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From highlights to hamstrings, assessing the first six weeks of the Bucs’ season

Looking back on the flourishes and flubs of the initial third of the 2021 season.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12), attempting a pass during the first quarter of the Oct. 3 game in New England, enters Week Seven as the NFL's only 2,000-yard passer.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12), attempting a pass during the first quarter of the Oct. 3 game in New England, enters Week Seven as the NFL's only 2,000-yard passer. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 22
Updated Oct. 22

TAMPA — The first third of the Bucs’ season has been unwrapped, mostly admired and neatly stowed away, bookended by narrow Thursday night triumphs.

To this point, we’ve seen spectacle, sleekness, proficiency, penalties and a bloated injury report. The assortment of hamstring ailments and high-ankle sprains would suggest this team has been flirting with disaster. Instead, it’s flirting with history, trying to become the first Tampa Bay squad to start 6-1.

As the Bucs pursue the unprecedented, we’re reflecting on the superlatives, surprises, flubs and flops of the season’s first six weeks.

Offensive MVP

Bucs 44-year-old quarterback Tom Brady is on pace for the second 5,000-yard season of his 22-year career.
Bucs 44-year-old quarterback Tom Brady is on pace for the second 5,000-yard season of his 22-year career. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

At 44, Tom Brady continues to defy chronology and convention, with a hoarse voice the only substantial side effect. Brady entered Week Seven as the NFL’s only 2,000-yard passer, on pace for the second 5,000-yard season of his career. While he has thrown more passes than anyone to this point (267), his passer rating (107.9) ranks sixth in the league, and his completion percentage (68.5) ranks 11th. While insisting he won’t play until he’s 50, Brady says it won’t be due to physical deterioration, of which he has shown none.

Defensive MVP

Nose tackle Vita Vea remains the most disruptive force on the Bucs defense.
Nose tackle Vita Vea remains the most disruptive force on the Bucs defense. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Though his name won’t appear among the NFL leaders in any conventional stat category, nose tackle Vita Vea (10 tackles, one sack) remains the Bucs’ most disruptive defensive cog. Vea’s brute force up the middle can flush a quarterback outside the pocket, where he’s more susceptible to Tampa Bay’s edge-rush ensemble (the Bucs rank fifth in the NFL with 43 QB hits). Moreover, there’s a reason the 98 rush attempts against the Bucs are an NFL-low: The middle of the defense (Vea, inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David) is the unit’s strength. Would you try running up that gut?

Biggest surprise

The Bucs have scrapped their backfield-by-committee approach in favor of Leonard Fournette (545 total yards), who has rapidly evolved into the most versatile of the Bucs’ assorted offensive weapons. In addition to buoying the rushing attack (54 carries, 240 yards, three TDs in last three games), Fournette has improved so dramatically as a receiver, he’s now one of Brady’s most trusted targets (25 catches, 213 yards). If he continues the pace of his last three contests, Fournette will become only the third player in franchise history to collect 1,600 total yards (rushing/receiving) in a season.

Biggest disappointment

After playing as penalty-free as one can reasonably expect over the final four months of the 2020 season, the Bucs — in terms of discipline — now more closely resemble the 2019 squad, which led the NFL in flags. Through six weeks, the Bucs’ 471 penalty yards lead the league, and their 47 infractions are tied for second. In last week’s 28-22 win in Philadelphia, two pass-interference spot fouls — penalties of 45 and 50 yards, respectively — led to a pair of Eagles touchdowns. Additionally, pre-snap whistles (roughly three a game) remain a source of great annoyance for Bruce Arians.

Costliest injury

Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) dislocated his right elbow while trying to defend this touchdown catch by Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (88) in the Sept. 9 season opener at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) dislocated his right elbow while trying to defend this touchdown catch by Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (88) in the Sept. 9 season opener at Raymond James Stadium. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Sadly for Bucs fans, there’s a smorgasbord from which to choose, but we’ll point to the dislocated elbow cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting sustained in the season’s opening quarter against Dallas. Because opponents remain leery of running against Todd Bowles’ defense, the secondary already was projected to be stressed by a litany of short throws in space. Murphy-Bunting’s injury not only hindered a unit with depth questions entering the season but served as a hard-luck precursor of sorts. Soon thereafter, Carlton Davis (quad) and late-September signee Richard Sherman (hamstring) also went down.

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Splash play

Bucs safety Mike Edwards celebrates one of his two fourth-quarter interception returns for touchdowns that sealed his team's 48-25 triumph against the Falcons on Sept. 19.
Bucs safety Mike Edwards celebrates one of his two fourth-quarter interception returns for touchdowns that sealed his team's 48-25 triumph against the Falcons on Sept. 19. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

We’ll give you two, both of which occurred in a four-minute span. With the Falcons staging a mild second-half rally on Sept. 19 at Raymond James Stadium, third-year safety Mike Edwards single-handedly squelched the comeback. First, he stepped in front of a Matt Ryan throw intended for Russell Gage, essentially tipped the ball to himself, and dashed untouched for a 31-yard touchdown. Then, with 4:08 to play, he snagged a Ryan pass batted behind the line of scrimmage by Davis and strolled into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown. It was the final TD in a 48-25 triumph.

And a play that belly-flopped

The Bucs’ attempt to ice last week’s game in Philadelphia led to a far more tense finish than expected. Leading by 14 with 9:04 to play, the Bucs opted to go for it on fourth-and-3 from the Eagles 46, but Brady overthrew tight end O.J. Howard on a deep out route. The Eagles capitalized on their short field, scoring seven plays later and converting the two-point try to cut their deficit to 28-22. Brady and the offense were able to run out the clock on the next possession to salvage the win. “Poor execution,” Brady said of the play. “And I have to find a place to get the ball and execute it better.”

Prediction for next six weeks

Bucs win four of next five (with bye week interspersed), falling Nov. 28 at Indianapolis. ... Injured starters Murphy-Bunting, Davis and Rob Gronkowski all return for Nov. 14 game at Washington. ... Team stands pat, making no moves on or before the NFL trade deadline Nov. 2. ... Jamel Dean gets his third interception in as many games Sunday against the Bears.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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