Fri, 02 Dec 2022

Early Adjustments | S.S. Mailbag

Buccaneers
23 Sep 2022, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay BuccaneersThis week, Buccaneers fans have questions about production out of the tight end spot, possible matchup advantages against the Packers and moreScott Smith

Before I get to today's intro topic, I wanted to look back at another one I wrote for a mailbag in May, shortly after the NFL dropped its 2022 schedule. The most notable thing about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers schedule was that the first four games looked like a real gauntlet of difficult opponents. That include the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs in back-to-back games at Raymond James Stadium. But before the Bucs even got to that they would have two travel to Dallas and New Orleans in Weeks One and Two. The Cowboys went 12-5 last year and the Saints had beaten Tampa Bay in seven straight regular-season games, including the last three in the Superdome.

This would be just the seventh time in 47 seasons that the Buccaneers would open a season with two straight road games. Back in May, I suggested that we look at this as an opportunity. In none of those other six seasons did the Buccaneers emerge from those two season-opening road games with a 2-0 road record. How great would that set the team up for the rest of the season, especially after this grueling first month is over.

And now the Buccaneers have done it! Rousing wins in Dallas and New Orleans have put the Bucs in an enviable position as the only team in the league that already has two road wins in the bank. So I thought it was worth resurfacing what I had learned about such starts across the league. The Bucs had never done it before, but it had been done before, though not terribly often. Here's what I wrote in May.

"So the Buccaneers have never done it before, but just how common are such starts? Well, since the 1970 merger, it has happened less than once per season. In those 52 campaigns, 42 teams have managed the 2-0 road start to a season, most recently both Denver and San Francisco last year. It's actually happened six times over the last four seasons, but before that it had only occurred six times in the previous 16 years.

Those 42 teams finished their seasons with a combined winning percentage of .594, which when applied to a 17-game season would be almost exactly a 10-7 season. Last year, every team that won at least 10 games made the playoffs, including the aforementioned 49ers, who went all the way to the NFC Championship Game. On the other hand, the aforementioned 2021 Broncos did not win 10 games or make the playoffs, finishing 7-10. It's probably worth noting that not all 2-0 road starts in the first two weeks of a season are created equal. Denver opened last year with wins at the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars. Those two teams combined to go 7-27 last year."

So, mildly encouraging but the Buccaneers shouldn't exactly be cashing their playoff bonus checks just yet. There's a long way to go.

There's also a long way to go in terms of how Tampa Bay's 2022 offense is going to develop. We know what it has looked like the past two years - extremely high-octane passing and a heavy tilt towards putting the ball in the air - and some of the same pieces are still in place, most notably Tom Brady, Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette. The Buccaneers were second in the league in passing in 2020 and ranked 30th in run percentage (36.3%) and 16th in run percentage on first-and-10 (49.8%). Last year, the Bucs took over the top spot in the passing rankings and also fell to dead last in run percentage (33.8%) and 29th in run percentage on first-and-10 (46.0%).

So far, 2022 has looked very different. Now, the first and obvious caveat is that we are talking about a very small sample size. Couple that with Head Coach Todd Bowles suggesting that it would take a month or so to know what the Buccaneers' offense was going to look like this season and we can't really use what has happened so far as an ironclad predictor. In addition, there are some extenuating circumstances in play, most notably injuries to Ryan Jensen, Donovan Smith and virtually the entire receiving corps.

STILL. We could be witnessing a bit of a shift in the Bucs' approach, prompted in part because the defense appears to be very, very good and is by far the healthier crew right now. The Buccaneers have run the ball a lot through the first two games, and while that is sometimes the result of winning games rather than the cause of it - teams with healthy leads are more likely to run the ball to burn the clock and avoid turnovers - the Bucs have been running in all situations so far. Right now, Tampa Bay is calling a run play on 49.6% of its plays, which is the seventh-highest figure in the league. Several of the teams above the Bucs on that list have quarterbacks who contribute to the running game. On first-and-10, the Buds have run it 72.0% of the time, which is the top figure in the league. Leonard Fournette's 24 carries in New Orleans are the most he's had in a game as a Buccaneer, and that was a 3-3 ballgame into the fourth quarter. This wasn't about protecting a lead.

I go back to what Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich said last week. Leftwich said the goal wasn't to be 'balanced' (i.e. running it as much as passing it). The goal was to be multiple. In other words, Leftwich wants an offense that can succeed in a number of different ways, so that if the Bucs are forced into one approach or another they can do well enough to win the game. So it's defense and running now and maybe next week it will be Tom Brady bombing away again. As long as it results in a win, it's a good approach in my book.

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.

I am so excited about our Bucs & their gutsy play on Defense and their comeback efforts on offense. My only question right now is; how can we improve our productivity from the TE position?? Our rookie TE Otton was a pass catcher, and what about K. Rudolf?? At this point, Cameron Brate is not producing. Those TE pass routes where the TE drops into those open spots over the middle, as a safety valve for Brady, are needed desperately!!! Where can this production come from???

- Tracy W. Schulis (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

I'm not sure we're going to see a ton of pass-catching productivity out of the tight end corps this year. That's just the way it is. The Buccaneers do not have anybody who is going to credibly emulate what Rob Gronkowski delivered the past two seasons and, frankly, I'm not sure there was any way they could have found that barring some completely unexpected trade.

