TAMPA — How far away are the Bucs from being a playoff team?
Maybe farther than you think. It's not just the 5-11 record or the difficulty of competing in the NFC South, which from top to bottom is clearly the best division in football.
If you examine this year's post-season participants, particularly those that entered the divisional round this weekend, there are many components Tampa Bay lacks to hang with the best in the NFL. To put it mildly, the Bucs are several great players shy of becoming a great team.
Each team is constructed differently, but the best have obvious components the Bucs sorely lack: a shutdown corner who can shadow the opponent's top receiver; an edge rusher who can pile up sacks; a team that is stout against the run; a strong running game, often with a marquee back, to provide balance on offense.
There are other less tangible elements the Bucs will need to concentrate on this offseason. There needs to be a premium on teamwork and chemistry, absent from the locker room in 2017.
But it's obvious several teams that reached the postseason threaded the needle with the draft and free agency which catapulted them from an also ran to elite this year.
For the purpose of this exercise, we're basically going to exclude the New England Patriots from the conversation. That's a unique creation between Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. No roster in the playoffs may be more devoid of household names and gaudy statistics than the Patriots and they're the gold standard.
That said, let's take a look at what it will take for the Bucs to make the playoffs — besides a miracle:
A FRANCHISE QUARTERBACK
Eight of the 12 teams that entered the playoffs had a quarterback in the top 12 of the league in passing yards, led by Brady with 4,577.
While the Bucs' Jameis Winston has to improve protecting the football and making throws downfield, he finished 13th in passing yards with 3,504 while missing three games with a shoulder injury and playing hurt in three others.
Behind Brady in passing yards was the Saints' Drew Brees (4,334), the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger (4,252), the Falcons' Matt Ryan (4,095), the Chiefs' Alex Smith (4,042), the Rams' Jared Goff (3,804), the Jaguars' Blake Bortles (3687) and the Vikings' Case Keenum (3,547).
The outlier is the Titans' Marcus Mariota, who had a down year with 3,232 yards passing and more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (13). But he was a No. 2 overall pick in 2015 behind Winston and has one playoff victory to his credit.
BALANCE WITH THE RUN GAME
Not surprisingly, 10 playoff teams finished among the top 13 in rushing yards per game. Teams always strive for balance offensively. The best ones achieve it. Here's where those playoff teams ranked in rushing yards per game:
1. Jaguars (141.4)
3. Eagles (132.2)
4. Panthers (131.4)
5. Saints (129.4)
6. Bills (126.1)
7. Vikings (122.3)
8. Rams (122.1)
9. Chiefs (118.9)
10. Patriots (118.1)
13. Falcons (115.4).
By comparison, the Bucs ranked 27th by averaging 90.6 yards on the ground. Most of those playoff teams had a marquee running back. Six were among the top 10 rushers in the league, including the top five:
The Chiefs' Kareem Hunt (1,327 yards)
The Rams' Todd Gurley (1,305)
The Steelers' Le'Veon Bell (1,291)
The Bills' LeSean McCoy (1,138)
The Saints' Mark Ingram (1,124)
Hunt, the Jags' Leonard Fournette, the Saints' Alvin Kamara and the Panthers' Christian McCaffrey are rookies. The Titans got it done by committee with Derrick Henry (744 yards, five TDs) and DeMarco Murray (659 yards, six TDs) splitting the load.
The Bucs will part ways with Doug Martin, who has failed to rush for 500 yards in four of his past five seasons. The only running back sure to return is Peyton Barber. Drafting a game-changing running back should be a priority for the Bucs.
Six of the playoff teams finished in the top 10 in total defense, including four of the top five — Vikings (1), Jaguars (2), Eagles (4) and Steelers (5). By comparison, of course, the Bucs had the worst defense in the NFL, allowing 378.1 yards per game.
More importantly, the top four defenses against the run all made playoffs — Eagles, Vikings, Panthers and Titans.
But nothing improves your chances of making the postseason like the ability to rush the quarterback. And no team was worse at doing it than the Bucs, who finished last in the NFL with only 22 sacks.
The top five teams in the NFL in sacks — Steelers, Jags, Panthers, Rams and Titans — all reached the post-season. Specifically, what it takes is pressure off the edge.
Sacksonville led the way with defensive ends Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks) Yannick Ngakoue (12) and Dante Fowler (8). Campbell signed a four-year, $60 million contract with $30 million guaranteed as a free agent from the Cardinals. At age 30, it was a gamble that paid off.
But whether you're talking about the Vikings' Everson Griffin (13 sacks), the Saints' Cameron Jordan (13), the Steelers' Cameron Heyward (12), the Panthers' Mario Addison (11) and Julius Peppers (11), the Falcons' Adrian Clayborn (9.5) and Vic Beasley (4), the Eagles' Brandon Graham (9.5) or the Chiefs' Justin Ho"`uston (9.5), pressure came off the edge.
The Bucs' plans went out the window when Noah Spence played in only three games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury while 32-year-old Robert Ayers produced only two sacks. Without an edge rusher, the Bucs are going nowhere.
A SHUT-DOWN CORNER
At 34, Brent Grimes was the Bucs best cornerback and tied for the team lead with three INTs. But he is a free agent and contemplating retirement. Though not a pre-requisite, a shutdown corner helps your chances of playing in January.
The best examples in the playoffs are the Vikings' Xavier Rhodes, the Saints' Marshon Lattimore, the Falcons' Desmond Trufant and the Jags outstanding duo of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, a free agent from the Texans.
The Bucs used a first-round pick in 2016 on Vernon Hargreaves, who has one career interception and has been reduced to a slot corner. The combination of pass rush and tight coverage is what wins in the NFL.
Clearly, the team with the second-longest playoff drought still has a long way to go.
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud