Before diving into this week's mailbag intro, I want to stipulate that the following information is for entertainment purposes only. I, your humble narrator, do not want to give you undeserved hope or suggest that historical results necessarily lead to similar outcomes. I just looked something up and found it interesting, and I hope you do, too. I do not consider the following information to be predictive in nature.
Okay, with that out of the way, here's today's topic: First place in the division after five weeks. After beating the Atlanta Falcons, 21-15, on Sunday, the Buccaneers sit at 3-2 and are in sole possession of first place in the NFC South, with a one-game lead over Atlanta and the New Orleans Saints, both 2-3. That is obviously a very tenuous lead, and while the Buccaneers have already notched wins over both of the teams tied for second, there is a very, very long way to go. Things could look very different in just a couple weeks.
What is interesting, however, is how well the standings after Week Five have predicted the final division results in the past. This is the 21st season since the NFC South was formed in 2002, and in the previous 20, the 16 teams that had sole possession of first place in the division went on to win it 14 times. In the four seasons that had a tie at the top after Week Five, all four were won by one of those tied teams.
Only the 2013 Saints, who started out 5-0 failed to at least tie for the best record in the division, as they finished 11-5 and were overtaken by the 12-4 Panthers. Carolina's 2017 season started out 4-1 but they ended up in a tie with New Orleans at 11-5 each and lost the tiebreaker.
Here, take a look:
|Season||Leader After 5 Games||Record||Division Winner||Record|
The Buccaneers have had the best record or been tied for the best record in the NFC South four times after five weeks and have gone on to win the division on three of those occasions. The exception was 2020, when the Bucs, Saints and Panthers were all 3-2 and the Saints were able to take the division crown with a 12-4 mark. Since the Buccaneers went on to win the Super Bowl that season, I think we can all handle that little bit of disappointment.
Admittedly, the division lead with a 3-2 mark isn't quite as encouraging as a 5-0 or 4-1 opening. But in the only season in NFC South history in which one of its teams had sole possession of first place after five weeks with a 3-2 record, the 2014 Panthers went on to take the crown.
Let me reiterate: There is a long, long way to go and I do not believe the Buccaneers' one-game lead in the division in mid-October makes them a lock to repeat as NFC South champs. Still, it would be nice if divisional history kept on the course it has set during its first two decades.
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 email@example.com.
What areas of the game are you most concerned about this far into the season?
- @antman04_05_06 (via Instagram)
Perfect transition, from information you shouldn't get too excited about to concerns that, while valid, shouldn't worry you too terribly much at this point.
What I am not worried about is the Buccaneers' offense overall. Between an early-season rash of injuries and an overall depression in scoring across the NFL this year, I'd have to say it's kind of impressive that Tampa Bay is ranked third in the league in passing offense after five games. The rushing attack admittedly needs some work, but I think the pieces are in place for this offense to continue ascending.
Similarly, the defensive numbers are pretty good overall. The Bucs are sixth in both yards and points allowed, which I will take any day of the week and twice on Sunday. It all adds up to the eighth-best points differential and 11th-best yardage differential in the NFL at this point. I think that's a winning formula.
But, of course, things haven't been perfect and there are some areas in which I have concern. I'm not saying that any of these can't be fixed, or that at this point in the season make me worried that the Bucs aren't true contenders, but they would be problems if they persisted. Here are my top three, in no particular order:
- Pressure on opposing quarterbacks
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Buccaneers have applied pressure on the quarterback on 24.7% of pass drops so far this season. That ranks 24th in the NFL. On one hand, Tampa is third in the NFL with 19 sacks so…good! Last season, the Bucs were a bit frustrated about how frequently they turned those pressures into sacks, so it's good to see a high percentage of opportunities to get the quarterback to the ground coming to fruition. But the Buccaneers need more pressure on the quarterback overall, whether or not they result in sacks. Tampa Bay's pressure rate when blitzing – i.e. bringing five or more defenders at the quarterback is 39.0%, which is 10th-best in the league. I just think the Bucs need to apply pressure more consistently when not bringing extra pass rushers.
- Third-and-long defense
This is a confounding combination of statistics: On opponent third-down attempts needing six or fewer yards, the Buccaneers have allowed a conversion rate of 41.9%, and it's weirdly 28.6% between four and six yards. On third-down tries between seven and 10 yards, Tampa Bay opponents have converted 57.1% of the time. That's kind of hard to believe, but it's true. This seems fluky – why would a defense be worse against longer third downs – but it's also been a problem to this point in the season. When you do well enough on the first two downs to force difficult third downs, you're supposed to win more often than you lose.
- Rushing offense
I mean, this one is pretty self-explanatory, right? The Buccaneers are second-to-last in the NFL with 66.0 rushing yards per game, ahead of only the Rams. It's worth noting that the Buccaneers and Rams are the last two Super Bowl champions and neither team relied particularly heavily on the run on their way to the title. The Bucs really don't have to be one of the team's better rushing teams in order to be successful, not with Tom Brady leading an amazingly talented passing attack. That said, I think there are going to be times this season when the Buccaneers need to run it better, and hopefully they will be able to do so. The Week One performance at Dallas is encouraging, but Tampa Bay has run for four or more yards on just 34.9% of their attempts, second-to-last in the league.
