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Positions to Ponder | S.S. Mailbag

Buccaneers
01 Jul 2022, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay BuccaneersThis week, Buccaneers fans have questions about depth-chart deficiencies, NFC supremacy and moreScott Smith

For the second season in a row, the NFL's schedule-makers have given the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a Week One date with the Dallas Cowboys. Last year, the Buccaneers were the defending Super Bowl champions and thus got the Thursday night 'Kickoff Game,' with Dallas as a marquee matchup. This year the Buccaneers will be headed to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas for a rematch between two 2021 playoff teams. It is the first Sunday Night Football broadcast of the season.

While it's easy in retrospect to see why the league would want to put an opening-weekend spotlight on this matchup - Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, etc., etc. - I have to admit I didn't see it coming. Actually, I don't have to admit it because I already put it in writing. Each year, shortly before the full NFL schedule drops, I try to guess who the Buccaneers' first opponent will be. I'm in a bit of a dry spell in recent years, in part due to this sort of 'logic' from the article linked above:

"Bear in mind, my logic may end up being flawed, but I have to figure out some way to narrow down the choices. For instance, Bucs-Cowboys could be a whale of a game, but will the schedule makers actually give these two teams the exact same Week One opponent as last year? The last time that happened for the Bucs was 1984-85 (at Chicago both times). It's happened more recently for Dallas but that's because the NFL looooves to start the season with a prime-time game between the Cowboys and Giants. Also, I'm kind of hoping the Bucs get this year's Thanksgiving game in Dallas."

So here we are taking on the Cowboys in Week One again...and you know what? I shouldn't complain. Weirdly, this is the fourth time overall that the Buccaneers will start a season off against Dallas, putting the Cowboys into a tie for Tampa Bay's most common Week One foe. The Buccaneers are 2-1 in the three previous season-openers with Dallas, and 3-14 in every other week against the Cowboys, playoffs included. Looks like it might be a good thing to get the Cowboys game over with early.

Last year's Week One thriller was one of those two Buccaneer wins on opening day. In a game that featured 882 combined yards of offense and 108 passes, the defending champs went up by nine in the third quarter on Rob Gronkowski's second touchdown catch but Dallas stormed back to take a one-point lead with 1:24 to play. Fortunately, Brady has a bit of experience in such situations and big completions to Gronkowski and Chris Godwin set up Ryan Succop for a 36-yard game-winner in a 31-29 decision.

That was an exciting game, for sure, but it felt a little shaky at times for the first outing in a title defense. To me, the best game the Buccaneers have ever had against Dallas was also their first win in the all-time head-to-head series. Dallas won the first eight meetings, playoffs included, before Tampa Bay finally broke through in 2000 with a 27-7 drubbing at Raymond James Stadium. Warrick Dunn ripped off a 70-yard touchdown less than five minute into the game as part of a career-best 210-yard outing and Ronde Barber broke up four Troy Aikman passes as the Bucs' defense dominated.

So that got me thinking about this: What's the best game the Bucs have ever had against all of their 2022 opponents? What's the bar they'll be trying to clear this season? Historical significance and in-game drama are factored in. Here are my personal choices:

- New Orleans: Gotta go back to the very beginning for this one. The first victory in the history of the Buccaneers was a 33-14 drubbing of the Saints in the Superdome on December 11, 1977. Tampa Bay's defense recorded three pick-sixes, something they have only done one other time in a game since (that was Super Bowl XXXVII, by the way).

- Green Bay: The 2020 NFC Championship Game means the most, and the Bucs also spanked the Packers, 38-10, earlier that season. In terms of total domination, the 31-3 decision early in 1992 that essentially caused the transition from Don Majkowski to Brett Favre probably leads the pack. But I'm partial to the 24-22 victory at Raymond James Stadium December of 1998. For one, that was essentially when the resurgent Bucs finally got over their Packers hurdle after six straight losses, playoffs included. But it was particularly memorable because the Bucs' defense sacked Favre eight times and forced him to fumble six times.

- Kansas City Chiefs: Well, the greatest comeback in franchise history was a 30-27 win in Kansas City in 2008, and the game that sent the Buccaneers to their first-ever playoff berth in 1979 was the memorable 3-0 win in a driving rainstorm. But, come on, it's obviously Super Bowl LV, right? I don't think any further explanation is needed.

- Atlanta: Steve DeBerg threw five touchdown passes on opening day in 1988 to beat Atlanta, 48-10. In 2005, the Bucs saved their division title hopes in Week 16 with a 27-24 overtime win that featured a Dewayne White blocked field goal and a bunch of other drama in that extra period. But I have to go with the second Bucs-Falcons meeting during the 2002 Super Bowl season, which was a battle for first place and exciting enough to bring the Commissioner to town. The Bucs, and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks in particular, completely shut down the electric Michael Vick in a 34-10 blowout.

