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. Arians Costing Bucs With Fourth Down Decisions
The Bucs’ fourth down coaching problem is starting to have an impact. All season long, head coach Bruce Arians has made analytically poor decisions on when to go for it on fourth down. Now, I don’t completely buy into following the analytics on every fourth down attempt. But the numbers do tell us when the percentage chance of converting the fourth down is in the Bucs’ favor. I think that’s probably a great data point to follow!
Those numbers aren’t fabricated out of thin air either. They’re based on actual data of fourth down/certain yardage to go situations that have occurred in real football games for years and years. So the Bucs aren’t just flying in the face of math, they are flying in the face of proven, working football strategy. Not on a computer – but on the field of play. That’s what these numbers are based on.
And nobody in the league is screwing it up like Arians.
Against the Saints, Arians cost the Bucs 29.1 win percentage points with his fourth down decision-making. With a more aggressive approach, perhaps Tampa Bay would have still won that game. We won’t know, because Arians never gave the offense those opportunities. No coach has cost their team more with fourth down decisions in a game this year.
Hadn't looked at the total WP lost per game due to kicking when you shouldn't but wow, Bruce Arians
(difference between this and plot above is plot above only considers the rate of correct decisions, while this also incorporates the magnitude of the decision) pic.twitter.com/3R3cqKJzAX
On Sunday, the mistakes reared their ugly head again. In the 4th quarter, down 24-17 with 12 minutes left, Arians decided to punt on fourth-and-6 from the Jets 39-yard line. I disliked the decision, and so did analytics, especially considering how the Bucs defense had played. Tampa Bay was also using its backup punter, who hadn’t kicked well in this game.
Of course, things worked out, with Sterling Hofrichter sending a punt to the 9-yard line. The defense forced just its second three-and-out of the day, and the Bucs got the ball back at the Jets 47. The process wasn’t good, but the result was (playing the Jets helps).
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians – Photo by: USA Today
New York took just 50 seconds, so Tampa Bay was still in great position to tie the game. But the ensuing drive bogged down at the 9-yard line. The Bucs could have picked up a first down (eight yards away) or a touchdown, with 7:39 left in the game. Now, maybe both results were unlikely, but a field goal doesn’t do much for you either. You still need a touchdown when you get the ball back, with likely little time on the clock given how your defense had played in this game.
But Arians settled, as he almost always does, and the Bucs trailed, 24-20. The Jets proceeded to march down the field, draining 5:24 of clock and burning all the Bucs timeouts. Only an all-time bad play call of a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-2 allowed Tampa Bay to get the ball back at its own 7-yard line with just over two minutes left in the game. And only an unreal performance by Brady rescued Arians’ poor decision-making from the jaws of defeat.
Make no mistake, against a better opponent, the Bucs would have lost that game. And Arians’ fourth down decision-making would have been a big reason why, just like it was against the Saints. He needs to take a hard look at some data before this team enters the playoffs, and start to make better decisions.
6. Bucs Coaching Staff Must Lean Into First Down Passing
I disagree with the notion that Tom Brady is propping up a poorly coached franchise with his play. Such a notion is so absurd that it is probably not worth even mentioning. But the Bucs coaching staff absolutely needs to be better moving forward. On Sunday, Brady saved the coaches and his teammates from an incredibly embarrassing loss.
We’ve already talked about Arians’ fourth down decision-making. But Byron Leftwich didn’t help things either. The Bucs recent unyielding commitment to first down runs is constantly putting their offense in very tough spots. They are wasting opportunities to throw the ball on what is their best passing down.
#Bucs 1st down plays (excl. final 2 mins of half):
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.
Bucs RB Ronald Jones II – Photo by: USA Today
No team in the NFL has a higher EPA/Play (Expected Points Added Per Play) on first down this season than the Bucs. That’s largely due to their passing attack, which garners 0.191 EPA per first down pass. On the flip side, their run game generates a negative EPA per rush on first down. Over the past three games, the Bucs’ first down success rate has plummeted to 11th in the NFL.
They are also constantly in third down, which is a dangerous place to live. The Bucs have the ninth-most third down attempts of any team in the NFL, largely due to losing too many first downs. Even if you are a great third down offense/quarterback, you’re still only going to convert less than 50 percent of the time.
The Bucs are a prime example, as the second-best third down offense in the NFL, yet converting just 47.6 percent of their tries. Because they are always in third down situations, too many of their drives fail. This is a big reason why the Bucs score points on just 43.4 percent of their drives, 10th in the NFL. With an offense like this, that should never be the case. Tampa Bay should be much more consistent drive-to-drive. But it can’t be, because it constantly exists in the volatile state that is third down.
