By: Denery Noone
The Bucs have battled all year long, but can they reach the postseason?
If you remember, on September 13th, when the Breakdown released our fourth installment of NFL Over/Unders, looking at the NFC South and West, the line on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was 6 wins, I said, “OVER: Jameis will have a great year, and they will just barely miss the playoffs in a strong NFC”. However, after the drubbing they endured week 1 against the number two overall pick, Marcus Mariota, and the Titans, and their 3-5 record through 8 games, everybody wrote this team off, and I looked like an idiot for having faith in this team. However, in the Breakdown’s NFL Midseason Review Podcast, I said that the Buccaneers are a team that can make a run here in the second half of the season. Both Lynch and Scott laughed at me, but it is now looking like that is a very strong possibility.
Through 8 games, the Buccaneers were 3-5, and hopes of making the playoffs looked very slim. Then, the Dallas Cowboys came to town. Although it was not pretty, and Matt Cassel was under center for the Cowboys, Tampa Bay got the win. Still, even after this win, Tampa Bay was merely 4-5, and at the surface it did not look like there was possibility of this team making a run. Enter Philadelphia. A 45-17 beatdown at the hands of this Buccaneers team. Finally, Jameis Winston put up the big numbers that we all expected when he was drafted 1st overall. 246 yards and 5 touchdowns. Nobody expected this team to come into Philadelphia, and blow the Eagles out. But that’s what they did, and now it is time to take this team seriously. Despite the fact that this team just lost to the Colts, this team is not dead.
Jameis Winston is starting to develop into the franchise quarterback that the Buccaneers knew they were drafting first overall in this year's draft. It is clear that Winston has full command over this offense, and he is starting to make all of the right decisions. Since October 11th, Winston has thrown 9 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He is much more comfortable in this offense, and because of that, it is allowing him to make quicker and sharper decisions. He has more zip on his throws, and we saw that on Sunday, as he was fitting balls in tight spaces and making strong throws deep down the field. The game has slowed down for Winston. He has been able to read defenses. He knows whether he should check to a run or a pass, and he is putting this team in positions to win football games. The Buccaneers are in a perfect position right now, they have an up and coming superstar under center, and they have a surplus of weapons both in the backfield and at the receiver position.
The weapons that Tampa Bay has accumulated are truly remarkable. The job that this front office has done to put stars at their skill positions is noteworthy. They have Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans on opposite sides, Austin Seferian-Jenkins at the tight end position, and Doug Martin at running back, specifically, a Doug Martin that is returning to form. In 2013, Doug Martin rushed for 456 yards, in 2014 he rushed for 494 yards. Through 10 games in 2015, Martin has rushed for 941 yards. Martin is looking more and more like the running back that rushed for 1,454 yards in 2012. In the same game that Jameis Winston threw for 5 touchdowns, Martin rushed for 235 yards. If Doug Martin can continue to run the ball downhill, through the tackles, and strong, he will be a tremendous compliment to Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, and that will make this offense very hard to stop.
Although Evans (44 catches, 725 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Jackson (25 catches, 375 yards, and 3 touchdowns) have not put up dominant numbers so far this season, they are still forces to be reckoned with. Their size (both are 6”5’), speed, and deep threat ability make them extremely dangerous. The ability for both of these guys to beat defenders, go up for balls, and make plays is special. Despite the fact that they might be having down seasons, they are still constant threats, and their playmaking abilities make Jameis Winston much better. They have the ability to beat man-to-man coverage with their physical statures, as well as their speed and great route running ability. However, if this team wants to make a run at the playoffs, these two guys need to step up. Tampa Bay also has guys such as Charles Sims who is an extremely dynamic and explosive receiving back. Sims has 28 catches for 308 yards and 2 touchdowns. Those are not flashy numbers, but he is a viable option as a third down back.
The thing that scares you about this Buccaneers team is their lack of consistency. Two games in a row they beat the Cowboys and the Eagles, and then traveled to Indianapolis and laid an egg against the Colts. This was not any old Colts team either, this was a Colts team lead by 40 year-old Matt Hasselbeck. They have so much talent, but it is unsure what they are going to produce on a week-to-week basis. They have a great defense with a lot of talent including Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Alterraun Verner, Kwon Alexander, and many others. This team has the ability to generate pressure with their front seven, and they have the personnel in the secondary to make plays. They have a defensive minded coach in Lovie Smith who contributed in the invention of their scheme, the Tampa 2. The Tampa 2 is a scheme that requires extremely athletic linebackers that can range all over the middle of the field, and that is something they have in Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. The Tampa 2 is a cover 2 look where the middle linebacker will drop back in the middle of the field much deeper than he normally would, disguising a 3 deep look, but in reality, he has a deeper hook-to-curl zone in the middle of the field. This linebacker also must play the run as well, so that is why the linebacker must have range. The other linebackers are required to cover the flats, which means they have to get there quick, while the safeties drop back into a deep zone, and the corners cover along the sidelines, 10 yards or so from the line of scrimmage. Because there are so many defensive backs in coverage, Tampa 2 defenses breed opportunities to create turnovers, but the backs need to be skilled enough to go out and make the plays. Some ask why this scheme is not run by all teams. It is because the personnel required for the Tampa 2 is very specific, and if you don’t have it, you will get burned. The Tampa 2 was made famous in the early 2000’s when Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, and John Lynch perfected the scheme and lead the team to a Super Bowl in 2002. This defense in 2015 has the personnel to do it, they just have to continue to put the pieces together.
There are two things to consider going forward when deciding whether or not Tampa Bay can make the playoffs. First, their remaining schedule. To finish the season, they play a plummeting Atlanta Falcons team, a New Orleans Saints team that has a porous defense and an unexpectedly less effective Drew Brees, a St. Louis Rams team that lacks a quarterback, an improving but still very beatable Chicago Bears team, and a Carolina Panthers team that might rest their starters in week 17 if they are not still undefeated. This team has a legitimate chance to finish 10-6, which when you consider the current NFC playoff picture, gives them a shot. Right now, 14 teams are current in the playoff hunt, including the once 1-7 Detroit Lions. The wildcard leaders are the 6-5 Seahawks and the 8-4 Packers. Both those teams have struggled this year and are capable of collapses, so if the Buccaneers can finish 10-6, which they have the potential to do, then they will have a very good chance of winning the wildcard position and earning a playoff birth.