- Pittsburgh: Well, there's only two to choose from here, so I'll go with the most recent one, a 27-24 comeback win at Heinz Field that wasn't decided until Vincent Jackson made a diving third-down touchdown catch with 12 seconds to play.

- Carolina: The first overtime touchdown in franchise history, by Dallas Clark, gave the Buccaneers a 27-21 win in Charlotte in 2012, and that was only made possible by an incredible 24-yard touchdown pass by Josh Freeman to Jackson, followed by a necessary two-point conversion between the same two. However, what is more iconic in this series than the 12-9 nail-biter during the 2002 Super Bowl season in which Martin Gramatica nailed 52, 53 and 47-yard field goals in the fourth quarter?

- Baltimore: There is a theme developing here. By far the Bucs' best win this series (in part because there are only two) came in 2002. It was the first win of the season for the eventual champs and Brooks punctuated an absolutely dominant 25-0 shutout with a 97-yard pick-six.

- Los Angeles Rams: They were the St. Louis Rams at the time, but no Rams squad has ever engaged the Buccaneers in a more thrilling regular-season game than the 2001 crew that came to town in Week 16 Monday Night Football contest fraught with playoff implications for both teams. After Tampa Bay's defense had set the pace in the 1999 NFC Championship Game 11 months earlier (won by the Rams, 11-6, in St. Louis), this one was played at the Greatest Show on Turf's pace. The Bucs rang up 446 yards of offense but didn't get the 38-35 win until Dunn leaped into the end zone from three yards out with 48 seconds to play. Dunn had kept that drive alive with perhaps the most famous regular-season play in team history, when he pitched the ball back to Shaun King to escape a tackle for loss, leading to a gain of 30 yards.

- Cleveland: I did not realize when I started this list that I would return to the 2002 season but, I mean, that team was really good and that season was filled with a lot of drama. In this case, that drama was building in the weeks before this Week Six matchup, as fan-favorite fullback Mike Alstott was having trouble carving out much of a role in the new Jon Gruden offense. That all changed on this day, as Alstott pounded and pinballed his way for 126 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. That included one of the most highlight-worthy plays of his career, when he bounced off or galloped over nine different Browns defenders on a 19-yard gain. The Bucs won going away, 17-3.

- San Francisco: I was very tempted to take the 2002 playoff win over the 49ers, and a 35-3 victory in 2014 still stands as the Bucs' most lopsided win in the series. But the season-opening 13-6 defeat of a powerful San Francisco team still stands as one of the most memorable outings in franchise history. Warren Sapp collected 2.5 sacks, along the way taking both Steve Young and Jerry Rice out of the game and the Bucs' defense had seven sacks and three takeaways overall. That kicked off a five-game winning streak to start the season, while the 49ers would rebound to go all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

- Cincinnati: The Buccaneers had very slim playoff hopes to hang onto as they headed to Cincy for the 1998 regular season finale. They did their part, shutting out the Bengals by a 35-0 score, but an Arizona win finalized while the Bucs were flying home knocked them out of the postseason. Alstott ran for three touchdowns and the Bucs' defense had three takeaways.

- Arizona: The Buccaneers squeaked past the Cardinals in Glendale midway through the 2010 season, 38-35, and the game was just a ton of fun. LeGarrette Blount was hurdling defenders on the way to 120 yards and two touchdowns and both Aqib Talib and Geno Hayes scored on pick-sixes. Josh Freeman hit Mike Williams on a 47-yard touchdown and Blount got the winning score on a one-yard run late in the fourth quarter. Talib's second interception ended an Arizona scoring threat at the Bucs' six-yard line with two minutes left.

So, those are my picks. Yours may differ. 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.

Are there any positions on the team that you would consider the Bucs to be thin at heading into training camp?

-imnotkam3 (via Instagram)

Yes, but that's hardly surprising. I bet you could answer that question in the affirmative for just about every team in the NFL, if not all of them. It's not easy building quality depth in the NFL and it's inevitable that you will struggle to do so at one position or another more than the rest. And sometimes you have plans for depth at a position that are thwarted by unexpected circumstances.

About a month ago I would have interior defensive line at the top of this list, and in fact did say so in response to somewhat similar questions in previous mailbags. Team management must have felt the same way because the Bucs signed Akiem Hicks on June 1, and now that part of the depth chart looks solid to me.

