TAMPA — One week after the Bucs rushed for 16 total yards in losing to the Packers, they'll try to avoid another unfortunate piece of history. Tampa Bay needs to rush for 99 yards as a team against the Saints today to avoid having the worst rushing season in the team's 39 years.
The Bucs go into the season finale with 1,192 rushing yards. Five running backs around the league have rushed for more, including the Titans' Arian Foster, who missed three games with an injury. The mark the Bucs are trying to humbly trump is the 1,290 yards of 1993, when they also had just six rushing touchdowns. The next year they drafted Errict Rhett.
With another week like last week, the Bucs would challenge the league's lowest team rushing total for a season in the past six years. Every team has rushed for at least 1,200 yards since the Cardinals had 1,178 in 2008.
The Bucs' running game has been so ineffective lately that Bobby Rainey has held on to the team lead with 406 yards despite not getting a single carry in the past three weeks (and 32 total rushing yards in the past seven games). If Rainey doesn't get 30 yards today, or if current starter Doug Martin doesn't get 50, a mark will be set for the fewest yards by a Bucs leading rusher. Ricky Bell has that honor, with a team-best 436 yards in 1977.
Stranger still, Rainey could lead the team in rushing without getting so much as 100 carries in a season (he has 94 entering today). Only one other team is in position for that: The Patriots are led by Jonas Gray's 412 yards on 89 carries.
The good news for the Bucs is the Saints have the NFL's fourth-worst rushing defense, yielding an average 129.5 yards per game. The Bucs have rushed for that many yards just twice this season. In their first meeting with New Orleans, the Bucs totaled 66 yards.
defense's achilles' is third and long
All season, the Bucs' defense has lamented an inability to get off the field on third down. It has consistently able to force opponents into third and long, only to see them move the chains by finding open targets downfield.
Third-and-long defense is an area in which the Bucs have taken one of their biggest steps backward, going from one of the league's most effective units to its worst.
This season the defense has faced 66 plays when opponents faced third down and needed 10 yards or more for a first down. Opponents have converted 22 times — a third of their opportunities, the highest percentage in the NFL this season. The league average is 21 percent.
On those third-and-10-plus plays — traditionally an ideal defensive situation, when speed pass-rushers can attack the quarterback without worrying about stopping a run play — opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 112.7 and have completed 67 percent of their passes. Opponents are five times more likely to move the chains than they are to be sacked. The Bucs have four sacks in those 66 plays.
Stay updated on the Buccaneers
Subscribe to our free Bucs RedZone newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
A year ago, the defense excelled in third and long. It had the sixth-best conversion rate in the NFL, with just 10 conversions on 66 plays and an opponents QB rating of 77.0.
A lack of pressure on the quarterback could be a difference for such ineffectiveness, but a year ago, the Bucs had only five sacks in those 66 plays. So the difference is in the defense's ability to allow receivers to get open downfield. As the Bucs have tried to learn the nuances of zone coverage in coach Lovie Smith's defense, opponents have been better at identifying seams than the Bucs have been in eliminating them.
It matters little how far the opponent needs to go for a first down. On third and 15 and longer, the Bucs lead the NFL with four conversions allowed.
And late in close games, when you want to see a defense step up, the Bucs haven't, allowing seven conversions of third and 10 or longer in the fourth quarter of games decided by a touchdown or less.
keeping watch on wins, losses
For all the focus on the Bucs losing today and clinching the No. 1 overall pick in the draft in April, they can avoid a few dubious honors by winning against the Saints.
The Bucs haven't won at home this season, so a win would help the 2014 team from earning a comparison to the 1976 Bucs, who went winless in the franchise's first season. That was a 14-game season, so the Bucs finished 0-7 at home, meaning an 0-8 home record would be the first in team history. The NFL hasn't had a team go winless at home in five years, since the Rams went 0-8 as part of a 1-15 campaign in 2009.
The Bucs also have their last shot at avoiding going winless in division play. They've gone 0-6 in their division just once, 2006, since the current setup of eight four-team divisions started in 2002. Before that, you have to go back to 1976 and 1977, the Bucs' first two seasons, when the Bucs went 0-4 in division play each year.
Even if the Bucs win today, they can still clinch the No. 1 draft pick if the Titans beat the Colts.
There's one more reason to watch out-of-town scores today: The final two opponents on the Bucs' 2015 schedule will be determined.
