Wed, 03 Mar 2021

On to Green Bay | S.S. Mailbag

Buccaneers
22 Jan 2021, 18:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers This week, Bucs fans have questions about necessary improvements before the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay, Vita Vea's potential return and more Scott Smith

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have big things on their mind this weekend, hoping to join a very limited club of the best playoff road warriors in league history. With a win in Green Bay on Sunday, the Buccaneers would become just the fifth team in the Super Bowl era to win three straight road games during a single postseason.

By winning on the road at Washington and New Orleans, the Buccaneers have already accomplished something that doesn't happen every year. They are the 29th team in 55 Super Bowl tournaments to win multiple playoff road games. The most recent one before Tampa Bay was Tennessee just last year, but prior to that no team had done it since 2013. The Buccaneers had certainly never done it before.

That's nice, but it's a job unfinished in the estimation of Tampa Bay players and coaches. They are looking to complete the long journey, and join those other four teams who powered through three road games to make it to the Super Bowl. The history of the previous four teams is encouraging as to the ultimate goal. Let's take a look:

1. The 1985 New England Patriots are probably best remembered as the sacrificial lamb that took the Super Bowl beating from the famous 1985 Chicago Bears. But the Patriots were an 11-5 team that season, somehow finishing third in a powerhouse AFC East behind the Dolphins and the Jets. New England would have to go through both of those teams on their way to Super Bowl XX, beating the Jets in New York in the Wild Card round, the Raiders in Los Angeles in the Divisional Round and the Dolphins in Miami in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots then lost to Mike Ditka's Bears, 46-10.

2. It would be 20 years before the Pittsburgh Steelers would make the next three-game road trip to the Super Bowl. The '05 Steelers also finished 11-5, losing the NFC North on a tiebreaker to Cincinnati. That pitted those two teams in the Wild Card round in Cincy and the Steelers won by two touchdowns. Pittsburgh then took out the Colts in Indianapolis and the Broncos in Denver to reach Super Bowl XL. The Steelers then finished off the their incredible run with a 21-10 win over Seattle in the Super Bowl.

3. Just two years later, the New York Giants duplicated the feat, and if you're a Buccaneers fan by way of Tom Brady, you know how this postseason went. The Giants went 10-6 and won a Wild Card berth, which sent them to Tampa to play the Buccaneers, who had won the South with a 9-7 record. New York got out of Tampa alive with a 24-14 win, then had to go to Dallas to play the team that won their division, the NFC East. The Giants took that one, too, 21-17, advancing Green Bay where they finally prevailed in a 23-20 overtime contest. Brady and the undefeated Patriots were waiting, but Eli Manning and the Giants denied New England the NFL's first 19-0 season with a 17-14 in in Super Bowl XLII.

4. The most recent franchise to plow through three road games on the way to the Super Bowl has a vested interest in the Buccaneers not joining the club. The 2010 Packers went 10-6 and finished a game behind Chicago in the NFC North, finishing in a three-way tie for the final NFC Wild Card spot with the Buccaneers and Giants. Green Bay won that on a tiebreaker and went to Philadelphia to start the playoffs. After beating the Eagles, the Packers headed south to Atlanta and walloped the Falcons, 48-21. That bought Green Bay a ticket to the Windy City and a chance to get its revenge on the Bears, which it did in a 21-14 decision. The result was a spot in Super Bowl XLV against Pittsburgh. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers won that one in a thriller, 31-25.

So it is extremely uncommon to win three straight road games in the playoffs, as common sense would suggest. But if you do manage to complete that sweep, you apparently will find yourself in good shape in the Super Bowl. (What's that? Tiny sample size? I can't hear you.) The Buccaneers would sure like to find out if that is true.

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.

In terms of stats, is this the best offense the Bucs have ever had?

- @myers_2626, via Instagram

My knee-jerk reaction, without looking at any numbers or even trying to think too hard about the specifics, is yes. But let's take a closer look.

The easiest and probably best way to support that argument is just to look at points scored. That is, after all, the only real goal of any offense, to score points. I guarantee you every head coach in the NFL right now would gladly take an offense that ranked 20th in yards but led the league in scoring (which wouldn't be easy to do, but you get my point). By this measure, the 2020 Buccaneers are the best offense in franchise history and it's not even close.

