Welcome to the new in-season edition of Bucs Briefing! From now on, 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. Vita Vea Hulk Smash
On a night where the Bucs’ pass rush got close all game, but rarely closed the deal, Vita Vea was a difference-maker. The fourth-year nose tackle physically manhandled Cowboys left guard Connor Williams and center Tyler Biadasz all game long. With the Cowboys barely attempting to run the ball, some would have assumed Vea wouldn’t be as effective.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth. Vea isn’t a dominant pass rusher because of his struggles to finish, but he consistently makes like uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks. He might be the best “pocket condenser” in the league, bull-rushing opponents with remarkable ease. In the NFL, this kind of physical dominance in the trenches is really uncommon.
Vea does things to other NFL players a couple times a game that shouldn’t be possible. His play strength is a different level from almost everyone pic.twitter.com/OKQnSrgHBj
Vea drew a critical holding call late in the game, should have drawn another and consistently forced Dak Prescott off his spot in the pocket. It was a dominant performance from one of the Bucs most valuable defensive players. Vea played just 64 percent of the Bucs defensive snaps, almost all of which were passing downs. Despite Prescott having the third-fastest average time to throw of any quarterback in the league in Week 1, Vea still managed four pressures. If he can find a way to start finishing this season, Vea could earn Pro Bowl recognition for the first time in his career.
Some awesome work was already done on this front, thanks to The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen and former Chiefs OT Mitchell Schwartz. I’ll let their breakdown speak for itself, as Schwartz went in depth about the challenges the front will give opposing offenses. Instead, I’ll mention two highly-encouraging things from what defensive coordinator Todd Bowles did on Thursday night.
The Bucs are a blitz-based defense the vast majority of the time. They are okay allowing teams to eat underneath in the passing game, as long as they prevent big plays and destroy you at the line of scrimmage. Bowles’ philosophy is to get tough in the red zone and/or create enough splash plays (sacks, pressures, turnovers, tackles-for-loss) that total yardage and completion percentage by opposing offenses don’t matter.
But if you’re not consistently innovative as a schemer, your blitzes will get solved and your unit will become less effective. It’s encouraging to see Bowles willing to try some new things. One of those new things is the evolution of Jason Pierre-Paul, even at 32 years old.
Pierre-Paul played two snaps as an off-ball linebacker walked up on the line of scrimmage, three in the slot and four at defensive tackle. His growth into an impressive drop-and-cover edge defender is stunning, to say the least. After hardly being asked to drop at all in his career, Pierre-Paul has been terrific for the Bucs in that role – snaring a career-high two picks last year. Considering how often Bowles drops his edge defenders, that growth from the veteran has been very valuable.
If Pierre-Paul can stay healthy and get more pass rush reps from the interior, the sacks will come. Bowles seems committed to moving him around, and having Joe Tryon-Shoyinka as another chess piece makes that easier. I would love to see Tryon-Shoyinka get more normal, one-on-one edge rushing opportunities, while Pierre-Paul continues to hunt advantageous match-ups inside. The Falcons should present plenty of those in Week 2.
5. Bucs Secondary Might Find Answers In Safety Room
The biggest concern for the Bucs coming out of Week 1 is the CB2 position. Sean Murphy-Bunting is on injured reserve with a dislocated elbow for at least three weeks. He could be gone for the season. Jamel Dean will need to step up in Murphy-Bunting’s stead, but he struggled on Thursday and has been wildly inconsistent throughout his career.
Given how poorly Murphy-Bunting played before his injury, after a miserable regular season last year, it’s fair to wonder about this position even when the injured starter returns. Murphy-Bunting has the exact makeup you want in a cornerback – big, long, physical, athletic, intelligent and passionate about the game – but he made countless mistakes against Dallas.
Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting- Photo by USA Today
Despite only playing 13 coverage snaps, Murphy-Bunting surrendered five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown on eight targets. He was lucky Prescott missed a deep out to CeeDee Lamb on the Cowboys first drive, or those numbers would have been even worse. Murphy-Bunting was by far the worst-graded Buccaneer on either side of the ball in Week 1, per PFF. After studying the tape, I’m 100 percent in agreement with them.
