Tampa Bay Buccaneers This week, Bucs fans have questions about the defense moving forward without Vita Vea, the offensive line and some penalty concerns, and more Scott Smith
Mike Evans is running out of franchise records to break.
Evans got started on his rewrite of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' record books pretty quickly after being drafted with the seventh-overall pick in 2014. He caught 12 touchdown passes as a rookie, a new single-season record for the team (not just rookies), and one that he tied again in 2016.
As Evans kept putting up 1,000-yard receiving seasons - he's six for six so far - the Buccaneers' career records started to fall two years ago. Evans got the touchdown catch record in September of 2018, passing Jimmie Giles, then snared the receiving yardage record for Mark Carrier in December of that year. By the end of that '18 season, Evans also had 1,524 yards in that campaign, also breaking Carrier's long-standing record.
In October of last year, Evans made it a clean sweep on the career receiving records for Tampa Bay, surpassing James Wilder on the receptions list. For the record, Evans' record receiving line for the Buccaneers currently stands at 484 catches for 7,531 yards and 54 touchdowns. The previous team records were 430 (Wilder) for 5,018 yards (Carrier) and 34 touchdowns (Giles).
It's true that Evans does not own the Buccaneers' single-season receptions mark, though he got relatively close in 2016. Evans caught 96 passes that year, the second-highest total in team history behind Keyshawn Johnson's 106 in 2001. However, Evans also owns the team record for most 100-yard games by a wide margin, with 26 (and counting) to Carrier's 15.
It's to the point that Evans is now breaking records that we weren't even contemplating before they happened. In Week Five at Chicago, he caught a touchdown pass, marking the sixth straight game in which he's played that he has scored. He had already captured the team record for the longest streak of games with a TD catch when he got to five, but now he's on the verge of another new standard. His streak of games with a touchdown of any kind is now equal to the one Earnest Graham had in 2007. One more, and Evans will own that record by himself, too.
There's also the matter of Evans' aforementioned and incredible streak of 1,000-yard seasons. He and the great Randy Moss are the only players in league history to open their careers with six straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. If Evans gets there again in his seventh campaign, he will stand alone in NFL annals.
But there is one more significant career record that Evans is chasing, the one that is going to begin drawing more attention over the next season or two. While he has blown by the franchise mark for touchdown catches, Evans is still "only" in second place on the Bucs' overall touchdown list. That's because Mike Alstott used to play for the Buccaneers and he considered the end zone his rightful property. Alstott scored 71 touchdowns in his career, all in Tampa, and that record looked unassailable for a long time.
Not any more. Evans also has one score on a fumble recovery in the end zone, so he is at 55 overall, just 16 behind Alstott. At the rate Evans is going, it wouldn't be surprising to get there in 2021, but 2022 would seem like a virtual watch. Consider the Alstott-Evans Watch officially on.
All of which got me to thinking: How many fans across the NFL are currently having the pleasure of having one of their franchise's all-time offensive leaders in action. I'm talking about four major statistical categories: rushing yards, passing yards, receiving yards and touchdowns scored. Are there a lot of Evanses in action out there right now?
Off the top of my head, I immediately thought of Drew Brees in New Orleans and Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. After musing a bit more I wondered about Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. After that brief bit of contemplation, I decided to just look it up. There are eight teams in the NFL right now currently employ an active player who is their all-time leader in one of those categories above. One team has two. Another team has one player who leads in two categories. Here they are:
All-Time Franchise Rushing Leaders
All-Time Franchise Receiving Leaders
* Arizona: Larry Fitzgerald (17,206)
* Atlanta: Julio Jones (12,338)
* Tampa Bay: Mike Evans (7,531)
All-Time Franchise Passing Leaders
* Atlanta: Matt Ryan (52,658)
* Detroit: Matthew Stafford (42,042)
* Las Vegas: Derek Carr (24,235)
* New Orleans: Drew Brees (66,399)
* Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger (57,561)
* Seattle: Russell Wilson (31,236)
All-Time Franchise Touchdowns Scored Leaders
* Arizona: Larry Fitzgerald (120)
The only true surprise to me on that list Carr in Las Vegas. I think it's a sign of the times, with Derek Carr playing seven years in a much more pass-happy league than Ken Stabler, Daryle Lamonica, Jim Plunkett or even Rich Gannon. I'm not sure I would have guessed Russell Wilson, either, given the long runs before him by Dave Krieg and Matt Hasselbeck. And, indeed, Wilson only passed Hasselbeck late last season.
