How the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to offset the losses of Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette

TAMPA, Fla. – The defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers suffered a gut-wrenching loss Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, and it had less to do with the final score and getting shut out by a divisional opponent and more with who was missing by game’s end.

On a night when they were expected to claim the NFC South title, the Bucs lost nearly 60% of their offensive production, which could significantly thwart their quest to repeat as champs, with the playoffs just weeks away.

Wide receiver Chris Godwin suffered a torn ACL and is done for the season with no shot of returning for the postseason. Then both wide receiver Mike Evans and running back Leonard Fournette left the game with hamstring injuries. Fournette left the stadium on crutches, but there’s optimism that both can return for the playoffs.

Together, those three players had comprised 3,299 of the Bucs’ 5,634 yards from scrimmage this season and 27 of their 50 touchdowns. For perspective, there are six teams in the league right now that have fewer than 27 touchdowns.

“It was difficult last week. Every time I was on the headset, they were telling me somebody was down,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “It all happened within a 10-play period. That’s what made it crazy.”

While the Bucs (10-4) need just one more win to secure the NFC South, and their final three games – at the Carolina Panthers, at the New York Jets and at home against Carolina — will be against two teams that have a combined record of 13-29, losses in those games cannot be overstated, and the Bucs’ path to the playoffs could be altered significantly.

How does WR Antonio Brown’s return help?

No question Antonio Brown put his team in a bad spot by producing a fake vaccination card, which led to a three-game suspension. But strictly on the field, his return comes at the right time. The ankle injury is no longer a concern after missing five games, and neither is conditioning, so he should not be on a rep count.

“He’s fine. He looked like he did before he got hurt,” coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday. “We’ll play that by ear during the game. Let him tap out any time he needs to.”

Brown has a different role than Godwin – whose 802 offensive snaps are more than any other Bucs skill player – and tends to line up all over the field, compared to Godwin’s slot role, but he can take some attention away from second-year wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who will handle a large portion of Godwin’s workload.

“He’s a focal part of what we do,” Arians said of Godwin. “It’s for Tyler and some other guys to step up into that role.”

Like Godwin, Johnson has gotten his fair share of snaps in the slot: 113 of 459 offensive snaps. He’s got a couple of similar traits to Godwin in that they both possess a high degree of concentration to make contested catches (like the 18-yard catch Johnson made against C.J. Gardner-Johnson in the fourth quarter against the Saints), and their speed and size can be a little deceptive.

But few receivers will have Godwin’s 5.8 receptions above expectation – among the top in the league this year. Few can also handle the high volume of targets Godwin gets and still manage a 77.2 catch percentage on 98 targets with just two drops, nor are they as physical as Godwin, whose blocking prowess Arians likened to that of a tight end.

Johnson’s lack of physicality showed against the Saints. He struggled in press coverage. He also had a fourth-quarter drop on an out route while lining up in the slot, but did manage to catch four passes on seven targets for 41 yards.

But who will replace Mike Evans?

Scotty Miller stepped into Evans’ role Sunday, and he too struggled when pressed against the Saints, finishing with two catches on eight targets, with one of his targets being picked off by Gardner-Johnson, who trailed behind him on a crossing route before swooping in. Miller demonstrated his clutch play-making last season with a 48-yard touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings and then a 39-yard buzzer-beater in the NFC Championship.

He just hasn’t gotten many reps this season because of injury (he was placed on injured reserve due to severe turf toe), seeing just four targets all season prior to Sunday.

What they’ll really miss without Evans is his massive catch radius (he’s 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds), especially in the red zone. Evans’ 96 end zone targets are the most in the NFL since 2016. Miller is only 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds.

He may not win many jump-ball battles, but that’s where tight ends Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate really need to step up and help him.

We could see Breshad Perriman back in action soon. He was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list last Friday, less than a week after having the 58-yard game-winning touchdown against the Buffalo Bills and played over Miller, who was a healthy scratch in the Bucs’ Week 13 over the Falcons. He’s got a solid mix of speed and physicality and can consistently get off a jam.

“He’s very close from what I’m hearing,” Arians said of his return.

How does RB Le’Veon Bell factor in?

Ronald Jones II will continue to be the first- and second-down back, but Bell impacts the passing game. Second-year running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn had issues against the Saints, dropping a second-and-8 pass in the flat and slipping on a short pass over the middle.

Jones isn’t a natural pass-catcher or pass-blocker, surrendering sacks against the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots this season, but Vaughn doesn’t have the experience.

Bell has an impressive career pass block win rate of 87.6%. He’s also given up just five sacks in 98 career games. Bell also has 10,315 scrimmage yards, the most of any running back in the league since 2013.

“[It] depends on how fast he can catch up,” Arians said of Bell. “He’s been a good receiver in the past and played in this offense in Pittsburgh for a while. We’ll see what he can learn and what he can give us in the next few weeks.”

Running backs coach Todd McNair said Thursday, though, that he’s been impressed so far with Bell.

“He’s got a good grasp of the stuff that we do,” McNair said. “It’s just gonna come down to terminology and stuff. … He had a good day today, with learning the offense and being able to grasp all the stuff that we were doing. He didn’t have a problem. He just went through the practice today and he didn’t have one mental error. “

But expectations should be tempered. This isn’t the Bell of 2016 or 2017. He had a career-worst 2.7 yards per carry with the Baltimore Ravens this season. He couldn’t find his way onto the field with the Kansas City Chiefs last season, even when Clyde Edwards-Helaire went down with an injury. He was a healthy scratch in the AFC Championship and did not play a snap in the Super Bowl.

Still, he gives them experience they simply don’t have right now, and quarterback Tom Brady needs someone he can ultimately trust.

“I’ll tell you what, he [has] his signature patience about him – the way he runs the football,” McNair said. “… He might not have the juice he might have had [in] his third or fourth year, but you can still see those attributes.”

How does the Bucs’ playoff picture look now?

The Bucs still own a three-game lead in the NFC South heading into Week 16, and entering Thursday, they had the NFL’s weakest remaining schedule, according to the FPI.

But their chances of overtaking the Green Bay Packers (11-3) for the NFC’s top seed to secure a Round 1 bye could be tough. The Packers finish the season against the Cleveland Browns, Vikings and Detroit Lions with two of those games being played at Lambeau Field.

The Bucs were also overtaken by the Dallas Cowboys (10-4), despite their head-to-head record because the Arizona Cardinals are also 10-4 now, and head-to-head tiebreakers are thrown out the window when there are three or more teams involved. The Los Angeles Rams, who beat the Bucs in Week 3, are also 10-4.

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