Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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The Second Season Begins | S.S. Mailbag

This week, as the playoffs begin, Buccaneers fans have questions about top rookie performers, the Cowboys' points of emphasis for Monday night and more

mailbag

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their 2022 regular season finale last Sunday in Atlanta, 30-17. With the division title already captured and nothing at stake in the postseason standings, it was a bit of a disjointed enterprise. The Buccaneers held out virtually every starter who had been playing through injuries of note but still rolled with a mostly intact lineup for much of the first half in order to keep up some momentum from a strong Week 17 showing. Then the benches were emptied for the second half and the final result was somewhat predictable.

These weekly mailbag introductions are often inspired by something interesting that occurred in the previous game, but the contest in Atlanta was not terribly interesting, relatively speaking. I doubt I'll remember anything about a couple years from now. You know what I will remember because it was interesting, not to mention a lot of fun? The division-clinching win over Carolina the previous weekend, which was driven by not one, not two but three long touchdowns by Mike Evans on go routes. So let's just skip the one and go back to the other. Because, in case I haven't made it clear, Evans had himself a bit of a day on the first afternoon of the new year.

Go routes, single-high safeties, deceptive long-legged speed and perfect Tom Brady passes added up to what is statistically the best game of Evans' career: 10 catches for 207 yards and three touchdowns. He's had more than 10 catches in a game three times, and he's even had more than 207 yards in a game once (it was 209). This is his third three-touchdown game. But he's never had 10 catches, 200 yards and three touchdowns in one game. You know how I know this for sure? Because no Buccaneer had ever done that before.

Evans had 12 catches for 180 yards and one touchdown against Seattle in 2019. That same year he had 11-198-2 against Tennessee. And in 2016 he put up an 11-150-2 line against the Falcons. But you know what? The Bucs lost all those games. As satisfying as it surely was for Mike's downfield sprints to finally pay off this season, it had to be doubly satisfying in that every one of those three TDs was instrumental in dragging the Bucs back from a double-digit deficit to a division-sealing victory over Carolina.

In Mike's first three-touchdown game, against the Giants in 2019, he had eight catches for 190 yards but the Bucs lost when Matt Gay missed a 34-yard field goal at the end. Last year, his three touchdowns against Chicago did fuel a blowout victory, but he had only six catches for 76 yards overall.

Mike Evans holds just about every receiving record imaginable for the Buccaneers and he even swiped the overall touchdown lead from the great Mike Alstott. Seems weird, but he's been around for quite a while now; his biggest statistical outing yet came in the 137th regular-season game of his career. You know what that tells me? That even as he approaches 30, Evans almost certainly has some more huge games ahead.

Will he ever have three touchdowns in a game again? Probably. Will he ever have three touchdowns in one game like he did on Sunday. Let's just say it would be awfully hard to top.

What do I mean? (I'm really big into asking myself questions today.) Well, there have now been 16 games in Buccaneers history in which one player has scored three or more touchdowns. I just looked them all up. Mike averaged exactly 50 yards on his three scores (63, 57 and 30). That's the longest distance per touchdown for anyone on that 16-game list.

I'll admit, this conclusion is a bit unfair to Doug Martin, who had the greatest game by a running back in Buccaneer annals in his hometown of Oakland on November 4, 2012. Martin ran for 251 yards and four touchdowns, both of which were, and still are, single-game records for the Buccaneers. His four touchdowns covered an average distance of 45.8 yards.

Why is this unfair? (I'm not going to stop now.) Well, his first three touchdown runs went for 45, 67 and 70. Had he stopped there he would have had an average TD length of 60.7 yards, which would have topped Evans' mark from Sunday. But then Martin went and added a fourth score, and this one only needed one yard. If you want to say Martin holds the record for average length of his first three touchdowns in a game, I won't argue.

Wide receiver Keenan McCardell actually gets closer to Evans' mark in a game that is one of the most memorable in Buccaneers history for the wrong reasons. I'll I have to say is Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy, 2003, and most Bucs fans of a certain age will know exactly what I mean.

On an October Monday Night Football game, McCardell put the Bucs up 14-0 with touchdowns of 74 and 57 yards in the first quarter. The first was a straight reception but the second was actually on a fumble recovery following an interception. It was a wild play. Later in the second half, McCardell scored again on a 15-yard reception to put the Bucs up 28-7. The game is famous, as I said – or infamous if you're a Bucs fan – because Tampa Bay led by three touchdowns with five minutes to play but Manning somehow led Dungy's Colts to a 38-35 comeback win in overtime.

