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Welcome to the in-season edition of Bucs Briefing! My weekly column will appear each Wednesday morning, typically detailing seven key observations from the team’s most recent game. We’ll look at tape, scheme and major storylines as we get ready to close the door on one game, and open the door on the next. Enjoy!
7. Devin White
I’ve already written and podcasted a good bit about this one, so I won’t belabor the point. Last year, Devin White was one of the Bucs’ best defensive players in the postseason. Despite a rough regular season, White was outstanding against the Saints and Chiefs in the playoffs.
But two games do not make a career. And right now, White’s larger career sample size suggests he’s a below average football player. Of course, there is the potential to be so much more. However, in Year 3 it gets a little exhausting to keep touting potential when a player simply hasn’t shown much growth.
On a per game basis, White is the most out of control player on the field. It is so hard to play any position in the NFL without being physically under control. The game is just too fast, and even lesser athletes on the field can evade players who play out of control. This is constantly White’s problem, and through three years he’s shown no sign of stopping the trend.
And it’s had a negative impact on teammates too. Just this season, White has blasted Lavonte David in the ribs, knocked Sean Murphy-Bunting five yards out of bounds in his first game back and nearly took out Rakeem Nunez-Roches’ knee on a run play. White concussed Dee Delaney on another hit, and has sent several other teammates tumbling to the ground by his lack of control. I don’t fault him for Shaq Barrett’s MCL sprain, as Barrett ran into him more than anything. But it’s a troubling trend for a player whose highs don’t make up for the lows anymore.
So what can White do to improve? I’d focus on two things:
• Stay under control at all times. Throttle down, change directions and don’t overrun his angle to the ball. This will help White avoid adding to his team-high 21 missed tackles this season.
• DO YOUR JOB. One of White’s biggest issues is how often he abandons his assignment to freelance. Against Carolina on Sunday he did it again, going all out for a sack on a Panthers screen, abandoning his man coverage assignment. White does this kind of stuff with alarming frequency.
Having said all of this, White flashed a few plays against Carolina that were encouraging. Even if consistency is elusive, if he can at least create splash plays, Tampa Bay’s defense will get a huge boost.
6. Sean Murphy-Bunting
It’s been a season to forget for Murphy-Bunting, although not quite as bad as last season. Perhaps Murphy-Bunting has improved some, but it’s been hard to tell. Despite playing the 15th most defensive snaps this season due to injury, Murphy-Bunting has still surrendered more catches and yards in coverage than any other Bucs defensive back. He’s broken up just three passes, while allowing over 13 yards per catch to opposing receivers.
Going into the playoffs last year, there was very little reason to feel optimistic about Murphy-Bunting. But he elevated his game and at least made splash plays with three postseason picks. This season, Murphy-Bunting has yet to record an interception.
Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: USA Today
Even when Murphy-Bunting has been in good position over the past few weeks, he’s still allowing catches. The big play he permitted against the Saints and the touchdown against the Panthers on Sunday were good coverage reps. But Murphy-Bunting has to find the football and finish, something he has always struggled with. Even with the Bucs playing more man coverage, things haven’t improved much for him.
With Jamel Dean dealing with a hamstring injury and going down almost every week, Murphy-Bunting must step up. The Bucs trust they’ll get quality cornerback play from Carlton Davis III moving forward, and safeties Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Jordan Whitehead have impressed this season. Can Tampa Bay count on Murphy-Bunting? Last year in the playoffs, they could. Will this year be the same?
5. Poor Tackling
The Bucs finished the season with 120 missed tackles – tied for fifth-most in the NFL. That’s more missed tackles than any other playoff team, and a huge concern moving forward. And it’s a problem for almost everyone on the defense. The only three players with good PFF tackling grades on the year are Lavonte David, Dean and Murphy-Bunting. Guys like Shaq Barrett, Mike Edwards and Winfield have been okay, but basically everyone else who plays on defense has struggled as a tackler.
The good news is that the Bucs have improved in this area over the past four weeks. Outside of White, the rest of the team has picked it up and is finishing better than they were earlier in the season. That’s going to be key moving forward. The Bucs cannot be splash play reliant on defense all the time. Tackling better, finishing sacks and getting opponents off the field will be key.
4. Depth WRs
One of the few offensive disappointments of the 2021 season was the lack of depth in the Bucs wide receiver room. Tyler Johnson has played 612 snaps this season, 11th most on the Bucs offense. Yet he’s done incredibly little with his opportunities, catching 36 balls for 360 yards and zero scores. On Sunday, Johnson averaged a paltry 4.4 yards per catch on five grabs.
Bucs WR Tyler Johnson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Johnson’s biggest issue is that he can’t separate from anyone. Offensively, he’s the biggest obstacle to the Bucs experiencing peak success again. Tampa Bay needs him to step up, as they’ve simply run out of bodies to play Johnson’s role. With Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown out of the picture, the Bucs looked ready to see if Cyril Grayson, Jr. could be the new No. 3 behind Mike Evans and Breshad Perriman. But Grayson hurt his hamstring in Week 18, and now he’s in question to play on Sunday.
