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. Is Brown The Best Bucs WR?
First, I’m not sure this question really matters. All three Tampa Bay wide receivers are going to play a lot, and all three wide receivers are different. But it’s amazing to think that Brown, at 33 years old, could still be the best wide receiver on a team with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Despite missing a game, Brown is on pace for 60 catches, 1,105 yards and 10 touchdowns. Did I mention he’s only played 43 percent of the team’s offensive snaps this season?
Some have credited Tom Brady’s amazing chemistry with Brown, but I think that part is overstated. Yes, the two have a great connection, but Brady has that with nearly everyone he’s ever played with. And Brown has had it with every quarterback he’s ever caught passes from. With a timing and detail-based quarterback like Brady, Brown has thrived due to this technique and cerebral prowess. And when Ben Roethlisberger wanted to create more out of structure, Brown excelled there as well. He might be the best scramble drill wide receiver of all-time.
Heck, even with Blaine Gabbert in the game, Brown impressed. On third-and-2 with the game already in hand, Gabbert threw back shoulder to Brown, who made a ridiculous catch along the sideline.
If you name it, Brown is capable of doing it at a high level. He can create separation at all levels of the field, get open deep, make contested catches, pick up yardage after the catch and … even block?
Jensen reach block 😍. Marpet and Smith blowing up the frontside. Running out of 11 personnel >>>
We’re seeing vintage AB right now, and it’s making the Bucs a terrifying team to defend. Despite the fact that Tampa Bay probably doesn’t play Brown enough, he’s helped them shred two man coverage-heavy teams in New England and Miami in back-to-back weeks. If Brown doesn’t get a 45-yarder taken off the board on a Donovan Smith penalty, or a 30-yarder go off his hands in the end zone, he’s looking at another 75 yards on top of the 63 yards he recorded in Week 4.
Against Miami, Brown made up for the missed opportunities the week before. With the Dolphins trying to erase him with cornerback Xavien Howard, Brown piled up seven catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns. He’s averaging over 16 yards per catch this season, which leads the team. Right now, Brown is forcing defenses to defend Tampa Bay differently because of his individual dominance. The days of opponents’ focusing coverage on Evans are over, and Brown is a big reason why.
6. Bucs OT Tandem Looking Special
With each passing week, Bucs offensive tackles Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith look better and better. Both began the season playing good, not great, but have cranked it up over the past two weeks. Wirfs has been utterly dominant since Week 2, not allowing a single pressure. He looked like an All-Pro on Sunday, devouring every Dolphins pass rusher that came his way. They could not escape him.
Wirfs’ agility, patience and lightning quick strikes are off the charts. His natural gifts combined with budding technique are a nightmare combination. I’m not sure he even slightly lost a single rep in pass protection against Miami. Rookie Jaelan Phillips flashed several times for Miami, but against Wirfs he was hopelessly lost.
As you can see, Smith was almost as dominant. Where Wirfs is more of a mirroring shield of a blocker, Smith is a sledgehammer. He wants to get his paws on you and rip you around. Sometimes he misses, and it can lead to an ugly rep here and there. But in 2021, Smith is landing his strikes a lot more than he’s missing.
If Smith and Wirfs can continue to play at this level, the Bucs are going to be an elite pass protecting group. Left guard Ali Marpet has been sensational this season, and center Ryan Jensen is having another great year. Even right guard Alex Cappa has been solid for the most part. Tom Brady certainly makes life easier for his offensive line, but that shouldn’t subtract from what a premier group has done this season. And on Sunday, the Bucs’ bookend tackles were at their absolute best.
5. More Tryon-Shoyinka, Please!
In the absence of Jason Pierre-Paul in Weeks 3 and 4, rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka notched his first two NFL starts. In those eight quarters, Tryon-Shoyinka looked like the best pass rusher on the team. After a couple near-sacks against the Rams, the first rounder erupted for two sacks of Patriots QB Mac Jones. Tryon-Shoyinka had several other strong rushes that impacted throws as well.
But with Pierre-Paul healthy enough to play in Week 5, Tryon-Shoyinka’s role diminished. The rookie played just 17 snaps, his lowest total of the season. If Pierre-Paul had been fully healthy, I still would have taken issue with his personnel usage. But Pierre-Paul was playing with a club on his right hand that severely impacted him. Per Pro Football Focus, the Pro Bowler missed three tackles on Sunday. Despite several opportunities to get Jacoby Brissett on the ground, Pierre-Paul struggled to finish.