The lowest average touchdown length in a three-TD game for the Bucs unsurprisingly belongs to Alstott, who always got the ball around the goal line and always delivered. He scored on runs of one, one and three yards in a 35-0 trouncing of the Bengals in the final game of 1998. Martin only averaged 4.0 yards per score n his other three-TD game, against Jacksonville in 2015.

Anyway, the point is, a three-touchdown game with an average scoring length of 50 yards? You're probably not going to see that gain, even from the Hall of Fame-bound Mike Evans.

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. 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.

Is it possible to have another home playoff game?

- @seanboee (via Instagram)

Yes it is, but it's going to take a couple of upsets, at least in terms of the early betting lines.

The Buccaneers will start their 2022 playoffs at home, with a Monday night game against the Dallas Cowboys. The winner of that game is most likely headed to Philadelphia or San Francisco for the Divisional Round, but there is a chance the Bucs could stay home. Here's the combination of outcomes the Bucs need this weekend for that to happen:

1. Bucs beat Cowboys

2. Giants win at Minnesota

3. Seahawks win at San Francisco

The thing to remember is that the lowest remaining seed after the first round will go to Philadelphia, who won the top seed and the first-round bye in the NFC. Then the other two teams would play at the home of whichever team is ranked higher. So in the above scenario, you would be left with the following seeds: 1 (Philly), 4 (Tampa Bay), 6 (New York) and 7 (Seattle). Seattle would go to Philly and the Giants would come to Tampa.

The Bucs need both of those two bottom seeds to win in order to get a second home game. If the Giants win but the Seahawks lose, Tampa Bay would be the third-highest seed remaining and would go to San Francisco. They would have to hope for a far different outcome than the one they got when they went to California in Week 14. If the Seahawks beat the 49ers but the Vikings claim victory over the Giants, then the Bucs would again be the third-highest seed and would go to Minnesota in the Divisional Round.

The Vikings-Giants game is a close one in terms of the betting line, with Minnesota only favored by three. However, the 49ers are 9.5-point favorites over the Seahawks. Both the Vikings and 49ers finished the season with 13-4 records but it's clear there's more public confidence in San Francisco than Minnesota. The 49ers finished the regular season on a 10-game winning streak and have an overall point differential of +173. The Vikings took a 41-17 beating at Lambeau Field in Week 17 and have an overall point differential of, amazingly, -3.

How likely is this scenario? I really can't say because this is just the second year of the current playoff format, with seven teams in each conference and only one bye each. Last season, both seventh seeds were beaten pretty handily, with the Bucs dispatching the Eagles, 31-15, and the Chiefs rolling over the Steelers, 42-21. Prior to that, in the six-team-per-conference format, it was impossible for the third or fourth-seeded teams to get a home game in the Divisional Round (though a home game in the Conference Championship Game was theoretically possible). Whichever two teams won in the Wild Card Round would have to play at the locations of the two teams that got first-round byes.

So a second home game for the Buccaneers is possible, but not very likely. Let's just focus on the Cowboys for now.

Which rookie would you give MVP to on the Bucs?

- @cheeseyyyy_ (via Instagram)

I assume you mean MVP among the rookies, not a rookie who is MVP of the whole team. In other words, the Bucs' most valuable rookie in 2022.

There are 13 rookies who have played for the Bucs during the 2022 regular season, listed here alphabetically: punter Jake Camarda, inside linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, cornerback Don Gardner, wide receiver Kaylon Geiger, guard Luke Goedeke, defensive lineman Logan Hall, tight end Ko Kieft, cornerback Zyon McCollum, tight end Cade Otton, inside linebacker J.J. Russell, wide receiver Deven Thompkins, safety Nolan Turner and running back Rachaad White.

I think we can go ahead and eliminate Gardner, Geiger, Russell and Turner simply because they really didn't have much overall playing time. Fatukasi is no longer with the team so isn't really a candidate either. Thompkins is a nice story, as he has taken over the return jobs and done well in those roles, but I don't think that's enough for MVP consideration here. And Goedeke hasn't started since Week Seven and has only seen limited action in the second half of the season, outside of the spot start in Week 18 when the Bucs were resting several linemen.

That leaves us with Camarda, Hall, Kieft, McCollum, Otton and White. Of those six, the ones with the most consistent playing time all season are Camarda, Otton and White, so those are my final three candidates. Let's look at what they've done.

