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Jameis Winston Takes Big Step and Makes Statement by Tearing Apart the Eagles

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystNovember 23, 2015

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 22:  Quarterback Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers throws a pass during warm-ups before the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on November 22, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The 5-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are now one game out of a playoff spot. They’ve climbed to that unlikely perch with wins in three of their last four games, the latest a 45-17 trouncing of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Tampa's soaring stretch came after a 1-3 start that included being the Tennessee Titans’ speed bag, losing 42-14 to a two-win team that fired its head coach several weeks later. The Buccaneers also blew a 24-0 lead over the Washington Redskins in Week 7.

So what, exactly, has changed about the suddenly surging Bucs? There are a few correct answers to that question. Running back Doug Martin is posting comically massive numbers again and torched the Eagles for 235 rushing yards Sunday. A defense that’s allowed only 23 points over the past two weeks has been a nice asset, too.

But the real kick to the Buccaneers’ collective hind region has come from a quickly maturing quarterback who has started to make better decisions recently, minimizing his mistakes. That served as a foundation for Jameis Winston, and in Week 11, he added another element to his newfound field vision.

A scoring element.

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Bucs roll over Eagles, 45-17. Jameis Winston ties NFL record for single-game Pass TD by a rookie (5). https://t.co/zAHRfzPnHH

Winston threw five touchdown passes against the Eagles, four of which came during the first half. Remarkably, that first half alone matched the 21-year-old’s touchdown production over his previous four games.

Did we witness a sporadic outburst or a sign of what’s to come? I’m leaning more toward the latter, and not solely due to the total number of scoring tosses.

No, instead let’s focus on exactly how those throws found the desired destination and how much Winston’s ball placement has improved at the professional level since early in his rookie year.

There was a time when it seemed Winston could spend a season making not-so-delicious turnovers. He threw seven interceptions over his first four games, needing only 133 pass attempts to reach that point. Of those picks, four came during one particularly disastrous afternoon against the Carolina Panthers, when Winston finished with a passer rating of 57.0.

His mission then was to make that Week 4 implosion a mere blip during a rookie season otherwise filled with growth. And that mission has been successful so far.

Jameis Winston's declining interception rate
GamesPass attemptsInterceptionPass attempts/INTs
First five games152721.7
Last five games162281
Source: NFL.com

Winston still had his flaws during the most recent five-week stretch, posting a completion percentage below 56.5 in three games. Sure, lowering his turnovers to nearly zero was nice, but the first overall pick struggled to find repeatable accuracy.

Inconsistent play is a reality of life for any rookie quarterback who’s adjusting to the NFL’s warp speed. Each week is an opportunity to find a new peak and stay there. For Winston, the next step in his development was to put the entire package together in one game. He needed to demonstrate mistake-free accuracy and do it against a quality opponent.

For the first time, all of those boxes were checked.

The Eagles entered Sunday fielding a top-10 defense in terms of points allowed per game (20.5). They also gave up only 6.8 yards per pass attempt, ranking seventh in that category, and had surrendered an average of only 1.7 passing touchdowns over nine games. So Winston faced a litmus test of sorts and an opportunity to make a statement.

Which is what he did with pinpoint precision. Winston nailed bull's-eyes throughout the afternoon, whistling balls through tight windows. For example, there was little room for error on his second touchdown pass. Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson was running a slant between two defenders, and Winston had to connect with him in stride.

Credit: NFL.com

The slightest inaccuracy in either direction could have easily resulted in a turnover, especially in the red zone with so many bodies ready to pounce on a tipped ball. Instead, the play ended in a 13-yard touchdown and six points.

Winston’s five touchdown passes went to five different receivers as he showed an ability to manipulate the pocket while working through his reads. More importantly, Winston capitalized on his red-zone trips by putting the ball in areas only his receiver could access.

That’s one of the most important characteristics of an effective quarterback. The passer who keeps his throws away from danger reduces drive-killing mistakes while also increasing his chances of converting long marches downfield into touchdowns.

Winston finds a balance between flirting with danger and being conservative with his ball placement. He has the touch to lob the perfect fade high above a cornerback’s outstretched arms, where only towering wide receiver Mike Evans can reach the rainbow.

Credit: NFL.com

And the bravery to even attempt this…

Credit: NFL.com

Nearly mistake-free accuracy sprinkled with some daring throws is the package Tampa gets when Winston feels confident. Which is how we often describe a top-tier quarterback. Those at the highest level need to make simple throws look even easier, and not be intimidated when the difficulty level is cranked higher.

"Every day I step on the field, I think it's going to be a special day," Winston told Andy Jasner of ESPN.com. Those aren't the words of a man who's easily intimidated.

Winston has the arm strength and accuracy to be a complete quarterback, and he showed plenty of both Sunday. The next trick? Doing it again.

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