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. Run Better, Not More
“We knew we could run it and running was the way we won the game,” Bruce Arians said on Sunday. “Just stay patient with it. We have a tendency to say, ‘Let’s go get chunks,’ and I’m the worst one at that. Just stay patient and run the ball.”
I’ve thought a lot about this Arians statement since he uttered it. In the end, I think I agree and disagree with him. I disagree that running was the reason the Bucs won the game. It was important that they ran it better than they had in recent weeks, and they did. Consistently picking up 6-8 yards on the ground sure beats the typical 2-3 yards for this offense. But the Bucs didn’t have much success running late in the game, largely due to their predictability.
Bucs RB Ronald Jones II – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Arians and Byron Leftwich opted to run on 11 of 14 second half first downs. The gains on those runs? 4, 8, 1, 7, 8, 6, 4, 4, 1, -2, 3 and 2 yards. On their last six attempts, the best the Bucs managed was a 4-yard gain. Tampa Bay was opting to run because New England was showing 2-high safeties pre-snap. But the Patriots consistently spun a safety down into the box at the snap in the second half, giving them the numbers they needed around the line of scrimmage. Leftwich didn’t adjust, and the Bucs consistently lost first down because of it.
The result was an absurd 19 third down attempts, of which the Bucs converted nine. Over 47 percent conversion rate is a very good clip for third downs, but when you’re in third down NINETEEN TIMES, around half your drives are going to fail even if you’re doing well. That’s why staying out of third down and picking up first downs on first and second down is so crucial, as we’ve heard Tom Brady say before.
By consistently losing first down, the Bucs made life a lot harder on their offense than it should have been. Brady got them out of several jams with some good third down throws, but things faltered in the red zone all night.
Tampa Bay’s coaching staff needs to understand that the team must run the ball better, not necessarily more often. Those two things are not the same. I’m all for the Bucs running the football in certain situations. I think it’s important for winning. But very rarely should that situation be on 1st-and-10. And it should happen even less often when the opponent is spinning numbers into the box post-snap.
6. Evolution of Tryon-Shoyinka Continues
I can’t overstate how well Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is playing right now. It’s hard to believe this is his first on-field action since the 2019 season. What’s incredibly impressive is how quickly Tryon-Shoyinka is figuring out how opposing teams are attacking him. He’s made necessary in-game adjustments and begun to recognize opposing concepts just a few games into his career.
Against Atlanta in Week 2, the Falcons crack blocked Tryon-Shoyinka and ran outside of him for a 10-yard touchdown. The rookie spun out of the hit, but the late recognition slowed his ability to get involved in the stop.
Fast forward two weeks later, and Tryon-Shoyinka is making the necessary adjustments.
Right before the snap, Tryon-Shoyinka steps outside the receiver’s reduced split. He must have recognized a formational tendency from Patriots tape study, because he’s expecting this crack toss all the way. Tryon-Shoyinka blows up the initial block, then pushes the ball high and wide by disrupting the pullers. The result is a tackle-for-loss for Lavonte David and a big hole for the Patriots offense.
In Week 2, Vita Vea knocked Tryon-Shoyinka down right before his former Washington teammate sacked Matt Ryan. Vea made up for it in Week 4, helping to open up both of Tryon-Shoyinka’s sacks. The 22-year old bested Isaiah Wynn with an inside move here anyway, but had a huge path to get home for the sack.
Tryon-Shoyinka has been Tampa Bay’s best one-on-one pass rusher this season. And he’s just getting started. As good as Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are, they don’t have the physical and athletic gifts Tryon-Shoyinka possesses. Athletically, physically, the dude is just really hard to block. When you combine that with jaw-dropping effort and budding technique, the ceiling is sky high.
Tryon-Shoyinka faces three of the worst offensive lines in the NFL over the next three games (assuming the Eagles OL stays banged up). Watch him enter the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation as he pushes to lead the Bucs in sacks this season.
5. Let’s Talk About Whitehead
A common theme of these Bucs Briefing articles has been to spend at least one section talking about a player who doesn’t get enough recognition for the team’s success. Last week I wrote about Ryan Jensen, and the week before I sang Will Gholston’s praises. But maybe the most consistent player on the Bucs defense since the Week 6 turnaround of last season, has been safety Jordan Whitehead.
The former fourth-round pick out of Pitt spent his first two seasons finding his legs in the NFL. Bowles needed to figure out how to use him best, and Whitehead needed his football IQ to catch up to his aggression. In 2020, that started to happen as the strong safety posted an outstanding campaign. Whitehead grabbed two interceptions, broke up four passes, added two sacks and picked up nine tackles-for-loss, second in the NFL amongst all defensive backs. Only Seattle’s Jamal Adams, who is basically a linebacker, had more.
Whitehead still hasn’t play 100 percent of the Bucs’ defensive snaps in any game this year, but he was back up to 81 percent on Sunday. Last year, Whitehead played 86 percent of snaps for Bowles’ unit. With all the Bucs injuries in the secondary, expect to see more of Whitehead moving forward. His level of play has certainly earned it.
4. Bucs Run Defense – So Good It Hurts
Since Todd Bowles arrived in Tampa Bay, the Bucs have transformed as a defense. Once considered “soft” around the NFL, Tampa Bay is now widely regarded as one of the more physical and aggressive defenses in the league. That starts by defending the run at a high level, at least in Bowles’ mind. Every year that Bowles has been defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, the Bucs have had the league’s best run defense. No. 1 in 2019, No. 1 in 2020 and the top unit four games into the 2021 season.
On Sunday, the Bucs took it to a new level. Tampa Bay held the Patriots to minus-1 yard on eight carries, a franchise record. Almost every stop was a group effort, as the Bucs swarmed the line of scrimmage in an instant. As a result, the Bucs have now allowed 74 less rushing yards than the next closest team. Essentially every offense that faces Tampa Bay is one dimensional before the game even begins.
Yet, the Bucs defense has struggled this season and struggled most of last regular season. Stopping the run is ideal, but the Bucs have reached a level of dominance so great it’s actually hurting them. I’ve written at length in the past about how throwing the football is exponentially more valuable than running it. Because the Bucs are so good against the run and commit so many resources to stopping the run, they are essentially inviting opposing offenses to attack them through the air. And, if there is one way you don’t want offenses to attack you in 2021, it’s through the air.
Bowles may disagree. His philosophy has always been that if you force teams to go to the air enough, his exotic pressure packages and opportunistic zone defenses will eventually catch you slippin’. The opposing quarterback will make a mistake, take a sack, turn the ball over, or the Bucs defense will rise up in the red zone.
On Sunday, the philosophy worked. Mac Jones took four sacks and threw an interception. The Bucs had a key red zone stand late in the game to force a field goal, and surrendered just 17 points despite enduring some highly questionable penalties on New England’s first scoring drive.
Yes, the Bucs are technically the league’s 32nd-ranked pass defense, but the yardage surrendered is more a product of sheer volume than complete incompetence. Opponents are averaging 7.3 yards per attempt against the Bucs. That’s not a great defensive number, but 15 teams are worse.
Per PFF, Mac Jones attempted 1 pass of 20+ air yards last night, which Ross Cockrell deflected and Antoine Winfield intercepted.
But on the season, concerns exist. Opposing quarterbacks are completing over 73 percent of their passes, a staggering number that ranks 30th in the NFL. That kind of efficiency is hard for any defense to survive. Teams are averaging just 10 yards per completion against the Bucs defense, seventh best in the league. But when the vast majority of attempts are completed, and teams are throwing against you at absurd volume, it’s difficult to keep teams out of the end zone.
Bowles got positive results on Sunday night, but will it continue? With the defense struggling going into last year’s playoffs, Bowles stunned everyone by doing a schematic 180-degree turn and becoming more aggressive in coverage. Could a similar change happen this year, showing more light boxes to push teams toward attempting more rushes? Fewer blitzes to avoid leaving his corners on an island?
In a normal year, I don’t think Bowles would even consider it. But down your top two corners and best safety, with Jamel Dean less than 100 percent? Potentially starting two cornerbacks signed off the street last month? Bowles would be crazy if he continues prioritizing the run instead of committing more resources to defending the pass.
The past two weeks, Bowles has opted for more man coverage to make quarterbacks hit some tighter windows. Results have been mixed, but I think the strategy is a sound one. The question now becomes if the Bucs have the horses to hold up in man coverage with so many injuries.
The “next man up” philosophy only works if the coach knows how to help them out as well. That’s the charge for Bowles now, given the Bucs injury situation at cornerback. Newly released Stephon Gilmore could be a very viable option for Tampa Bay – and a new Tom Brady recruit.
