The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday by a 27-9 score, and the game included two notable milestones reached by Bucs players. Wide receiver Mike Evans surpassed 1,000 receiving yards on the season, making him just the third player in NFL history to do so in each of his first five seasons. And defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul got a sack to push his 2018 total to 10.5 and become the first Buccaneer to hit double digits in that category since Simeon Rice in 2005.
Both marks were worth celebrating, and they were recorded by arguably the team's most valuable player in 2018 on each side of the ball. In terms of NFL history, Evans' accomplishment probably carries a bit more weight, but Pierre-Paul ended what had become a rather infamous drought hanging over the franchise. As amazing as Evans' fifth straight 1,000-yard season, it seemed inevitable assuming he stayed healthy. There was certainly no sense of inevitability about that sack drought being halted in 2018.
But it was halted, so let's look at how Pierre-Paul and the team can build on what they've already done, from a pass-rush standpoint, over the past five weeks.
The Buccaneers added "JPP" among a number of other defensive linemen in the offseason after finishing last in the NFL in 2017 with 22 sacks. Through 11 games in 2018, they already have 29 sacks, which puts them on pace for roughly 42 by the end of the season. If they could get to 43 they would tie for the fourth-most the Bucs have ever had in a single season, something they did in 1999 and 2002. The franchise record, almost certainly out of reach, is 55, set in 2000. The Bucs also had 45 sacks in 2004 and 44 in 1997.
That record 2000 sack avalanche was led by Warren Sapp, who set an individual Buccaneers single-season record with 16.5, and Marcus Jones, who added 13.0 of his own. That's one of only two times the Bucs have had a pair of double-digit sackers in the same campaign, the other being 1997, when Sapp had 10.5 and Chidi Ahanotu had 10.0.
The Bucs could match that feat if Gerald McCoy gets four more over the last five games and/or Carl Nassib gets 5.5 more. McCoy has 4.5 sacks over his last four games since returning from a two-game injury absence; he had been close to double digits before, getting 9.5 in 2013 and 8.5 in each of the next two years. Nassib is already at his own single-season career high.
Pierre-Paul, McCoy and Nassib could still form an interesting trio even if neither of the latter two quite makes it to double digits. The last time the Bucs have had three players with at least 6.0 sacks each was 2007, and all that the current squad needs for that to happen is a half-sack for Nassib. That '07 trio was Stylez G. White (8.0), Jovan Haye (6.0) and the late Gaines Adams (6.0). The last time the Buccaneers had three players get at least 7.0 sacks each was in 1998, when that was accomplished by Brad Culpepper (9.0), Regan Upshaw (7.0) and Sapp (7.0).
Tampa Bay's pass rush seems to be heating up in the second half of the season, with four QB takedowns in each of the last two games. The Buccaneers also hit San Francisco quarterback Nick Mullens a total of nine times on Sunday, narrowly missing several more sacks. It will be interesting to see what that pass rush can generate down the stretch.
Now on 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. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a common question when a team starts to drift out of playoff contention. Nobody is particularly happy with the present, but perhaps the future will be brighter, and some of that future might be cooling its collective heels on the bench. Still, in most cases, the idea is more intriguing than the reality. Usually, there are really only a couple of truly untested players at this point in a season, especially for a team that – as the questioner mentions – has been hit pretty hard by injuries.
It should be noted that this tweet was sent before Sunday's win over San Francisco, a game in which rookie guard Alex Cappa saw his first NFL regular-season action. Cappa was one of nine rookies or first-year players the Buccaneers utilized in that game, including five in the starting lineup. You really can't get much more of a youth movement going than that.
The one exception could be second-round running back Ronald Jones, who has played in just four games so far and has a total of 25 touches (19 carries and six receptions). The Bucs didn't have much of a role for Jones at the beginning of the season and he was inactive for the first three games while the offense produced enormous numbers and fellow rookie back Shaun Wilson got the game-day helmet in order to return kicks. Then a hamstring injury sidelined Jones in Week Nine and he has yet to return from that, though he appeared to make progress in practice last week. Yes, I could see the Bucs finding a way to get Jones more involved down the stretch, but we should also acknowledge that lead back Peyton Barber is really starting to hit his stride down the stretch and the Bucs probably don't want to slow down that momentum.
View Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker's top photos from the Buccaneers' Week 12 win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Otherwise, there aren't a lot of guys still waiting for an opportunity. Sure, fifth-round wideout Justin Watson only has one catch but he's been active in every game since Week Four, is playing quite a bit on special teams and does see the field here and there on offense, primarily to spell Mike Evans. Maybe Watson gets a little more action – particularly dependent on how serious the thumb injury is for DeSean Jackson – but the Bucs aren't likely to stray too far from what's working on offense, and that's passing the ball to the likes of Mike Evans, Adam Humphries and Chris Godwin.