Camarda, obviously, has been the Bucs' punter all season long and he capped off his rookie campaign by setting a new franchise record for gross punting average (48.8 yards per punt). He also had the second-best single-season net average (41.6) in Bucs annals. Camarda also handled the Bucs' kickoff duties and had a touchback rate of 51.2%. Oh, and he tied for fourth on the team with six special teams tackles, for good measure. I would argue that his heads-up scrambling punt against Carolina in Week 17, which may have saved the Bucs' division-clinching win, is enough to give him MVP consideration.

Otton has essentially been the Bucs' number-one tight end since Week Four and his 42 receptions rank sixth on the team and are 12 more than the team's other three tight ends combined to produce. He has played 70% of the team's offensive snaps because the Bucs see him as an every-down tight end who can win in the blocking game and also produce in the passing game. He led all NFL rookie tight ends in receptions in 2022. His first career touchdown catch was the game-winner against the Rams with nine seconds left and his second was part of a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Saints.

White has been the starter in the backfield since Week 10, though in reality he is in a fairly even time-share with veteran Leonard Fournette. White ran 129 times for 481 yards and a touchdown and caught 50 passes for another 290 yards and two scores. Like Otton, he was the top pass-catcher at his position among rookies and had 20 more than the next player on the list.

I wouldn't have a problem with any one of those three being chosen as the Bucs' top rookie of 2022, but I guess you want me to narrow it down to one. First, I would reluctantly eliminate White because Fournette had the superior overall numbers and probably could have picked up a lot of the slack if White wasn't available.

Otton is tough to eliminate because I'm not sure what the Bucs would have done at tight end without him this season. Kieft or Rudolph probably couldn't have replicated Otton's receiving contributions and Brate wouldn't have provided the same level of blocking.

That said, in terms of how well he performed his specific job and how much of an impact he made from week to week, I'm going to have to go with Camarda by a hair over Otton. Call it 1A and 1B. Obviously, the Bucs would have had somebody punting in 2022 if they hadn't drafted Camarda, but they might not have been able to find somebody who could produce as many booming punts with as much hang time as the ultra-valuable rookie. Jake Camarda is my most valuable rookie for the Bucs in 2022 (barely), but a lot of the players listed above appear to have bright futures. We'll see who proves most valuable in the long run. Hopefully it's a hotly-contested race.

What's something you can expect to see from the cowboys on MNF?

- @kamhardeman54 (via Instagram)

On defense, I think you can expect Dallas to try very hard to get pressure on Tom Brady with a four-man pass rush. The Cowboys finished second in the NFL in sacks-per-pass-play rate at 9.82%, trailing only the ridiculous Eagles defense (12.59%). According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Dallas had the best pressure rate in the entire league, putting heat on opposing quarterbacks on 35.0% of their drop-backs. That's even better than Philadelphia.

And they did it without blitzing at a crazy rate. The Cowboys' blitz percentage, according to NGS, was only 27.2%, which nearly matched the league average of 27.1% and put them right in the middle of the NFL pack. It's not terribly surprising that a team could apply pressure without a blitz when it has Micah Parsons invading the backfield along with starting ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Dorance Armstrong. Those three combined for 28 sacks, and Dante Fowler added another six in a rotational role. The Cowboys surely saw what Tom Brady (and Mike Evans!) were capable of doing when Brady had time and took time to throw in Week 16 against the Panthers.

The Cowboys only sacked Brady twice in the team's Week One meeting, a 19-3 Bucs win, but both were by Parsons on plays that were snapped inside the Dallas 10-yard line. And both were on third down, meaning they forced the Bucs to settle for three each team. We probably can't expect the Bucs to hold the NFL's third-highest scoring offense to three points again, so converting on their own scoring opportunities is going to be paramount. Dallas is going to try to prevent that by getting to Brady before he can work his magic.

On offense, I would expect the Cowboys to work hard to get the run game established with Zeke Elliott and Tony Pollard. Dallas had the NFL's eighth-best rushing attack in the regular season but was only able to generate 71 yards on the ground in Week One against the Buccaneers. That was their third-lowest total in any game this season. Their second-lowest rushing total, 64 yards, came just this past weekend against Washington, in a game where the offense could only generate six points in a lopsided loss to a team eliminated from playoff contention. I would imagine Dallas will look at the tape of those two games and think that they simply have to do more in the running game to get their whole offense into gear.

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