive linemen, with the team using free agency to address issues in the secondary. That's not terribly specific, but there's a long way to go between now and the 2019 NFL Draft, so specific predictions at this point don't really make much sense.

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