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SS Mailbag: Bucs Seeking Post-Bye Improvement

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.

Well, Shaggy, this is two completely different questions in one, so let's split this answer in half. First, we'll talk about blitzing.

The way you word that question – "are we going to blitz more and play better defense" – seems to posit that the first part is going to lead to the second part. That blitzing more will result in better defense. Is that the case? Well, first let's see if the Buccaneers are blitzing very much to begin with.

Overall, the Buccaneers have faced 165 opponent dropbacks (this does not include eventual scramble plays; it's pass attempts plus sacks). According to the NFL stat service Sportradar, the Bucs have blitzed on 36 of those plays. That means Tampa Bay's defense has brought an extra pass-rusher (or pass-rushers) 21.82% of the time they've faced a dropback. That is indeed below the league average of 25.39%, but not by a huge margin.

Tampa Bay's blitz percentage is the 22nd-highest in the league but there's not a lot of separation in the middle of the rankings; Seattle, which ranks 17th in blitz percentage, has brought extra rushers 23.86% of the time. In contrast, there are some teams that blitz a lot more than that. Arizona leads the league at 39.79%, which is far above the league average. Baltimore is second at 36.96%. There are eight teams – or exactly one quarter of the league – that are blitzing more than 30% of the time.

So, yes, the Buccaneers could choose to blitz more, but should they. Remember when I told you that the Bucs had blitzed on 36 of a possible 165 pass plays? That means they have not blitzed on 129 of those plays. Here are some opponent passing stats separated into those two conditions:

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The Buccaneers' passer rating allowed when blitzing is 26.6 points worse than when the don't blitz. Remember what Dirk Koetter has said about teams blitzing the Buccaneers' very potent passing attack: Blitzing can get the defense big plays but it can also provide the offense with opportunities for big plays. Tampa Bay's first four opponents have obviously done a very good job of picking up the Bucs' blitzes, and that has made it even easier for them to complete passes. Look at the touchdown rate – seven in 34 passes against the blitz versus six in 123 passes without it. And blitzing hasn't produced a noticeably higher sack rate, either. Six sacks in 129 no-blitz plays is 4.7%; two sacks in 36 blitz plays is 5.6%.

Getting more pressure on the quarterback is DEFINITELY part of the solution when it comes to fixing the Buccaneers' problems on defense. There's no question. The way the game is played these days, huge passing days are becoming commonplace. The best way to slow it down is to affect the quarterback before or during his throw, and that's also the best way to create turnovers.

That said, is blitzing more the way to get that additional pressure. I don't think the numbers as they are currently constituted suggest that. If the Bucs are going to blitz more, they're going to have to become far more effective at it. I concede that this is possible, but I think the more likely solutions will come from fixing communication errors, getting young players in the secondary more experience and getting more of a pass rush from the front four. Easier said than done, but not impossible.

Your second question, Shaggy, is when the Bucs are going to fix their running game. I think the coaches and players are always in the process of trying to fix anything that isn't going well, and that would definitely apply to the rushing attack. So I guess what you're asking me for is a prediction of when (and if) that will occur.

To that I would say, I guess it depends on what you mean by "fix." If you mean get the rushing attack to the point where it is just as efficient, or close to it, as the passing attack, I'm not sure that's in the cards this year. I think we're far enough into the season to be able to identify where every team, not just the Buccaneers, has its biggest strengths and weakness. Last year, seven of the 10 teams ranked at the bottom of the rushing yards chart after five weeks were still in the bottom 10 at the end of the season.

That included the Buccaneers, who did improve in that regard as the season went along but only moved up from 30th to 27th. The one big exception was New Orleans, which was 29th in rushing after five weeks and fifth by the end of the season. But I don't think Alvin Kamara is walking through the Bucs' doors anytime soon. That said, there is a potential parallel to be drawn. Kamara was a rookie adjusting to the NFL last year, and he did so spectacularly and made for a great pairing with Mark Ingram. The Buccaneers have their own rookie back in Ronald Jones; it would be too much to expect a Kamara-like season from him, but gradual improvement by Jones would help the Bucs eventually field a respectable rushing attack.

And, honestly, given the identity of this team, respectable would probably be good enough. The aerial attack is so good and presents so many options that the Bucs are almost certain to continue to be a pass-first team. Add a decent rushing attack to that mix and things are going to become very difficult for Buccaneer opponents. It would also be nice to have that decent ground game to turn to when the Bucs get out to a comfortable lead, as they did against New Orleans and Philadelphia. But don't expect the team to suddenly start running the ball a significantly higher number of times. As Dirk Koetter said on Monday, sometimes you have to just stop banging your head on the wall with what isn't working and go with what is working.

That's a decent point, and let's review the timeline that got us to that point in the spring of '17.

When Dirk Koetter was elevated from offensive coordinator to head coach in 2016, he brought in Mike Smith to be his defensive coordinator. That was a reversal of roles from when they worked together in Atlanta and Koetter was the OC under Smith as the head coach. Smith had a good track record of putting together defenses in Jacksonville and Atlanta.

The first half of that season didn't go particularly well for the Buccaneers on defense. However, right about the midway point, shortly after a bye week, the players seemed to figure something out, it began to click and the turnovers started to come in bunches. A much stingier defense led to a good stretch run as the Bucs finished 9-7, building a lot of optimism.

There was certainly optimism on defense, and part of it was what Smith was alluding to above. Now that the players had a season to get acclimated to the system, and had found some good results, Smith could dig deeper into the playbook. He has always said he wants his defense to be simple for his players to understand but difficult for opposing teams to figure out.

And, yes, we must admit that the expected step forward after that second-half boost in 2016 has not happened. The Buccaneers did not get the defensive results they wanted last year, in most weeks, and they have not yet in 2018. So the question is, with calculus possibly a bit out of reach, can the Bucs at least return to the level at which they were operating at the end of 2016.

And, yes, I believe that's possible. What we have to recognize first of all is that there has been a lot of turnover in personnel between the end of 2016 and right now. The defensive line took a step back in 2017 and thus became an offensive priority, leading to an overhaul that includes six players on the current depth chart who are new to the team this year (plus Mitch Unrein, currently on injured reserve). The starting lineup is 75% new around stalwart Gerald McCoy.

Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander still form the core of the middle level of the defense, but the secondary is mostly changed, too, and includes a lot of young players. With injuries to Chris Conte and Vernon Hargreaves factored in, Brent Grimes is the only real holdover from that 2016 secondary – Javien Elliott and Ryan Smith were on that team but didn't have big roles. The Buccaneers are going to be relying heavily on three rookie defensive backs – M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead – and they expect good things and some growing pains out of that trio. Justin Evans seems like he's been around forever, in comparison, but he's only in his second season.

So, yes, this would seem like a time for something of a reset, and hopefully that will at some point lead to it clicking like it did in 2016. The NFL has become so unrelentingly offense-oriented that I think the Bucs – like a lot of teams – are going to have games in which they give the type of yardage figures that would have seemed like outliers even 10 years ago. But they can still succeed on such days – as they did against Philly in Week Two – by creating turnovers and getting the big stops at the most critical times.

If the Buccaneers are going to change their math on defense, it's probably well underway. Koetter, Smith and the entire coaching staff spent the bye week in a deep-dive self-scout and hopefully came up with some answers. They will be looking to cater their play-calling to what their players do best, and looking for the best way to put their young and inexperienced players in a position to succeed.

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