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Many Happy Returns | S.S. Mailbag

Buccaneers
18 Nov 2022, 18:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay BuccaneersThis week, Buccaneers fans have questions about the offensive backfield, the impact of Akiem Hicks' return to the defense and when another trip to Germany might be in the cardsScott Smith

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 21-16 win over the Seattle Seahawks at Munich's stunning Allianz Arena on Sunday was more dominant than the final score indicates. The Bucs led 21-3 with 11 minutes left in regulation and to that point had gained 344 yards to Seattle's 166. Geno Smith and the Seahawks deserve credit for rallying with two late touchdowns, but their three-quarter deficit proved to big to overcome.

One pair of stats best demonstrates how thoroughly the Buccaneers controlled most of the game: Tampa Bay converted 10 of its 15 third-down tries and allowed Seattle convert on just one of nine attempts. It's even more lopsided when one considers that two of the Bucs' official third-down "attempts" were actually kneel-downs at the end of each half.

Just three weeks ago, the Buccaneers had one of the worst "third-down differential" figures in the NFL. That's what I call the difference between a team's conversion rate on offense and what it allows on defense. Now, after going nine-for-21 in a Week Nine win over the Rams and 10-15 this past Sunday, the Bucs are on the plus side of that equation, having improved their offensive rate from 34.6% to 39.2% and reduced their defensive numbers from 42.1% to 38.4%.

When it comes to third-down differential, you're not going to find many more lopsided outcomes than the one the Bucs just produced in Germany. With a 66.7% rate on offense and a 11.1% rate on defense, the difference was 55.6%. I have kept game-by-game third down charts every season since 2000, covering a total of 507 regular-season contests so far. That 55.6% mark is the single best differential I have on record for the Buccaneers.

The Bucs' previous best in this regard was from just two seasons ago, when the Bucs beat Carolina, 46-23, on November 15, 2020. That day, the offense converted 62.5% of its third downs and the defense allowed a rate of just 11.1%, for a differential of 51.4%. The third-best differential came in a 35-3 win over San Francisco in 2004; the fourth-best occurred in a 37-3 victory over Atlanta in 2007. I assume you're getting the picture.

Win the third-down differential and more often than not you're going to win it a lot. Win that category by a lot and you're going to win almost every time. It makes sense, of course - you're sustaining drives and thus creating scoring chances while your opponent is not.

Of those 507 games, 20 of them featured a positive differential for Tampa Bay of 35% or more. The Bucs are 19-1 in such games. The one loss in that group has to be one of the weirdest outcomes in team history. The Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers did not convert a single third down in a 48-16 blowout of the Buccaneers on December 24, 2011. How is that possible? Well, they only faced six third downs, they followed two of those with successful fourth-down conversions and they ran for 270 yards. The Bucs converted five of 11 third downs (thus the +45.5% differential) but also turned the ball over four times.

You can see the diminishing returns as the Bucs' third-down differential descends. From 25% to just below 35%, the Bucs are 17-16; from 15% to just below 25%, it's 59-12; from a flat zero to just below 15%, it's 85-63. Then you get into the negative side and the numbers turn really bad, really fast. From just below 0% to -15%, it's 40-88; from just below -15% to -25%, it's 15-46; from just below -25% to -35%, it's 5-29; and below -35% it's 3-19.

The worst third-down differential the Buccaneers ever overcame to get the victory was -44.6% against Washington on Nov. 25, 2007. Tampa Bay converted just 8.3% of the time in that game while allowing a conversion rate of 52.9% but still won, 19-13. They also allowed Washington to gain 412 yards of total offense while generating only 192 of their own. You can probably guess the reason: Turnovers. The Bucs forced six of them and didn't commit a single one. I guess that's the real lesson here: Third-down differential may be a very good indicator of who is going to win the game, but nothing beats turnover margin as the most telling statistic.

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.

Who do you think we will see more of White or Fournette? Was Lenny injured going into that game?

- @kaydeno_00 (via Instagram)

No, Leonard Fournette was not injured heading into Sunday's win over Seattle. He suffered a hip pointer in the second half. Rookie Rachaad White did start the game - his first career start - but Head Coach Todd Bowles said this was because the team has certain packages for each back and they wanted to open with one that happened to feature White. After that drive went three-and-out, Fournette was featured on the Bucs' second possession.