Now the spot I would point to on defense is inside linebacker, where the Bucs have one of the NFL's best starting tandems in Lavonte David and Devin White but virtually no experienced depth behind them. Think about the last three seasons - every time that either David or White was out due to injury or COVID-19, veteran Kevin Minter stepped into the lineup and did a credible job. Minter already had 44 career regular-season starts before he got to Tampa and was a former second-round draft pick.

Minter is no longer on the roster, however, having not been re-signed after becoming a free agent in March. The Buccaneers may in fact have the depth they need behind David and White already, but as I noted above it is definitely not experienced depth. The other four players at the position are 2021 fifth and seventh-round picks K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard and 2022 undrafted free agents Olakunle Fatukasi and J.J. Russell. Those four players have a total of 54 NFL defensive snaps between them.

I know the Buccaneers are counting on Britt to step up into the Minter role and the coaching staff most assuredly knows more about how ready the second-year player is than I do. Britt got a lot of reps this offseason and, according to the coaches, looked good, so there is reason for optimism. Might I feel a bit better if there was also an experienced veteran on the depth chart who could step in if Britt falters? Probably.

Stuard is already a very good special teams player and that's very valuable in his own right. I don't know if there is certainty yet whether he would thrive on defense if needed. And as many gems as the Buccaneers have found in the undrafted free agent cycle through the years, the majority of those players don't end up making an impact, at least not early in their careers. So it's hard to count on Fatukasi or Russell at the moment.

On offense, the answer is probably pretty obvious. I wouldn't say Rob Gronkowski's retirement was completely an "unforeseen circumstance," but there was definitely a lot of hope that he would be back this year. O.J. Howard is now in Buffalo but the Bucs' tight end depth chart still would have looked pretty solid with Gronkowski, Cameron Brate and some combination of Codey McElroy and 2022 draft picks Cade Otton and Ko Kieft.

Without Gronkowski, Brate is the nominal starter and Otton and Kieft are potentially in line for bigger roles than they would have had as rookies. Otton is seen as a possible two-way starter, making an impact as both a blocker and a pass-catcher, but it is not terribly common for rookie tight ends to have a ton of production, unicorns like Kyle Pitts notwithstanding. And Otton has yet to practice with the Buccaneers while recovering from a pre-existing injury.

So at this point the Buccaneers would seem to be cobbling together lineup combinations from pass-catchers like Brate and McElroy and blockers like Kieft and Otton, while hoping Otton can be the most versatile performer at the bunch. This is another spot at which I would feel more comfortable about the team's depth if there was one more experienced veteran in the mix.

Who are the biggest threats to the Bucs in the NFC?

-tommy_quinto (via Instagram)

That question, as worded, would have been more appropriate a year ago when the Buccaneers were defending champs and sitting atop most power polls heading into the 2021 season. Given that it is now the Rams who are the reigning champs - not to mention possessors of three straight victories over Tampa Bay in 2020-21 - it seems more appropriate to ask if the Buccaneers are the biggest threat to Los Angeles.

Still, I like the confidence of how this is worded. Let's go with Tommy and consider this question as if the Buccaneers are favorites to win the conference. If that was the case, who would be the biggest threats to the top spot in the NFC? Well, clearly you have to start with the Rams. They did lose Von Miller, Andrew Whitworth, Darious Williams and Robert Woods, but that roster is still loaded on both sides of the ball. Most importantly, they still have Aaron Donald, and when you start with that and Jalen Ramsey, you're almost sure to have one of the NFL's best defenses. If Bobby Wagner plays like he's still in his prime, that defense could be the league's best. And they still have Matthew Stafford, who put them over the top after last year's trade. Woods is gone but he missed the second half of last year anyway, and Cooper Kupp is still there. Allen Robinson was added. Odell Beckham Jr. could still return.

I'd put the Rams ahead of the Packers if only because Green Bay traded away Davante Adams and don't necessarily have a good answer to replace him. On the other hand, they have the two-time reigning NFL MVP in Aaron Rodgers, who can probably make things work just fine with the likes of Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, Randall Cobb and 2022 draftees Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs. Green Bay should also challenge the Rams (and the Bucs!) for best defense in the conference. They were able to retain linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and cornerback Rasul Douglas, two 2021 breakout stars, and they added two potential impact starters in the first round of the draft with Georgia's Devonte Wyatt and Quay Walker. With Jaire Alexander back from injury and joining safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, the Packers have one of the NFL's best secondaries. Green Bay also made a move to fix the special teams issues that have hurt them so dramatically in recent years by hiring Rich Bisaccia to run the show.

After that I think it's between Dallas and San Francisco for the next spot. I'd probably lean towards Dallas because their quarterback situation looks stronger with Dak Prescott over the unproven Trey Lance in San Francisco.