Scoring is up across the NFL; I'll stipulate that. Prior to 2018, the most points Tampa Bay had ever scored in a season was 389, in 2012. Then the '18 team behind Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick scored 396 points for a slight upgrade to the record. Then came the 2019 Bucs, with Winston under new Head Coach Bruce Arians. That team scored 458 points, absolutely demolishing the old (if being around one year makes you old) record. Not to be outdone, Tom Brady joined Arians in 2020 and the Bucs scored 492 points, another massive bump in the record. Think about that: The Bucs' point total this past season was 103 points more than the most they had ever scored just three years ago.

That bump from 2019 to this year doesn't even do justice to how much better the Bucs were at scoring points in 2020. You're asking me about the Bucs' offense, Myers, and I'm responding with point totals, but that 2019 team had the benefit of SIX defensive touchdowns. The Bucs only had one of those in 2020, so they really outscored last year's offense by more like 70 points.

The 2020 Buccaneers finished third in the NFL with 30.8 points scored per game, the first time they've ever topped 30 per outing. But, again, scoring has steadily increased across the NFL in the last two decades. Therefore, the best way to see if the Bucs' offense in 2020 was better than any one that came before is to compare all 45 teams to their eras.

For instance, this year's team scored 30.8 points per game and the NFL average was 24.8. So the 2020 Bucs were six points better per game than the average team, or 24.0% better than the average. The 2019 team was actually better in this regard; it was 5.8 points better than the average, which was 25.5% better than the average total of 22.8. However, let's remember again that the 2019 team had five more defensive touchdowns than this year's squad. That easily makes up the difference in those two percentages. The only other team that is remotely close in this category is the 2000 squad, which averaged 24.3 points per game while the league averaged was 20.7. That's 17.3% better than the average, but that 2000 team had seven non-offensive touchdowns. No other Bucs team has ever been more than 6.8% better than the NFL average in points per game.

In terms of yards, the Bucs didn't really come close to setting a new record with 6,145. That is the third-most in team history, with all three of the top marks coming in the last three years, but the 2018 record of 6,648 is way out ahead. This year's team also finished behind the last two in net passing yards, with 4,626.

Of course, the Bucs' offense only had 17 giveaways in 2020, which is the lowest single-season total in franchise history. That's HUGE. Most points and fewest turnovers in a season. Yeah, I'd say that's the best offense the Buccaneers have ever had. I could dive into plenty of numbers but don't really see the point. I rest my case.

What's the likelihood of Vita playing and if he does play, how does that change up the line? If he can't start, could we see him as a backup?

- @mel_reys_82, via Instagram

For anyone not up to speed on this, the Buccaneers designated third-year defensive lineman Vita Vea to return from injured reserve on Monday and he returned to the practice field on Wednesday. That first day back didn't tell us much because the Bucs held their Wednesday practice at walk-through speed. Head Coach Bruce Arians dead-panned that Vea "walked really good," when asked about his return to action. What Vea does on Thursday and Friday will be more telling.

If the Buccaneers believe that Vea could play and be an asset on Sunday in Green Bay, they can activate him from IR and put him on the 53-man roster at any point up through Saturday. This has all come as a bit of a shock this week because the last time that Arians was asked about the possibility of Vea or tight end O.J. Howard returning for the playoffs he indicated that neither was likely to happen. However, Vea apparently surged in his recovery in December and the Bucs began thinking about a possible return if they stayed alive long enough.

Arians said he came to this realization about three weeks ago.

"I saw him running in the pool and then on the Ultra G [treadmill]," said Arians. "It's like, 'Man, he's getting close.' Once I finally saw him outside running, [I knew.] He wanted to play. He wanted to come back and I said, 'Hey, we'll keep winning and you keep working and it will work out.' And it has."

Mel obviously knows all this and is wondering if this is a realistic possibility. I think it is. Arians saw Vea running and realized a return was possible, and now the team wants to get him on the practice field and make a determination for Sunday. If he is healthy and he looks like he could make a positive contribution on Sunday, then why not.

Now, I know we are not looking past Green Bay to the Super Bowl. But the Bucs obviously have to plan for every possibility, and even if Vea doesn't get clearance this week, if the team does prevail in Green Bay then he would have two more weeks to progress before that final game. It's all hypothetical, of course, but it makes sense to start evaluating Vea's progress now just in case there is that future opportunity.

You ask if we could see him as a 'backup.' Let's say, 'rotational player' instead. In the five games that Vea played before landing on injured reserve (which included most of the Chicago game in which he got hurt), he was on the field for 69.7% of the team's defensive snaps. Rakeem Nunez-Roches, whose primary role was as Vea's backup at nose tackle, got in for 37.8% of the snaps. Those two numbers add up to more than 100 snaps, so it wasn't completely a matter of Nunez-Roches spelling Vea at the nose, but that was the vast majority of it.

