Tue, 30 Nov 2021

Returning Players, Returning Kicks | S.S. Mailbag

Buccaneers
22 Oct 2021, 18:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers This week, Bucs fans have questions about players returning from injuries, the mechanics of a field goal squad, O.J. Howard's work in the blocking scheme, and more Scott Smith

Through six weeks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one receiver with 420 yards, another with 418 yards and a third with 409 yards. As a Buccaneers fan, you can probably deduce that those three are - listed alphabetically - Antonio Brown, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. However, are you confident that you could name, without looking it up, exactly which of those receivers matches up with which of those yardage totals.

The answer, for your amusement is Evans with 420, Brown with 418 and Godwin with 409. Brown actually has the best per-game yardage average, as he missed Tampa Bay's third game of the season while on the COVID list. Anyway, with those yardage totals all so close to each other, it really doesn't matter who's first, second and third on the team in receiving yards right now. The point is that all three are healthy, playing well and getting about equal attention from Tom Brady. Brady has targeted Evans 49 times, Godwin 46 times and Brown 42 times, and again Brown missed a game or he'd likely be right there with the other two.

If you're one of those irritated by "on-pace-for" pronouncements, maybe skip ahead a bit. While admitting that six games into a 17-game schedule is not really enough to feel strictly confident about full-season projections, it's hard not to at least take a peek at the numbers when they are hinting at something historic.

So, I'll plunge in anyway and tell you that Evans is on pace for 1,190 receiving yards in 2021, Brown for 1,184 and Godwin for 1,159. If you would rather take Brown's per-game average from his five outings and use that to extrapolate over the next 11 games, his total would go up to 1,338. And if you don't like how the 17th game messes with the accounting of the record books, just know that all three of those Bucs would be on pace to go over 1,000 receiving yards even in a traditional 16-game campaign.

So, how rare of a feat would that be, to have three 1,000-yard pass-catchers on the same team. You probably know it's never before happened in Bucs history; in fact, the franchise has only had two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season twice. That would be 2014 with Evans and Vincent Jackson and 2019 with Evans and Godwin.

The trio of four-digit receivers has happened in the NFL before, however. Five times, to be exact. Surprisingly, given how steadily passing numbers have climbed in the NFL over the past couple decades, the last time this feat was achieved was back in 2008, by the Arizona Cardinals. That team featured Larry Fitzgerald (1,431), Anquan Boldin (1,038) and Steve Breaston (1,006). Fitzgerald will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and you could make an argument for Boldin's inclusion. Breaston never had another 1,000-yard season. The Cardinals' quarterback was Kurt Warner, who is in the Hall of Fame.

The first team to have three 1,000-yard receivers in the same season was the Chargers during the Air Coryell era. That's also the only one of the five on this list that includes a tight end. Don Coryell's 180 Chargers had tight end Kellen Winslow (1,290) as well as wideouts John Jefferson (1,340) and Charlie Joiner (1,132). Winslow and Joiner are in the Hall of Fame, as is their quarterback from that year, Dan Fouts.

Nine years later, Washington fielded the pass-catching trio of Gary Clark (1,229), Art Monk (1,186) and Ricky Sanders (1,138). Their quarterback in 1989 was primarily Mark Rypien, who is not in the Hall of Fame, although Monk is.

The 1995 Falcons didn't have a future Hall of Famer under center, either, but strong-armed Jeff George helped the trio of Eric Metcalf (1,189), Bert Emanuel (1,039) and Terance Mathis (also 1,039) clear the 1,000-yard bar together. The Bucs were impressed; they would sign Emanuel a couple of years later.

You won't be surprised to find a Peyton Manning team on this list. His Colts in 2004 featured Reggie Wayne (1,210), Marvin Harrison (1,113) and Brandon Stokley (1,077). Manning was catapulted into the Hall of Fame this year as soon as he was eligible; Harrison went in in 2016.

So that's the group that the Buccaneers are trying to join, and it's a pretty exclusive list. Obviously, it helps to have a future Hall of Famer distributing the ball, and the Bucs obviously have that. Any or all of their three receivers could end up in Canton, as well.

And 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.

If the stars aligned, how many players from IR or injured players could we reactivate at once?

- @bucs_uk (via Instagram)

...and...

Any update on Winfield? BA was hopeful a couple of days ago.

@journeying_jorrdan (via Instagram)

Theoretically, there is no limit, though of course you are limited by how many players you actually have on injured reserve. For the Buccaneers at the moment, that's five, but it's really four because rookie guard Sadarius Hutcherson was placed on injured reserve in August, before the "final" cuts that produced the initial 53-man roster. That means he is not eligible to return to the Bucs' active roster this season.