Interestingly, this list would have been significantly longer if I had undertaken this task at any time before the end of last season. The Great Quarterback Shuffle of the 2020 offseason saw three teams bid farewell to their all-time leading passers: Carolina with Cam Newton, New England with Tom Brady and the L.A. Chargers with Philip Rivers. A fourth, the N.Y. Giants' Eli Manning, retired. The Buccaneers currently employ three players who are the all-time leaders for another franchise in one of the above categories - Brady (passing), tight end Rob Gronkowski (touchdowns scored) and running back LeSean McCoy (rushing).
I guess the point is, let's all enjoy Mike Evans while we have the opportunity. I probably didn't need to tell you that.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
How much will Vita's injury change the defense?
- @notrobgronkowski (via Instagram)
How much do you think the injuries will change our road to the playoffs?
- @daniel_monroe11 (via Instagram)
Let's do these questions together because the first one definitely dovetails into the second one.
Third-year defensive lineman Vita Vea suffered a leg fracture in the Buccaneers' Week Five loss in Chicago and has been placed on injured reserve. Though teams can bring an unlimited number of players back from I.R. in 2020 due to the revised rules, Vea's season is over. Vea and inside linebacker Jack Cichy (hamstring) are the first two defensive players the Bucs have had to put on I.R., and Cichy will probably be back.
So in terms of sheer numbers, the Buccaneers' have been relatively lucky on defense in terms of injuries so far (yes, I just knocked on my wooden desk). However, the loss of Vea is a tough one, as there aren't many players in the NFL with his size and skill set. Head Coach Bruce Arians said this after the game: "It'll be a big loss. [When] you lose players like O.J. [Howard] and Vita, you can plug the next man in, but they're not the same. I hate it for him because he was having such a great year." Then he said this when the Buccaneers got back to work on Tuesday: "No one's going to be Vita, but Todd [Bowles] has a good plan."
No one is going to step in and do everything Vea was capable of, including collapsing the pocket on pass drops and holding up multiple blockers on running plays. He is just so nimble for a 347-pound man; he was actually injured making a tackle for a loss on a hustle play. That said, I don't expect the structure of the Buccaneers' defense to change much in Vea's absence. Rakeem Nunez-Roches moves up to the starting lineup, and if his training camp performance is any indication he has a chance to be an impact player, too. He added upper body size and strength in the offseason specifically to play nose tackle, show he should be stout at the point of attack. He also showed some pass-rush ability during his outstanding training camp.
The changes should come in terms of how Bowles deploys some of the front-seven players he still has. Nunez-Roches gets more work, but will he stay on the field in sub packages with Ndamukong Suh, like Vea often did? Or will more of that work go to Will Gholston, who is sneakily the team's leader with seven quarterback hits? Arians even mentioned that the Bucs might use 6-7 outside linebacker Anthony Nelson for some interior-line work, and rookie sixth-rounder Khalil Davis, whose best asset is his quick pass-rushing step, should get his first look on defense.
There could also be some changes in the play-calling. If the Buccaneers' number-one ranked run defense is a little more porous without Vea, Bowles may have to put an extra defender in the box more often, which obviously will put more pressure on the cover men in the secondary. If Vea's replacements don't draw as many double-team blocks, or don't handle them as well as Vea did, the road to the quarterback could be tougher for the Bucs' edge rushers. That might lead Bowles to turn to the blitz more often in some games. Not that he's particularly shy about that in the first place.
