Sat, 23 Jan 2021

Of Bye Weeks and Tight Ends | S.S. Mailbag

Buccaneers
04 Dec 2020, 18:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers This week, Bucs fans have questions about how the team prepares during its bye week, the utilization of tight ends in the red zone, and more Scott Smith

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently enjoying their bye week, which falls right between the third and fourth quarters of the season. This year, that fourth quarter has the added excitement of a legitimate playoff run for the Buccaneers, who are currently occupying the second of two Wild Card spots in the NFC.

That playoff chase, which seeks to end a 13-year postseason drought for the Buccaneers, is obviously the top story for Tampa Bay fans to follow in December, and it is more important than any individual achievements that might come along with it. Still, there's no harm in looking at those possibilities and keeping an eye on them over the final four weeks of the regular season. To be specific: Are there any team records that could fall in 2020?

There are, in fact, two that jump out on offense and have a very good chance of coming to pass. They are:

* Wide receiver Mike Evans has 11 touchdown receptions in 2020. The team record is 12, which Evans himself set in 2014 and then matched in 2016. Evans needs only two touchdowns in four remaining games and so far he has scored at least once in nine of the Bucs' 12 outings. In addition, the team single-season record for touchdowns of any kind is 13, set by running back James Wilder in 1984. That one is in danger, too.

* Quarterback Tom Brady has 28 touchdown passes and the team's single-season record is 33, set just last year by Jameis Winston. So Brady needs six over the last four games to break the record. That's an average of 1.5 per game and so far he is averaging 2.3 per game. If he maintains that average, he'll finish with 37 touchdown passes.

There are a few other possibilities, such as:

* Kicker Ryan Succop has scored 102 points so far. That's 8.5 per game. If he maintains that average he'll finish with 136 points, which would be a new Buccaneer single-season record. Matt Bryant set the current mark at 131 points in 2008. Succop also has 36 extra points made and the team record is 43, set by Matt Gay last year.

* In addition, Succop has made 22 of his 24 field goal attempts, a success rate of 91.7%. The team record is 92.9%, set by Connor Barth when he made 26 of 28 in 2011.

* Running back Ronald Jones has averaged 5.06 yards per carry so far. The single-season Buccaneer record, set by LeGarrette Blount in 2010, is 5.01.

* Punter Bradley Pinion has a shot at the team's single-season gross punting average record. His current mark of 45.31 would be the third-best in team history. The two marks he is chasing are 45.93 by Bryan Anger in 2016 and 45.57 by Josh Bidwell in 2005. Bradley's net average of 41.3 yards per punt would be the second best in team history but he's still got a pretty big gap to close on the record, which was set at 42.7 by Anger in 2016.

Noticeably, all of those potential records are either on offense or special teams. Given the rich history of defense in Buccaneers history and the league-wide increase in offensive productions, which seems to go on each season unabated, record are much harder to reach for the team's defenders. Shaquil Barrett did the unthinkable last year and broke the team's single-season sack record with 19.5, but now he's put it so far out of reach. The Bucs' single-season tackle total is 214 by Hardy Nickerson in 1993 and nobody has come close since the league started officially tabulating and publishing tackle totals this past decade. Ronde Barber had 10 interception in 2001; there hasn't been a 10-interception season by any player in the NFL since 2007. You get the point.

So there are some record-chasers to watch during the Buccaneers' final month of play. The playoffs are the main goal, but a few broken records in 2020 would be enjoyable, too.

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 tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Can you explain how the bye week works with preparation? How much time off and how soon until game planning for the next game begins?

- @mattjezus (via Instagram)

The bye week is two very different things for players and coaches. In regards to the players, the team sees the bye week primarily as a chance to get some rest and recover from injuries. The players had to review the Week 12 game against Kansas City in Zoom meetings on Monday, but after that they are off from Tuesday through next Monday. Given that there was no practice or physical work on Monday, that means it's a solid eight-day period of rest, which can work wonders for players who usually only get a couple of days to refresh after a game before the next practice. It's debatable whether having a bye this late was advantageous or not, but at least the Buccaneers will enter the final stretch run with a little more spring in their legs.

