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Buccaneers-Seahawks: Upset watch in Seattle

Don’t dismiss Tampa Bay’s chances. The Seahawks aren’t who you think they are. The wild card, as always, is Jameis Winston.
 
Russell Wilson's MVP campaign (NFL-high 17 touchdown passes and an NFL-low one interception) is masking the Seahawks' defensive deficiencies.
Russell Wilson's MVP campaign (NFL-high 17 touchdown passes and an NFL-low one interception) is masking the Seahawks' defensive deficiencies. [ ELAINE THOMPSON | Associated Press ]
Published Nov. 2, 2019

The gap between the Buccaneers and Seahawks seems enormous. Seattle is 6-2 and in solid position to reach the playoffs for the eighth time in 10 seasons. Tampa Bay is 2-5 and all but mathematically eliminated from contention. It’s going to miss the playoffs for the 12th straight season.

There’s evidence, however, that the gap is not as wide as it seems. The Seahawks’ success has been a bit of a mirage, the product of a soft schedule and an MVP-caliber campaign by quarterback Russell Wilson. The Bucs, meanwhile, might not be as bad as their record suggests. It’s not that they’re a bad team; they’re an average team that’s playing badly.

It’s easy to understand why Las Vegas oddsmakers favor Seattle by a touchdown. Tampa Bay gives games away. The Bucs habitually turn the ball over (they lead the NFL in interceptions), they routinely commit penalties (they rank sixth in penalties per game) and they rarely play smart situational football (they rank second in punts on fourth and 1). Still, if they can clean up their mistakes, they have more than a puncher’s chance Sunday in Seattle. Even if they don’t pull off the upset, there are trends worth paying attention to over the second half of the season, trends that point to a Seahawks decline and a Bucs upturn. Let’s break down a few of them:

Point differential

Point differential isn’t a perfect measure of the quality of a team, but it’s a useful shorthand. You would think, based on their records, that the Seahawks are crushing their competition and that the Bucs are getting crushed. Seattle, however, has outscored opponents by only 12 points. You would expect a team with such a differential to be closer to 4-4. Tampa Bay has been outscored by 16 points. It should be closer to 3-4.

Between them, the Seahawks and Bucs have played 10 games decided by one score. Seattle is 5-1 in those games, while Tampa Bay is 1-3. You might look at those results and conclude that they’re evidence that good teams find ways to win and bad teams find ways to lose. There’s some truth to that, but the more meaningful takeaway is that both teams are playing games that are coming down to a handful of plays — a bad bounce here and there, a missed field goal here and there or a bad call here and there. That’s the sign of an average team, not a good one. Good teams dominate inferior opponents. Case in point: the Patriots (seven), Vikings (six) and 49ers (five) lead the NFL in wins by double digits. The Seahawks and Bucs have one such win apiece.

MORE BUCS: What happened to Bruce Arians’ quick-fix plan?

Schedule

To this point, Seattle has played one of the league’s easiest schedules. Five of the Seahawks’ six wins have come against sub-.500 teams. They’ve been vulnerable at home, too. They beat the Bengals and Rams, but only by a point, and have been outscored overall 112-94.

The competition is about to get much, much tougher. Their remaining schedule is the NFL’s most difficult, based on Football Outsiders’ team efficiency ratings. Their final opponents (besides the Bucs): the 49ers (twice), Eagles, Vikings, Rams, Panthers and Cardinals.

The Bucs’ life, though, is about to get easier. During the first half of the season, they’ve had the fifth-most difficult schedule. Six of their seven opponents are .500 or better. During the second half, they’ll have the 13th-easiest schedule.

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Defense

Tampa Bay is allowing 30.3 points per game, a point more than it allowed last season. Proof the defense remains the weak link? No. In reality, the defense has shown marked improvement. The Bucs rank 13th in yards allowed per drive, 12th in turnovers forced per drive and 12th in opponent drive success rate (defined as the rate of down series that result in either a first down or touchdown). Last season, they ranked 22nd, 28th and 29th in those categories, respectively. What’s more, they’re better this season than the Seahawks in two of those three categories: yards allowed per drive and opponent drive success rate.

What sticks out about Tampa Bay’s defense is that it has allowed the eighth-most points per drive despite holding opponents to a better-than-average 30.6 yards per drive (the NFL average is 32.0 yards). Why is that? Blame the offense.

It’s not just the turnovers. It’s when and where the Bucs are turning the ball over. Because of the offense’s giveaways, the defense is defending more short fields than any other team. Opponents have started a league-high 13 drives inside the Tampa Bay 40-yard line (this includes interception and fumble returns for touchdowns). Seven of those drives have resulted in touchdowns, and three more have resulted in field goals.

One common complaint in recent seasons has been that the defense has been putting pressure on Jameis Winston. That is no longer the case. Winston is sabotaging the defense, not the other way around. If he doesn’t rein in the interceptions (seven in his past two games), the Bucs will return to Tampa 2-6.

MORE BUCS: It looks as if defenses are daring Jameis Winston to beat them

Offensive “balance”

Even though they’re more efficient at passing than running, Seattle and Tampa Bay both see themselves as run-first teams. Philosophically, it’s the football equivalent of banging your head against a brick wall and expecting the wall to crack first.

“We make no apologies for how we play,” Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said this offseason. “We want to run the football. We want to be physical.”

He might not want to run Sunday, not against the NFL’s best run defense, according to Football Outsiders’ ratings. In fact, you have to go back to the 2000 Ravens to find a unit as dominant against the run. The Bucs are allowing fewer than 3 yards per carry and have tackled running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage on about a third of their runs. To put that in perspective, Wilson throws an incomplete pass less often. Seattle might as well throw.

If there were ever a game for the Seahawks to deviate from their established tendencies, this is the one. Schottenheimer will be doing more harm than good if he commits to the run. He might not apologize for it, but he might very well come to regret it.

Prediction

Bucs 29, Seahawks 26

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