Bruce Arians offenses have always been air yards-oriented. This is by design. However, the Buccaneers have improved in yards after the catch, going from 4.6 yards after catch per completion (YAC/cmp) in 2020 to 5.6 YAC/cmp in 2021. The one yard increase bumped the Bucs from the 25th ranked YAC/cmp team to 11th.
One reason for this improvement is the Bucs’ improved execution in the screen game.
If I got hit like the LT hit the DB, there is 0% chance I am getting up for 24 hours. Nice design on the PA quick screen to the stack pic.twitter.com/8LtVGqHJy7
With Chris Godwin in a stack formation behind him, Mike Evans was immediately in position to block after the pass. The real stars of this play were Donovan Smith, who put a devastating hit on CB Nik Needham, and Ryan Jensen, who cleared a lane downfield.
Spread out instead of stacked, Tyler Johnson and Cam Brate created space for Godwin who tacked on even more yards with a vicious juke move on Eric Rowe. Godwin was one of the best wide receivers in the NFL after the catch in 2019, his breakout season. It’s awesome to see him getting back to that type of production in 2021. According to PFF, Godwin is third amongst all wide receivers in yards after catch, and sixth in YAC per reception. His six forced missed tackles in tied for fourth at his position.
Ali Marpet and Evans helped Ronald Jones tear off a huge gain on a screen designed to look like Arians’ flagship concept, 989/“Go”. The vertical concept stretched the secondary deep, leaving a lot of exposed space for Jones to work to.
After listening to @The_QB_School mention several times how much Brady practices these throws, I’m honestly wondering if the placement here is intentional. It’s JUST outside of Van Ginkel’s reach. pic.twitter.com/h5kIUxGjZO
Evans’ blocking efforts weren’t a one-time thing, as he later helped Johnson on an RPO catch-and-run.
The downfield passing attack is this team’s bread-and-butter, as it should be. But as this offense becomes more well-rounded, they’ll have more answers against all the different types of coverages they could face. Improving the screen game is just the cherry on top of the Bucs’ sundae – which, at this point, is overflowing with cherries.
2. Passing Game Lenny
Leonard Fournette has had an up-and-down tenure in Tampa Bay. His volatility spawned the beloved LEONARD! segment on the Pewter Report podcast, in which Jon Ledyard and Scott Reynolds test the limits of their vocal chords while reviewing Fournette’s most recent flubs and triumphs. Well, his play over the past two weeks has prompted more head nods than head shakes.
Fournette is becoming a serviceable passing game running back. Am I confident that he won’t drop an easy pass for an interception against the Eagles on Thursday night the way he did against the Cowboys? Absolutely not. But against the Dolphins, Fournette was everywhere in the pass game. He ran routes out wide, he caught check downs as a back, and he also helped protect Tom Brady in the pocket.
Fournette’s role in the pass game might be growing. Brady’s not hesitating to look his way, and Lenny has kept things moving.
Brady looked to Fournette as the primary read on Arians’ frequently-used “Okie” concept. Fournette was smooth as he beat Byron Jones, the outside cornerback in the Dolphins’ Cover 3 zone, on an out route.
Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich is even scheming plays for Fournette. After lining up to Brady’s left in shotgun, Fournette motioned across to the right as the ball was snapped. Jerome Baker struggled to follow Fournette and was out of position in man coverage. Furthermore, Antonio Brown’s inside release on his curl route acted as a natural rub, thus creating another obstacle for Baker.
Finally, once Fournette had the ball and Baker looked to be in position to make a tackle, Fournette ducked under Baker and picked up more than enough yards to move the chains.
On second-and-9, Brate’s shift allowed Brady to confirm that the Dolphins were in man coverage. Again, without hesitation, Brady fired a pass to Fournette, trusting that his running back was a mismatch against Baker.
With Evans, Godwin, Brown, and Rob Gronkowski, the Bucs don’t want to throw to running backs too often. However, Fournette becoming a dependable option underneath who can turn a throwaway for zero yards into a checkdown for a small gain or more is huge. Being a consistent mismatch against linebackers, as he was against Miami, would make him truly special for this offense.