As to your first question, the first factor in figuring out the answer is knowing how much time, if any, Fournette will miss due to his new injury. A hip pointer is a soft-tissue injury, resulting in pain and bruising at the top or front of the hip bone. It's caused by taking a hard blow to the area and if it's painful enough it can knock a player out of a game. However, since it's not a break or a ligament tear, it shouldn't be a long-term injury. The only real treatment is rest and ice, and the prognosis for return is usually one to three weeks. Since Fournette has the added advantage of a bye week, I think there's a decent chance he'll be ready to play against Cleveland in Week 12, and if he does miss any time it shouldn't be too much.

So if and when Fournette is healthy and the Bucs can choose between him and White on any given play, I suspect that Fournette will still get the larger share of the carries. The coaches and Tom Brady clearly trust him and he has a long track record of success for the Buccaneers in recent seasons. We have seen Fournette get on a roll - picture "Playoff Lenny" - and when that happens the offense really starts to hum.

That said, I think it's clear that White has earned himself an increase in snaps, and I expect that to happen. Prior to last Sunday's game, Fournette was getting about 3.5 carries to every one for White, had been targeted on 49 passes to 25 for White and had logged 452 offensive snaps to 179 for White. This was in part due to Fournette leaving the game with his injury, but against Seattle White had 22 carries, zero targets and 48 offensive snaps to 14, one and 22 for Fournette.

Again, the second half isn't great evidence because of Fournette's injury, but in the first half the two backs were essentially alternating possessions. Fournette was in for the longest one - and scored at the end of it - which is why he had 12 carries at the half to nine for White.

And this also will be part of the answer your question. If the two backs continue to get a fairly even split of the offensive possessions, then the one who can more often help sustain long drives will end up with more carries and targets in any particularly game. If the coaches subscribe to the "hot hand" theory, then one or the other could up his percentage of possessions, and I would think that the team would be more likely to apply the hot-hand tie-breaker to Fournette, who has shown before that he can get on a heater.

So, to sum it all up, I expect White to get a larger share of the snaps moving forward, but if both he and Fournette are healthy I still expect the veteran to command the "lead" role. Fournette's share of 2.5 snaps to every one for White could come down to something more like 1.5 to one.

Was the difference on Sunday having Hicks?

- @benedek.attanyi (via Instagram)

I'm not sure I can definitely say yes to that theory, but it's hard to build an argument against it.

The Buccaneers have now played three full games with Akiem Hicks in their defense and have allowed 59.3 rushing yards per game, 3.2 yards per carry and zero rushing touchdowns in those contests. In the six games that Hicks missed completely, the Bucs allowed 148.0 rushing yards per game, 4.9 yards per carry and five rushing touchdowns. Hicks missed the second half of the Bucs' Week Two win at New Orleans, in which the team allowed 100 rushing yards and five yards per carry.

Toss out the Saints game and you have an extremely stark difference between the Bucs' rush defense with Hicks and without him. It seems self-evident that Hicks is making a big difference, which is exactly what the Bucs were hoping for when they signed him in June. Throughout his career, when healthy, Hicks has usually been a featured part of one of the league's best run defenses.

I think the more precise answer is that being able to pair Hicks with Vita Vea is what makes the biggest difference. Todd Bowles put it this way after Hicks returned in Week Nine and the Buccaneers' defense held the Rams rushing attack to just 39 yards and 2.8 per carry:

"It helped [Vea] a lot. We've got two big guys in there, so you have to pick and choose who you double. Hicks' presence allows other people to get free."

Vea had 2.0 sacks in that win over the Rams and the Bucs' coaches went into that game with a plan to get him into some favorable matchups and situations. Surely that would have been much more difficult to do without Hicks' presence. Said Bowles:

"We knew we had to win the line of scrimmage and Vita was a big part of that. Going into the week we were determined to get him free and at least match him up a little bit. He came through for us."

It's fair to point out that the Rams weren't exactly a severe test for the Bucs' run defense, as they came into the league with the 31st-ranked run game, better than only the Buccaneers. However, the Seahawks came into last week's game averaging 133.8 rushing yards per game, 10th best in the league, and rookie Kenneth Walker had been running wild. Shutting them down to the degree the Bucs did is a much better indicator that the defense might be returning to its previously dominant ways against the run.