The other four are cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting, wide receiver Scotty Miller and long-snapper Zach Triner. All were knocked out of action after the cutdown to 53, so they are eligible for what is often informally called "short-term IR." A player placed on injured reserve after the season starts can return after missing a minimum of three games. That's already been the case for Miller, Murphy-Bunting and Triner; Davis still has to miss one more game before he would be eligible for activation.

The NFL and NFLPA agreed to a number of temporary changes to roster procedures in July of 2020, all aimed at giving teams greater flexibility to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. That included expanded practice squads, shorter I.R. stays and the new option to bring back an unlimited number of players from injured reserve during the season. Interestingly, I found out the other day that a team may only bring back a specific player from IR once in a season. As an example, Cam Gill has already gone on and returned from injured reserve; if he were to land on IR again (knock on wood that's not the case), he would be out for the rest of the season.

So the Bucs would have to wait one more week if they wanted to clear out their current short-term IR list en masse. Of course, that's an unlikely occurrence, if for no other reason than that activating four players at once also means you would have to cut four other players on the 53-man roster to make room. Those would not be easy decisions.

Moreover, there aren't any indications at this point that any of those four players are particularly close to returning. Bruce Arians has mentioned on a couple occasions that Davis (quad) and Murphy-Bunting (elbow) are "a ways away" from getting back on the field, and Miller is dealing with one of the more difficult NFL injuries in a turf toe. Triner's torn finger tendon, suffered in Week One, was expected to keep him out up to three months.

The better news, of course, is that a handful of players who are currently missing from the lineup were never placed on injured reserve and could return to action at any time without any necessary roster moves. That list includes tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has missed three games with cracked ribs; safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., who's been out two weeks due to a concussion; inside linebacker Lavonte David, who sat out last week with a high ankle sprain; and cornerback Richard Sherman, who went down with a hamstring strain early in his third game as a Buccaneer last Thursday night.

Arians has noted twice this week that he has his fingers crossed that the Bucs will get "two or three" of those players back in time for this Sunday's game. The most likely candidate is Winfield, who practiced fully on Wednesday and would likely suit up if he can finish the process of exiting the NFL's concussion protocol. Getting through a practice on one day without any return or worsening of symptoms the next day is one of the steps in that protocol.

Gronkowski seemed to be relatively close to returning last week, leading to optimism for this week, but he was not on the practice field Wednesday. Most surprising was Arians noting on Wednesday that David was one of the players for whom his fingers were crossed for Sunday. David did not practice on Wednesday.

Right now, I think the Buccaneers would be thrilled for any reinforcements, as in recent weeks they - like a good number of NFL teams - have had to work around a lot of lineup and roster shuffling, particularly on defense. I'm going to cross my fingers, too.

Hi Scott,

At the end of the first half of the Miami game, we attempted a 60 yard field goal. Until Coach Arians' post-game press conference, I wasn't aware that it was Bradley Pinion who kicked the ball...neither was Jim Nantz, who stated that Ryan Succop's kick was no good. Did we have to report that it was our punter making the kick before the attempt?....like making an eligible receiver known?

Thanks for your time, Scott. And Go Bucs!

- Rusti Chaney (via email)

Yes, that was Pinion on the 60-yard attempt and no, his presence on the field was not formally announced by the officiating crew. I'll admit to a brief moment of confusion when I saw the number 8 on the back of our kicker's jersey as the play was being set up, then I remembered that the Buccaneers had tried the same thing once this preseason.

With 59 seconds left in the second preseason contest and the Bucs trailing 34-3 - so the outcome of the game obviously not hanging in the balance - Bruce Arians took the opportunity to test the idea of using his strong-legged punter to try a field goal that was almost surely out of Ryan Succop's range. That particular attempt didn't offer much useful evidence, as Pinion's kick was blocked.

Obviously, though, Arians thinks it's a gambit worth trying to pull it out in a game that counts. We've seen Pinion on many occasions blast a kickoff from the Bucs' 35 out of the back of the end zone, which are kicks of at least 75 yards, so he's got the leg strength, even if the approach on a field goal is a little different. Pinion came on to try a 60-yarder against the Dolphins, as Rusti correctly notes, but it came in just a little left and a little short. I still think he could hit one of those, though.

This is not a play without risk, however. As expected, the Dolphins put a return man in the end zone so he could try to field a short kick and run it back the other way for a touchdown. In this case, Pinion's kick was far enough that Allen Hurts couldn't pull it in, though he tried to make a leaping catch at the very back of the end zone after dashing onto the field at the last moment.

As to Rusti's actual question, which is a good one, no Pinion did not have to report to the official that he was the kicker before that play. However, there is a lot of reporting going on before any field goal. You've seen fake field goals and aborted field goals that ended up with passes being thrown, so it's obvious that the officials need to know which players are eligible to catch the ball in those situations. It's still six eligible and five ineligible, but on a field goal unit you often have a bunch of jerseys from all up and down the roster mixed in together.

