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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Winston’s Improvement Drives Bucs Offense
In last week’s SR’s Fab 5 column I documented Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston’s struggles in prime time games since entering the league as the number one overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Winston’s 1-5 record in night games is currently a stain on his promising young career.
The results are very promising.
Although the offense has only scored eight more points through the first four games than it did a year ago, the Bucs are 2-2 instead of the 1-3 record Tampa Bay had through the first month of the season last year. Winston’s improvement this season has a lot to do with that.
Last year Winston completed 78-of-130 passes (58.2 percent) for 1,077 yards and had eight touchdowns, eight interceptions, two fumbles and was sacked 10 times while compiling a 72.9 QB rating.
This season Winston has completed 94-of-154 passes (61 percent) for 1,198 yards with seven touchdowns, three interceptions and no fumbles lost for a 92.4 QB rating. Despite throwing 24 more passes this season than he did at this time a year ago, Winston has been sacked three less times.
Winston has 121 more passing yards, five less interceptions, two less fumbles a two-percent completion percentage increase and nearly a 20-point QB rating improvement than he had at this juncture in 2016.
“That’s really impressive to look at and see how much he has improved with the turnovers,” said Bucs wide receiver Adam Humphries. “And that is us as a team, as well. It is one of our biggest points of emphasis going into every single year. If you win the turnover margin you will more than likely win the game. That’s a good thing moving forward.”
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter is pleased with the lack of turnovers from the offense thus far.
“I think the New England game is only the second game in the least three years that we’ve won the turnover margin and lost the game,” Koetter said. “I think we’re something like 18-2 or 19-2 – something like that. The Cardinals are almost exactly the same way. We go over that with the team every week and both teams are real similar. It’s cliché, but the stats back it up that if you win the turnover margin you’ve got a great chance to win the game.”
So far the Bucs have only won one more game than they did last year after the first quarter, but keep in mind that Tampa Bay missed the playoffs by just one game last year. Maybe that one first quarter win this year in the team’s 2-2 start will be a catalyst for the Bucs making the postseason this year.
Through four games, Tampa Bay’s offense ranks sixth in the league in total yards with 374 yards per game, and the passing attack ranks third with 288 yards per game. The Bucs have amassed 1,496 yards through the first four games of the 2017 campaign, which ranks second in team history behind the team’s 1,498 yards that it produced in 2003.
Winston already has had three consecutive 300-yard games over the past three weeks after having three in all of 2016 and two 300-yard games during his rookie season.
Although Winston had one more passing touchdown and one more rushing touchdown through the first four games last year, he also lost a fumble against Los Angeles that was returned 77 yards for a touchdown and had a 60-yard pick-six against Arizona to essentially negate those scores.
That brings us to Tampa Bay’s fifth game of the 2017 season, which is a return to Arizona to face a Cardinals team that handed the Bucs their worst loss of the 2016 season, 40-7, in Week 2. It was also Winston’s worst performance of the 2016 season and one of the worst games in his career.
In that game, Winston was 27-of-52 for 243 yards (4.7 avg) with one touchdown, a career-high four interceptions, including a pick-six, a fumble, and a 39.2 QB rating.
The Cardinals played a good deal of man coverage and also some Cover 2, doubling Mike Evans on occasion and taking away deep routes. That forced Winston to have to be patient in the pocket, which he wasn’t. As a result Winston’s longest pass of the game was a 24-yarder to Adam Humphries.
Evans was targeted a whopping 18 times last year at Arizona, but finished with just six catches for 70 yards and one touchdown. Two of Winston’s four interceptions were on throws to Evans last year. Winston’s first interception was a deep ball overthrown to Evans. His last interception was a last-play Hail Mary to Evans, who was double covered in the end zone.
It will be interesting to see how Winston fares this year against the Cardinals, who are 2-3 this season and were 0-1 last year when they faced the Bucs. Arizona just lost one of its top pass rusher, 3-4 outside linebacker Markus Golden, to a season-ending knee injury. Golden had 1.5 sacks of Winston last year. This year the Bucs must contend with another outside linebacker Chandler Jones, who leads Arizona with five sacks.
The good news is that Tampa Bay’s offensive line, whose talent was questioned by some heading into the 2017 season, has performed well in pass protection thus far. That level of play will have to continue in Arizona for Winston and the Bucs to grab their first road win of the year and avenge last season’s loss.
While Winston and Koetter love the explosive plays in the passing game, if the Cardinals come out and play zone instead of man coverage, as the Vikings did three weeks ago and the Patriots did on Thursday night, Winston will have to be more patient and accurate with the check-downs and underneath passes. If Winston and the Bucs have success with that approach – in addition to running the ball – early in the game and move the chains, march down the field and score touchdowns, the Cardinals may abandon that approach and go back to man coverage in order to bring a safety down in the box to help stop the run.
Koetter also needs to be more patient with the running game. Doug Martin averaged 7.9 yards per carry at halftime after carrying the ball seven times for 55 yards, but he only received six carries in the second half, despite the fact that the Bucs never trailed by more than nine points at any time in the game. Martin finished with 74 yards on 13 carries (5.7 avg.) and one touchdown.
“If we are getting the Doug that we’ve seen at his best – and he did look good the other night in the 25 snaps that he got – it gives you an explosive back, a back that can turn a four-yard gain into a 12-yard gain and once a while a 12-yard gain into a 50-yard gain,” Koetter said. “Next to that turnover thing, as we always say, explosives [are] the next biggest thing. We actually had our most explosive plays of the year in the New England game – we had nine. We were there on turnovers and we were there on explosives and we still got beat.”
If Winston continues to protect the ball and is patient and accurate with his throws, if Martin continues to run the ball well, and if Koetter doesn’t abandon the ground game too early, the Bucs should very well have revenge in the desert against the Cardinals on Sunday.