Right now, Johnson isn’t doing anything well. He’s not running good routes, he’s not creating throwing windows and he’s forced one missed tackle since Week 8. Johnson has also dropped two passes in the past four games.
If Grayson is going to miss some time, Breshad Perriman’s role becomes that much bigger. Fair or not, Perriman must become this playoffs’ Scotty Miller. He might not need to be a volume receiver, but making the splash plays will be key. Perriman has stepped up some when he’s been available, making huge plays in each of his past three games. He’ll need to keep showing up for the Bucs to win in the postseason.
As for Miller, is there any hope he could show up for the playoffs? If Grayson is out, potentially. Miller is currently slotted as the team’s No. 4 wide receiver, but he’ll get snaps in rotation on Sunday. It’s never been about volume for Miller, who only needs one play to change a game. With the Bucs offense needing more splash, Miller could be the guy to provide it.
3. Cam Brate & O.J. Howard
Coming off an Achilles injury, the jury was out on how O.J. Howard would play this season. Unfortunately, it’s gone about as poorly as you could expect. Howard has barely played this season, and has hardly been targeted at all. In fact, the big tight end hasn’t caught a pass since November 22. On the season, Howard has just 14 grabs for 135 yards and one touchdown. That came at Philadelphia, and the Eagles come to town on Sunday.
Bucs TE O.J. Howard – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Howard’s issue is more a lack of playing time than clearly not being good. Sure, he’s still an average-at-best blocker, but as a receiver, we’ve just barely seen him. It’s hard to believe that he couldn’t help a receiving room this down on its’ luck. Howard has spent most of his short career as one of the starting-caliber options in the Bucs passing game. Have injuries really zapped that much ability from him?
As for Cameron Brate, another drop on Sunday summed up his season. Once thought to be the most reliable receiver on the team, Brate has struggled with drops and poor route-running. He’s made some clutch plays in the red zone, but the Bucs offense needs more from him. Right now, this team has no proven No. 3 receiver. Brate has more of a track record than anyone else available.
Can he step up in the playoffs like he did last year? Brate had four catches for 80 yards at Washington in the wild card game, and a big touchdown at Green Bay.
2. First Down Play-Calling
In last week’s Bucs Briefing, I wrote the following on the Bucs’ first down play selection.
Bucs QB Tom Brady and OC Byron Leftwich – Photo by: USA Today
On the season, the Bucs’ neutral first down pass rate is 49 percent. That’s 11th in the NFL. With this passing attack and Tom Brady at quarterback, that rate needs to be much higher. For example, Buffalo is first at 68 percent. Kansas City is second at 59 percent, which is a more realistic landing spot for Tampa Bay.
To make it worse, the Bucs are trending in the wrong direction over the past three weeks. Since losing Chris Godwin in Week 15, Tampa Bay seems to have bought in on a run-heavy first down approach. Over the past three games, the Bucs have a neutral first down pass rate of 35 percent! That’s the 27th ranked first down pass rate. You are not going to win many games against good opponents with a 35 percent first down pass rate. And you’re definitely not going to win them with the Bucs’ average rushing attack.
In Week 18, the Bucs took a big step in the right direction. Against the Panthers, the Bucs passed the ball on over 65 percent of first downs. As a result, Tampa Bay wrecked Carolina on first downs. They averaged an absurd 0.405 EPA on first down on Sunday.
If the Bucs can just look at the data, they’ll see what works and commit to it. When their offense remains pass heavy on first downs, they typically dominate opponents. It makes the run game far less predictable, and it opens up the playbook on second downs. Right now, Tampa Bay needs to use every tool at its disposal given its offensive injuries.
According to Pro Football Reference, the Bucs have blitzed 313 times. The next closest team in the NFL blitzed 268 times. On almost 41 percent of Tampa Bay’s defensive snaps, the Bucs sent five or more rushers. That’s by FAR the most in the NFL, and by far the most in the playoff field.
When the Bucs get home and finish, their defense can wreck an offensive game plan. But it is simply too hard to survive full games playing the way Tampa Bay does defensively. The Bucs are so overwhelmingly blitz heavy all the time, that opposing offenses are entering games fully prepared to take advantage. As a result, the Bucs get picked apart underneath far too often, exposing their non-Lavonte David linebackers and edge defenders in coverage.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has to know when to dial back the extra pressure and rely on his front four to get home. Constantly leaving a short-handed secondary thin in coverage is a dangerous strategy. You might be able to get away with it against bottom-tier quarterbacks, which the Bucs faced all season. But against the best teams in the NFC, Bowles needs to find some balance to his aggression.