It’s time for Scott Reynolds’ 2-Point Conversion post-game column, which features two statements, two questions and two predictions based on the latest Bucs game.
The Bucs beat the Eagles, 31-15, to advance to the NFC Divisional playoffs, which will be at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay will play the winner of the Arizona at Los Angeles Wild Card playoff game on Monday night next Sunday at 3:00 p.m. ET. The Bucs jumped out to a 31-0 lead thanks to winning the turnover margin 3-0. Tampa Bay was great in all three phases of the game and played one of its most complete games of the year.
2 BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1. Bucs Need Legendary Playoff Run From Evans
The Bucs didn’t need Mike Evans to play great every game of the playoffs last year en route to the Super Bowl.
That won’t be the case this year.
Evans will have to be great in every playoff game without Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown.
At least a touchdown – maybe two. And 100 yards receiving.
He accomplished both in Sunday’s 31-15 win over Philadelphia. Evans had nine catches for 117 yards and a touchdown in the Wild Card playoffs.
That touchdown, a 36-yarder, was capped off by a dramatic somersault into the end zone.
“I did decent,” the humble Evans said. “There’s a couple of other plays I could have been better at. Perimeter blocking, that [expletive] touchdown I could have had in the first half. But I did a solid job. I was waiting for this moment. Whenever the ball comes my way, I try to make a play.”
Last year, with tight end Rob Gronkowski and Brown and Godwin, the Bucs didn’t need Evans to be great in every game.
He shook off a knee injury to catch six passes for 119 yards at Washington in the Wild Card round. Then he had just one catch for three yards at New Orleans – granted it was a touchdown. Evans had three catches for 51 yards and a TD at Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. But had just one catch for 31 yards in Super Bowl LV, although he drew five flags as well.
This year without Godwin and Brown, Evans and Gronkowski will have to carry the Bucs’ passing game. That’s one down, and hopefully three more games to go.
“Mike played great, just a great effort by him,” Bucs quarterback Tom Brady said. “Always can count on him. Dependable, tough, made some huge catches for us. He’s just an amazing player, and he’s just doing great stuff for us. Always comes through, great red-area target, great on third down. Used him a lot of different ways today, so I’m glad he had such a productive day. He’s an amazing player.”
Evans is used to being the primary weapon in the passing game. While Vincent Jackson’s career was winding down in 2014-16 and before Godwin’s arrival in 2017, Evans’ career was ramping up.
After his 1,000-yard rookie season in which he caught a franchise-record 12 touchdowns, Evans was targeted 148 times in 2015 and a career-high 173 targets in 2016. He responded with a career-high 96 catches for 1,321 yards and 12 more TDs in 2016.
Evans was the Bucs’ passing game in 2016, so he can draw from that experience. The next closest receivers were tight end Cameron Brate (57-660-8) and wide receiver Adam Humphries (55-622-2)
Gronkowski has played with several good receivers in New England, but has really come to appreciate Evans’ greatness since playing with him over the last two years.
“Mike is definitely up there and what makes him so impressive is his consistency,” Gronkowski said. “Obviously, you can tell from eight 1,000 yards seasons in a row, a record that he holds, just the way that he plays is consistent week in and week out. Through practice, through games. It’s just unbelievable. He is super selfless and just wants to win.
“Even if he doesn’t get the ball but we win, he is a happy guy. He just wants to win. That’s all he says, ‘Let’s just win, whatever it takes.’ And he steps up in the biggest moments. He is one of the best teammates out there, steps up to the plate when his number is called. It is an honor to be his teammate. He is a Buccaneers legend. It is great to be on his side.”
STATEMENT 2. Bucs Need To Keep The Secondary The Same
Sean Murphy-Bunting missed the Bucs vs. Eagles game on Sunday, but he wasn’t missed. Without Murphy-Bunting, who tweaked his hamstring, Tampa Bay’s secondary consisted of starting outside cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis III and safeties Jordan Whitehead, Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Mike Edwards.
