In last week's mailbag, a Buccaneers fan on Instagram asked if the team would start utilizing Scotty Miller more. I argued that Miller's usage was already both substantial and consistent. He had played 43 snaps in Game One and 42 in Game Two, which overall was about 65% of the team's plays. Last week in Denver, Miller's usage dropped to 29 plays and 43% of the total, most likely because he has been dealing with groin and hip injuries.
Still, Miller came out of that game with 83 yards on three catches, just missing a huge day when another deep ball from Tom Brady was just a bit too long. After three weeks, Miller is second on the team with 167 receiving yards. His 16.7 yards per catch is best among all Bucs with at least five receptions.
Now, if you are a hater of "on pace" proclamations, particularly early in a season, look away. I will concede that a pace after just three games does not have very much predictive power. So the fact that Miller is averaging 55.7 yards per game, and that such an average over 16 games would produce about 890 yards, does not mean that it is a fact he will get that many yards.
But I'm not really trying to make any predictions about Miller anyway. Consider this more of a 'what-if' proposition. What if Miller does get close to 900 receiving yards? Or even 800 or 700? How surprising would that be?
Well, given where Miller was drafted in 2019, it would put him into pretty rare company in Buccaneers history. The Buccaneers made Miller the 208th player selected in that draft, towards the very end of the sixth round, and he was the 25th wide receiver chosen overall. None of which is to say that the Buccaneers shouldn't expect to get value out of that later-round pick. My point simply is that there have been very few wide receivers in franchise history who were drafted by Tampa Bay in the sixth round or later (or signed as an undrafted free agent) who have even had a 500-yard season for the Buccaneers.
Basically, it's a three-man list: Gerald Carter, Adam Humphries and Preston Parker. If you were expecting Karl "The Truth" Williams to show up on this list, well, his highest single-season receiving yardage total was 486, in 1997.
The Buccaneers drafted Carter in the ninth round out of Texas A&M in 1980. He is easily the most accomplished late-round receiver in team history, at least for now. He had five seasons with more than 500 receiving yards, three of which were 640 or better. Carter topped out at 816 yards in 1984.
Parker (2010) and Humphries (2015) were both signed by the Buccaneers as undrafted rookies. Parker is the anomaly here, as his 554-yard season in 2011 accounted for all but 42 of his yards as a Buccaneer. (He did have a 418-yard season for the Giants in 2014). Humphries, on the other hand, amped his production up from 622 yards in 2016 to 631 in 2017 to 816 in 2018…and then he got a big contract from the Tennessee Titans.
Again, I don't believe his numbers through three games mean that Miller will finish around 890 yards. Could be less, could be more. There's also the issue of him dealing with hip and groin injuries, which he played through in Denver but which kept him out of practice on Thursday. Anyway, if Miller does get 890 or more, it would be the most ever for a player the Bucs drafted after the fifth round or signed as an undrafted rookie. Even if he is capped at 700, it would be the third-most ever. At the very least, he's off to a good start and the Buccaneers have to feel good about that sixth-round investment in the former Bowling Green standout right now.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 4 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Now on to your questions for this week.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
How is the development of Chapelle Russell? Could we see him making an appearance this season?
- @masterjedi.yoda (via Instagram)
Yes, Master Yoda, see him making an appearance this season I could.
In fact, I think it's more likely than not, because the new rule allowing for up to two practice squad elevations to the game day roster every week means every player on that unit has a much better chance of seeing game action at some point during the campaign. Russell could get his first shot that way, or he could eventually get called up on a more permanent basis if there are some injuries to core special teams players.
Russell seemed to be showing up on special teams during training camp, though the lack of game reps apart from that one scrimmage didn't give him many opportunities to up his stock. He's got the right combination of size and speed to profile as a core special-teamer, and he definitely knew that was his ticket to an NFL roster. I believe he has a future in that type of role, and then once he can get his foot in the door he can start working towards playing on defense.
It may or may not be notable that the Buccaneers have chosen to use one of their four practice squad protection spots on Russell in two of the last three weeks. I don't think that, for the most part, those selections are made based on who the Bucs' management thinks are the four most promising or most important players on the 16-man practice squad. Generally, it probably has more to do with specific issues with the 53-man roster, as well as the players the Bucs would have the hardest time replacing quickly in an emergency. For instance, if something happened to kicker Ryan Succop on a Friday, the Buccaneers wouldn't have enough time to get another kicker in the building for a game on Sunday giving the COVID-19 testing protocol. That is likely why kicker Greg Joseph has been one of the Bucs' protected players all four weeks so far.
Still, it may be that the Buccaneers are trying to avoid having Russell poached by another team looking for some quick help on special teams. The Buccaneers know a thing or two about that maneuver. Last year when Jack Cichy was lost to an elbow injury the Bucs signed linebacker Noah Dawkins off the Bengals' practice squad to their 53-man roster. Dawkins played extensively on special teams the rest of the way.
