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Buccaneers Talk: Greg Auman, The Athletic

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) celebrates with wide receiver Chris Godwin (12) during an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019 in Tampa, Fla. The Giants won 31-31. (Paul Abell via AP)

JACKSONVILLE – senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2019 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.

Up this week:

Greg Auman, the Athletic's Tampa Bay Buccaneers writer, on the Buccaneers' matchup with the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville Sunday at 1 p.m.

Question: The Buccaneers (4-7) beat the Atlanta Falcons, 35-22, in Atlanta Sunday. This is their first season under Head Coach Bruce Arians and they have the feel of an ascending team. What is the state of the Buccaneers as they prepare for the Jaguars?

Answer: I would say they have momentum. They have won two out of three games, so for a team with four wins … yes, they're moving in the right direction. But it has been up and down. There's the upswing because they won Sunday, and Sunday was probably their most complete game. The defense played as well as it has all year. They were aggressive. They had six sacks. They had 16 passes defensed, which is a crazy high number – especially for them. The offense made some mistakes early, but the Falcons had held the [New Orleans] Saints and [Carolina] Panthers to nine and three points [in recent weeks] – and the Buccaneers got 28 [against Atlanta] offensively. So, they do come in [to Sunday's game] with confidence. But they've never won in Jacksonville, so that's one to check off, if you will.

Q:Assess Arian's first season overall …

A: The overall result of 4-7 would probably be seen as a disappointment. Bruce came in here very optimistic about wanting to win right away. When he took over in Arizona [in 2013], he took over a 5-11 team and went 10-6 in the first year. The expectation [this season] was high under the circumstances. Defensively, they have shown their youth in the secondary. They've made some decisions, moving on from [cornerback] Vernon Hargreaves – a former first-round pick [from the University of Florida]. Overall, I think they're moving the direction they want to in terms of this being what Arians and [offensive coordinator] Byron Leftwich want on offense and what [defensive coordinator] Todd Bowles wants on defense, but I don't think they have gotten there as seamlessly as they would have liked. They're 4-7, but their record could be better or worse if the smallest things had changed.

Q: Quarterback Jameis Winston is the obvious focal point when people talk about the Buccaneers offensively. How is he playing, and what's his status moving forward?

A: With Winston, you're getting a high volume of everything – good and bad. He's on pace to challenge for the NFL lead in touchdowns and interceptions. He has the interceptions pretty much sewn up; he has six more than anybody else. But he's only two touchdowns behind Russell Wilson [of the Seattle Seahawks] for the league lead there. It's really rare to find someone to lead the league in both. Blake Bortles [of the Jaguars] came within one touchdown of doing it in 2015. It's strange to play at such a high volume of everything. He's on pace for 4,900 yards despite the fact that he's on pace for 29 interceptions. It's crazy, but it's kind of who Winston has been. You get the playmaker, but you also get the guy who makes way too many turnovers. That's just something he hasn't shed and it's five years in now. There's kind of a divided fan base. There are some people who still think he can be the guy and he can take a step forward that he hasn't taken – maybe with more time with Bruce Arians. But there are others who are tired of the interceptions and they have seen them for five years. We don't know how the front office feels. He's a free agent after this season. He'll be expensive either way. If they franchise him, it's like $27 million [per season] and any long-term contract would be in a similar range. So, this is a big five games for him to sway things with public opinion or the front office one way or the other.

Q: Where are the Buccaneers defensively?

A: It's definitely on the way. [Linebacker] Shaq Barrett (12.5 sacks this season) has been a great surprise for them and will probably be one of the bigger free agents [in the NFL] next offseason. The secondary was really bad last year and had the second-highest quarterback rating against them in NFL history; they let opponents complete passes at like a 71 percent rate. They have been better (this season), but still until this past Sunday were among the worst pass defenses in the NFL. You're looking at three rookies and a second-year guy in their starting nickel [package]. It's just inexperience. They're going to get the hang of it. It's just going to be taking your lumps while the young guys are still out there and learning what is a fairly complicated Todd Bowles defense. [The performance against Atlanta] Sunday could be one of those turn-the-corner type things where they take a big step forward, but you don't know how that translates from week to week.

Q: What do the Buccaneers need to do over the last five games to consider this a successful season?

A: It's a good question. Going into the year, the expectations were a maybe a little higher where you thought seven or eight wins and maybe competing for a wild-card spot if things went right. That's not going to happen; they're four games back with five to play. But the main thing is improving from back-to-back 5-11 seasons. That's probably the most tangible, appreciable way to look better – to have more than five wins. If they're a 7-9 team, that's the best they have been except for one year in the Winston Era. I think you would be able to take that as a fan and say, "That's a step in the right direction" and you set the expectations for 2020 being better than that. If there's a model where next season you're competing for a playoff berth, I think most people would take that.

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