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Buccaneers-Saints: Is this the long-awaited Jameis Winston breakout?

Tampa Bay’s quarterback is playing the best football of his career. To sustain that success, the Bucs are going to have to break from one of their major tendencies.

The game hung in the balance.

Jameis Winston, who had otherwise been accurate for three quarters, underthrew a pass to Bobo Wilson. Rams cornerback Marcus Peters intercepted it and returned it for a touchdown, cutting the Buccaneers’ lead to five points with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter.

We’ve seen Tampa Bay unravel after such plays, but on its next drive, Winston played as if the interception never happened. First, he hit a tightly-covered Mike Evans for 12-yard gain on third and 6. Three plays later, he made an even better throw, zipping an 18-yard pass to Chris Godwin between two defenders. A Ronald Jones run set the Bucs up for a chip-shot field goal.

It was the kind of drive, on the road against a Super Bowl contender, that makes you wonder: So, is this it? Is this the long-awaited breakout?

Winston’s recent play teases as much. He has never played better, qualitatively and quantitatively. In his past three starts, he has been 341 yards better than a replacement-level quarterback, according to Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted yards above replacement metric, or DYAR. His previous best? The Jacksonville-Washington-Atlanta stretch in 2015, his rookie season.

The question now, of course, is whether this will last.

The answer: No, it won’t. Winston’s likely to take a step back soon.

So says history.

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That doesn’t mean Winston is about to crater. After that 2015 stretch, he played capably against the Giants, completing 19 of 36 passes for 247 yards. It was his fourth straight game without a turnover, but the Bucs offense couldn’t find the end zone until halfway through the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay ultimately lost 32-18 in a game that was closer than the score suggests. The turnovers returned the next week, however. Winston threw two interceptions in an ugly 10-6 win over the Cowboys. The Bucs’ saving grace was that they got to face backup quarterback and Supercuts client Matt Cassel.

Winston had a strong three-start stretch in 2016, too. Against Chicago, Kansas City and Seattle, he again produced more than 300 yards above replacement. Like in the Giants game a year earlier, he played capably the next week against the Chargers. Though he threw an interception, he also threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Cameron Brate. In Tampa Bay’s final four games, however, he played either at replacement level or below replacement level, and the Bucs narrowly missed the playoffs.

Winston's best three-start stretches
Season Opponents DYAR* Next three opponents DYAR
2019 CAR, NYG, LAR 341 NO, CAR, TEN -
2015 JAX, WAS, ATL 311 NYG, DAL, PHI 197
2016 CHI, KC, SEA 301 SD, NO, DAL 31
2017 ATL, CAR, NO 290 ATL, CLE, CIN** -6

*What’s DYAR? Football Outsiders compares every quarterback’s performance with the type of performance you would expect from a theoretical replacement-level quarterback. Then, after accounting for situation and the quality of the defense, they translate the difference into yardage. **Winston’s first three starts of 2018.

Dismiss the past if you wish, but the past also told us that Winston’s Week 1 stinker against the 49ers was an aberration and that he was likely to bounce back. Lo and behold, he did.

Public opinion at the moment is that Winston is executing coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich’s offense ahead of schedule, but is that reality or just optimism? Consider this: During an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio last month, Arians was asked how long it takes a quarterback to master his system. “Master it?” Arians said. “It takes a couple of years. … Mentally, it does take some time.”

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One reason Winston is unlikely to continue playing at this elite of a level is the Saints’ defensive front. The New Orleans line that Winston faces Sunday will be the best one he has seen this season. Sheldon Rankins is back from an Achilles injury, 2018 first-round draft pick Marcus Davenport is on pace for 90 pressures (Bucs outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett is on pace for 100), David Onyemata is a potential breakout candidate and, oh, Cam Jordan is still Cam Jordan. Thanks to this group, the Saints rank second in pressure rate (37 percent), less than half of a percentage point behind the NFL-leading Packers.

The New Orleans defense does have a weakness, but Tampa Bay will have to break from its tendencies to exploit it. That tendency: first-down runs.

Don’t hold your breath.

“We’re built to run and stop the run, and then get after the quarterback and take shots,” Arians said. “That’s our MO, and we’re not changing.”

Well, then.

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On first downs early in games, the Bucs are one of the most run-heavy teams in the NFL. Their 56 percent rate ranks seventh.

The runs aren’t helping Tampa Bay’s offense. The Bucs are averaging 3.1 yards per carry (28th) and have had a 34 percent success rate (29th) on those runs. They’ve been more efficient on their first-down passes. They’re averaging 10.6 yards per pass (second) and have had a 56 percent success rate (ninth) on those passes. (A “success” is defined as gaining 45 percent of needed yards on first down.)

This has led to Winston facing tougher second-down situations. The Bucs have had 58 plays on second and long, tied for sixth most and only four fewer than the Rams, the NFL leader. To this point, he has overcome the play-calling and thrived in such situations. He’s tied for the league lead in second-and-long passes that have resulted in a first down. That isn’t sustainable. Opponents are going to game plan for it. Saints coach Sean Payton almost certainly has.

So now might be a good time for Tampa Bay to deviate from its MO, if only for this game. Offenses have had much more success passing on first down against the Saints than running.

“You have to play fearless and that’s one of my biggest messages to Jameis — throw it,” Arians said. “Don’t worry about it, just throw it and know why you’re throwing it. We have to play that way.”

Yes. Yes, they do. Just sling it, baby.

What to watch for: Saints receiver Michael Thomas on third down

Since Teddy Bridgewater took over as the Saints starting quarterback in Week 3, Thomas has been his go-to receiver on third down. Thomas has caught four of five targets for 62 yards. Each of his four of catches has resulted in a first down. In the same span, all other New Orleans players have four third-down catches combined.

Matchup to watch: Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith vs. Saints edge rusher Marcus Davenport

In the Saints’ Week 4 win over the Cowboys, Davenport manhandled Dallas’ All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith. Smith allowed one quarterback hit and five total pressures; he hadn’t allowed any pressures in his first three games.

Here’s Davenport overpowering Smith and and nearly pushing him into quarterback Dak Prescott on a third-and-2 play early in the game:

Prediction

The NFL landscape is a muddled mess, but this is the time of year in which we begin to see separation. Since 2015, the Bucs have been decent in September (7-9). In October, they’ve slipped. They’ve lost six of their past seven and four straight on the road. In the same span, the Saints have been the opposite — weak in September and strong in October. They’ve won all seven of their home games and are 13-2 overall. Tampa Bay is showing signs of progress, but progress isn’t always linear. The pick: Saints 27, Bucs 21.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference and Sports Info Solutions. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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