A stunner: Patriots are releasing four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was eligible to come off the Physically Unable to Perform List after Week 6, source tells ESPN. pic.twitter.com/31H8KQF8hq
Antonio Brown is the Bucs best wide receiver versus man coverage. Put any body type at cornerback against him, and it’s a good match-up for Brown. He has the strength of a bigger receiver, and the quickness of a smaller one, coupled with elite technique. There is no real weakness to his game.
The Cowboys showed the Bucs more man coverage than the Rams or Falcons, and, predictably, Brown went off. The veteran caught five passes for 121 yards and routinely dusted Dallas’ overwhelmed No. 3 cornerback Anthony Brown. So it was no surprise to see Brown as the featured option in the Bucs’ match-up with the Patriots, finishing with 11 targets and seven catches.
Those numbers could have been much gaudier however, if not for two miscues. Brown had a 44-yard gain wiped out due to a penalty on Donovan Smith. The former All-Pro blew by Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones on the play, and the throw from Brady was perfect. Later in the game, Brown uncharacteristically dropped a 30-yard strike from Brady in the back of the end zone.
But, drop aside, Brown was a terror in this game. He beat Jones all night long, showing that his speed has survived his age just like his route-running has. The only downside was that the 33-year old played just 40 of the Bucs’ 77 offensive snaps. Or, 10 less snaps than O.J. Howard and 11 less than Cam Brate. Yes, you read that correctly.
I understand Tampa Bay’s game plan was to run the ball and go play-action out of 12 personnel. Arians admitted after the game that they had some things dialed up for their tight ends that the Patriots took away at times. In a vacuum, it wasn’t a bad game plan. But outside of the vacuum, you have Antonio Brown! Against a man-coverage heavy defense that wanted to match up one-on-one all game. That’s your offense, until New England adjusts to take it away. Especially without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup.
Josh Wells and Codey McElroy played 10 combined snaps, for crying out loud!
When Brown was out there, Brady knew what to do. Brown was on the field for 32 pass plays, and Brady targeted him on over a third of those plays. If not for the two missed opportunities, Brown would have had 140 yards despite playing around half of the game’s snaps. That’s pretty ridiculous.
The Bucs have the best wide receiver trio in the NFL. They should be living in 11 personnel rather than ranking 11th in the NFL in 3 WR sets. Especially against man coverage heavy teams, Brown needs to play the majority of the game. He’s automatic offense against an opposing team’s third corner. It’s never going to be a fair fight in any matchup all season. Use him and thrive.
2. Bucs Need To Win Next 3 Games – Convincingly
I understand that style points don’t matter within the context of a win. But when predicting future performance, they actually matter quite a bit. The Bucs are as talented as any team in the NFL, and their coaching is good enough to be the top seed in the NFC this year. But right now, the execution isn’t consistently there. They need to hit their stride against a weak slate of teams in Miami, Philadelphia and Chicago.
The Dolphins are struggling in all phases of the game right now and are relying on Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. Their offensive line is one of the worst in the NFL, without a single stud up front. And now deep threat Will Fuller will miss Week 5 as well.
In Week 6, the Bucs get a sliding Eagles team that has dropped three straight — the last two by double digits. Jalen Hurts has flashed upside, but he’s still highly inconsistent and playing behind a banged up offensive line. The Eagles will present a greater challenge than Miami or Chicago should, but the Bucs are vastly superior on paper.
Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: USA Today
Hosting the Bears in Tampa Bay, the Bucs have a chance to get revenge for last year’s fluky loss. Chicago is 2-2 but has been throttled by both of the quality teams they have played. The Bucs will either face rookie quarterback Justin Fields or veteran Andy Dalton, both of whom have a propensity to hold the ball at times. Behind a horrible offensive line, that spells trouble.
In Week 8, the Bucs face the Saints in New Orleans. They need to be 6-1 going into that game. The Bucs are obviously the more talented team, but the Saints coaching will make it interesting. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has made life difficult for Arians and Byron Leftwich over the past five meetings.
It’s not a secret that the Bucs schedule is relatively easy for the rest of the regular season. The only playoff lock they face is the Bills in Week 14. Two games against New Orleans will be tough, and maybe the pair against Carolina will be as well. But there are not many other playoff-likely teams on this schedule. Three of Tampa Bay’s four toughest tests this season are behind them. Now, they need to play like it moving forward.
1. Laugh A Little
It might sound funny, but Brady’s increased mobility has been a huge asset this year. I’ll have more in an article later this week. But it’s incredible how well he’s moving relative to a year ago. This third-and-6 scramble had Mike Evans amped up. What a competitor.
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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