For instance, there were 18 tight ends selected in this year's draft and so far they have combined for seven catches and 59 yards, including Cade Otton's four-yard grab on Sunday. The top tight ends to change teams in free agency were C.J. Ozumah, Tyler Conklin, Gerald Everett, Evan Engram, Austin Hooper and Hayden Hurst. Everett is off to a nice start with the Chargers and Conklin, Hurst and Engram all have around 10 catches so far, but I don't think any have had a Gronkowski-type impact.

So the Buccaneers spent two day-three picks on the position and brought in veteran Kyle Rudolph. The fact that Rudolph has been a healthy scratch for the first two games suggest the Buccaneers think they can help the offense more by playing rookies Otton and Ko Kieft, and hopefully help those two develop into impact players. But that may take some time; at least for now Otton and Kieft have helped with their blocking skills. And you're right, Cam Brate only has one catch per game so far, but I suspect he's got a few bigger games in him this year. But again, he's not going to give you Gronkowski numbers.

So the answer is essentially what Todd Bowles has been saying since Gronkowski announced his retirement: The Buccaneers aren't necessarily going to replace his production with other tight ends. Once the receiving corps is a little healthier, guys like Julio Jones and Russell Gage can help pick up the slack. I also think the Bucs can credibly get a lot more out of running backs Leonard Fournette and Rachaad White. Those two have only combined for six catches and 26 yards so far through two games.

Here, Bowles even said it again this week when asked if the young tight ends would need to produce more during the game that Mike Evans is suspended: "Not necessarily that position but from everybody that's on the field, running backs and receivers. We're going to have to pick it up somewhere, somebody's going to have to make a play and step up. That's what we've got depth for."

Can the practice squad travel with the team?

- @beutyfulbre_ (via Instagram)

Yes, it can. And those players often do. Now that practice squads have ballooned to 16 players, teams may be reluctant to crowd the plane with all of them every week, but there are definite advantages to bringing your practice squad with you on road games.

For one, as my buddy Jeff Ryan explained on this week's Salty Dogs podcast, going to away games helps young players get acclimated to how travel with the team works. There are a lot of specifics and timing issues when it comes to flying to the host city, busing to and from the hotel and the stadium, getting to the away stadium and getting situated, flying back out of the game, etc. Everybody on the practice squad has a chance to at some point be on the active roster and if that happens it's helpful if they already know the routine.

In addition, there are certain times where one or two of those practice squad players actually have a shot at playing that week. That has become particularly true since the addition of the 'practice squad elevation' rule in 2020, which allows teams to activate up to two of those players on game day and increase their number of available players to 54 or 55. The Bucs did this with wideout Kaylon Geiger and linebacker Kenny Young this past weekend. But even before that rule teams would sometimes be uncertain about the health of one of their active players going into the weekend and would bring along a practice squad player who might be signed to the roster on Saturday.

What are our strengths and weaknesses going up against the Packers?

- @derekalmond_

I read this as you asking me where the Bucs' strengths match up well against the Packers and where their weaknesses could be a particular problem against that opponent. I hope I'm getting that right because that's the question I'm going to answer!

The Buccaneers and Packers actually have a handful of similar strengths and weaknesses so far in this young season, and they're not exactly what you would have expected from teams led by Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Both teams have played quite good defensively so far, the Bucs allowing the fewest points in the league and the Packers allowing the seventh fewest. Part of that has been a robust pass rush, with Tampa Bay ranking third in sacks per pass play and the Packers coming in eighth. Both teams have also run the ball well and frequently, although Green Bay has a good lead in that department (157 yards per game to 112 for the Buccaneers). The two defenses have been equally stingy on third downs, tying for second with a success rate allowed of 25.0%.

So where are the juicy matchups? Well, it's a little early to make sweeping proclamations, but based on the results so far the Buccaneers' secondary could have an edge on the Packers' Davante Adams-less receiving corps. Tampa Bay has the NFL's eighth-best pass defense so far and ranks third in yards allowed per pass play, at 4.62. Beyond those numbers, I am of the opinion that the coverage trio of Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Antoine Winfield Jr. (in nickel packages) has played particularly well. The Packers' two leading wideouts are Sammy Watkins and rookie Romeo Doubs, with six catches each. That's the same number that running backs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon have caught. The Packers are averaging just 11.0 yards per reception.

In addition, the Buccaneers' secondary could be in position for big plays, even against a quarterback as fantastic as avoid turnovers as Aaron Rodgers, if their fast-starting defensive front can take advantage of a banged-up Packers' offensive line. Standout tackles David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins started the season injured; Bakhtiari hasn't played yet though Jenkins did return last week at right tackle. Bakhtiari could return this weekend but it's obviously possible that he would need some time to round back into top form. Whatever the lineup, the Packers have allowed seven sacks through two games and rank 28th in sacks allowed per pass play. Led by Devin White and Shaq Barrett, the Buccaneers have an NFL-high 10 sacks so far and are third in sacks per pass play.

Those seem like the two best exploitable opportunities for the Buccaneers this Sunday. Neither team has really gotten its passing game going yet, but with Brady and Rodgers you can never really count out the possibility of either one suddenly catching fire. So a shootout is always possible, but on paper this one has the look of a defensive struggle and the Bucs could win that battle if they put a lot of heat on Rodgers in the backfield.

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