The Bucs will host the fourth-place team in the NFC North and will travel to play the fourth-place team in the NFC West. That means the loser of the Bears-Vikings game will come to Tampa, perhaps another Chicago reunion for Lovie Smith. The road game likely will be at St. Louis, but there is one scenario in which the Bucs would get to play at San Francisco: if the 49ers lose to Arizona and the Rams win at Seattle.
WR Vincent Jackson 83
LT Demar Dotson 69
LG Logan Mankins 70
C Evan Dietrich-Smith 62
RG Patrick Omameh 66
RT Oniel Cousins 75
TE Luke Stocker 88
WR Mike Evans 13
QB Josh McCown 12
RB Doug Martin 22
WR Russell Shepard 89
DE Jacquis Smith 56
DT Clinton McDonald 98
DT Akeem Spence 97
DE Michael Johnson 90
SLB Danny Lansanah 51
MLB Dane Fletcher 50
WLB Lavonte David 54
LCB Alterraun Verner 21
RCB Johnthan Banks 27
SS Bradley McDougald 30
FS Dashon Goldson 38
P/KO Michael Koenen 9
PK Patrick Murray 7
LS Andrew DePaola 48
KR/PR Solomon Patton 11
WR Marques Colston 12
LT Terron Armstead 72
LG Ben Grubbs 66
C Jonathan Goodwin 55
RG Jahri Evans 73
RT Zach Strief 64
TE Jimmy Graham 80
WR Kenny Stills 84
QB Drew Brees 9
RB Mark Ingram 22
FB Erik Lorig 41
DE Akeem Hicks 76
NT John Jenkins 92
DE Cameron Jordan 94
LB Junior Galette 93
LB David Hawthorne 57
LB Curtis Lofton 50
LB Parys Haralson 98
CB Keenan Lewis 28
CB Terrenced Frederick 37
S Kenny Vaccaro 32
S Pierre Warren 42
P Thomas Morstead 6
PK Shayne Graham 3
LS Justin Drescher 47
KR Travaris Cadet 39
PR Jelen Saunders 18
Do you see the Bucs' fortunes ever changing under Lovie Smith as coach?
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
You have to wonder why this team continues to roll out a stopgap quarterback like Josh McCown in place of a young quarterback like Mike Glennon. It certainly reads like the Buccaneers are a lock to draft a quarterback in the upcoming draft.
Dan Schneier, Fox Sports
Four months ago I envisioned this game would really matter. I thought the Saints would be in line for a top-2 seed in the playoffs and the Bucs would be scratching for a wild-card berth.
Marcus Carmouche, New Orleans Times-Picayune
If I had told you that the Bucs would win two games all season, would you have believed it? Well, that's where they are going to end up. Good news, however: The No. 1 pick awaits. Saints, 28-13.
Tom Jones, Tampa Bay Times Sports Columnist
The Saints are playing a meaningless game in Week 17. That's hard to believe. But they just haven't been good. The Bucs have been a major flop. So who shows up here? I think the Saints and Drew Brees will show some pride and play well to try and feel good heading into the offseason. Saints, 33-23.
Pete Prisco, cbssportsline.com
The Saints haven't looked much like a team that could beat anyone lately, but they've won three in a row on the road and they're hoping to finish on a positive note. The Bucs are one loss away from the first pick in the draft. But since no one ever tanks games to improve draft position, that's irrelevant and entirely coincidental. Saints, 23-17.
Mike Florio, profootballtalk.com
WITH DE T.J. FATINIKUN
Best Christmas present you ever got?
I think it would have been when I was about 11 years old. I got a big toy car. I thought it was a real car. Motorized. I loved that thing. That's probably the best one I ever got.
Money aside, what are the biggest differences you notice from being in the Arena Football League this year and now the NFL?
Just understanding the work. It's being a true professional. You say "I'm waking up today at 6 o'clock and going to work." Being around the guys, everybody is striving to be better.
This is your first Christmas with an NFL salary. Is there a gift you were able to give that meant the most to you?
It'd probably be for my little brother David. I got him all types of little stuff. He's 18, a freshman at Toledo. My family, we were never really big into technology, and now I can do that for him.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS : Out: T Terron Armstead (hamstring). Questionable: NT John Jenkins (abdomen). Probable: S Jamarca Sanford (hamstring), T Zach Strief (neck)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Doubtful: LB Mason Foster (Achilles). Questionable: CB Isaiah Frey (ankle), S Dashon Goldson (shoulder), WR Robert Herron (hip), WR Solomon Patton (foot), RB Bobby Rainey (wrist)