So what happens now? Dean will be asked to step up despite his Week 1 struggles. While Dean did not tackle well, committed some penalties and gave up too many catches underneath, he did well enough preventing the deep ball. It’s clear Dean has improved at reading releases, as Dallas tried unsuccessfully to get him to bite on a couple double moves. He’s going to get attacked relentlessly by Atlanta on Sunday, and every team after that too.
More questions will arise for the Bucs at nickel, where Ross Cockrell will have to take over. Cockrell was beaten too often on Thursday night, but the match-ups were difficult for him. The veteran’s limited size, length and speed are going to leave him exposed if he isn’t scheme protected. Cockrell is a solid player, but he won’t shutdown star wide receivers one-on-one.
Bucs S Mike Edwards and OLB Shaquil Barrett – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Here’s my proposal: play three safeties more often, with either Mike Edwards or Antoine Winfield Jr. playing in the slot. No, I don’t know how good either of them will be there. They played nickel in college however, and in a scheme that tilts zone-heavy, the transition shouldn’t be too tough.
The Bucs need to prioritize getting their best defensive backs on the field. That isn’t going to happen if Jordan Whitehead returns and Mike Edwards is riding the bench. Edwards can be a difference-maker for the Bucs. He needs to be on the field, even if Murphy-Bunting is healthy. With Whitehead set to return in Week 2, the Bucs should prioritize getting all three safeties out there together in Week 2.
“Yeah, it gives us great flexibility (when Whitehead is back),” Arians said last Friday. “Antoine [Winfield, Jr.] has played it (nickel) and Mike [Edwards] has played it, so it gives us some really good flexibility to interchange those guys a little bit more and still have Ross [Cockrell] on the field, too. Yeah, it gives us a lot more flexibility. We were thin real fast last night.”
4. Stop Asking About Evans
The dumbest story line to come out of Week 1 is the concern over Mike Evans’ production. Thursday night was a quiet performance for Evans, who caught three passes for 24 yards. Meanwhile, Antonio Brown reeled in five passes for 121 yards, Godwin caught nine for 105 on 14 targets and Rob Gronkowski reeled in all eight of his targets for 90 yards.
So, is Evans fourth fiddle in Tampa Bay? No. Please, stop this.
Bucs QB Tom Brady and WR Mike Evans – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
First, the idea that a quarterback locks onto any one wide receiver is so overplayed. Quarterbacks throw concepts based off play calls based off what the defense does. That’s it. But even if that common misconception were true of some quarterbacks, Brady’s entire career is evidence that he is not one of those guys. He’s going to throw to whoever is open or has the best match-up on any given play.
It doesn’t matter if the player’s name is Tyler Johnson or Leonard Fournette (sadly) or Evans. If they are the correct read, Brady will throw the ball there. That’s how he’s become the most dominant quarterback of all time.
I disagree with Byron Leftwich that Evans was doubled in Week 1. The Cowboys provided plenty of deep safety help throughout the game, but Evans was not facing true double coverage all night. Dallas CB Trevon Diggs had a few solid reps vs Evans. Other guys were also a lot more open than Evans because the rest of the Cowboys secondary was that much worse.
Two passes were tipped away from Evans at the final moment by superhuman, diving efforts from a pair of defensive backs for the Cowboys. Both would have resulted in substantial gains if the zone defenders on each play hadn’t made unbelievable plays to graze the ball off target.
Evans’ production will be fine. Brady doesn’t hate him. Didn’t we already have this conversation last year? And didn’t Evans end up with 1,000 yards and leading the Bucs in every receiving category? I promise you, we do not need to do this again in 2021.
3. Bucs OC Leftwich In His Bag
The most encouraging thing in the Bucs’ 31-29 victory over the Cowboys wasn’t the performance of Tom Brady. That was expected. Instead it was the game plan and play-calling of Byron Leftwich, who showed creativity, aggressiveness and adaptability in Week 1.
Leftwich began the game believing that the Bucs could run the football with some success against Dallas. Despite my typical aversion to this approach, I think that one look at Dallas’ interior defensive line and young, inexperienced linebackers makes the strategy easy to understand.
