ATLANTA -- Moments after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, head coach Bruce Arians was asked if his glass was “half full” because of the win or “half empty” because quarterback Jameis Winston threw two more interceptions in a season marred by turnovers.
“My glass is full as hell. And it’s gonna get real full in a minute,” Arians said, drawing chuckles from the room.
Jokes aside, while Sunday was one of Winston’s better games this season -- he completed 64% of his passes and threw three touchdown passes -- he also became the first quarterback since Jon Kitna in 2002 to turn the ball over 100 times in 67 career games and the first quarterback since Deshone Kizer in 2017 to throw at least 20 interceptions in a season.
That’s not ideal in what’s supposed to be a make-or-break year, one that will ultimately decide Winston’s fate with the franchise -- Winston is not under contract beyond the 2019 season. Truth is, he remains just as confounding with five games remaining in the season as he was in Week 1.
Where is Winston having the most trouble?
In examining Winston’s 20 interceptions in Arians’ offense, there are some common threads. Opening drives remain a problem. No quarterback has thrown more interceptions on his first possession (8) since 2015 than Winston. Skinny posts -- both with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans -- and routes like curls where receivers are asked to break inside (there’s more traffic inside) have been giving Winston and his receivers trouble all year, especially from a timing standpoint (and these are often rhythm throws). You’ll see why in a minute.
In man coverage this year, Winston has thrown 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, completing 57.5% of his passes. Against zone coverage, he’s thrown eight touchdowns and 14 interceptions, completing 62.2% of his passes. Cover 3 has been his biggest challenge, which makes sense because that’s where those receivers are often breaking inside (that’s what happened with Evans against the Falcons on Desmond Trufant’s interception in what was a poor route from Evans). It’s also a coverage that allows for quite a bit of disguising. Winston’s 40.6 passer rating against Cover 3 is the lowest in the league.
And since he has entered the league, Winston continues to overthrow receivers more than any other quarterback in the league, with 56 overthrows this year.
How much has he been hurt by bad defenses?
Winston hasn’t had the benefit of playing with great defenses. No team has allowed more points per game (26.23) since he entered the league in 2015 than the Bucs. In an NFL where teams that have won from 2015-19 have allowed, on-average, 17.1 points per game (it’s 16.6 points per game this season), Winston’s only had 18 of 65 career starts where the defense has given up fewer than 20 points. That’s not a good recipe for success. But he’s also contributed to that.
Winston has an NFL-high 24 turnovers this season, with 15 of his interceptions coming on plays that started within his own 40-yard line -- the most by any player over the last 15 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Those turnovers can have huge consequences. Bucs opponents have scored 79 points after those turnovers -- the most points off turnovers by any player this season (Giants rookie Daniel Jones is next, with opposing teams scoring 70 points off 18 turnovers), according to Elias.
After Winston’s 100 career turnovers, opponents have scored 318 points, according to Elias, the most by a player in the NFL since 2015 by a wide margin.
Many would argue that Carson Palmer threw a lot of interceptions under Arians when they were with the Arizona Cardinals. And Palmer did, throwing 57 picks from 2013-17. But in those games, the Cardinals defense allowed an average of 21.2 points per game. They also had 137 takeaways in that span -- fourth most of any team in the league -- and 86 interceptions, third-most.
The road ahead gets easier
The good news for Winston is that he doesn’t face a team like the New Orleans Saints or San Francisco 49ers the rest of the year. The Bucs' five remaining opponents -- the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons -- are a combined 23-31 this year and not one of them boasts a top-10 defense in terms of yards, points allowed or interceptions. That bodes well for Winston, whose greatest quality remains his ability to compartmentalize mistakes and move forward.
“That’s one thing about him. He’s never gonna fold or anything like that,” Evans said. “If he starts off with a turnover or two, he’s gonna keep fighting until the end. That’s why we love him.”
The Falcons are now a 3-8 team with a head coach whose job is in jeopardy. The Jaguars just allowed Ryan Tannehill and the Tennessee Titans to put up 42 points. Wins against those teams shouldn't skew the evaluation process of such a critical piece of the franchise. Better teams will capitalize on those mistakes, as we’ve seen when the Saints jumped out to a 20-0 lead two weeks ago after grabbing an interception off tight end O.J. Howard’s back.
But no matter what the Buccaneers decide to do with Winston -- give him the franchise tag, extend him long term, or let him walk -- if they want to have any hope of competing in the NFC South, they must also improve their defense to give their quarterback a better chance.