Simply put, the Bucs aren’t the most talented offense in the NFC anymore. Not without Godwin and Antonio Brown and possibly any good running back. Tampa Bay must find ways to create advantage for itself outside of relying on talent to always save the day. The answer is NOT to become a more run-heavy team, especially on first down. Instead, more first down passing and play-action can be a huge part of the equation.
5. What Happened On The 2-Point Conversion?
With 15 seconds left in the game, Brady hit Cyril Grayson, Jr. for the go-ahead touchdown, giving the Bucs a 26-24 lead. Whatever the Bucs did from that point on, it was going to take a mini-miracle from the Jets to tie or win the game. So any discussion around their point-after-touchdown decisions should start there.
But I cannot make logical sense of the Bucs decision to go for a 2-point conversion at the end of the game. An extra point would have put them up three points. The Jets had 15 seconds and two timeouts to work with, so they had a shot at field goal range with a good kick return. And if they get there and hit it, the Bucs would at least be assured overtime. But if Tampa Bay goes for two and fails, they lose and don’t get that opportunity. It just felt like an unnecessary risk that you never see an NFL team take.
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians – Photo by: USA Today
Ultimately, the Bucs choosing the path less traveled there didn’t matter. But I was glad Greg Auman asked Arians about it on Monday, just to be able to understand the coach’s process more. However, Arians’ answer blew my mind.
“The only way they could score was to block the kick,” Arians said. “We’re not going to throw it. We’re going to run the ball and obviously we got it. Just take away their only scoring opportunity.”
Obviously, just on the surface, this is a mind-boggling process. Arians somehow saw the Jets blocking the extra point and returning it for a game-tying two points as more likely than getting in field goal range with 15 seconds at two timeouts.
I asked our friend Trevor Sikkema to check the Pro Football Focus database to let me know how many extra points have been blocked and returned for two points since the rule change that allowed such a defensive opportunity in 2015. Here’s what he found:
There have been 8,808 extra points attempted in the NFL from 2015-2021. Only 79 have been blocked. And just eight have been blocked and returned for two points. So eight out of 8,808 is 0.0009%.
That’s the percentage chance that Arians was planning against, rather than the obviously much more likely scenario that the Jets would simply reach field goal range! I’m speechless. And keep in mind the Jets could have returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, too.
Regardless of what you thought of the decision to go for two, this process is so strange and so ridiculous that it gave me a pretty good laugh on Monday.
4. Can Bucs WR Evans Be Great?
We’ve deservedly knocked the coaching staff for their performance against New York. I’d venture to say it was the worst of the year. But the Bucs players also need to wear some blame. We’ll get to the two biggest defensive transgressors in a moment. But offensively, this performance was full of players letting down Tom Brady. And I’m not just talking about Antonio Brown’s full-on meltdown either, although that counts too. Tyler Johnson had a huge third down drop near the goal line for a possible touchdown, and Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen both picked up personal fouls.
Mike Evans was particularly bad in this one, and I don’t think his struggles were injury-related. On a day where the Bucs offense really could have used him, Evans cost them points on two drives. With Tampa Bay driving before the half, Brady uncorked a deep ball for Evans on a go route. With the cornerback bailing deep at the snap, Brady hoped to give Evans a post-up opportunity for a jump ball. But Evans fell asleep at the wheel.
This shouldn’t be a difficult read for Evans. With the cornerback bailing into his deep third zone, Evans doesn’t have much shot at running by him. As soon as he realizes this, he should be looking back for the ball. But Evans has his head down, unaware of the situation. When he looks back, it’s too late. Perhaps Brady places this a little inside, but Evans can get back and post up for this if he’s reading the defender appropriately. Instead, it’s an easy interception.
That took a good chance at points off the board for the Bucs, and gave them to the Jets. New York kicked a field goal a few plays later to go up 17-10 at the half.
With the Bucs driving later in the game, Evans dropped a deep throw from Brady. A completion would have given Tampa Bay a first down at the Jets 15. Instead, the team punted a play later.
This time, Evans gets his head around, knowing Brady will want him to come back for the ball with the corner playing aggressively over the top. He reads it perfectly and adjusts, but just can’t finish the catch.
These are points-off-the-board plays for the Bucs. If it’s Breshad Perriman, you throw up your hands. When it’s Evans, you expect more from your three-time Pro Bowl receiver and defensive captain. Now, one bad game is one bad game. It’s nothing to overreact about. But Evans is about to become “the guy” for the Bucs offense. When the ball comes his way, he’s gotta make plays. And the mental mistakes that flare up on his tape too often need to be eliminated.
Evans can absolutely be a difference-maker for the Bucs, even without Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. He’s not as versatile as those guys, but he’s still a great talent. Yet he has to be as clean and as dominant as he has ever been if the Bucs are going to win another Super Bowl. We need to look back at Evans’ 2022 playoffs as the high point of his NFL career. Is he ready for that challenge?
3. Abysmal Performance From White and Minter
The loss of Lavonte David has never been more evident than Sunday’s game against the Jets. Without its defensive leader, the Bucs run defense was a shell of itself. New York rushed for 150 yards on 26 carries on Sunday, averaging 5.8 yards per run despite leading rusher Michael Carter getting knocked out with a concussion early on. With backup running back Tevin Coleman on the COVID list, third- and fourth-stringers Ty Johnson and Austin Walter combined for 84 yards on the ground.
New York ran the ball well all game, but got 77 of their 150 yards on two carries. There were some missed tackles involved, but the tape was riddled with poor play by Devin White and Kevin Minter. With a career-low two tackles on the day, White played one of his worst games of the year, constantly getting bullied around by the Jets’ offensive line. Minter was far too passive, and was consistently exposed in pass coverage. Both players got completed blotted out on Carter’s 55-yard run on the Jets’ first drive.
I’m getting pretty concerned with the amount of physical liberties White is letting opponents take on him. He’s often getting bodied up and pushed around to the echo of the whistle on tape. In the past, his fight and energy seemed more consistent. White has always been inconsistent at everything else, so those intangibles coupled with his athleticism boosted him. Now he’s getting physically manhandled too often, especially over the past several games. White had just four tackles the previous week at Carolina.
At age 30, Minter’s problems are more understandable. He just doesn’t have the athleticism anymore. The Bucs probably need to upgrade the No. 3 off-ball linebacker spot on the roster this offseason.
Both Minter and White were the worst Bucs defenders on the field on Sunday. That can’t be the case going forward. Tampa Bay needs to get Lavonte David back for the playoffs. Or the Bucs need to figure out a 3-safety package they feel comfortable with against the run.
And, just straight up, White needs to be a lot better. He’s processing the game way too slow, he can’t get off blocks, his physicality comes and goes and his play in zone coverage continues to be an issue. White is a defensive captain, a Top 5 pick, a team leader and a supposed first alternate Pro Bowler. Last year in the playoffs, he played like it. He’ll need to do the same again this year if the Bucs defense is going to improve its’ play.
2. Bucs Likely To Face Eagles In Wild Card Round
Tampa Bay has an 80 percent chance of facing the Eagles in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, per ESPN’s FPI. In fact, it’s the most likely playoff match-up of any two teams with one week to go.
The Bucs faced the Eagles on Thursday Night Football back in Week 6, winning 28-22. Of course, the Bucs were up 28-7 in a snoozer of a game late in the third quarter. The Eagles managed just 213 total yards and had only 115 passing yards. This was despite the Bucs playing without Lavonte David, Carlton Davis III, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Antoine Winfield. But penalties reared their ugly head for the Bucs, as they committed two long pass interference infractions to set up the Eagles’ first two touchdowns.
Tampa Bay committed seven penalties for 120 yards on the evening, including 95 yards on those two pass interference calls. That handed the Eagles 14 points, but Philly went and got the last eight themselves. With nine minutes left in the game, the Eagles marched down the field on a seven-play, 54-yard drive to cut the Bucs’ lead to six. Miles Sanders rushed for 40 yards against the Bucs soft nickel/dime defense on that drive, as the Eagles ran the ball with the Bucs looking to defend the pass.
Bucs RB Leonard Fournette – Photo by: USA Today
The Bucs got the ball back with just under six minutes remaining and ran out the clock. The key pass was a third down improvised throw from Tom Brady to Antonio Brown, who had nine catches for 93 yards in the game. In fact, the Bucs’ four leading receivers from their last match-up against Philadelphia might not play much or at all. Brown and Chris Godwin (five catches, 43 yards) are out. Leonard Fournette’s (6-46) status is up in the air, as he’s currently on injured reserve. And O.J. Howard (6-49-1) should be available, but barely plays and hasn’t caught a pass since Week 11.
Of course, the Bucs should have Mike Evans, who had just two catches for 27 yards in the Week 6 meeting. Evans was barely involved against an Eagles defense with a hilariously strong commitment to not giving up big plays down the field. Rob Gronkowski should be a featured weapon, especially after he missed the last meeting with an injury.
Next week’s Bucs Briefing will take a long look at this match-up if Tampa Bay does meet Philly in the Wild Card. It should be noted that, unless the Saints make the playoffs, the Eagles have beaten zero playoff teams and zero teams with a winning record this season. They have, however, won four in a row and six of their last seven. Philadelphia plays Dallas in Week 18.
1. Laugh A Little
Most days, the things people do and say on the internet drive me crazy. But, once in awhile, you run across the humor of social media and it can make your whole day.
[i get home to find a note on the refrigerator that says "i'm leaving and i'm taking the kids"]
ME: *unplugs fridge from power outlet* you're not going anywhere you piece of shit
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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