Hey, Scott...

A couple weeks ago you answered a question where some guy proposed a whole bunch of rules changes for the nfl. I agreed with most of your takes but not all of them. I think you didn't like his idea of a player having to get a knee or some body part down in the end zone for a touchdown rather than just breaking the plain. That sounds pretty smart to me! Anyway...my question if you want to tackle it too, is kind of the opposite of his. The nfl changes some rules every year and I don't know if we really need all this constant tinkering. Like, the pass interference replay rule didn't go over real well and they got rid of that real fast. Never should have went down that road! So my question is-what change that the nfl has made in the last couple years would you most like to reverse? Thanks and Go Bucs!

John Harmon (via email)

I'm going to interpret this question more broadly than I think John attended. There are probably some pretty good potential answers regarding changes to the rules of game play in recent years, but I've got a bigger fish to fry. The change that the NFL has made recently that I would most like to reverse is the adding of a seventh playoff team in each conference. (The 17-game regular season is another one I'm not fond of, mostly because of the math, but the playoffs are tops on my list.)

I know that more playoff games means more revenue, and I understand that as, basically a fan of the game, that's something I don't have to factor in when I'm making my own rules based simply on what I like and don't like. I understand that there is always the possibility for expansion - number of teams, length of season, size of playoff field - in professional sports leagues for that reason, and that's never going to change.

But taking that factor out of it, I just don't like the seven-team field as much as the previous set up. Look at last year's NFC playoff field. The Buccaneers tied the Green Bay Packers for the best record in the NFC but, because they lost the conference-record tiebreaker by one game they still had to play on Wild Card Weekend. (I guess it's 'Super Wild Card Weekend' now.) Prior to 2020, the top two teams in the conference got first-round byes, and in this scenario in particular that would have seemed a lot more fair to me.

Now, the Buccaneers took care of business in the opening round, beating Philadelphia, 31-15, and thus did make it to the Divisional Round anyway. Had there been no seventh seed, the third-seeded Cowboys still would have played the sixth-seeded 49ers and the fourth-seeded Rams still would have played the Cardinals. Assuming both of those results went the same way, the Buccaneers still would have played Los Angeles in the Divisional Round and it still would have been in Tampa, so I guess you could say nothing really changed.

But we don't know that for sure. We don't know what the impact of playing in the Wild Card round was on the Buccaneers. Maybe they were a bit more fatigued or banged-up than they would have been after a bye round. Heck, maybe they were better off for having played in the Wild Card round. Maybe that made them sharper for the next game. Again, who knows? But there is one thing for certain that is different between getting a bye and playing in and winning in the Wild Card round: There is, obviously, a greater possibility of encountering a significant injury if you take the field. If, say, Mike Evans had pulled a hamstring in that win over Philadelphia, that would have obviously made things a lot tougher for the Buccaneers in the next round.

Also, while the Bucs didn't lose to the Eagles, they could have. The Bucs played that game without Leonard Fournette and Sean Murphy-Bunting and with Lavonte David, Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul probably not at 100%. They all were able to play in the next game, but a bye week to start the playoffs likely would have put the Bucs in a better health situation overall. Think back to the 2002 Super Bowl season. Quarterback Brad Johnson hurt his back in the Bucs' Week 15 win over Detroit and was inactive for the next two contests, a loss to Pittsburgh with Shaun King starting and a win over Chicago with Rob Johnson starting. (The latter was a 15-0 decision built mostly on defense and Martin Gramatica's leg.) Legend has it that Brad Johnson still would not have been ready for the Wild Card round, but he was able to play after the bye week and the rest is history.

I guess you could argue that no team is owed a bye week. And if you want that bye in today's set up, well then you need to earn it by having the best record during the regular season. But it is just my own personal point of view that the previous set up, with byes for the top two seeds, felt like a more fair way to go about it.

Again, this is all with the economic factor taken out of it, which you can't really do. But look at what was gained in the first year of this set up apart from that. The two extra teams that made the playoffs, Philly and Pittsburgh, were barely over .500 and were handled with relative ease by their second-seeded opponents in the first round. In 2020, the seventh-seeded Colts did give Buffalo a run for its money, but so far those seventh teams are 0-4. Some day, a seventh seed is going to get the upset, that's inevitable, but I'd be willing to bet that in most seasons the second-best team in each conference is going to be significantly better than the seventh-best team.

Okay, I'm climbing off my soap box. The seven-team playoff field is here to stay, unless and until it expands again some day. It's not really worth wringing our hands over as much as I am already guilty of doing. Sorry I didn't answer your question exactly as it was probably intended, John, but it did give me a chance to get that off my chest.

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