Are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers doing what we all thought was impossible a few weeks ago? Are they making a run for the playoffs? Sure they need a lot of help from a lot of other teams, but they’re not “mathematically” out of it just yet. In fact, after this weekend they’re still “in the hunt” for a wildcard spot somehow. And after an up and down (mostly down) season, this team has crawled out of the basement of the NFC South with two straight games of really good complimentary football.
After going 1-7 in an 8 game stretch where that one win was against the Cleveland Browns, the Bucs have now won two straight games with a home game against the Saints coming up next. So what’s different? What’s changed in the last couple of weeks? What is this team doing now that it wasn’t doing all season long? Well, let’s take a look at the numbers.
JAMEIS NOT BEING JAMEIS!
Jameis Winston had a rough start to his season. After missing the first 3 games of the year due to a disciplinary suspension, he came back as the Week 4 backup QB to Ryan Fitzpatrick. That role didn’t last long as he was put in the game for the second half against the Bears after Fitz went 9 for 18 for 126 yards, no touchdowns and 1 interception in the first half. During their game of “Musical QB’s”, Winston proceeded to go 96 of 148 (65%) for 1,181 yards, 6 touchdowns and 10 interceptions over the next 4 games. His turnovers were killing this team putting them in situations that made games almost unwinnable. Then after throwing 4 interceptions against the Browns and getting benched for the Giants game, something must have clicked. Since then, he has gone 61 of 84 (73%) for 760 yards, 6 touchdowns and just 1 interception in his last 10 quarters and this team has now won two straight games. For just the second time in his career, he’s had back-to-back games with multiple touchdown passes and zero interceptions. And if you count the second half of the Giants game, he has three straight games with a QB rating of at least 110, which he’s never done before. Winston has been playing much more under control, being decisive and making good decisions with his throws and taking sacks instead of forcing plays. If he can continue to play this way for the rest of the season, then not only will the QB carousel end but the Bucs just might continue their winning ways right into the playoffs.
KICKING WOES NO MO’S!
It’s no secret that the Buccaneers have had their issues in the kicking game. Since Matt Bryant was run out of town in 2009, the Bucs have changed kickers eleven times in hopes of finding an answer to their kicking woes. Meanwhile, Bryant is in his 10th season with the Falcons and hasn’t made less than 78% of his kicks in a single season. With the recent signing of veteran kicker Cairo Santos, the Bucs are hoping that they’ve found the answer to the kicking carousel. In his first 3 games with the Bucs, Santos has made all 14 of his kicks (3 FG’s and 11 XP’s). And he hasn’t even had any near misses yet. His kicks have been splitting the uprights every single time. When kickers do their job and make their kicks, the team doesn’t have to chase points for the rest of the game. Hopefully, Santos can continue making his kicks and helping the Bucs win games.
The Buccaneers defense has been a liability all season long. However since Mike Smith was fired after the Week 6 loss to the Falcons, that defense has been improving. In the first 5 games this year under Smith, this Bucs defense had 27 tackles for loss by 20 different players, 9 sacks by 9 different players, 1 interception, 14 passes defensed by 12 different players, allowed 440 yards and 35 points per game and had a 43% third down percentage allowed. In the 7 games since Mark Duffner took over the defensive playcalling, this same defense has 39 tackles for loss by 31 different players, 24 sacks by 22 different players, 6 interceptions by 4 different players, 25 passes defensed by 20 different players, has allowed 363 yards and 26 points per game and has a 33% third down percentage allowed. There’s no doubt that this defense is playing inspired football for their new coordinator. Despite numerous injuries to that side of the ball, they’re playing much better. They’re causing turnovers. They’re getting to the quarterback. They’re being disruptive. They’re starting to “wreak havok” in the way we all thought they would before this season started. That, in combination with Jameis Winston playing mistake free football, should allow them to continue winning games and clawing their way back towards a possible playoff birth.
NEXT MAN UP!
Injuries have been a large part of the Bucs lack of success this season. They now have 12 players on Injured Reserve, including five starters (four on defense) and five key reserve players. A whopping 17 of the Bucs current 53 players were not on the original 53-man roster to begin this season. Buccaneers players have missed about 150 games this season due to injury. There have been 57 games missed by defensive starters alone. This team is giving a new definition to the phrase “next man up”. Players like safety Andrew Adams, linebacker Kevin Minter, cornerbacks Javien Elliott and De’Vante Harris, defensive end Carl Nassib, offensive linemen Mike Liedtke and Leonard Wester and kicker Cairo Santos have come in over the course of this season and filled in important roles playing well. Maybe it’s just that these young guys are hungry, or “youngry” as Raheem Morris used to say. These guys aren’t just playing for a paycheck, they’re playing for pride. They’re playing for their NFL careers. They’re playing hard because they want to win football games, not to buy their third vacation home or a new Bentley. Maybe that’s the difference. Whatever it is, it seems to be working and these guys need to keep it up.
I know that the word “playoffs” probably shouldn’t even be in our vocabulary right now…but these last couple of games have given a glimmer of hope to Bucs fans. Is this team a playoff team? No, especially not with all of these injuries. But it’s fun to entertain the idea. Even though all of us were thinking playoffs to begin the season, those dreams turned into nightmares in Chicago. Since then, it was laughable to think of this team in the tournament. However, a win against the Saints on Sunday would give them about a 60% chance of making the playoffs with a 6-7 record. Winning their last four games puts them at 9-7 and in a decent position for a wildcard birth. Is it likely? Not really. The Rams and Saints have already locked up spots. They’re only one game back from the 6th seeded Redskins (6-5) with the Vikings (6-5-1), Panthers (6-6) and Eagles (5-6) just ahead of them. The Redskins and Eagles play on Monday Night Football so no matter who wins it helps the Bucs. This week, the Panthers are at the Browns, the Falcons are at the Packers, the Giants are at the Redskins, the Eagles are at the Cowboys and the Vikings are at the Seahawks. The Bucs need wins by the Browns, Packers, Giants, Cowboys and Seahawks this week to help them out. By my calculations, that would make the Vikings the new 6th seed and put the Bucs in a tie with Carolina, Washington and Philly at 6-7 just a half game back from Minnesota for that final wildcard spot with 3 games left. All I’m saying is that there’s a chance. But none of that matters unless they beat the Saints. Are the tides changing? Has Dirk Koetter, Todd Monken and Mark Duffner done the improbable and turned this ship around? Sunday will be the real litmus test.
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!