Winfield dominated snaps in the slot, replacing Murphy-Bunting for 49 snaps at nickel. He also played 13 snaps at free safety. Winfield got a sack and a pressure on blitzes from the slot, and Edwards had a clutch second quarter interception in the end zone. Davis nearly had three interceptions versus Philadelphia, and Dean had one the best games of his career.
Davis and Dean combined for 12 tackles. Winfield had five tackles, Whitehead had seven stops and Edwards had a team-high nine tackles to go along with his pick.
Davis, Dean, Whitehead and Winfield are entrenched as starters. They played all 66 defensive snaps on Sunday. Murphy-Bunting’s injury paved the way for Edwards to play 52 snaps, which is 79 percent of the defensive plays.
Edwards was the Bucs’ leading interceptor in the regular season with three picks, including two pick-sixes. He also forced a fumble and had seven pass breakups. Murphy-Bunting had three pass breakups in nine games with a forced fumble and no interceptions.
Pro Football Focus grades are not the end-all, be-all player comparison, but Edwards was the eighth-highest graded Bucs defender (72.1) in the regular season, while Murphy-Bunting was the 16th (61.7). A lot will depend on the matchups in the next round. Will Tampa Bay face Arizona’s Christian Kirk or L.A.’s Cooper Kupp?
Who does Todd Bowles have more confidence in? Is it the play-making Edwards with a shoulder injury? Or is it Murphy-Bunting, who has given up three touchdowns in nine games, with a hamstring strain?
I know what my answer would be.
2 PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1. How Worried Should The Bucs Be About Tristan Wirfs’ Injury?
Very worried. It’s not just Tristan Wirfs’ sprained right ankle that is a concern. It is also the fact that Josh Wells got injured in the game (quad) and had to play the rest of the game with that injury. You can bet that seldom-used Nick Leverett, who was inactive on Sunday, will dress for Sunday’s playoff game. Alex Cappa could move from right guard to right tackle if Wirfs and Wells can’t go.
The reason for the concern is that whether it’s the Rams or the Cardinals, either team can bring the heat from that side of the line. Wirfs and Wells gave up 1.5 of the four sacks that Tampa Bay surrendered to Philadelphia’s front four, which isn’t as good as either Los Angeles’ or Arizona’s defensive front.
While Bucs fans might be rooting for Arizona to pull off the upset in Los Angeles, the Cardinals have a pair of double-digit sackers in linebackers Chandler Jones (10.5) and Markus Golden (11). Jones primarily rushes from the right side, so he would face Donovan Smith. Jones rushes from the left side of the defense, so he would face either Wirfs or Wells. Throw in the fact that left defensive end J.J. Watt is expected to return from injured reserve this week, and that could mean double trouble when facing the Cardinals’ 3-4 front if they beat the Rams.
Los Angeles actually presents an even bigger challenge because defensive coordinator Raheem Morris likes to move All-Pro Aaron Donald around. Donald, who has 12.5 sacks this year, usually plays on the right side. But he could be moved to the left side to test Wirfs’ sore ankle if he plays – or torment Wells. Edge rusher Leonard Floyd also plays on the left side of the defense and rushes against right tackles. He has 9.5 sacks on the season.
The Bucs might have to use tight end Rob Gronkowski to block and help whoever plays right tackle. That’s one less weapon for Tom Brady to throw to, which hurts Tampa Bay’s offense.
At least the Bucs get the benefit of having the 49ers beat the Cowboys. That means not facing Dallas rookie sensation Micah Parsons (13 sacks), but more importantly, playing on Sunday rather than Saturday. Because San Francisco beat Dallas, the 49ers have to travel to Lambeau Field to face the Packers on Saturday. Had the Cowboys won, they would have traveled to Tampa Bay to play on Saturday. That’s one less day of rest for Wirfs and Wells.