I actually asked Bradley about this so I could give Rusti a more specific answer to her question. First, understand that the six eligible players in a field goal formation are the holder, the kicker, the two ends and the two wings. Those latter four players are the last two guys on each side of the blocking line. The five guys in the middle are ineligible.

Where the pre-snap reporting becomes tricky is when players with numbers that are generally for ineligible positions are playing the end or wing spots, and when numbers that are generally for

eligible players are lined up in the middle five. For the Buccaneers, this generally comes down to Vita Vea (50), Rakeem Nunez-Roches (56), Patrick O'Connor (79) and Will Gholston (92) having to report to the official as eligible before every kick. In addition, since long-snapper Carson Tinker is right in the middle of the line and he wears number 46, which is a number that can be worn by an eligible player like a tight end or a running back, he has to report to the officials as ineligible before every kick.

The main difference here as opposed to the eligible receiver scenario that Rusti mentions above is that the officials do not then announce all of the reported eligible players after they've been informed. Which is good because I don't think we need to waste another 10 seconds on that procedure before every kick.

Is Darden going to be the new return guy?

@mark.meyer0803 (via Instagram)

Sure looks like it, and I for one am excited about this development.

After the Buccaneers released Jaydon Mickens on Monday, the obvious thought was that Jaelon Darden, the fourth-round rookie out of North Texas State, would now assume the punt and kickoff return duties. And, indeed, the new depth chart the Buccaneers put out on Tuesday did have Darden in the top spot for both jobs, backed up by Antonio Brown on punts and Tyler Johnson on kickoffs. Depth charts are not binding documents, of course, but Arians later said he had "total" confidence in the rookie handling the return assignments moving forward.

The Buccaneers drafted Darden in part for the specific reason that they thought he could provide a spark in the return game with his speed, lateral quickness and elite elusiveness in the open field. It's been quite some time since Tampa Bay's return game has yielded a number of big plays. Darden actually appeared to have beaten out the incumbent Mickens for those jobs to start the season when he made the roster and the veteran went to the practice squad. However, citing an aversion to throwing the untested rookie into the fire in some big early-season games, Arians went back to Mickens, first elevating him from the practice squad in Week One and then promoting him back to the active roster in Week Two. Other than the week he spent on the inactive list due to a ribs injury, Mickens has handled the returns for the first six games, with Darden filling in against the Rams in Week Three.

Now it appears to be Darden's turn again. The Buccaneers were a bit concerned as the season began that the rookie hadn't been exposed to enough of the different situations that can arise on a punt or kickoff return, but perhaps they've been able to sufficiently create those situations in practice in the weeks since.

Mickens is still around, of course, and he could even be elevated from the practice squad one more time if the Bucs want his steady presence again. He could return to the active roster at some point, too. For now, though, it's time to see what the rookie can do.

Will we see OJ Howard more involved in the pass protection scheme to free up Brate?

@Mccavanaghmark (via Instagram)

I think we're already seeing quite a bit of this, actually.

Early in his career, Howard saw a lot of snaps where he was lined up detached from the offensive line, either in the slot or split wide. That's not the case in 2021. This year he's playing almost exclusively as an inline tight end, seeing just six snaps split wide (4%) and 14 in the slot (8%) compared to 146 lined up tight to the offensive tackle (86%). Those numbers don't quite add up to 100% because he's also had three snaps lined up in the backfield, but the point is clear. Howard is playing the more traditional tight end role this year, mostly since Rob Gronkowski went down, since that's how the Bucs were using Gronkowski.

Meanwhile, Brate has played 12% of his snaps split wide, 24% in the slot and 15% in the backfield, with just 49% inline. He's been more of the "move" tight end when the Bucs use two of them at once. Overall, their offensive snap counts are pretty close, with 194 for Brate to 175 for Howard. However, Brate has been much more likely to go out on a route than Howard this season.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Brate has run a route on 122 of his snaps, or 62.9% of them. Howard, in contrast, has run a route on 57 of his snap, or 32.6% of them. Clearly, the Buccaneers are keeping Howard in their protection schemes more often and letting Brate leave on routes. When the Buccaneers do let Howard escape the line on a route they are more likely to throw to him, however. Howard has been targeted on 23% of his routes, as compared to 13.9% for Brate. And for Howard, those plays have produced 1.8 receiving yard per route, as compared to 0.9% for Brate.

It's unclear if Howard is as good of a blocker as Gronkowski, who has long been heralded for that part of his game, and for good reason. However, it's hard to argue with the results since Howard has had to fill in for his injured teammate. Over the last three games, the Buccaneers have run for 114.0 yards per contest and Tom Brady has been sacked just three times overall.

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