S.S. Mailbag: The Season is Here!

SS

You remember last year's season opener, right? Sure you do. It was one of the more remarkable games in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history.

The site was the Louisiana Superdome, not necessarily a place chock full of great Buccaneer memories. Drew Brees got the ball first and drove his team right down the field for a touchdown, and there had to be some fans worrying that it might be a long day. But just a few plays later, Ryan Fitzpatrick hit DeSean Jackson on a 58-yard touchdown and suddenly the Bucs offense could do no wrong. Brees was able to mount a scary rally at the end, unsurprisingly, but the visitors held on for a 48-40 victory, marking the most combined points ever scored in a Week One game in NFL history.

Fitzpatrick finished that game with 417 yards and four touchdowns. Individually, was that also the best game for a Buccaneer quarterback in a season opener? Depends on how you measure it.

In 1987, Steve DeBerg set a Buccaneer record with five touchdown passes while leading the team to a 48-21 victory over Atlanta to open the season. DeBerg's TD total has been tied a couple times since, but never on opening day. On the other hand, Fitzpatrick's yardage total was easily a Week One record for the Bucs, as was his oh-so-close-to-perfect passer rating of 156.2.

Just for kicks, since the Buccaneers are about to kick off another season in just three days, let's run down the franchise's top opening-game performances in a variety of categories. It will give the guys something to shoot for!

·   Pass Completions: 28, Brad Johnson, vs. New Orleans, 2002; Josh Freeman, vs. Detroit, 2011

·   Passing Yards: 417, Ryan Fitzpatrick, at New Orleans, 2018

·   Touchdown Passes: 5, Steve DeBerg, vs. Atlanta, 1987

·   Passer Rating: 156.2, Ryan Fitzpatrick, at New Orleans, 2018

·   Rushing Yards: 166, James Wilder, at Chicago, 1985

·   Rushing Touchdowns: 2, Lars Tate, at Green Bay, 1989; Mike Alstott, at New England, 2000

·   Receptions: 9, James Wilder, vs. Detroit, 1983

·   Receiving Yards: 157, Bruce Hill, vs. Philadelphia, 1988

·   Touchdown Receptions: 2, 6 times, most recently DeSean Jackson, at New Orleans, 2018

·   Yards From Scrimmage: 171, James Wilder, at Chicago, 1985

·   Total Touchdowns: 2, 8 times, most recently DeSean Jackson, at New Orleans, 2018

·   Field Goals Made: 3, 4 times, most recently Nick Folk, vs. Chicago, 2017

·   Points Scored: 12, 9 times, most recently DeSean Jackson, at New Orleans, 2018

·   Tackles: 17, Kwon Alexander, at Atlanta, 2016

·   Sacks: 2.5, 3 times, most recently Warren Sapp, vs. San Francisco, 1997

·   Interceptions: 2, 4 times, most recently Brian Kelly, 2005

Okay, so let's just hope Kwon Alexander doesn't break his own personal record for opening-week tackles in Sunday's game! 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.

How will the offense handle a cornerback like Richard Sherman?

- marco\a\dieguez_jr, via Instagram

Honestly, and I'm not trying to be a surrogate bragger for the Bucs' offense, but I think it's the other way around. Richard Sherman and the rest of the 49ers' defense has to be thinking about how it will handle the Bucs' offense, especially Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans. As I discussed yesterday in some Week One game notes, Evans has fared well in his two games against Sherman. Or at least, defenses that have Sherman in them. In 2016, the Seahawks tried to keep Sherman on Evans as much as possible but that didn't stop the Bucs' receiver from scoring two touchdowns and having a 100-yard game.

None of which is to dismiss the very talented Sherman, one of the best cornerbacks of his generation. As Evans shared again on Wednesday, Sherman is his favorite defensive player of all time and it's not as if he's far removed from his Legion of Boom days. That said, I don't think it's often that a team game-plans for a specific cornerback. There aren't too many corners – like Darrelle Revis in his prime – who are so lock-down that quarterbacks simply avoid them all day. If Evans can get open on Sherman, and there's evidence he can, Jameis Winston is definitely going to throw his way. Of more concern is that the 49ers have three good cornerbacks, including Ahkello Witherspoon and Jason Verrett, so things could get tough for the Bucs' passing attack if they all have strong outings. As Evans said yesterday, though, he'll take the Bucs' receiving group against any secondary.

Buccaneer coaches obviously have studied the Niners' defense in great detail, and they'll know whatever there is to know about Sherman's tendencies and his current strengths and weaknesses. If a particularly corner – not necessarily Sherman – happens to be more susceptible to the double move or something like that, the coaches will know and might make some play calls accordingly. But I don't think they specifically have to worry about being able to "handle" Sherman.

I would suspect that the defenders a team is much more likely to specifically game-plan for are the pass-rushers. That's particularly true in this case because the 49ers are loaded with talent up front. Assuming all of them are healthy enough to play, the Niners will be coming at Winston with Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas. That's a 13.0-sack guy from last year plus four recent high first-round picks. You can't double-team them all, so the Bucs will have to pick their poison. If you think that, say, Ford or Buckner is the most dangerous pass-rusher, then you game-plan accordingly to try to slow him down.

Will the bucs overall defense crack the top 20 this year?

- vincec813, via Instagram

Ah, time to get out the crystal ball again, huh? Okay, I'll go ahead and make an educated guess here, spiked with a little dose of optimism.

Let me be the first to say it: Preseason stats are often misleading. Probably more often than that. A good amount of the numbers you find on a team's stat sheet from August were compiled by players who are no longer around in September. So I'm not here to tell you that everything is sunshine in light because the Buccaneers had the fifth-best defense overall in the preseason, or the fourth-best in terms of yards allowed per play.

