Injuries, penalties biggest road blocks in Buccaneers' quest to win another title

NFL midseason takeaways: Status reports from the Buccaneers, Cardinals, Packers and Bills. (6:04)

NFL midseason takeaways: Status reports from the Buccaneers, Cardinals, Packers and Bills. Video by Alaina Getzenberg (6:04)

TAMPA, Fla. -- Coming out of their late bye last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 7-4, with their best hope -- even with quarterback Tom Brady at the helm -- grabbing one of the final NFC wild-card spots. Then they orchestrated an eight-game win streak that resulted in a Super Bowl.

This year, they're 6-2 coming out of the bye at the NFL halfway point, and they're sitting atop the NFC South with a little bit of cushion thanks to the New Orleans Saints' 27-25 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

The Bucs are a much better team than they were a year ago. The offense has found its identity and has established a rhythm with Brady. Now he’s having another MVP-caliber season at age 44. He's second in the NFL with 2,650 passing yards -- behind Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford by 121 yards -- and he's first in yards per game (331.3) and touchdowns (25). Vegas actually now has him as the favorite at +350 to win the award, ahead of Josh Allen (+400), Kyler Murray (+550), Stafford (+700) and Aaron Rodgers (+900).

Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich has managed to successfully merge Bruce Arians’ offense with what Brady likes to do best. And on the other side of the ball, the Bucs have established themselves as an aggressive, punishing defense.

But what will it realistically take to repeat? We’ll take a look at several of the factors affecting them in what’s shaping up to be a tightly contested NFC.

Movement in the NFC standings

The Bucs benefited in the standings during their bye week. In addition to the Saints’ loss, the Green Bay Packers fell to 7-2 after a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Rams lost to the Tennessee Titans to also drop to 7-2, and the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Denver Broncos, falling to 6-2.

The only team ahead of them in the NFC standings that won last week was the Arizona Cardinals -- who defeated the San Francisco 49ers to improve to 8-1. Quarterback Kyler Murray’s ankle injury remains a question, though, as does wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins’ hamstring. And receiver A.J. Green, whom they were also without last week, is on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

But there will be movement in the teams ahead of the Bucs and close behind because they play each other. On Nov. 28, the Rams play at Green Bay, which by that time should have quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list as well. On Dec. 2, the Cowboys play at New Orleans. On Dec. 13, the Rams play at Arizona. On Dec. 19, New Orleans travels to Tampa. Then on Jan. 2, the Cardinals and Cowboys square off. Also happening that day -- the Rams play at the Baltimore Ravens (6-2).

Based on ESPN Football Power Index ratings, which are composed of predicted offensive, defensive and special teams efficiency, as measured by expected points added per play, the Rams have the second-toughest schedule to finish the season, while the Bucs have the 28th-toughest, with only two of their remaining nine opponents (Saints and Buffalo Bills) above .500, and both of those opponents at home.

FPI also gives the Bucs a 99.4% chance to make the playoffs and a 90.5% chance to win their division. They also have a 6.2% chance of winning out -- the highest in the NFL. The Cardinals are right behind them in this department, with a 5.3% chance of winning out. It also gives the Bucs a 50.4% chance of making the NFC Championship and the Cardinals a 55.7% chance.

“Having home-field advantage is going to be huge with having fans and the traveling and all that,” center Ryan Jensen said. “Staying on top of the NFC is something that obviously [you want]. You want to win your division and you want to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It’s been all season for us focusing on that, especially with these last nine games with how tight that race is. It’s going to be huge.”

Health is biggest concern

The Bucs might be paying the price for playing four additional games in 2020 -- as many defending Super Bowl champions do -- given that they have been decimated by injuries. They’ve been without starting cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting since Week 2, and their other starter, Carlton Davis, since Week 5. But Murphy-Bunting started his 21-day window to return from injured reserve last week, along with wide receiver Scotty Miller (turf toe), and there’s a possibility he returns Sunday against the Washington Football Team, (1 p.m. ET, Fox) depending on his level of soreness. Arians also said veteran cornerback Richard Sherman would be “good to go” after suffering a hamstring injury in Week 6.

On offense, tight end Rob Gronkowski remains a huge question mark. After starting the year off with an NFL-leading four touchdowns in the first two games, Gronkowski suffered cracked ribs and a slightly punctured lung against the Rams in Week 3. He returned in Week 8 against the Saints -- initially with the intention of just playing in the red zone -- but wound up playing only five snaps because of back spasms, which are connected to the rib injuries. To make matters worse, wide receiver Antonio Brown is still in a walking boot.

"You still have to worry a little bit about Gronk, and I don't know if AB is going to make it back,” Arians said. “And Carlton will stay on IR. We'll see if [Murphy-Bunting and Miller] are game-ready. It's one thing to practice, it's another thing to throw them out there in a game."

Penalties remain a huge problem

The Bucs are hoping that the 11-penalty game against the Saints will serve as a catalyst for change, the same way their 11-penalty loss at the Chicago Bears in Week 5 did last year. In Weeks 1-5 last year, the Bucs led the NFL with 48 penalties. After that? The Bucs had the fewest penalties in the league in Weeks 6-17 with 48.

“It definitely put a bad taste in our mouth when you lose a game like that because of those situations,” inside linebacker Lavonte David said. “We definitely have a group of mature men that understand what it was that cost us, so we’re definitely going to get better from it.”

But the penalties they’re dealing with this year are different. Last year during the early part of the season, they had a lot of false starts, which can be attributed to lapses in concentration. This year, they’ve had 10 defensive pass interference penalties -- second-most in the league -- whereas they had seven last season. They had only four defensive holding calls last season, and they’ve already reached that number in 2021. Getting more continuity again in their pass defense will help, versus throwing in new players each week with guys not having as many reps during their lead-up time.

But it’s also going to be up to players like inside linebacker Devin White, who was fined $25,750 for taunting and unnecessary roughness against the Saints, to control their emotions. David said he’s spoken with White about the best way to harness that energy.

“That’s just the basic thing: No Bucs beating Bucs,” David said. “That stuff is just old. We can’t have that creeping back up for us to be a team that we want to be. We’re a good football team, and we’re capable of beating a lot of teams when we go out there and play. At the end of the day, we can’t win if we’re out there with 10 penalties a game and stuff like that.”