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A Special Message From SR
Welcome to the final SR’s Fab 5 of the year, as the next two Fridays fall on Christmas and New Year’s Day. I hope you are enjoying the holiday season – and the Bucs’ playoff push. Over the next two Fridays I will have my 4 Match-ups to Watch to get you ready for Tampa Bay’s final two games of the 2020 regular season, and then the SR’s Fab 5 column returns the first week in January to ring in 2021.
In the meantime, I hope you are enjoying the new video versions of the Pewter Report Podcasts on YouTube, and that you will consider donating to Pewter Report this holiday season, as the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt most businesses across the country economically – and Pewter Report is no exception. As you can see, we have recently revamped the PewterReport.com website and are in need of funds for new web cameras to increase the quality of the Pewter Report Podcast videos.
All of the funds that our loyal Pewter Report visitors donate get poured right back into the development costs for our business, which in turn benefits you – the die-hard Pewter Report readers, listeners and viewers. If you have donated in the past, I thank you on behalf of the Pewter Report staff. If you are considering donating to Pewter Report, you can do so by clicking this link – PewterReport.com/donation – where you can choose to make a one-time donation for only $10 (or more if you wish), or become a monthly donor for as little as $3 per month.
Thank you for your support this year, Pewter Nation. The year 2020 has certainly been a trying one economically, but we’ve had record traffic with over 1.2 million unique visitors. Thank you so much for turning to PewterReport.com for your Bucs coverage this year, and have a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, and a safe and fun New Year’s.
FAB 1. Barrett, JPP Heating Up For The Holidays
It’s wintertime and Christmas is just around the corner. That means the temperatures will be dropping … except in Tampa Bay where things are heating up.
Especially, the Bucs’ pass rush, as the team is coming off Sunday’s 26-14 victory over the Vikings where Kirk Cousins was sacked six times.
The dynamic duo of Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett, who combined for three of those sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, is really getting hot – and just in time for the Bucs’ playoff push.
“Yeah, we have to,” Barrett said. “It’s not an option – we have to. I mean not ‘we.’ I started slow and I just have to pick it up. I want to do my job as much as possible and be known as one of the best, so in order to do that you have to have the stats, you have to have the numbers to go with it. “Having JPP on the other end just helps out a lot. We always talk and are always switching sides now and are trying to figure out what works best for us. It’s working right now, and we’ve just got to stay hot, keep it hot and keep going.”
Over the last four games Barrett has recorded four sacks and a forced fumble, while Pierre-Paul has racked up three sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and even picked off a couple of passes. While Barrett led the NFL with a franchise-record 19.5 sacks en route to his first Pro Bowl berth, Pierre-Paul leads the team with 9.5 sacks with Barrett right behind with eight QB captures.
“I think they have a great friendly competition in competing against each other getting back there,” said Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. “They help each other out where you just can’t try to double one or the other, as well as the guys up the middle. They’re doing a good job getting to the passer. Sometimes the ball is coming out fast, so we’re happy with the production and we’re happy with the pressure.”
Bucs OLBs Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul and DT Ndamukong Suh – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
If the past is any indicator, Pierre-Paul and Barrett won’t be cooling off any time soon. In two games against the Falcons last year, the Bucs sacked Matt Ryan a total of 12 times with Barrett and Pierre-Paul combining for seven sacks and an incredible 28 pressures between the two.
In last year’s 35-22 win at Atlanta, Pierre-Paul and Barrett each had a sack. In the 2019 season finale, a 28-22 loss in overtime, Barrett broke the Bucs’ single-season record with three sacks of Ryan, while Pierre-Paul notched a pair of sacks. Ryan has already been sacked 33 times this year with three more games left after being dropped 48 times a year ago.
In between two Falcons games is a trip to Detroit where the Bucs will face the Lions as they did in December a year ago where Tampa Bay prevailed 38-17. Barrett had a sack in that game, as did defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who began his career in Detroit as a first-round pick in 2010. Suh is tied for third on the team with sacks this year with five, including one last Sunday against Minnesota.
Tampa Bay is tied for the fourth-most sacks in the league with 40 after recording 47 last year. The franchise record is 55 sacks in 2000 – led by Warren Sapp’s 16.5 QB captures. That was the last time the Bucs had two double-digit sackers with defensive end Marcus Jones producing 13 sacks that year. Tampa Bay needs 16 sacks over the last three games to break that record. If the Bucs equal their sack production from a year ago against the Falcons and the Lions they’ll compile 14 and fall to reach 53 and fall two short. Still, 53 sacks would be six more than the team had a year ago.
Bucs OLB Shaq Barrett and QB Matt Ryan – Photo by: USA Today
Pierre-Paul needs half a sack to reach double digits for the fourth time in his 11-year career, while Barrett needs just two over the last three games to record double-digit sacks for the second year in a row. Barrett has extra incentive as he’s playing on a one-year franchise tag and is slated to be a free agent next year.
“It is a luxury and we don’t plan on Shaq going anywhere,” Arians said. “I don’t think he wants to go anywhere because having JPP on the other side really helps him out and I think vice versa. Putting them over the guards this week – they did some different stuff and they’re a heck of a duo, man. When you can get people one dimensional, they’re hard to block.”