Some of the players who needed the week off more than others include left tackle Donovan Smith, cornerback Jamel Dean, wide receiver Chris Godwin and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul. Of those four, only Dean didn't play in Week 12, as he had sustained a concussion in the previous game. There is no guarantee that Dean will be ready to go in Week 14 after a bye, but it's certainly possible. Ali Marpet just missed three games with a concussion but Godwin missed only one earlier this season with the same malady. Obviously, there are different levels of severity to this injury and it's not always clear how long it's going to take a player to fully recover and exit the NFL's concussion protocol.

Smith gutted his way through an ankle injury against Kansas City, one that had kept him off the practice field all week. After a pregame test of the ankle, Smith told Bruce Arians he thought he could possibly play half of the game, but he ended up staying on the field for every offensive snap. Smith is an iron man who has only missed one game in his first six seasons, but he'll surely benefit from a week of rest before having to suit up again.

Pierre-Paul will likely still be on the injury report and be limited in practice when the team returns to work next week, as he has been playing through a knee injury all season. He'll need the offseason to fully recover, but the rest could have him fresher in Week 14, too. Chris Godwin hasn't let a broken finger slow him down in recent weeks, catching 21 passes over the last three games. Still, any receiver is going to feel better catching passes with a finger that has had time to heal.

You'll notice that I said the Buccaneers had Zoom meetings on Monday. That's because the league mandated that every team in the league (that wasn't playing on Monday or Tuesday) to complete close its facility to all personnel on those two days, other than players receiving treatment and the medical professionals administering that treatment. If not for that mandate, the Buccaneers' coaches would have come to the AdventHealth Training Center on Monday and Tuesday and begun work on two things: self-evaluation of the Bucs and their first 12 games, and scouting of the team's remaining opponents. They still did those things remotely and were back in the office on Wednesday.

Actually, work on those two projects had already begun well before the bye week. Teams send advance scouts to watch their upcoming opponents play and use video provided by the league to break down their next opponents' last four games. All of that has already been done, as has the review of all of the Bucs' plays from the first 12 games and the compilation of data from that review. This week, the coaches will use that data to take an in-depth look at what has gone right and what has gone wrong, what needs to be emphasized, deemphasized or tweaked, what needs to be fixed and what they can fix at this point in the season.

The bye week does give the players a little extra time to work together on the field. Because they won't play a game this weekend, the Bucs won't be recovering from that physical toll on Monday and Tuesday. After taking their mandatory day off (at least one per week), the players will come back on Tuesday for what is usually called a "bonus practice." Thus they will have both a more rested roster and one more practice than will the Vikings, who come to Raymond James Stadium the following Sunday. That is hopefully a bit of an advantage, but the Bucs have already been on the wrong side of that equation twice this season, playing both the Packers in Week Six and the Raiders in Week Seven after those teams' respective byes. That didn't prove to be an advantage for either of those teams, though, as the Bucs won both of those games handily.

Can you talk about Devin White's production this season vs. the last?

- Cedric Barnes (via Facebook)

Sure.

Last season, as a rookie, White finished with 91 tackles, four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, one interception, three passes defensed three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. That was pretty darn good, particularly since he missed a quarter of the season due to a knee injury. (Technically, White played in 13 games, but he was hurt almost immediately in Week Two at Carolina so he didn't have a chance to add to his production in that game.)

White has already surpassed his tackle total from last year, and that's a pretty easy apples-to-apples comparison to make since he's done so in 12 games, the same number of full games he had last year. Currently, White is tied for the NFL lead with 109 tackles, which averages out to a little over nine per game. The Buccaneers have played one more game than every other team in the NFL except Carolina, so White isn't leading the NFL in tackles per game, but he's up there. The most notable thing about his stat line this year, and perhaps the reason that he had the early lead in the NFC Pro Bowl voting at inside linebacker, is that he's the only player in the league with at least 75 tackles and five or more sacks.

It's in that pass-rushing department that White's production has improved most noticeably. So far, he's exactly doubled his sack and QB hit totals from last year, to 5.0 and 10, respectively. The Bucs have used White to rush the passer about 7.5 times per game this year, and he's had a good success rate when coming after the quarterback. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, White has come on a pass rush 91 times and produced 14 pressures along with those five sacks. Among off-ball linebackers, only New Orleans' Demario Davis has recorded more pressures, with 20, and White's sack rate on his pass rushes is first in the NFL among players with at least 75 pass rushes.