That said, Tampa Bay's defense had terrible numbers in the preseason last year and things didn't change much when the games started to count. One thing that is new and really could make a huge difference is the scheme that new Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles has installed. I can tell you from locker room chatter that the players love it. Carl Nassib (a new team captain!) said Bowles is the favorite coach he's ever played for.

So let's swallow our grains of salt and take a quick look at some of the supporting defensive numbers from the preseason. One of the areas that really troubled the Bucs' defense last year was red zone defense, where they ranked dead last in touchdown percentage allowed. The third-down defense wasn't quite as tragic (40.3, 22nd-ranked) but there is definite room for improvement. The run defense, which gave up 123.9 yards per game and 4.65 yards per carry, wasn't particularly stout.

Well, this preseason the Buccaneers were much better in the red zone, tying for second in the league in touchdown efficiency and on third down, where they allowed the sixth lowest conversion rate. The run defense was much better, allowing 74.8 yards per game and 3.78 yards per carry. I actually don't think those run defense numbers from the preseason are particularly meaningful, some of it having to do with vanilla play-calling and lots of moving parts. However, you can tell from his comments on the matter that Arians is very confident in that part of the defense, and it's easy to see why a unit with Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea up front, backed by Devin White and Lavonte David, would be tough to run against.

Obviously, the pass defense was the biggest problem for the Buccaneers last season, and yes those numbers were much better this August. I'm not asking you to accept that as strong evidence, but here is where I really think Bowles' influence will have a big impact. The new defense is clearly more aggressive than the previous one, and it seems to fit the strengths of the Bucs' young defensive backs better. They think so, at least, and that confidence can't hurt. Arians has declared the team's secondary depth chart problems "fixed," so let's hope he's right.

Fortunately for me, Vince, you didn't set the bar staggeringly high. The Buccaneers were 27th in yards allowed last year and 31st in points allowed. You're only asking me if they can get into the top 20. Last year, the team that ranked 20th in yards gave up 358.8 per game, and the team that ranked 20th in points allowed 24.0 per game. Last year, the Bucs gave up 383.4 and 29.0 per game, respectively, in those categories. So we need to shave off about 30 yards and five points per game to get there.

Yeah, I think that will happen.

Well, first of all I could have been a little more specific with that tweet, which I fired off right after Head Coach Bruce Arians read the list of players who didn't practice on Wednesday. What Arians said word-for-word was, "…Justin Evans with his foot." That's the area, and the specific injury is to his Achilles tendon. That's the way it is listed on the official injury report.

The trouble started for Evans last November when he came down with turf toe, which is probably the most misleadingly-named injury in football. It doesn't sound like much but it's very painful and it can keep a player out for a long time. In Evans' case last year, he missed two games, came back to play and then reaggravated the injury, sending him to injured reserve.

Evans missed the entire offseason training program as he recovered from the injury, then saw his timetable pushed back by surgery in early June, after which he wore a boot to "calm it down," as Arians said at the time. As such, he also wasn't ready to go at the start of training camp and was placed on the active/PUP list. Evans came off that list in the final week of the preseason and started practicing again, and Arians intended to let him see some action in the last warmup game in Dallas. However, he was experiencing irritation in his Achilles tendon that Thursday before the game and was held out instead. As of now, Evans is still sidelined by that ailment. He did not practice on Tuesday or Wednesday.

It would see as if Evans is through the worst of it, and that his current injury is a minor one that shouldn't keep him out for long. I base that on the team's decision not only to keep him on the 53-man roster but also to keep only four safeties. Yes, Deone Bucannon and M.J. Stewart give the Bucs some position flexibility to help the safety spot when it gets thinned, but I suspect the team would have kept another pure safety if they thought Evans would be sidelined for a long time. That said, I learned a long time ago not to play sideline doctor, so the only thing we can really do with Evans' status is wait and see. Hopefully he'll be back on the field soon. I believe he still has the potential to be an impactful, playmaking safety in this league.

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

Speed Round!

What’s the main goal for the offense on first possession? Establish the run?

- marco\a\dieguez_jr, via Instagram

Score points. Next!

Who is the staring running back?

- desi__o7, via Instagram

It's Peyton Barber, but I certainly expect the timeshare with Ronald Jones to be much more even than it was last year. Jones has clearly shown in practice and in limited time in the preseason games that he's a totally different player this year, one much more like what the Bucs thought they were getting when they used a second-round pick on the big-play USC runner in 2018.

The majority of NFL backfields these days use multiple ballcarriers rather than one bell cow back. Not everyone can find an Ezekiel Elliott. The Bucs almost certainly need both Barber and Jones to play well and play a lot in order to put the bite back into their running game this year.

Who is our big offensive threat?

go_bucs7, via Instagram

I mean, it has to be Mike Evans, right? I assume you mean the skill-position players other than the quarterback. All the pass-catchers need Jameis Winston to be good in order for their own seasons to go as well as possible, so the quarterback position is kind of a given here. Among the players that Winston is going to throw or hand off the ball to, it certainly seems like Evans is the number-one threat.

Last year, when he broke the Bucs' single-season record with 1,524 receiving yards, he accounted for 25.9% of the gross-yard output of the team's offense. No other player accounted for more than 16.4% of the total. Evans had one more receiving yard than the entire team had rushing yards!

It's good that this is a legitimate question, because it means the offense is loaded. Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard, in particular, could give Evans a run for his money in the scariest Buc threat department, but I think Evans maintains the crown for now.

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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.

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