When trying to determine why the Bucs offense has been such a disappointment as the team has struggled to a 0-3 start in 2013, the list of culprits is a mile long. From obvious quarterback issues, dropped passes, penalties, questionable play-calling and poor coaching, take your pick and chances are you wouldn’t be wrong.
Tampa Bay's offense ranks 31st in the league, averaging 282 yards per game – just ahead of the 0-3 Jacksonville Jaguars.
As head coach Greg Schiano says often when asked about turning things around, “If it were just one simple thing, we would do it, but it is a combination of things.”
That pretty much sums up the Bucs' season offensively through three games.
But after reviewing the film of the first three games, the lack of a pass catching tight end may be the biggest downfall of the offense through the first part of the season. The inability or unwillingness to acquire a proven tight end may be the most glaring blunder of the offseason and could prove to have enormous consequences if the Bucs finish below .500 on the year.
PewteReport.com and other media outlets have reported that a tight end isn’t an important part of Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan’s offensive scheme. And while that may be the case, the fact is another legitimate receiving option, particularly on third down and in the red zone – two areas that the Bucs have struggled in – would only help Freeman and the offense.
Through its three-game losing steak to start the season, the Buccaneers tight ends have managed to catch just four passes for 44 yards and no touchdowns. At this rate, Tampa Bay's tight ends are on pace to catch just 21 passes for 234 yards. Last season, Tampa Bay tight ends Dallas Clark, Luke Stocker and Nate Byham combined to total 66 catches for 628 yards and six scores.
Sunday against the Patriots, the tight ends were targeted just three times, with two receptions for nine yards. However, the one target that was an incompletion came in the first half when Tim Wright let a perfect pass from Josh Freeman sail through his hands in the back left corner of the end zone.
While the tight ends were targeted just three times there were some opportunities for Freeman to connect with both Wright and Byham, but he chose to go elsewhere with the ball. This may be a lack of confidence by Freeman in the tight ends, or Freeman’s inability to scan the field for other options, but the answer could also be in the philosophy of Sullivan.
PewterReport.com asked Sullivan before last week’s game against the Patriots if the struggles of the offense can partly be attributed to a lack of a receiving threat from the tight end position.
“That certainly can help as an added option, but right now there hasn’t been the commitment to taking away a Vincent Jackson – that’s why he’s got the number of catches he has and the production he has,” Sullivan said. “And ultimately, when teams, if they’re going to continue to allow that type of one-on-one match-up where they are going to allow you to run the football, then you’ve got two Pro Bowl players and the next thing is, ‘Why aren’t you using your two Pro Bowl players?’ So, I think that certainly has merit, we’re looking at that because there is that open end of the field ultimately and we saw a lot of it last year.
“Really it was about Week 4, Week 5, the Dallas Clark questions, the tight end questions coming to the forefront. So he was able to be a little bit more productive because again, it’s like a boxing match out there, kind of counter-punching, trying to adjust as the defense tries to take away certain weapons that you have. We’re continuing to work the guys that are there and hopefully Tom Crabtree comes back and he’s a part of the mix and we’re able to get the balance we want out of that position.”
Sullivan’s explanation makes sense. If teams are going to play single man coverage against the 6-foot-5 Jackson, it is a match-up one would expect the Bucs to win more times than not. But Freeman has been slow to come off his first pre-snap read and do much other than throw to his primary receiver.
Sunday, against the Patriots, the Bucs were facing a third-and-1 trailing 7-3 with less than five minutes left in the first half and Freeman locked on to Jackson on a go-route down the sideline. Freeman’s pass, while right on target and ultimately dropped, was still a low percentage play in that situation. Looking at the coaches tape on the play, tight end Nate Byham had beaten linebacker Brandon Spikes easily and was wide open down the seam. Yet Freeman never came off Jackson.
Sullivan is not without blame here, however. On third-and-1 why are there four vertical routes? The lack of adapting and changing to what opposing defenses are doing is something that is glaringly obvious through three games.
Earlier in the game, on a third-and-5 from the Patriots' 35, Freeman threw incomplete to Brian Leonard near the sideline, which set up one of the Bucs' failed fourth down attempts in the game. On the third-down play, Freeman never looked anywhere but to Leonard even though Wright was open as linebacker Jerod Mayo blitzed, leaving Wright a ton of space in front of the safety.
Just looking at these few plays it is easy to see that everyone has a hand in the mess. Freeman’s inability to scan the field and forcing the ball to his primary target is a problem.
Sullivan’s lack of imagination at times in the route combinations is also a problem. And the tight ends' inability to create separation at times, combined with not holding on to the balls is also a big problem.
And general manager Mark Dominik and Schiano are also not without blame. Allowing Clark to walk (Clark has 12 receptions for 112 yards in his three game with the Ravens) or at the very least drafting a pass catching tight end was a huge gamble, as was heading into the season with two injured unproven tight ends in Stocker and Crabtree.
The blame for the poor offense doesn’t fall only on the lack of tight end production. However, most would agree the tight end can be a safety valve, a red-zone and third-down weapon and a way to settle a shaky quarterback who needs to find a rhythm early in games. Tampa Bay needs to find a reliable option along with game planning a bit more to get the position involved in the offense. Drew Brees and Matt Ryan would agree that the tight end can be a quarterbacks best friend at times.
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