Just ask Ryan and the Falcons offensive line.
FAB 2. Bucs’ 2019 Draft Class Cooling Off
When I was formulating my prediction for the Bucs’ 2020 season I came up with a 10-6 record and a wild card playoff berth while others in the local and national media were more ambitiously forecasting an 11-5 or 12-4 record for Tampa Bay due to the arrival of a pair of future Hall of Famers in quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Bucs ILB Devin White and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The reason I wasn’t as bullish on the Bucs this year was because I didn’t quite trust the Bucs defense becoming a Super Bowl-caliber unit in 2020, especially fielding so many second-year players in starting roles. Tampa Bay drafted five players last year that are playing a significant amount of snaps this year, including inside linebacker Devin White, cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, safety Mike Edwards and outside linebacker Anthony Nelson. White was drafted fifth overall, while Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Edwards were Day 2 picks. Nelson was picked in the fourth round.
The old adage in the NFL is that the biggest jump in growth and player development occurs during the offseason between a player’s rookie year and his second season. For Tampa Bay’s entire 2019 draft class, it didn’t have that offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The over 400 reps in mini-camps and OTAs (organized team activities) were the players could hit the practice field running the Bucs offense and defense, get filmed, and then head inside One Buccaneer Place to review the tape with the coaches never materialized.
Instead, the Bucs players and coaches were left watching last year’s game film on Zoom calls during the spring and summer, and working out on their own rather than with Tampa Bay’s strength and conditioning staff. Throw in the fact that the Bucs had a truncated three-week training camp rather than the normal five week camp, and didn’t have any preseason games as a result of COVID-19 and the growth for the Bucs’ 2019 draft class – and other team’s draft classes from a year ago – has been stunted, according to Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians.
“I think so,” Arians said. “All those second-year players I think were stunted this year a little bit – not as much as the first-year players. Their development, not being able to be in the building, be around coaches [and] actually getting that practice time and not being able to grow – I think it hurt everybody.”
That doesn’t mean that the second-year Bucs defenders – and even wide receiver Scotty Miller, last year’s sixth-round pick – haven’t improved in some areas. Some players have made statistical strides and others have grown mentally in the game with another year’s worth of experience in the scheme. But neither White, nor Murphy-Bunting, Dean, Edwards nor Nelson has seen their game take a quantum leap forward in 2020.
The fact that NFL teams like the Bucs spend the vast majority of practice time game-planning for the next opponent and preparing for individual match-ups does not leave much time at all to hone the fundamentals and work on improving individual techniques. Unfortunately that will have to occur next offseason for the team’s second-year players.
Let’s take a look at the statistical comparison between last year and this season for Tampa Bay’s 2019 draft class.
White has been a more active tackler with 27 more tackles than a year ago, but the splash plays – outside of an increase in sacks – have been fewer and far between. As a rookie, White had a hand in eight takeaways and even scored two touchdowns on fumble recoveries. In his second season in Tampa Bay, he’s had just one forced fumble and one fumble recovery through 13 games, which is the only amount of games he played in last year due to an early-season knee injury.
While being named a defensive captain for the first time, White has completely regressed in pass coverage and looks lost trying to keep up with tight ends and running backs. After allowing just 40 receptions for 401 yards and one touchdown last year, White has surrendered 73 catches for 657 touchdowns and five TDs in 2020, with just two pass breakups and no interceptions. White is one of Tampa Bay’s worst graded defenders from Pro Football Focus with a horrible 37.9 overall grade and a woeful 33.6 grade in coverage. The LSU product needs to spend months in the offseason honing his coverage skills if he wants to develop into a Pro Bowl linebacker with an all-around game.
“Well, the biggest thing is his leadership, and the leadership comes with commanding the defense and knowing the defense,” Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said of White’s improvement. “He’s playing a lot faster, understanding the defense and getting everybody else to play fast. His talent is already there. He’s already way ahead of the game from that standpoint, but the game has slowed down for him from a mental standpoint and he’s leading us.”
ROUND 2 – CB SEAN MURPHY-BUNTING
Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
2020 stats – 13 games / 10 starts
57 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 PBUs, 1 INT
Murphy-Bunting had a strong end to his rookie season strong with two of his three interceptions coming in the month of December, including a pivotal pick-six in a win at Detroit. The second-round pick from 2019 has seen his confidence get shaken at times and he has not been a good fit for zone defense that Bowles often deploys, as he played primarily man coverage in college.
Murphy-Bunting has given up 49 passes for 608 yards and four touchdowns in pass coverage this season, according to PFF, with three games left after allowing 51 catches for 528 yards and four scores all of last year. He has also made far fewer plays on the ball this season, too. In 2019, Murphy-Bunting had eight pass break-ups and three interceptions, while he’s had just two passes defensed and one INT this season. Asking Murphy-Bunting to play both inside at the slot cornerback spot as well as outside cornerback may be too much for the Central Michigan product in his second year in the league.
“[Murphy]-Bunting is probably the headiest of the bunch,” Bowles said. “He does a lot of things for us, does a lot of the dirty work and plays a lot of positions for us. He’s been banged up a little bit, but everybody is at this point in the year. He’s coming around healthy, so we look for him to get better and better.”