“It’s all about earning trust,” said Fournette. “You can’t go into practice dropping a lot of balls. In the back of [Brady’s] mind, he’s going, ‘I can’t throw this guy the ball’. So I try to make every catch he throws to me. I try to make it easy for him.”
Fournette certainly seems to have earned that trust.
3. Antonio Brown vs. Anybody
Brown has been incredible, and it’s not just because he’s drawing third-string cornerbacks. The Dolphins moved their star cornerback Xavien Howard all around the field, often across from Brown.
Howard won in the red zone when he blanketed Brown’s pivot route in a way few can.
Side note: check out how well Nik Needham and Jevon Holland pass off Godwin’s crossing route. Not all teams match this way, but this has been a staple of Bill Belichick defenses for a long time, and Brian Flores has taken that with him to the Dolphins.
When Miami showed blitz on first-and-10, Brady got the Bucs into a seven-man protection by motioning Godwin in to block. Brown took advantage of the Dolphins’ aggression and beat Howard with a now route for a first down.
Brown blew by Howard as a crosser on the mesh concept. Howard didn’t even get picked, as a defender often would in mesh. Brown won outright with speed. He was dominant all day against one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.
Leftwich countered the Dolphins’ man coverage by aligning the offense in a bunch formation. This created congestion at the line of scrimmage, and Howard was left way behind as Brown sped across the field. Also note Brown’s awareness, as he changed the angle of his route to run away from a Miami defender buzzing underneath.
Finally, on third-and-10, trailing by a touchdown, the Dolphins were in a must-win situation. But Brown blew by Howard again, and picked up the back-breaking first down.
“When you got Chris and Mike, and AB’s the third guy, it ain’t a fair fight,” explained Arians. “Now that he knows the offense and Byron is putting him in a position where (Brown) knows what he’s doing, he can play really fast. Tom trusts him. We like that matchup usually week in and week out. And I’m sure it’s going to switch pretty soon. One of those other guys is going to feast.”
Unfortunately for the Buccaneers’ upcoming opponents, Brown has shown he can dust No. 1 cornerbacks, too.
4. Brady Wants Home Runs
One way top quarterbacks differentiate themselves is by making great plays when others would make good ones. With most passing concepts, there’s a predetermined progression. The quarterback knows which receiver to look at first, second, third, and so on. The order of the progression can change depending on the defensive coverage.
Brady is not only an elite processor who progresses through his reads at an incredible speed, he’s also willing to hit the “alert”. An alert is a route that’s not meant to be a part of the progression, but should be glanced at against specific defensive looks. This is easier said than done, and some quarterbacks almost never throw the alert unless everything is absolutely perfect. For example, Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo have both been criticized for this. Brady is not one of those quarterbacks.
Huge play with Brady hitting the alert to Evans on the sail concept. The main purpose of Evans’s route is to create space for others.@Nate_Tice always talks about turning down singles and doubles (eg AB here) for home runs — this is an example of just that. pic.twitter.com/J4ytt92vCT
On the play above, Evans’ route is effectively clearing space for other receivers underneath. The idea is to “flood” zone defenses with multiple receivers to the same side, all at different depths. However, against press man coverage with only a single-high safety in the middle of the field, Brady trusted Evans to win his matchup and delivered a strike.
That was actually the second time the Bucs had gone to Evans on the same concept. Brady underthrew the first one and the ball slipped right through Evans’ hands. Leftwich liked what he saw and gave his star players another chance.
Without the alert, Brown would’ve been the first player in the progression. Brown got open, too, and it would’ve been a successful play for a chunk gain. Instead, Brady went for the kill shot.
This unbelievably talented offense is refusing to become complacent. Instead, they’ve continued to evolve and add layers to their already-potent attack. If this continues, the Bucs offense could go down as one of the greatest in NFL history.