Senior writer/editor Scott Smith of Buccaneers.com provides a closer look at Seattle's Week 12 opponent:
1. After a slow start, the Bucs have won four of their last six games — most recently a great road win in Kansas City — to get back to .500 on the season. What has been the biggest difference for Tampa Bay in their recent stretch?
Smith: +10. That's the difference.
Look, there are plenty of things that are different between now and early October for this young Buccaneers team, as is surely the case for a lot of NFL squads. The Bucs are a developing team after going 6-10 last year and making a change at head coach, right? You would expect some things to take a little time, and that's particularly true on defense, where the team has taken a little longer than anticipated to adjust to the system imported by new coordinator Mike Smith. The pass rush has been better lately, the overall health of the team is better and Jameis Winston, still just 22 years old, has been a lot better, particularly in clutch situations.
But if you want to know what the biggest difference has been, just look at the Bucs' turnover ratio.
Four weeks into this season, the Bucs were a league-worst negative-9 in that department and the defense had forced a grand total of two turnovers. Fast-forward to Week 12 and Tampa Bay is plus-1 in turnover ratio and in the top five in the NFL in points scored off takeaways. That's a stunning reversal. In fact, in the Buccaneers' entire 41-season history (which is exactly the same NFL tenure as their expansion sibling Seattle), they have never before rallied from a negative-9 turnover ratio to get back to .500 in a single season.
Safety Chris Conte kick-started the Bucs' Week 10 thrashing of the Chicago Bears with a pick-six. Last Sunday, Conte's end-zone interception in the fourth quarter was the single biggest play in an upset win at Kansas City. The Bucs would love it if a key takeaway was the difference again this Sunday, but they know that Seattle's offense turns the ball over about as frequently as the Pittsburgh Steelers change head coaches.
2. What areas has quarterback Jameis Winston gotten better at during his second season, and where can he still improve?
Smith:All of them. You can apply that to either half of your question.
Statistically, Winston is better this year in almost every category: completion percentage, passing yards per game, passer rating, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, WINNING PERCENTAGE. A lot of those gains have been incremental; for instance, he's completing 60.3% of his passes as opposed to 58.3% last year, and that's still below league average. I should note that this is not criticism – the Buccaneers' passing attack isn't necessarily conducive to an extremely high completion percentage.
I guess if you want a specific area in which Winston's game is significantly better than it was expected to be at this point, it's in his work outside the pocket. You can credit your own guy, Russell Wilson, for part of that. At last year's Pro Bowl, Winston was inspired by Wilson, among a couple other QBs, to rethink his approach to his diet and get in optimal shape. Winston was always sneakily good at avoiding rushers and extending plays, but he's been even better this year. That has particularly manifested itself near the goal line, where his improvisational work has led to a high percentage of touchdowns in goal-to-go situations.
And if you want one specific area in which Winston might – and probably will – improve, it's in the deep passing game. Over the last two games he has thrown for 643 yards and yet he's only completed three passes for more than 30 yards in that span, and none longer than 43. Winston has been incredibly good in the intermediate range in recent weeks; if the Bucs can add a few successful deep shots to the mix, the passing game has a chance to be truly dangerous.
3. Two weekends ago, the Bucs got Doug Martin back from injury, and Jacquizz Rodgers could make his return on Sunday. Because of the versatility Rodgers brings as a receiver out of the backfield (not to say Martin doesn't), does that make his return more critical for Sunday against Seattle's front-7?
Smith:Sure. And when it comes to facing that ridiculous front seven, could we also get LaDainian Tomlinson, Marshall Faulk and Chris Warren in there, too? (I threw that last one in there for long-time 'Hawks fans.)
Jacquizz Rodgers was a godsend for the Buccaneers in the middle of the season when Doug Martin and Charles Sims were on the shelf, so it's good to have him moving around again.
Clearly, it would help to get Rodgers back, but honestly, that pales in comparison to Doug Martin's return a few weeks ago. It's hard to overestimate how important Martin is to the Buccaneers' offense. Fantasy football players have probably not been thrilled by his first two games back in the mix, but Martin's return has made a very big difference as the Buccaneers have won two in a row.
Martin's combined stat line for those two games won't knock your socks off; he has 96 rushing yards, 151 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown. Watch the tape and you'll see a player who is consistently getting more yards than the average back would, gaining much of his ground after the initial contact. In addition, he's an outstanding pass-blocker, an area in which he was particularly effective in last week's win over the Chiefs.
4. Mike Evans leads all NFL wide receivers in targets. Can we still expect Winston to look his way heavily if Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman matches up against him?
Smith:When it's all said and done, yes. Two weeks ago against the Bears, Chicago's secondary made a very obvious attempt to isolate and remove Evans from Winston's early route options. At halftime, Evans hadn't been targeted a single time. Winston did the smart thing and looked elsewhere, leading to big games for several other Bucs' pass-catchers, especially tight end Cam Brate. In the second half, Winston managed to find Evans four times for 66 yards.
As you mentioned, Evans leads the league in targets. He's also the only player in the NFL with at least 50 receiving yards in every game. That is the sound of inevitability.
In contrast to that above example from the Bears game, you're not talking about sliding extra coverage Evans's way on Sunday. Instead, you're talking about putting a sublime cover man on him at all times. That's…well, that's a concern. But I've got to believe, as good as Sherman is, Winston is going to find some opportunities to throw the ball in Evans's direction. What happens then…well, that might be the outcome of the game. Seriously, those are two phenomenally good players and their one-on-one matchup Sunday will be incredibly entertaining.
*5. And lastly, how have players responded to first-year head coach Dirk Koetter? Considering he was already on the team's staff last year, how much easier did that make his transition? *
Smith:Yeah, it has been an easier transition than the usual head coaching change, obviously. That's particularly true on offense, which has the same play-caller this year as it had last year. There's always going to be a personality difference when you have a new head coach, but Dirk Koetter is such a straightforward, no-nonsense guy that I don't think it's been a difficult change-over at all.
I think the players have responded to Koetter very well. He's quite good at narrowing the focus to what is most important at any given time. Personally, I think NFL players like coaches who are transparent, who tell it like it is and who are just as committed to doing whatever it takes to win as they are. I think that's our guy.
In their all-time regular-season series, the Seahawks and Buccaneers have faced off 12 times with the Seahawks leading the series 8-4. The two teams will play again this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.