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Behind Enemy Lines 2014: Buccaneers Edition

The Redskins on Sunday take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedExField.'s Scott Smith (@ScottSBucs on Twitter) gives us an insider's look at the major storylines for the opposing team heading into the matchup. Yes, the Buccaneers are 1-8 at this point of the season, but with the way the NFC South has been this year, they are only three games away from first-place New Orleans (4-5). Because of this, is there still optimism in Tampa that, if they can make a little run, the Buccaneers have no reason to essentially give up on the 2014 season?

Smith: "Mathematically, that's accurate. Three games to make up with seven to go, and two of those seven are against division opponents…that's not an easy task, but it's not insurmountable. I can tell you that Lovie Smith says something to this effect every week, and it's clear that he means it. Give up on the season? I just don't think most football coaches are wired that way.

Now, as for "optimism in Tampa," I suppose that depends upon exactly where you are in Tampa. There remains optimism inside One Buccaneer Place, and especially in the locker room. This is a team that truly believes it is better than its record indicates, and senses that it is thisclose to having it all come together. It is a feeling similar to what infected old One Buccaneer Place back in 1996, Tony Dungy's first year at the helm. That team, too, started 1-8 but stayed the course and it came together in the second half, with five wins in the last seven weeks (one of them against the Redskins, by the way…I'm not saying, I'm just saying…).

Lovie Smith was the linebackers coach on that team; it's where his NFL career started. Now, Lovie is his own man, so there's no need to beat the Tony Dungy connection to death. The matching 1-8 records from 1996 and 2014 are mere coincidence, not some kind of DNA-level connection. But the promise of this team feels the same. The best possible record for the Buccaneers now is 8-8, and I'm not sure I would pick any team, including the Broncos or Cardinals to win all of their remaining games. So the playoffs still seem quite unlikely, but the Buccaneers have definitely not given up.

Now, if you happen to be on the outside looking in, you probably don't put as much stock in that math. It is certainly fair to say that, while the Buccaneers are still in it, a team doesn't get to 1-8 because it is a playoff contender. The reaction to Lovie Smith going back to veteran quarterback Josh McCown as the starter, for instance, was mixed in the local media, with some believing the proper course of action was to use the rest of the year evaluating the younger, less proven option, Mike Glennon. That motive, however, is not even on Lovie's radar. He's trying to win football games and basing his lineup decisions solely on that goal." Smith did a whole lot of winning as the Chicago Bears head coach. Although the team obviously hasn't gotten off to the start he or anybody else would've liked, what has Smith brought to the Buccaneers' culture overall? Is the organization optimistic that Smith can add his winning ways to the franchise sooner rather than later? Smith:"Lovie Smith said earlier this week that going 1-8 "wasn't part of the master plan." The Buccaneers brought in a new head coach and a new general manager, and that kind of overhaul can bring with a transition period. So, while it's not necessarily what the team expected in 2014, a "reset" season, if you will, isn't terribly surprising.

A look back at some of the top images in games between the Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That said, Smith and Licht made a series of roster moves in their first offseason together that were based on the belief that the Buccaneers could contend immediately. Signing McCown, a known-commodity veteran, to a two-year contract was the most obvious one. Some key injuries haven't helped (and the Bucs are certainly not the only team that can say that), but some depth chart inadequacies have revealed themselves along the way. The trade of young safety Mark Barron at the deadline is a sign that Smith and Licht are still reshaping the roster to fit their master plan.

Is there still optimism and belief in Lovie Smith. Oh, yes, without a doubt. As you said, he's a proven winner in this league and he has brought a sense of stability to a franchise that needed it. I personally believe Lovie Smith is going to be the head coach of the Buccaneers for a long time – and for the remainder of his NFL career, as is his stated desire – and that the winning is going to come, as you say, sooner rather than later." quarterback Josh McCown got emotional after the team's tough loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. He did his part to help Tampa Bay win the game, but it just wasn't in the cards. Why do you believe he was so distraught?

Smith: "The Buccaneers haven't won a game in front of the home fans yet this season. They have lost five games in which they had a lead at some point in the fourth quarter. Many of these players desperately want to show the home crowd what they believe this team is capable of, and I think the frustrations have been building up for a lot of them. As fans, we rarely see the raw emotions of the players after games, but they are definitely there, win or lose. McCown's passion for the game and for the Buccaneers was showing there, but believe me, he's a rock in the locker room and he was right back to work on Monday morning, that game on Sunday behind him.