The winner of the Rams-Cardinals Monday night playoff game has to play on a short week as it is. There is no way the league would make the Bucs game on a Saturday to make it even shorter.
2. Who Were The Unsung Heroes In Sunday’s Win?
Tampa Bay’s special teams units – nearly all of them. The Bucs special teams have been less than special at times this season. But that wasn’t the case against the Eagles. Let’s start with the most obvious – the kicking game.
Despite gusty, swirling winds, kicker Ryan Succop was perfect on the afternoon, drilling a 34-yard field goal and connecting on all four of his extra points. Punter Bradley Pinion also shined with a 48.7-yard average, including a 43.7-yard net average. Pinion also downed three punts inside the 20-yard line with no touchbacks. And he had the benefit of great special teams coverage on the rest of his punts and his kickoffs.
The Bucs allowed just 19 yards on kickoff returns with the longest being a 24-yard kick return by Kenneth Gainwell. Cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Dee Delaney, who was a gunner, had tackles, as did rookie linebackers Grant Stuard and K.J. Britt, and veteran linebacker Kevin Minter, who is the team’s special teams captain. Stuard, who is the leading tackler on special teams this season, had a tackle and an assist.
Although he wasn’t credited with a special teams tackle or a forced fumble, Scotty Miller’s hit on Eagles returner Jalen Reagor forced a fumble that was recovered by cornerback Ross Cockrell. That turnover led to a 36-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Mike Evans on the next play.
“That’s two for Scotty now,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said, referring to a similar play by Miller at Indianapolis. “I was very apprehensive about him being a gunner with his size. But, man, he’s turned out to be a heck of a gunner. That’s two fumbles causes and recoveries. He’s playing his ass off.”
Speaking of recoveries, veteran running back Giovani Bernard recovered the Eagles’ onside kick attempt in the fourth quarter to seal the Bucs’ victory. Another key special teams play by Tampa Bay.
The only downside was that the Bucs’ return game is still struggling with rookie Jaelon Darden. He averaged just 3.3 yards per punt return on four attempts and had one kickoff return for 16 yards.
2 BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1. Bucs Win, But …
I can’t bet against the Bucs at home, where Tampa Bay is 8-1. And I can’t bet against Tom Brady. But make no mistake – whether it’s the Rams or the Cardinals, the Bucs are mortal with their rash of injuries, especially along the offensive line. Brady is the best postseason quarterback of all time, but he can’t complete passes on his back.
The Eagles got to Brady four times on Sunday. The pass rush that either Los Angeles or Arizona can bring is much more formidable. Having an ailing Pro Bowl center and an ailing All-Pro right tackle is far from ideal. If the Bucs lose in the Divisional Playoffs or further down the line, it will be because they just had too many injuries to overcome.
PREDICTION 2. Leftwich Gets A Head-Coaching Job
The guess here is that Bucs offensive coordinator and play-caller Byron Leftwich gets a head-coaching job – likely in Jacksonville. The Jaguars have a young, first-round quarterback to groom in Trevor Lawrence. With Leftwich being a former first-round QB with the Jaguars and having a lot of success as a play-caller the last three years, he seems like an ideal fit. Leftwich is a good communicator with a Super Bowl ring.
Who knows? Maybe defensive coordinator Todd Bowles also gets a job, too. Yet the trend seems to be offensive play-callers. Bowles will interview with Vikings and Bears. But Minnesota may be after Green Bay’s Nathaniel Hackett and Chicago may be after Buffalo’s Brian Daboll. We’ll see.
As I wrote about in Friday’s SR’s Fab 5, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has some in-house replacements lined up in wide receivers coach Kevin Garver or possibly assistant receivers coach Thad Lewis to take over for Leftwich. Larry Foote should be in line for the defensive coordinator job if Bowles leaves. The biggest question is how many Bucs assistants would leave Tampa Bay with Leftwich and/or Bowles? Could be a busy offseason for Arians replenishing his coaching staff. Stay tuned.