Q: Bill Parcells famously said "you are what your record says you are." Well, I think this Buccaneers team is better than their record (2-9). I really like this team, I liked the hiring of Lovie Smith and I like the talent they have on offense. In my division previews, I picked them to go 10-6 and make the playoffs as a wild card team. What has gone wrong in 2014?
A: Is "everything" an acceptable answer? Every free agent except Clinton McDonald and maybe Alterraun Verner has been a major disappointment. Neither Josh McCown nor Mike Glennon have proven capable of being trustworthy game managers, let alone someone who can carry an offense when necessary. The offensive line was completely rebuilt - and that turned out to be a disaster, as the Bucs may very well have the single worst line in the NFL. It took defenders much longer to adjust to this defense than anyone expected, though they at least seem to have made progress over the past month. Even special teams has been incredibly incompetent. And to make matters worse, injuries have been a constant problem.
Q: The Bengals have a strong and talented secondary, but the Buccaneers have one of the most talented (and biggest) wide receiver duos in the NFL in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. How good can these two be?
A: Vincent Jackson has started a bit of a slow decline, but he's still a very good player. He's not the dominant downfield threat he used to be and is now closer to being a veteran possession receiver, but that complements Evans' new role very well.
Mike Evans, is vying for the title of best young receiver. I don't think he'll ever be a detailed route runner, but players with his size and speed don't need to be. He uses his body very well to shield the ball from defenders, consistently making contested catches down the field, and he's displayed some deceptive speed in consistently blowing by defenders. Overall, he should be one of the best receivers in the NFL once he gets a hang of the game - it's easy to forget that this is just his fourth year of playing organized football.
Q: I liked Doug Martin coming out of Boise State and was hoping the Bengals would take him. After a great rookie season, Martin has seemingly disappeared. What has happened to the Doug Martin we saw as a rookie?
A: He's disappeared.
No one really knows what's happened with the Muscle Hamster, but he simply doesn't look like the same back he used to be. Sure, the offensive line hasn't been much help, but he lost all of the shiftiness and explosive ability he displayed as a rookie. He's not showing any vision in finding holes, doesn't seem to have the patience to press the hole and stretch the defense, and he can't make any defenders miss, either in tight quarters or in open space. He's become a plodding utility back, and there's no clear reason why. He's had some injuries, but nothing major and structural that would cause such a decline. His work ethic appears to be fine, and he's still getting opportunities. It's just a mystery.
Q: Mike Glennon played decent while Josh McCown was out with an injury. Who should be the quarterback of this team? And what is the long term plan with Glennon?
A: The benching of Glennon for McCown makes it pretty clear that the Bucs do not truly see him as their future, no matter how often they repeat that statement. While Glennon was really bad, it's not like McCown has been much better. McCown's a little better at getting the ball down the field, he's a little more accurate, and he gets more production out of his receivers - but he's also much more prone to turnovers. The terrible offensive line doesn't make it easy on either player, but their play simply hasn't been up to snuff.
Really, neither player should be a starter based on their play this year. McCown is probably marginally better-equipped to handle the offense and the offensive line, but he's not what you'd call a good option. I'd expect to see someone else under center for the Bucs next season - probably a rookie.
Q: What are the strengths of this Buccaneers team? And what are the weaknesses?
A: Run defense is a strength, kind of. When Lavonte David is healthy, anyway. And they can throw the ball up to Mike Evans - but there's really nothing they've done consistently well. There's nothing that I would dare label a real "strength". The one thing I can say is that at least the defense has played better in recent weeks, getting more of a pass rush and being more consistent in coverage. But they're still very, very beatable.
Weaknesses are all across the board, though, but the main one is the offensive line. That's just been a complete disaster, from Logan Mankins to Anthony Collins to Evan Dietrich-Smith to Patrick Omameh - the only competent player has been right tackle Demar Dotson, and even he's had some bad games. It doesn't matter how bad your defensive line is, you will get pressure - and that pressure will get McCown to make some dumb mistakes.
Q: If you were the Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, how would you attack the Buccaneers defense? If you were the Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, how would you attack the Buccaneers offense?
A: If I'm Hue Jackson, I get three or four receivers on the field at all times and start throwing balls at Leonard Johnson at nickel corner, and Mason Foster at middle linebacker down the middle. Just keep targeting those two, constantly, because you will complete passes. Foster has at least improved a little in recent weeks, but he's still a liability over the middle.
As for Guenther, he should start with pass rush games by his defensive line, adding in a solid amount of blitzes. The Bucs offensive line is terrible on its own and you probably don't need to do anything special to beat them, but the coordination between the linemen is so bad that any kind of movement on the defensive line is likely to leave someone with a free run at the quarterback. And when that happens, McCown starts throwing stupid passes right at defenders.
Q: On Sunday, the Buccaneers win if...
A: The defense continues its improvement from recent weeks, with defensive end Jacquies Smith being a key player. The Bucs have done reasonably well executing this defense over the past month, so simply showing up and playing bend-but-don't-break football is feasible. On offense, Josh McCown needs to simply manage the offense: don't do anything stupid under pressure, eat a sack if you have to, and get the ball to Mike Evans.
Q: On Sunday, the Bengals win if....
A: They simply show up and play.
Q: As crazy as it sounds, at 2-9, the Buccaneers are still not out of the NFC South race. Where do you see the Buccaneers finishing the 2014 season?
A: Probably at 4-12 or so, at the bottom of the cesspool that is the NFC South. The Bucs can theoretically still make the playoffs, but given that they haven't won a single division game, they'll almost certainly lose any tiebreaker. And their schedule isn't exactly easy, either.
Q: What is your prediction for Sunday's game?
A: Bengals win, 24-13.