I was fortunate to be along for the ride when the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in 2002. I've also witnessed some rougher seasons. Believe me, you want to see players who clearly still care so deeply about winning, even when the playoffs look like a long shot. The alternative is much worse.

Think about this, too: Josh McCown waited a long time to be in the position he was in this past spring. He came into the league way back in 2002 and he's had a few runs as a starter along the way, but none lasted terribly long, and he was even out of the NFL for a short period. Then he got an extended shot in Chicago last year, completely lit it up and hit free agency with a chance to find an opening-day starting gig one more time. The Bucs gave him that shot and said they expected to win in 2014. Three games in, he hits his thumb on a helmet and has to give way to Glennon, with the team sitting at 0-3. At one point, it looked like Glennon might hold onto the job for the rest of the season, and because McCown is so fond of his fellow quarterback he would have happily taken the back seat if the Bucs had been winning games. The wins don't come, however, and McCown gets back into the lineup, only to see his first game back end in a very frustrating manner.

Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I could see why that would stir up some strong emotions. Again, this kind of thing really isn't that rare; we just don't witness it often." McCoy continues to play at a pace not seen in Tampa Bay since the likes of Hall of Famer Warren Sapp. Obviously there's going to be comparisons between the two, but how has McCoy been able to be so consistent these past three seasons? What does he bring to the table that makes him so special?

Smith: "Health. The third overall pick in the 2010 draft, McCoy expected to be a force right away but his first two seasons were cut short by separate and fluky biceps injuries. When he finally avoided the bad injury luck in 2012, it all came together. Last year, he was simply one of the most dominant defenders in the entire NFL, and he's been just as good this year (though he did lose a bit of time to a hand fracture).

You mention Warren Sapp, who also brought it year after year in Tampa on his way to Canton. They may not be the exact same player, but both simply have incredible athletic ability. Couple that with the drive to be great, and the only real obstacle is going to be injuries.  The amazing thing about McCoy is his incredibly quick "get-off" at the snap. There have been some plays this year on which it seems like he's been in the backfield before the O-Line could even react, and when you're starting from the middle of the line, that gets you into the path of the quarterback or the ballcarrier right away.

McCoy has five sacks but his impact has been even greater than that would indicate. Pro Football Focus rates him as the NFL's best pass-rushing defensive tackle, by a wide margin. This past Sunday, he had just one tackle and one tackle for loss, but that is very misleading. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan told McCoy on the field after the game that Atlanta's game plan was to double-team McCoy on every single play. The Bucs have not seen their pass rush really come together this year, and injuries to Adrian Clayborn and Michael Johnson are big reasons why, but when it does, that extra attention paid to McCoy is going to help the rest of the defensive line make big plays. Warren Sapp had Simeon Rice; when McCoy finds his own personal Rice, look out." Evans has really come on strong these past five or so games, averaging a touchdown catch in each of those games and showing the Buccaneers why he was worth that Top-10 pick. What has stood out to you about Evans, and how well is he expected to do against a young – but talented – Redskins secondary on Sunday?

Smith: "Mike Evans has 249 yards and three touchdowns on 14 receptions over the last two weeks, and on Monday a coworker of mine pointed out that, according to Stats LLC, the rookie receiver had 224 of those yards at the catch and just 25 after the catch. That sounds bad, right? It sounds like a player who lacks open-field moves.

Ah, but not in this case. Over and over again in those two games, Buccaneer quarterbacks (I use the plural because it was Glennon in Cleveland and McCown against Atlanta) have thrown sideline or end zone passes to Evans even with defenders nearby. The former Texas A&M star – who was definitely a beast after the catch with the Aggies – is absolutely remarkable at catching passes over defenders and keeping his feet inbounds.

At some point, Evans is going to start getting some more opportunities in the open field, and the YAC will come. Still, he's averaging a robust 15.0 yards per grab even without many plays of that variety. He's simply a matchup problem for smaller cornerbacks, and most NFL cornerbacks are smaller than the 6-5, 231-pound Evans.

You're not going to rope me into making any predictions about Sunday's game, though! I see that Washington has fared pretty well against the pass this year, at least in regard to the league rankings…top-10 in passing yards per game, sacks per pass play and overall defense. I'm hopeful that the Buccaneers' offense as a whole, which is coming off its two best single-game yardage totals of the year and was able to convert a whopping 12 of 17 third downs against Atlanta, will find continued success at FedExField this weekend. I'm not going to pretend I'm privy to the game plan, however, so I can't tell  you if it will be another Evans-heavy attack. That said, it's hard to imagine the Buccaneers not at least trying to get the ball into the hands of their red-hot rookie."


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