“One of the best things about this is that it’s casual.”
Even though the histories of these two franchises will be forever linked, since they expanded into the NFL together in 1976, the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven’t matched up very often on the field. Indeed, after facing each other twice in the clubs’ first two years, they only played three times in the next 25 years before Seattle joined the Buccaneers in the NFC. And despite the increased frequency in meetings—the Seahawks played Tampa five straight years from 2006-2010—it still seems like the Buccaneers are a completely different team every time we encounter them.
When Tampa Bay lines up with Jameis Winston under center and Dirk Koetter calling plays Sunday, it will be the third quarterback and third head coach Seattle has faced in three meetings under Pete Carroll (and the fourth coach overall for the Buccaneers in that period). In fact, the Tampa organization has sent out 13 different quarterbacks in its 12 games all-time against the Seahawks, including as many Joshes as repeat starters (three). Meanwhile, Seattle compiled a record of far greater stability and superior success in every possible category over its expansion brethren in the past 40 years—which is why I’ll never forgive Mike Holmgren for allowing the Buccaneers to win a Super Bowl before the Seahawks.
After picking Winston number one overall in the 2015 draft, Tampa Bay figures to have more quarterback steadiness for the next three or four years at least, but it’s still a pretty coy offense averaging just 5.2 yards per play. Winston changes the balance of the offense, with more than three quarters of the Buccaneers’ touchdowns coming from the West Coast aerial attack, but he also throws a ton of interceptions which adds up to a below-average 6.2 ANY/A (Seattle’s defensive adjusted net yards per attempt is 5.3).
Winston also can change the math with his movement in the pocket, as demonstrated by this famous wacky scramble followed by a 45-yard toss against the Chicago Bears two weeks ago, but he’s not nimble or speedy enough to contribute like Cam Newton or Tyrod Taylor in the running game. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback only has 20 more rushing yards on the season than Russell Wilson gained while fighting through damage to both legs, and attempts only as many rushes per game as Tom Brady.
Winston’s timely rushes do pick up the occasional first down, but he only has one more of those on the season than Wilson too. Still, watching this race to the sideline made me wistful for the last time Wilson used straight-line speed to beat a defender one-on-one:
Wilson, of course, is closer to full health every week and, with the Seahawks short on running backs with C.J. Prosise and Troymaine Pope sidelined for now, I’ll be curious to see whether Seattle finally makes use of more zone-read plays to give its own running game a boost.
The other good sign, as always, would be an even greater dose of Thomas Rawls. Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, with just 14 attempts in his third game played in the season, Thomas Rawls nearly doubled his total carries for the year, jumping from 19 to 33, and more than tripled his total yardage, to 82 yards from 25. These are ridiculously small samples but, more importantly for projecting his performance going forward, Rawls improved his DVOA by a full 30 points! It still stands at minus-11.5 percent, mainly owing to his disastrous seven-carry, negative-seven yard day against the L.A. Rams that had dropped him below minus-40. But not only is -11.5 not as terribly bad as it sounds (it’s a shade better than Melvin Gordon, for example, who has 838 total yards and nine touchdowns), Rawls’s effective yards, which are designed to show, according to Football Outsiders, how much a runner “played better than standard stats would otherwise indicate,” are better than his standard yards by a greater factor (1.4) than any other running back in football, albeit with the small sample. Although there’s no reason yet, other than health, recency, and the general improvement of the offensive line’s run blocking, to value that one good game more highly than Rawls’s bad performance against the Rams, these signs do suggest that his healthy presence ought to power the Seattle run game to improvement, and his own advanced stats into the positive.
For now, though, the Seahawks remain one of the only teams in the league with a lower yards per carry average than Tampa Bay, but the Bucs have been wracked with their own set of running back injuries: Jacquizz Rodgers, the team’s leading rusher, missed the last three games with a foot sprain, and erstwhile starter Charles Sims is not eligible to return from temporary injury reserve until December 4. With those runners out Doug Martin resumes his place as the lead back he held until suffering a hamstring pull in week 2, but Martin only has 96 yards on 40 carries in the two games since returning.
Despite last week handing the Kansas City Chiefs their first home loss in a year and a half, 19-17, the Buccaneers offense struggled in run blocking, and had to rely on play action and the screen game to make use of its running backs moving the ball downfield:
Which helps explain why Tampa Bay scored just one touchdown in five red zone trips. The Buccaneers are going to need to be more efficient with their chances against Seattle, because the Tampa defense is allowing seven more points per game at home than it does on the road. The Bucs are like the anti-Eagles in that way: 4-1 while traveling and just 1-4 at Raymond James Stadium. It’s a record so topsy-turvy it belongs in the Salvador Dali museum across the bay.
Some of that variance comes from Winston’s inconsistency, but the defense is also filled with young players in a similar mold: playmakers who are also prone to giving up the big play.
For example, last week in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs lined up near midfield with three tight ends, all of them on the offense’s left side with Travis Kelce and James O’Shaughnessy flanking Demetrius Harris tight to the formation. Kansas City has Spencer Ware in the pistol behind Alex Smith and Chris Conley split wide to the right, so the Buccaneers overload their defensive front and backfield to the offense’s numbers while the linebackers remain with strength to the wide side of the field.
When Kelce motions into the right slot, it isolates him in coverage on rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves which leaves safety Bradley McDougald stuck away from the play side, and then because the defensive line never shifted gaps Lavonte David takes himself out of the play when Harris doesn’t run a route. Kelce takes advantage of Hargreaves with a double move, and safety help comes way too late after accounting for Conley’s deep post, yielding a 44-yard completion setting up first and goal. Tampa Bay erased the gain two plays later with an interception, but Wilson will not be so forgiving Sunday.
The Buccaneers are a limited but feisty team, and by the time they kick off Sunday they might be playing for a share of first place. But considering Seattle’s experience, and the favorable afternoon time slot combined with Tampa’s poor record at home, the Seahawks should enjoy their visit to their star-crossed twins in west Florida. It is nothing but a little waterfront village, after all.
And somebody tell them don’t leave without trying the crab legs!