Canal Street Chronicles: The Bucs were 3-5 through eight games to start the season, they have since won four games in a row and now sit at 7-5, firmly in playoffs contention. What are one or two things that allowed this winning streak?
Sander Philipse: Mainly, the Bucs have gotten much better on defense. The team has allowed just 13 points per game over the past four games, and that includes matchups with the San Diego Chargers and Seattle Seahawks. And most of that has occurred because of both an improved pass rush, with the team's defensive line finally mostly healthy the past four games, and some quality secondary play. The cornerbacks in particular have done well the past month, as rookie Vernon Hargreaves seems to have acclimated to the NFL and Brent Grimes has shown why the Bucs paid him a bunch of money in free agency.
The other factor has been the offense. Or mostly, Jameis Winston limiting his turnovers. The offense itself has struggled it a little to score touchdowns the last weeks, but because the team has limited its turnovers, that hasn't been much of an issue.
CSC: Jameis Winston is having a pretty good sophomore NFL season, 61.7% completion rate, 7.29 yards per attempt, 24 total touchdowns (23 passing). Has he been everything the Bucs fanbase expected when Tampa Bay drafted him? In what area(s) could he still get better?
Sander: I don't know if he's been everything Bucs fans expected, because some of those expectations were slightly ridiculous, but he's certainly had a very promising first two seasons. He has a good feel for NFL defenses, is not afraid to make tough throws, handles pressure well, his scrambles are magic and is increasingly good at navigating the pocket. He still has some things he needs to improve on, though, most notably his accuracy, which is still too scattershot. He also has a tendency to throw a few too many interceptable passes, though that has been less of an issue in recent months. Overall, though, he's certainly on track to be a top five quarterback before long.
CSC: We all know about Mike Evans, as do the Saints' coaching staff, which is why we'll probably see him double-covered most of the game. With wide receiver Cecil Shorts III now on IR, who else should Saints fans be looking for to catch passes against New Orleans' suspect secondary?
Sander: Russell Shepard is my go-to answer here, especially with slot receiver Adam Humphries likely to miss the game with a concussion. Shepard is a special teamer who produces every time he gets on the field. He has speed, decent size, is very athletic and attacks the ball in the air. He's a pretty common target in the red zone and brings some shifty explosiveness the offense is missing without him on the field.
One other player you should keep an eye on is tight end Cameron Brate. He's not a game-breaking, athletic receiver, but he is a solid underneath and intermediate target who catches the ball consistently and has been a reliable target for Jameis Winston.
CSC: Defensively, the Buccaneers are a solid team, Football Outsiders has them at 12th overall in the NFL, 9th against the pass and 23 rd against the run. What in your opinion is the main strength of the Bucs' defense this season?
Sander: That's tough to say because if you'd asked me a month ago, I would've scoffed at the notion of a strength on this Bucs defense. But, overall, I have to say that the secondary has been surprisingly good this season. Over the last month especially, they've managed to produce a lot of turnovers, and have been tough and competitive in coverage. There are not too many easy, uncontested catches to be had. In part that's because of the defensive line's surge in recent weeks, with Gerald McCoy and Noah Spence leading the way there.
CSC: In your opinion, what matchup (either offensively or defensively) most favors the Saints in this game? Similarly, where do you see the Bucs having their biggest advantage?
That's a good question. I'd say the Saints have the biggest advantage when running the ball, as the Bucs have struggled to consistently stop the run and Mark Ingram and company have been one of the strongest points for New Orleans' offense this season. That's a bit of a change from recent years, when the Bucs were much better stopping the run than doing basically anything else.
As for the Bucs' biggest advantage, that has to be Mike Evans. I mean, aside from the fact that the Saints pass defense is a mess, Mike Evans has been an absolute star and one of the very best receivers in the NFL this year. Get him one on one, and the Bucs win. Get him deep, and the Bucs win. He's also a reliable intermediate receiver and is the main focus of any defense the Bucs face.
Much appreciation to Sander for taking the time to answer our questions. For more coverage of Saints-Bucs from the pirate's ship, check out the great work that Sander and his crew are doing at Bucs Nation.