Buccaneers players and coaches will always respond to situations like this with the same three-word motto: "Next Man Up." They will count on players like Nunez-Roches, Gholston and Davis to fill the void left by Vea as well as they can. That doesn't mean that a team always has the perfect answer for a missing player, particularly one as unique as Vea, but the show must go on. I don't think the answer is a significant change to how the Bucs play defense, though.
As for Daniel's follow-up, the important thing to remember is that every team in the league has to overcome some injuries to get to where they're trying to go. I see Vea go down and it makes me think of the 2002 season. That year, defensive tackle Booger McFarland missed games first due to a fractured forearm and then due to a season-ending foot fracture in December. Undrafted reserve Chuck Darby stepped in and became the new interior complement to Warren Sapp and the defense hummed right along. Darby started all the way to the Super Bowl and the Bucs' won their first championship.
The Bucs' upcoming opponent, Green Bay, has been playing without Davante Adams and Kenny Clark, two of their best players on both sides of the line. Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Carolina are all tied for first in the NFC South - the Bucs have not had much time with Chris Godwin on the field, Michael Thomas hasn't played since Week One for the Saints and Christian McCaffrey is on I.R. for the Panthers. Another NFC team that could be in the Bucs' way on the road to the postseason, Arizona, just lost edge rusher Chandler Jones for the season. Jones had 19 sacks last year. Sure injuries will help shape the Bucs' season, but they won't be alone.
To the point that you can wonder if the Bucs could have gotten just one more score and won in Chicago instead of losing by a point if they had their full offensive complement available, well, think of the two games before that. The Buccaneers got wins in Denver and at home against the Chargers and both of those teams had a long list of injured players, including their Week One quarterbacks. I'm sure those teams would have liked their chances better with all of their stars available to play.
And, of course, the good news is that aside from Vea and Howard, it appears the Buccaneers will soon be getting back a number of key players on offense, or getting ones who have played through injuries closer to full strength. Arians said on Tuesday that he believes all of the team's active wideouts and running backs should be able to get back in action by Thursday. We'll see how much each one can do, but that's encouraging news.
The truth is, we don't really know how much and in what way injuries will affect the Bucs' chase of a postseason berth, because we don't know when and if there will be further losses in the weeks ahead. But that's true for every team.
How would you evaluate the offensive lines performance so far? Should we be concerned about penalties?
- @Bonnieg1965 (via Instagram)
I would say the Buccaneers' offensive line has played quite well overall so far in 2020 but it is more than fair to point out the injury issue. That surely has to take the grade down a notch or two.
Most importantly, the Buccaneers have given Tom Brady above-average protection, though Brady is helping to keep down the sacks by getting rid of the ball quickly. The Bucs' sacks-per-pass-play rate of 4.08% is sixth-best in the NFL. That's a pretty big improvement over last season, when Tampa Bay finished 17th in that category at 7.46%. The Bucs rushing numbers don't rank near the top of the league but the ground game has shown clear improvement in recent weeks and the line has helped Ronald Jones post two consecutive 100-yard games.
Other evaluators agree that the Buccaneers' offensive line has been good this year, if not dominant. Brian Burke, who does sports analytics for ESPN, created a matrix displaying all 32 NFL offensive lines and how they have performed in terms of "win rate." The horizontal axis displays win rates in run blocking (farther right is better) and the vertical axis displays the same for pass blocking (higher up is better). Teams that end up in the upper right quadrant are getting good performances from their offensive lines. The Bucs are in the best quadrant, though not as far towards the upper right corner as they would like to be.
Football Outsiders ranks the NFL's 32 offensive lines based on "adjusted line yards," which would take too much time to spell out in this answer but you can read about it here. FO has the Buccaneers ranked 13th in terms of run blocking (and first on "power runs," interestingly) and eighth in pass blocking. Again, the picture that seems to be emerging is one of an above-average line that looks great on some afternoons - such as the Chargers game in Week Four - and average on others. That would seem to match up with the eyeball test for me. I do think that current above-averaging placement is just the beginning though, and I expect this unit to get better and better as the season goes on. They are already talking about how they are clearly playing better as a full cohesive unit this year.