If Jensen returned today would Hainsey play guard? Or become a backup T/C?

- @bucsuk (via Instagram)

That's actually a question we've kicked around a lot here in the office, since the Buccaneers are obviously holding out hope that Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen can return to action at some point this season. I find the recent rumors about Jensen being close to getting back on the field a little vague, so I don't necessarily believe that is imminent, but we can discuss this notion hypothetically.

A couple of weeks ago, I probably would have leaned pretty hard to your first answer. With rookie Luke Goedeke struggling somewhat at left guard and Hainsey known for his versatility, it did seem to make some sense to consider sliding Hainsey over one spot to make way for Jensen. However, Nick Leverett has drawn repeated praise from the coaches for his play as he has stepped into the starting lineup following Goedeke's foot injury in Week Seven. This past Sunday, the Buccaneers' offensive line had perhaps its best outing of the year, blocking for a 161-yard running game, allowing zero sacks and helping Brady record his longest average time to throw in any game this season.

If Leverett continues to impress the coaching staff, there may come a point where the team feels it is better to disrupt the lineup as little as possible. So if Jensen did return and was considered sharp enough to be the best option at center, the team could elect to put Hainsey in a super-sub role for a bit. To be clear though, Hainsey definitely appears to be establishing himself as a long-term starter somewhere on the Bucs' offensive line.

Was the turf degradation a surprise to the team?

- @anamariela07 (via Instagram)

I'm not sure "degradation" is the right word, but I get your point. The field was definitely slippery, but no, that did not come as a surprise. The Buccaneers had a walk-through at Allianz Arena on Saturday and got to test out the field that morning. They knew exactly what to expect and they used the best cleats they had for those conditions. There wasn't much more they could do about it. I know the Seahawks have been more vocal with their displeasure over the field than the Buccaneers have been, but it's a lot easier to dismiss any difficult issue when you come away with a win.

Munich was such a wonderful city and great hosts to the Bucs and the Bucs UK fan club. We can't wait to go back again! What were your personal highlights from the Bucs' trip to Munich? Given four NFL teams have selected Germany as their focus overseas market (including our wonderful Buccaneers), when do you think we might be able to see our Buccaneers in Germany again?

- Kieron (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Thanks for the question Kieron, and thank you very much for the hospitality your awesome Bucs UK group showed me on Saturday night at the Hofbrauhaus. As I said at the time, you all are consistently much too kind to me, and I appreciate it. That was certainly one of the highlights of my trip.

As to my other personal highlights, I assume you mean other than watching the Buccaneers get a much-needed and quite dominant win. That was the last and best part of our three days in Munich. I will say that perhaps the next best thing was simply witnessing the scene inside Allianz Arena. We had been told that the German football crowd would be extremely passionate and excited and would create an incredible atmosphere for the game, and that proved to be 100% true. It was a happy crowd, too. The stadium-wide rendition of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," near the end of the game was probably the single biggest highlight.

I was also fortunate enough to get to explore downtown Munich for about four hours on Saturday. The Viktualienmarkt was amazing; I think you could wander around those shops and kiosks all day and not get tired of it. I know we were there before the city really broke out all of its Christmas stuff - I hear that is amazing, too - but you could still find plenty of seasonal prizes, including absolutely beautiful ornaments. I bought one of those.

When will the Buccaneers be back? I'm sad to say I think it will be a while. Everyone could see what an incredible experience it was for both the Bucs and Seahawks, and since all 32 teams now must play at least one International Series game every eight seasons, there will surely be some clubs that would prefer to make Germany their destination when they go abroad. It should become a coveted assignment.

The Buccaneers are on of four teams that were awarded Germany as their "International Home Marketing Area" last year. At the time of the announcement, the NFL said that it would make an effort to put teams in games in their own IHMA when possible, and I think that's a big reason (along with Tom Brady's presence) that the Bucs got to be one of the two teams in the first game ever in that American football-hungry country. The league has already committed to games in Germany in each of the next three seasons (2023 and 2025 in Frankfurt, 2024 back in Munich), and it does make sense to include the other three teams with Germany as their IHMA in those matchups. So I think you're much more likely to Carolina, Kansas City and New England get a shot over the rest of this four-year commitment. Perhaps the Bucs could slide in again as one of those teams' opponent, but it would seem more likely that the NFL will want to let the German fans see as many different teams as possible.

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