Honestly, it's not particularly easy to assess the development of Russell or a player like him during the season this year. We have no contact with the players and only a small portion of practice is open to viewing. To know if anything notable has happened with Russell and his development, someone would have to ask that specific question of Bruce Arians or Keith Armstrong on one of their media sessions held on Zoom. And there likely isn't going to be a reason for anybody on one of those calls to ask that question until something interesting happens with Russell, like one of those practice squad elevations. So I have to admit this is a bit of a guess, but I do think the rookie linebacker can help on special teams and that he will probably get his shot before this season is over.
What's one area that needs to improve the most before hosting the Chargers?
I feel like this is getting greedy after that Denver game. There really wasn't much that the Bucs did poorly in that game. The pass rush was great, the coverage was tight, they won the turnover battle, the offensive line gave good protection, Tom Brady was on the money, the football got spread around, the red zone production continued to be outstanding, the special teams were a winning edge and the Bucs didn't let the Broncos get back into the game after they built a big lead.
But whatever, let's go ahead and get greedy. I've got two answers to your question.
One, I think the Buccaneers would like to be more effective running the ball on first downs. It's clear that they are going to continue to try to keep the offense balanced, and in the first two games that translated into a lot of runs on first-and-10. Byron Leftwich mixed in more first-down play-action in Denver but the overall numbers indicate that the Buccaneers are trying to establish the run on first down but aren't having as much success as they would like.
The Buccaneers have run the ball on 53.0% of their first-down plays this year, which is the 11th-highest percentage in the NFL. Unfortunately, their yards-per-carry on first-down runs is just 3.59, which is the seventh-worst average in the league. You could say that the Bucs rank as the top team that is still trying to run the ball a lot on first downs despite not getting optimal results. I say that because all 10 teams ahead of them in first-down run percentage have better per-carry averages, and only one of those teams has an average below four yards per carry. Six of them are better than 4.5 yards per carry, which is very good.
The advantage to frequently getting four to five yards per carry on first down, obviously, is that it makes for easier conversions on second and third down. Tampa Bay has been good on third down, converting 45.0% of their tries (12th in the NFL) but would probably be great if a higher percentage of their third-down tries were of the one to five-yard variety.
My second answer would seem to have a less specific answer, but it's pretty clear that the Buccaneers have not been sustaining their offensive momentum in the second half the last couple weeks. They led 23-3 in the second quarter in Denver and 23-10 at halftime but only finished at 28-10 by the end. The defense made sure that didn't matter but the Bucs would like to keep scoring after a fast start. In the win over Carolina, a 21-0 lead became 21-14 and the Bucs didn't really put the game away until Leonard Fournette ripped off a 46-yard touchdown run in the final two minutes.
Some of that may be related to my first issue. Tampa Bay's first and second-half splits on third downs are pretty stark so far this year. In the first half, the Buccaneers have converted a rather impressive 60.9% of their third down attempts, which is second only to what Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs have done. That's very good. In the second half, the Bucs' third-down success rate is 23.5%, and only the Jets and Colts have been worse. That's quite bad.
What's going on here? Do the Bucs forget how to draw up a good third-down play at halftime? Are they not trying as hard? Are they letting up on the gas? Are opponents figuring them out midway through the afternoon. Of course not. Players and coaches will simply tell you that this is a matter of execution, and for whatever reason they haven't executed their plays as well in the second half. Fortunately, it's a small sample size and there's every reason to believe the Bucs can reverse that second-half trend.
All great defenses have had a nickname.. what would you name this Bucs defense?
- @erikmp86 (via Instagram)
Have all of them had nicknames, really? There's the big ones, of course, like the Steel Curtain and the Monsters of the Midway. The Fearsome Foursome. The Cowboys had the Doomsday Defense. More recently the Legion of Boom. I just looked up a couple more: The Broncos' Orange Crush. The Dolphins' No-Name Defense in the '70s. I can't say anything else is coming to mind.
I mean, could you really say the Buccaneers' incredible 2002 defense had a nickname. Everybody called it "The Tampa Two," but that was really more of an acknowledgment that they had perfected the Cover Two under Monte Kiffin. It's not really a nickname and I'm sure the Buccaneer players never referred to themselves as the Tampa Two. The famous Baltimore Ravens defense of 2000 featuring Ray Lewis never really had a nickname that caught on, either.
The thing is, I think these things need to happen organically. It just spills out of somebody's mouth, people here and realize it's great and it starts to get adopted. I don't think you sit around brain-storming a nickname. And if that sounds like me making an excuse because I have never been good at coming up with nicknames, that's not entirely of the mark.
I don't know. They're a young group; maybe the Young Bucs? Ugh, lame. The Bowles Blitz? I'm sorry, that's the best I've got so I don't think you want me to continue.
I'll try to help by outsourcing it, then. If you read this and think you have a good nickname for the Bucs' rising defense, email it to me at email@example.com. If anything comes of this solicitation, I'll put it in next week's mailbag. That's the best I've got, Erik.