“We’ve got a couple of packages where they are all in there together,” Arians said on Monday. “It’s a good rotation. Anthony Nelson got in some, especially with that heat yesterday. It was a good mix. J.P.P. (Jason Pierre-Paul) probably would’ve had a couple more sacks. With the club, he couldn’t quite get him on the ground because of the club, but he’s played with it before. But man, he brings that energy that we always miss.”
Bucs OLBs Jason Pierre-Paul and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
I appreciate Arians’ transparency, but if you are benching one of your best pass rushers for a guy who isn’t healthy enough to tackle consistently, that’s a problem! Tryon-Shoyinka has missed some tackles too, but it’s good process to bet that a guy with two functioning mitts can out-tackle the guy with a club around his hand.
In my opinion, the Tampa Bay coaching staff is a little too enamored with this mystical energy that Pierre-Paul seems to bring. I think that leadership and juice is important, but it comes from other guys on the defense, too. Devin White, Ndamukong Suh, Jordan Whitehead, Will Gholston. The list of leaders goes on and on.
The Bucs don’t need Pierre-Paul to play almost 80 percent of the team’s defensive snaps on a hot day, either – especially when he’s not 100 percent. I know he wants to play that much and more, but it’s imperative the Bucs coaches make a stand here. Protecting Pierre-Paul from himself, given the fact he is nursing hand and shoulder injuries, is important. But making sure the Bucs are consistently putting the most talent on the field is also important.
Tampa Bay’s secondary is hanging in there, but they can’t survive without a dominant pass rush. For the Bucs to achieve that, Tryon-Shoyinka needs to play more, and Pierre-Paul needs to be fully healthy for more critical late season games. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles would be wise to split their snaps more evenly in the coming weeks.
4. Bucs’ Tackling Is Killing Them
If you watched the Bucs play on Sunday, please stop saying that their secondary is the biggest problem. It might be the biggest worry moving forward, but it has not been the biggest issue so far this season. On Sunday, the Bucs starting trio of cornerbacks – Jamel Dean, Richard Sherman and Ross Cockrell – wasn’t close to being the biggest concern.
Dean broke up two passes and grabbed an interception. PFF had him surrendering just two catches on six targets for 34 yards. One of those catches was a 21-yarder where Dean shoved the receiver out of bounds before his feet came down. The officials blew the call and the replay review, but I thought it was a great play by the current Bucs’ top corner (for now).
Bucs CB Richard Sherman – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
As for Sherman, he was barely targeted, giving up just five yards in coverage. He did miss several tackles, which we’ll get to in a second, and had a pass interference penalty in the end zone. But he was far from a sieve in coverage, even if you wonder what he’ll look like in tougher matchups.
The same can be said for Cockrell, who gave up less than 45 yards in coverage, the vast majority of which came on an underneath throw where he overran the tackle. The veteran corner came back with a huge pass breakup on third down late in the game.
Tampa Bay’s cornerback trio may be an issue down the road. Philadelphia has a lot of speed at wide receiver, which will be a much greater challenge for the secondary. But the biggest issue right now is tackling. The Bucs missed 13 tackles against the Dolphins – a season high. According to Pro Football Reference, only two teams have missed more tackles than Tampa Bay this season – Houston and Jacksonville. Not exactly the company you want to keep!
About half of those missed tackles were on Dolphins quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who escaped at least five sack opportunities. The Bucs’ defensive results would have been far better on Sunday if they could have gotten Brissett on the ground a few more times.
“Yeah, I was joking with them that he was bigger and stronger than they were,” Arians said. “It’s like, yeah, you’re getting there, you’ve got to get him down though. We’ve got him by the shirt pulling him down. Yeah, he was a hard tackle in that game. We were getting there, we were hitting him and disrupting him, but he played a hell of a ballgame under that pressure.”
Bucs OLB Shaq Barrett – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
While coverage isn’t a huge issue for the Bucs right now, tackling in coverage is. Right now, the Bucs have the NFL’s shallowest average depth of target at just over six yards. Teams are living underneath against the Bucs, and Tampa Bay’s shoddy tackling is allowing that style of play to thrive.
It can’t continue. If teams are going to replace rushing with short throws, Todd Bowles’ unit has to make them pay.
Right now, coverage is not this team’s main concern. Could it be? Absolutely, as early as Thursday.