Maybe Tampa Bay would have found success on the ground, but when it became obvious that Dallas wanted a shootout, Leftwich switched gears to give it to them. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that his passing offense basically did whatever it wanted when the Bucs weren’t beating themselves.
While Brady dominated on straight drop-backs, Leftwich still dialed up six play-action attempts with great success. I thought his trap pass call on the goal line for the Bucs’ first touchdown was a perfect play.
The motion by Godwin reveals man coverage to Brady before the snap, giving him a great idea of where to go with the football. As he fakes the hand off and the linebackers bite, Brady checks the location of the safety. Damontae Kazee shades to the field (2-receiver side), and Brady rips the slant to Godwin, who wins easily for the touchdown.
The pull by Ali Marpet creates a false run key, pulling the linebackers up into their gaps. In fact, No. 9 Jaylon Smith may still think this is a run. The motion, the pull, the play-action – all of these elements create easier execution for Brady. And Leftwich was just getting started.
What is that I see? Motion at the snap? The concept here creates a natural rub, as Godwin’s acceleration at the snap leaves cornerback Jourdan Lewis trying to recover. It’s an easy pitch-and-catch for Brady, and a big gain for Godwin.
Later in the red zone, Leftwich dialed up another gem. The Bucs began to dip heavily into the receiver screen game post-bye last year as a response to pressure. Now it’s become a staple part of their offense, especially with Brown up-to-speed and Godwin healthy.
I love the concept here, and the Bucs are throwing it to a favorable surface. Evans and Brown might not be the blockers of choice, but they do enough to get in the way here, even as Micah Parsons shows off his range to change the numbers. Godwin does most of the heavy lifting here on an awesome play (until the fumble), but it’s the concept that excites me.
No longer is this an offense where Brady has to throw 15 hero balls a game for the Bucs to move the football. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still in here. And Brady still made plenty of high degree of difficulty throws on Thursday night. Any Bruce Arians offense will always have that. But this is becoming more of a Brady/Leftwich offense, with tons of what Arians loves still included. The biggest change is more concepts that don’t require the quarterback to be superhuman in order to get a completion.
Because of that, the Bucs will be able to sustain more drives and score more points in 2021. Provided they don’t drop four passes and turn the ball over four times, of course.
2. Brady Looked Special
In our first glimpse of Brady with a full offseason to master the Bucs offense, the results could not have been more impressive. Despite a few disappointing moments from his receivers, Brady was utterly sensational on Thursday night. While the Bucs scheme did offer him a few more layups than normal as a passer, Brady still made a plethora of jaw-dropping throws that showed just how special his arm still is.
Brady led Pro Football Focus in Big Time Throws last season because his velocity and his accuracy are outstanding. When both of those things are true about a quarterback, it’s hard to beat him.
Brady made several shoebox throws throughout the game, but this one was ridiculous. On the Pewter GameDay live stream, Mark Schofield and I went nuts. This is what throwing someone open looks like.
If that was Brady’s best throw of the night, a couple of off platform throws he made were the most surprising. With his internal clock winding down, Brady lofted a gorgeous touch pass for Brown to get the Bucs offense driving for their first score of the game. The completion came after Brady was moved off his initial spot and hadn’t yet fully re-set. That’s not typically his strength, but it was on this play.
Brown is one of the best receivers of all-time at improvised routes, and the connection he had with Brady on Thursday night was exciting. He’s going to play a lot this season, which bodes well for Brady’s production. You can count on Brown to get open when the play breaks down. That’ll lead to more big plays this season.
You can usually count on Brown to catch everything too, but he dropped this one on a laser from Brady. Terrific job by the Bucs quarterback at sliding in the pocket, finding a clean throwing lane and ripping a perfect ball into a tight window. Hats off to the offensive line for a dominant rep as well.
An offensive coordinator making life easier for his quarterback and a quarterback making all the tough throws for his offensive coordinator? That’s a heavenly offensive scenario. Outside of the drops, turnovers and penalties, which tend to be random game-to-game, the Bucs offense looked outstanding in Week 1.
1. Laugh A Little
How can you not love this man? Jason Pierre-Paul is a riot.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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