I think your eyeball test probably would have told you the same thing about White that those numbers say. He's clearly a talented blitzer. White's production in coverage has not gone up in his second season, at least not yet. He had one interception and three passes defensed last year; he has no picks and two passes defensed this year. White might change that over the final month and the Buccaneers could certainly use a couple more splash plays in pass defense. He has high expectations for himself in that part of the game. Before the season he said his goal was to get five interceptions...or five sacks. Turns out it was the latter one that came true.

White has just one forced fumble and one fumble recovery so far this season, down from last year, but personally I find fumble statistics to be awfully fluky, especially fumble recoveries. It wasn't particularly likely, for instance, that he was going to match his 2019 total of two fumbles returned for touchdowns.

I would imagine that White's upticks in tackles and sacks in 2020 has a lot to do with him having a much firmer grip on Todd Bowles' schemes and his responsibilities within them in his second season. In fact, his production was rising at the end of last year as he got more and more comfortable in the defense, and that has carried over into 2020. White can play more instinctively and make much better use of his impressive speed now.

What do you think of the overall utilization of our tight ends, red zone in particular?

- Jim Myer (via Facebook)

I think it's been pretty good!

You knew I was going to say that, didn't you. But, seriously, let's look at the numbers.

The Buccaneers have played five different tight ends this season and they have combined for 70 receptions for 853 yards and eight touchdowns. That's in 12 games. Last year, in 16 games Buccaneers tight ends combined for 74 catches for 837 yards and five touchdowns. By the end of this season, the production by Tampa Bay tight ends should be noticeably up in 2020, and probably would have been significantly greater if O.J. Howard hadn't been lost after just four games.

In questions such as these, I always wonder if the questioner is asking me about the utilization of the players or the production of the players. In this case, does Jim want to know if we are putting our tight ends on the field a lot and if that is working for the offense as a whole, or does he want to know if we're throwing the ball to our tight ends a lot, and if that's working? So I guess I'll answer both.

The Buccaneers are using their tight ends a little bit more than they did last year. Tampa Bay used "11" personnel (three-wide) on 59.8% of their plays last year, and "12" personnel (two TEs, two WRs) on 20.0% of them. This year, those numbers are 55.3% and 21.5%. That second number has fluctuated a little bit and the Buccaneers recently have leaned more heavily on 11 personnel, most commonly with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown on the field together. Some of that has had to do with the way the game has been going. Over the last month, the game in which the Bucs used 12 personnel most frequently was at Carolina, where they took control of the action early.

Has the Bucs' two-TE grouping worked? Tampa Bay is averaging 6.02 yards per play in 12 personnel as opposed to 5.42 in 11 personnel. Obviously, there are a number of other groupings the Bucs have used, such as a couple three-TE packages, but none of those have been utilized for more than 52 snaps this season. The Bucs have been "successful" on 52% of their plays in 12 personnel, as opposed to 46% in 11 personnel.

Rob Gronkowski is definitely getting utilized a lot. Gronkowski has been on the field for 628 offensive snaps; only five tight ends in the NFL have played more. Yes, the Bucs playing 12 games to 11 for most other teams is a factor here, but not a big one. For reference sack, Kansas City's Travis Kelce - by far the most productive tight end in the NFL - has played about 59 offensive snaps per game while Gronkowski has played about 52.

How about the red zone? Well, as noted, Buccaneer tight ends have combined for eight touchdown catches so far, and all but one of those came on a play that was snapped in the red zone. Overall, the Bucs have 23 red zone touchdown catches (second-most in the NFL, by the way) and seven of those have been provided by tight ends. One was by a running back (Ke'Shawn Vaughn), so that leaves 15 by wide receivers. I think 15 TD catches by your wideouts and seven by your tight ends seems like a perfectly acceptable mix, especially when you have a premier red zone weapon like Mike Evans among your wideouts.

Overall, the Buccaneers' red zone touchdown percentage of 71.1% is pretty good, ranking sixth in the league. I know there have been some notable red zone and goal-to-go failures in recent games that have hurt the team, but if you take the season as a whole it's actually been a strength. As have, in my opinion, the Buccaneers' tight ends.

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