But through five weeks, the Bucs’ biggest issue is that they aren’t getting opposing quarterbacks on the ground enough, and they aren’t getting pass catchers on the ground quickly enough post-catch. If Tampa Bay fixes those two things, its defense will at least be league average. With this offense and all the injuries on defense, that will be enough to win a lot of football games – for now.
3. NFL’s Best First Down Offense Is … The Bucs?
Yes, it is.
A year after Tampa Bay’s first down offense threatened to derail the season, the Bucs are now the most dominant offense in the NFL on first down. Per data provided by Pro Football Focus’ Timo Riske, the Bucs are moving the chains a league-high 30 percent of the time on first down.
Your weekly chart of how often do teams move the sticks after each down? (And the defensive counterpart) pic.twitter.com/Lg1HyXrzcO
What’s the biggest reason for the change? A massive flip in their run:pass ratio on first down. Last year at this time, the Bucs were passing the ball on 49 percent of first downs, which was 21st in the NFL. This year, that number has skyrocketed to 59 percent – good enough for eighth in the NFL. According to Underdog Fantasy’s Hayden Winks, the Bucs are sixth in the NFL in early downs neutral pass rate this season.
Because the Bucs are far less predictable than they once were on first down, opposing defenses are struggling to figure out how to play them. Tampa Bay is running it well enough to hurt teams, and still throwing it effectively regardless of the safety shell presented to them pre-snap. It has all the makings of a dominant offense that could lead the league in many categories, but only if they can remain out of their own way. Penalties, drops and poor routes hurt the Bucs through the first four weeks, but were all improved in Week 5.
If Tampa Bay can stay on that trajectory, the coaching and play-calling have the Bucs set up for the most offensive success in franchise history.
2. The Eagles Challenge – Pressure With 4
The Eagles are an overall average team at best, and the Bucs should absolutely beat them on Thursday night. But they do present a unique challenge for Tampa Bay, one that the team hasn’t faced this season. Even with Brandon Graham on injured reserve, the Eagles have a deep defensive line and are very capable of creating pressure with four.
That’s not something Tampa Bay has seen this season. The Cowboys had two good edge rushers in Week 1, but nothing on the interior. The Falcons defensive line is weak, and the Rams are Aaron Donald and a bunch of guys. New England has one good individual pass rusher in Matt Judon, which is one more than the Dolphins have. So the Eagles – with Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave on the interior – will be the biggest test of the season.
Hargrave especially, is playing out of his mind this year. He’s always had the ability, but now it’s all coming together. Through five games he has six sacks – half-a-sack away from his career high. Cox has gotten off to a slower start, but is coming off his best game of the season in Week 5. Those are two of the Top 10-12 interior defensive linemen in the NFL, and they’ll be on the field together. That’s a tall task for center Ryan Jensen and guards Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa.
Javon Hargrave vs Panthers: – 3 tackles – 1 tackle for loss – 1 sack – 2 QB hits
Philly’s defensive tackles aren’t alone. Josh Sweat, fresh off a new contract, is second on the team in pressures with 13. He looks primed to break out across from Derek Barnett, who is pretty average, but plays hard. Ryan Kerrigan jumps in as the No. 3 rusher. He’s clearly lost a step, but he’s a better third edge defender than most teams have.
The Eagles’ blitz at one of the lowest rates in the entire NFL. Per Pro Football Reference, only the Raiders have blitzed on a lower percentage of snaps, and the Eagles 22 blitzes ranks dead last among all 32 teams. But their pressure rate is tied for 11th best despite just rushing with four most of the time. It’ll be a great test of one-on-one ability for the Bucs offensive line, which has dominated the past two weeks.
1. Laugh A Little
Guess who is on pace for almost 140 coverage snaps this season? You guessed it – Shaq Barrett. And guess what? Per Pro Football Focus, he’s also got the highest coverage grade on the team! Is it just a matter of time until a team really attacks him? Probably.
Does his presence as a zone defender make the Bucs more of a spot-dropping defense and less of a zone-match defense? Yes.
Does that make it easier for opposing quarterbacks to read out coverages more quickly against the Bucs? Yes.
Could Barrett, who does has one interception this year, have a few more sacks if he wasn’t dropping into coverage eight times a game? Probably.
Am I going to cry? Yes.
Before you all go to sleep, just wanted to let you know that Shaq Barrett is on pace for 139 coverage snaps this season.
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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