I could go on, just as I could easily list 10 things that are going very well for the Buccaneers so far in 2022. But I think that's enough. And I'm relatively confident the team can improve in all three areas.
Is Cade Otton comparable to Gronk?
- @lisainlkld (via Instagram)
Having met Cade Otton, I can state pretty confidently that he does not remind me very much of Rob Gronkowski. Take that what for what it's worth.
I almost didn't field this question because it's kind of silly. I don't know if Cade Otton is going to have a great career, a very good career or an average career, but to compare any rookie tight end with Gronkowski is completely unfair. Gronkowski is, depending upon your point of view, either the best tight end in NFL history or one of the top five. Otton has 10 catches for 76 yards.
However, I decided to go ahead with this one because, during the game on Sunday, a colleague of mine texted me the following: "Is that Gronk or Cade Otton?!" Obviously, this came after Otton had made a couple of impressive plays in a row and had shown a Gronk-like ability to absorb hits from defenders. Otton would finish the game with six catches for 43 yards, providing immense help for a passing attack that had to work the underneath zones against the style of defense Atlanta was playing. I don't want to compare Ott to Gronk. I do want to give Otton his due for a well-played game just a month or so into his NFL career.
In one sense, Otton could be like Gronkowski in that he has the potential to be an every-down, two-way tight end, a true 'Y.' That means he blocks well enough, runs routes well enough and catches the ball well enough to make him a viable option on any play. Head Coach Todd Bowles said on Monday that Otton is that type of tight end, and sure enough he was on the field for 94% of the team's offensive snaps against Atlanta. Some of that was by necessity given that veteran tight end Cam Brate was out with a concussion, but Otton took that opportunity and ran with it.
Do I think that Cade Otton is destined for nearly 10,000 receiving yards and 100 touchdowns, like Rob Gronkowski was able to put up? Do I think any young tight end in the NFL is destined for that? No. That's crazy. But if you simply mean a tight end the Bucs can put on the field for nearly every snap and feel comfortable with both his blocking and receiving skills then, yeah, I like what I see so far.
Does K Pickett having less film make him harder to plan for?
- @jonathanmokai123 (via Instagram)
My counter question would be, 'Harder than what?' Would I rather prepare for Kenny Pickett with a scarcity of film or Patrick Mahomes with five years of extremely scary footage that I can spend all day breaking down? Give me Pickett, please.
Pickett has decent mobility but he isn't a huge threat to run, so the Buccaneers don't have to worry about facing a Marcus Mariota type. Otherwise, they're just preparing for another pocket passer, but one who has very little NFL experience. He threw for 327 yards on 34-of-52 passing, with one pick, against a great Buffalo team in his first start, but somehow that only resulted in three points. Pickett may very well have a nice game against the Buccaneers' defense in Week Six, but I don't think it will be due to a lack of game tape.
In fact, I'd flip that question around. I would think the Buccaneers' defense has the capability of throwing a lot of things at the rookie quarterback that he is not yet familiar with. We know Todd Bowles is aggressive with his pass rush and the Buccaneers have some exotic blitz schemes that would give any quarterback fits. Through just five games, Tampa Bay's defense already features 11 different players who already have a sack. That's pretty remarkable, and it demonstrates how confusing the Bucs' defensive schemes must be for opposing offenses, particularly one that is led by a rookie with one career start.
If Pickett was a markedly different than quarterback in terms of playing style than the veteran he replaced, Mitchell Trubisky, then maybe you might be on to something here. But I don't think the switch from Trubisky, who was off to a pretty rough start, to Pickett significantly changes what the Steelers are trying to do on offense. In fact, I'm guessing a question similar to yours will be asked of Coach Bowles this week and I'd be willing to bet he'll say something along the lines of, "We're preparing for the Steelers' offense as a whole, not just the quarterback. I expect them to run the same offense they were running under Trubisky."
Do you see Deven Thompkins getting any playing time at WR?
- @cant_stopnow_ (via Instagram)
I wouldn't think that would happen anytime soon. At the moment, Thompkins is on the practice squad and the Buccaneers have seven receivers on the active roster. The team's receiving corps is trending in the right direction in terms of health, which would make it less likely that a rookie on the practice squad will be called upon anytime soon.
Thompkins did get elevated from the practice squad this past weekend and was eligible to play against the Falcons, but he was eventually named one of the team's seven game inactives. The Buccaneers had brought up both Thompkins and Kaylon Geiger for the game with Breshad Perriman, Julio Jones and Russell Gage all considered questionable to play. When Perriman and Jones were ruled out the Bucs kept Geiger active but with Gage good to go there was no room for Thompkins. Geiger has impressed the team as a gunner on special teams, which is probably why he got the nod over his fellow undrafted rookie.
None of this should erase the fact that Thompkins was extremely impressive in the month of August, which is why he is still around and why he has a potential future in the NFL, hopefully with the Buccaneers. While he is undersized by NFL standards he plays big, consistently making impressive leaping plays in team practices and joint workouts with the Dolphins and Titans. Thompkins is clearly a very talented player but I think it's probably going to be a while until he gets his shot in the regular season. That could change if fresh injuries hit the Bucs' receiving corps, but we certainly don't want to root for that.