Who else? Well, Vita Vea is already playing more and he's coming off his best game as a pro so far. Maybe Noah Spence could get a few more snaps, especially if the Buccaneers can get more leads like they did against San Francisco to create more pass-rush opportunities. And while he's not exactly a "young" player, quarterback Ryan Griffin has yet to throw a regular-season NFL pass. Given how prolific the passing attack has been with Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick, that doesn't seem particularly likely to change, but maybe Griffin could get a shot late in the season if and when the Bucs are eliminated.
That's the thing, though. We're probably addressing this question a week or two too soon. The Buccaneers have not been eliminated from the playoff hunt. No, I'm not here to tell you that a run from 4-7 to the postseason is likely, but it is still possible, and as long as that is the case the Buccaneers are still going to chase that goal. And that means playing the players they believe give them the best chance to win each Sunday.
This is a good reply by Andrew, as that was obviously a rushed tweet by me in the middle of a game. If you're going to reference a player's accomplishment in relation to a team record, you should probably state what that record is, specifically. I had plenty of characters left. I have no excuse but to say I must have been in a hurry. My bad.
So I'm glad Andrew asked so I can finish that note. The Buccaneers' record for most 100-yard receiving games in a season is nine, by Mark Carrier. Carrier did that in 1989 when he set the still-standing franchise record of 1,422 receiving yards in a single season. Evans is on pace to break that latter record, but he'll probably need to at least challenge the former one in order to get there.
Evans actually has one more 100-yard game at this point than Carrier had in his first 11 games in 1989. Carrier got extremely hot down the stretch, getting his fifth 100-yard outing in Game 11 and then 90 in Game 12 before finishing with four more 100-yarders in a row. He also scored five times in the last six games, so hopefully Evans can replicate that kind of finish in more ways than one.
When I first read Andrew's tweet I thought it was going to be in response to Evans' joining Moss and Green in that aforementioned club of players with five 1,000-yard receiving campaigns in their first five seasons. I thought I was going to be asked who kept their streak going the longest – in other words, what will Evans be chasing in seasons to come – between Moss and Green. Andrew did not ask me that question but I'm going to answer it anyway because it's my mailbag and I make the rules!
The answer is Moss, but only by a hair. After getting to 1,000 yards every year from 2011 to 2015, Green was having arguably his best season yet in 2016, averaging a career-best 96.4 receiving yards per game through 10 outings. However, he tore a hamstring in that 10th outing and didn't play again that season (though he did still make the Pro Bowl). Ten games played at an average of 96.4 per outing…can anyone do the math there? Yep, that's 964 yards, just 36 shy of the mark. Green came back with a 1,078-yard season in 2017 but this season is at 687 yards and has missed the last two games with a toe injury.
Moss made it one more season before proving mortal. In fact, his sixth season after he topped not only 1,000 yards but
1,200 yards in each of his first five, was the best of his career. In his sixth year, 2003, Moss caught 111 passes for 1,632 yards and 17 touchdowns. Then, in 2004, he too sustained a hamstring injury at midseason; he tried to play through it for two weeks but didn't have a catch, then sat out the next three games. As such, Moss finished that season with 767 yards, stopping his streak at six.
So that's what Evans will chase next year. If he can stay healthy and get to 1,000 again, he'll join the player he rooted for in his childhood, Randy Moss, as the only ones in league history to start their careers with six consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
I think it is bad luck.
I think the Buccaneers have an excellent strength and conditioning staff and an excellent training staff, and both have access to state-of-the-art equipment and materials. I actually believe that most NFL training staffs are extremely good at their jobs; they are simply dealing with a sport in which injuries are inevitable. You hope they don't hit your most important players and you hope they don't pile up at certain positions – as has happened to the Bucs several times in recent seasons – but hope is about all you can do.
These guys are in excellent shape and they have support staff to help them maximize all aspects of their health and conditioning, including nutritionists. Yes, it's possible to train inadequately or make lifestyle choices that make you more susceptible to soft-tissue injuries, but I don't believe that is an issue in any way with this team.
Take the most recent significant injury a Buccaneer sustained, the one to O.J. Howard's ankle and foot. That came at the end of a very good catch-and-run when he was tackled awkwardly from behind. Howard's lower leg got rolled up under the tackler, which caused an injury that no amount of conditioning could have prevented. Frankly, having seen the replay, it's impressive that he wasn't hurt worse – he will avoid surgery and shouldn't have any long-term issues.
And speaking of Howard's injury, it's really the first major one the Buccaneers have suffered on offense this season. In that way, I guess you could say the team has been fortunate on the injury front when it comes to its top-ranked offense. And that's one of the reasons it still has the top-rated offense. The defense, of course, has been hit much harder; I don't need to run down the entire list, but playing without Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, to name a couple, is not going to help your defense succeed.
I do believe that the overall age of a roster can be a factor in the frequency of its injuries. Older players with more wear and tear on their bodies are more susceptible to injuries – freak of nature Ronde Barber notwithstanding – than are most younger players. That's what's kind of frustrating about the run of injuries on defense – at one point or another they've hit all of the Bucs' youngest players: Vita Vea, M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead, Vernon Hargreaves, Jack Cichy. That is some bad luck.