I can't image the Buccaneers would expect Vea to come back and immediately step back into the primary nose tackle role playing two-thirds of the snaps. Wouldn't it make sense to have the roles of Vea and Nunez-Roches reversed for the either one or two games that is left? With veteran Steve McLendon also in the mix, the Buccaneers could really play it by ear and give Vea as much or as little work as they thought he could handle as the game progresses.

It really wouldn't be hard to make this work from a game day roster standpoint either. In addition to Nunez-Roches and McLendon, the Buccaneers kept rookie defensive lineman Khalil Davis active for their Divisional Playoff Game in New Orleans. Davis, who has been inactive for 14 of 18 games so far, only got into the game for two snaps. If the Bucs were to keep Vea active instead of Davis on Sunday and Vea wasn't able to contribute much, it doesn't seem like it would make much of a difference.

What is the biggest area we need to clean up ahead of the Championship game?

- @officialunacool_1

This will be easier to answer if I don't have to stick to the idea of "clean up," which sounds like taking some area that was sloppy or inefficient and improving it. There really isn't a whole lot of that to deal with right now. I did think the penalties got a little out of hand in New Orleans; it turned out to be seven for 62 yards, including five that created new first downs for the Saints. The Bucs can't afford those kind of drive-extending problems in Green Bay, but it's hard to get too worked up by this because, overall, penalties have not been a problem for the Buccaneers since early in the season.

Meanwhile, there were no turnovers in New Orleans, no glaring coverage breakdowns (unless you count getting burned by a trick play), no players really losing their cool, no offensive line miscommunications leading to free rushers, few dropped passes and not that many missed tackles (the one on the first punt return being a glaring exception). The punt coverage looked like it needed to be tightened up but a lot of that has to do with facing the electric Deonte Harris. The Packers, meanwhile, have not been good in the return and coverage game this season.

So it was a relatively clean game in New Orleans without much need for a visit from the maid. Rather, let me point out two areas where the Bucs need to "turn it up" if they want to beat the Packers on Sunday. The first one is the red zone. For some reason, the Buccaneers have gone from being quite good in that category for most of the season to not particularly efficient over the last three games, including the season finale against Atlanta and the two playoff games.

Through the first 15 games of the season, the Buccaneers scored touchdowns on 71.4% of their drives that penetrated the opposing team's 20-yard line, averaging 5.68 yards per possession. Overall, they finished the regular season as the seventh-best red zone offense in the NFL in terms of touchdown percentage.

Since the Atlanta game, however, the Buccaneers have had 16 drives reach the red zone but have only scored touchdowns on six of them. That 37.5% TD rate would have been worst in the league over a full season. They have at least managed to come away with points, with nine of the other 10 drives resulting in successful field goals and the 10th being a kneel-down to end the game. Even so, the Bucs' average points per red zone drive has dropped to 4.31.

It's not particularly obvious why Tampa Bay's offense is suddenly struggling in the red zone, other than the fact that one of the defenses they just played, at Washington in the Wild Card round, is really good in that category. Otherwise, it just seems like plays that were being executed earlier in the season are not right now. As an example, Tom Brady's attempted quick slant to Rob Gronkowski at the goal line looked like a good play call with a high chance of working Sunday in New Orleans, but it was knocked away by safety Malcolm Jenkins. Maybe it was just a phenomenal play by Jenkins; maybe it would have been complete if the pass had been a foot farther in front of Gronkowski. Who knows?

I don't think there's any reason to believe that the red zone struggles of recent weeks will continue on Sunday in Green Bay, other than the fact that the Packers had the league's eighth-best red zone defense this year. It's just an area in which I think the Bucs could make a difference with a bit of improvement this week.

My second area of concern is the pass rush on defense. The Buccaneers have recorded a total of three sacks in their last three games, after averaging a bit more than three sacks per game over the first 15 outings of the regular season. It's not terribly surprising that the Bucs were shut out in the sack department in New Orleans, as the Saints emphasize getting the ball out of Drew Brees's hands very quickly. The containment problems the Bucs had against the inexperienced Taylor Heinicke in the Wild Card round are a bit more of a concern, particularly given how lethal Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers can be when he escapes the pocket and extends plays. It's obvious that the Bucs' very effective pass rush in Week Six (five sacks, 13 QB hits) was the main reason that Rodgers had by far his worst game of the season. Duplicating that won't be easy, but getting more pressure than the Bucs have had in the past three weeks seems essential.

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