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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. Bucs Need To Embrace Super Bowl Formula
Defense still wins championships.
Look no further than the final four NFL teams vying to become the Super Bowl LII champions to know that’s true. Minnesota, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and New England all have Top 5 scoring defenses, and the Vikings, Jaguars and Eagles are all in the Top 5 when it comes to total defense, too. The Patriots are ranked 29th in total defense, but New England does have the league’s top offense and second-ranked scoring offense to compensate.
Defense wins championships, but points still win games, which is why a team needs to have a way to score enough points – preferably touchdowns – in the playoffs to prevail. A quick look at the final four NFL teams in the playoffs reveals a few common denominators, but having a franchise-caliber quarterback is not one of them.
Oh, the odds-on favorite New England Patriots have Tom Brady, the greatest NFL quarterback of all-time, but what about the other three teams? Who are their quarterbacks?
Philadelphia and Minnesota have two former Los Angeles Rams backup quarterbacks at the helm in Nick Foles and Case Keenum, respectively. Jacksonville has Blake Bortles, a former first-round pick who has definitely not lived up to expectations with the Jaguars.
Other Super Bowl participants have lacked elite caliber quarterbacks, including San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick in 2012, Chicago with Rex Grossman in 2006, Matt Hasselbeck in 2006, Tampa Bay with Brad Johnson in 2002 and Baltimore with Trent Dilfer in 2001 among others, but those teams had great defenses and good running games. Pairing a strong defense with a strong running game to keep opposing defenses honest and off-balance has worked for the Vikings, Jaguars and Eagles thus far, and it’s something the Bucs should try to replicate.
For the record, the 2017 Bucs had neither as their defense ranked last in the league (378.1 ypg) in total defense and ranked 22nd in scoring defense (23.9 ppg) and Tampa Bay’s ground game ranked 27th (90.6 ypg), which is why they were out of the playoff race in early November.
The Bucs had the league’s ninth-ranked offense, but that’s because the team had the fourth-ranked passing game. Let’s look at the top 10 rushing offenses in 2017. Notice that out of the top 10 rushing offenses, all but one – second-ranked Dallas – qualified for the playoffs.
Top 10 Rushing Offenses In 2017 1. Jacksonville – 2,262 yards – 141.4 ypg – 4.3 avg.
Led by first-round pick Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville led all NFL teams in rushing, and that was a big reason why they powered through Buffalo and Pittsburgh on the way to the AFC Championship Game. The Jaguars also had the league’s second-ranked defense (286.1 ypg) and the second-ranked scoring defense (16.8 ppg).
2. Dallas – 2,170 yards – 135.6 ypg – 4.5 avg.
A big reason why Dallas, which finished 9-7, didn’t make the playoffs is because the Cowboys went 3-3 without Ezekiel Elliott, one of the league’s top running backs, in the lineup due to a six-game suspension. Dallas averaged 7.3 points per game and 96 yards rushing per game in those three losses without Elliott. The Cowboys had the 10th-rated defense (318.1 ypg) and the 13th-ranked scoring defense (20.8 ppg) otherwise.
3. Philadelphia – 2,115 yards – 132.2 ypg – 4.5 avg.
Philadelphia used a backs-by-committee approach that was bolstered by the trade for Jay Ajayi during the season. That running game combined with the Eagles’ fourth-ranked defense (306.5 ypg) and the fourth-ranked scoring defense (18.4 ppg) helped them survive the loss of second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, who was having an MVP-caliber year before tearing his ACL.
4. Carolina – 2,102 yards – 131.4 ypg – 4.3 avg.
Quarterback Cam Newton actually led Carolina with 754 yards, but Jonathan Stewart added 680 yards and rookie Christian McCaffrey rushed for 435 yards to make the Panthers’ ground game multi-faceted. The Panthers had the seventh-ranked defense (317.1 ypg) and the 11th-ranked scoring defense (20.4 ppg).