But, again, there are those penalties. The Buccaneers have been flagged for nine offensive holding penalties and eight false starts. That's not the worst combination of those two totals in the league, but it's close. The Kansas City Chiefs have been flagged for holding 10 times and made nine false starts. The Buffalo Bills have nine offensive holding calls and eight false starts. Seattle has six holding and eight false starts. In all cases I'm talking about flags thrown, not penalties accepted, though most of them were enforced. The Bucs' offensive holding calls have resulted in 70 penalty yards and another 37 yards nullified after gains on the play. Five of those were determined to have "stalled drives."
That list above is kind of interesting in that there are some awfully good teams on it. The Saints also have eight holding calls and they're widely regarded as having one of the best O-Lines in the league. Indianapolis, another team lauded for its O-Line, has eight holding calls. It appears that you can succeed while still drawing an above-average number of penalties, but that doesn't mean the Bucs are dismissing the issue as a problem. In fact, it's the first thing that Bruce Arians brings up when asked what needs to be improved on offense, that the Buccaneers need to stop putting themselves in bad down-and-distance situations with these flags.
I should point out that one of those holding calls and three of the false starts by the Bucs were committed by players who aren't offensive linemen. But since I didn't break down every other team's penalty distribution it seems better to compare overall numbers against each other. Four of the Buccaneers' offensive holding calls belong to Donovan Smith, but to be fair he often has the toughest assignment in terms of keeping dynamic edge rushers away from Brady. Rookie Tristan Wirfs, has also faced some tough edge rushers already at right tackle, so I'd probably consider his total of one holding call a relatively good sign.
Anyway, it is an issue that the Buccaneers are working on and that Arians says he emphasizes every single day. Some penalties are unavoidable and some probably don't seem like they should be called penalties to the players or coaches. But you can reduce them by working on some details, particularly when it comes to linemen.
"Poor technique usually leads to holding," said Arians. "You get your feet beat and then...if you're beat, I don't want the quarterback to get hit so I don't give a [care] if you tackle him."
Would it make sense to make a move for Le'Veon Bell?
I don't think so, no. I think the Buccaneers already made their big move in that regard when they signed Leonard Fournette after he was released by the Jaguars. I know it seems like the Buccaneers are thin at running back, but that's a very temporary situation. Fournette and LeSean McCoy, both dealing with ankle injuries, could be back in game action as soon as this Sunday.
In the meantime, the Buccaneers got a little glimpse of rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn and it seemed promising, particularly in his work as a pass-catcher. How far down the depth chart do we want to bury that young man.
The Buccaneers certainly don't seem as if they need to find a new feature back. Ronald Jones has cracked the 100-yard mark in each of the last two games and now that he's getting sprung into the second level a little more often he's getting a chance to employ that make-you-miss ability that he's had since his USC days. He's averaging 4.9 yards per carry, which is fourth-best among any NFL backs with at least 70 runs so far. I think Arians wants to give Jones the ball more, not less.
"He's a guy going into the season we knew we could feed 20 to 25 times [per game]," said Arians of his number-one back. "Then getting Shady, getting Leonard, we give him a blow. But I don't have any trouble handing it to him 20, 25 times and throwing it to him five or six. He can handle that load."
Before they got hurt, Fournette and McCoy seemed to be settling nicely into roles as, respectively, a rushing complement to Jones and a third-down back. Assuming they can resume some or all of those duties, I'm not sure where another back is going to fit in. And I'd be pretty certain that Bell isn't going to want to join a team where he's starting off fourth or fifth on the depth chart.
In addition, do we have evidence that Bell, right now, is a better option than what the Bucs already have in their backfield? Bell has averaged 3.3 yards per carry over the last two seasons. That may have something to do with a below-average Jets O-Line, but he also only averaged 4.0 yards per carry in his last full season with Pittsburgh while leading the NFL with 321 totes. He's a great pass-catching back but his receiving numbers of the last two years - 4.1 catches and 29.4 yards per game - aren't eye-popping. Bell just may need a better situation to recapture his Steeler glory days, but that's probably not a gamble the Buccaneers need to take in order to find out.