5. New Orleans – 2,070 yards – 129.4 ypg – 4.7 avg.
New Orleans’ double-headed monster of Mark Ingram (1,214 yards and two touchdowns) and Pro Bowl rookie Alvin Kamara (728 yards rushing and eight touchdowns) spearheaded the strongest ground game on Bourbon Street in over a decade. The Saints had the 17th-ranked defense (336.5 ypg), which was much improved, but the strength was in the 10th-ranked scoring defense (20.4 ppg).
6. Buffalo – 2,017 yards – 126.1 ypg – 4.1 avg.
LeSean McCoy (1,138 yards) powered Buffalo’s rushing attack, which was aided by 427 yards rushing from quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The Bills had the 27th-ranked defense (355.1 ypg) in Sean McDermott’s first year, and the league’s 18th-ranked scoring defense (22.4 ppg).
7. Minnesota – 1,957 yards – 122.3 ypg – 3.9 avg.
The Vikings had the league’s top defense (275.9 ypg) and the NFL’s top scoring defense (15.8 ppg), but Minnesota also had a good ground game to complement Case Keenum. Latavius Murray (842 yards and eight touchdowns) led the way with help from Jerick McKinnon (570 yards) and rookie Dalvin Cook (354) before his season-ending ACL injury.
8. L.A. Rams – 1,953 yards – 122.1 ypg – 4.3 avg.
Los Angeles had a monster year from Todd Gurley (1,305 yards and eight touchdowns) that helped Jared Goff settle into being a starting NFL quarterback in his second season. The Rams had the 19th-ranked defense (339.5 ypg) in Wade Phillips’ first year as coordinator, but also the 12th-ranked scoring defense (20.6 ppg).
9. Kansas City – 1,903 yards – 118.9 ypg – 4.7 avg.
Kansas City had the league’s leading rusher in Pro Bowl rookie Kareem Hunt, who gained 1,327 yards and scored eight touchdowns while quarterback Alex Smith contributed 355 yards and a pair of scores on the ground. The Chiefs had the 28th-ranked defense (365.1 ypg), but made up for it with the 15th-ranked scoring defense (21.2 ppg).
10. New England – 1,889 yards – 118.1 ypg – 4.2 avg.
Surprise! New England of all teams has a Top 10 rushing offense, led by Dion Lewis’ 896 yards and six touchdowns. Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead and James White all combined to rush for 818 yards. The Patriots had the 29th-ranked defense (366 ypg), but Matt Patricia’s unit was bend, but don’t break, evidenced by the fifth-ranked scoring defense (18.5 ppg).
Three other teams made the playoffs without the benefit of a top 10 running game. Let’s see how they did it.
13. Atlanta – 1,847 yards – 115.4 ypg – 4.3 avg.
Despite battling injuries, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for nearly 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017. It’s not a top 10 rushing attack, but it’s close. That ground game along with a studly defense was what got Atlanta back in the playoffs. The Falcons had the ninth-ranked defense (318.4 ypg) and the eighth-ranked scoring defense (19.7 ppg).
15. Tennessee – 1,833 yards – 114.6 ypg – 4.1 avg.
Derrick Henry led Tennessee with 744 yards and five touchdowns, while DeMarco Murray (659 yards, six touchdowns) and quarterback Marcus Mariota (312 yards, five touchdowns) helped beef up the rushing yards. The Titans had the 13th-rated defense (328 ypg) and the 17th-rated scoring defense (22.2 ppg).
20. Pittsburgh – 1,667 yards – 104.2 ygp – 3.8 avg.
It’s a bit surprising that Pittsburgh only had the 20th-ranked ground game despite having Le’Veon Bell’s 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns, but he was essentially a one-man-gang. The Steelers’ rushing attack was good enough to combine with the fifth-ranked defense (306.9 ypg) and seventh-ranked scoring defense (19.2 ppg) to win the AFC North.
The combination of Tampa Bay’s running game (ranked 27th), scoring defense (22nd) and total defense (32nd) didn’t come close to being good enough for a playoff run this year. If the Bucs want to rebound from a disastrous 2017, they’ll need to bolster the defense and the ground game. Follow that formula, as Minnesota, Philadelphia and Jacksonville did to go from being non-playoff teams in 2016 to knocking on the Super Bowl door in 2017, and the Bucs can make the leap into the postseason, too.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org