Bucs Briefing is exclusively sponsored by Spotify Green Room: Tap In, Talk Sports – the official social audio partner of PewterReport.com.
Spotify Green Room is changing the way we talk sports (and talk about the Bucs!). It’s the only place for live audio conversations about the takes, rumors, news, and teams you care about.
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. But this week, I’m changing it up! I’m looking at two big concerns on offense and defense for the Bucs, and two solutions for Sunday’s game against the Rams. Enjoy!
Concern: Can Battered Bucs O-Line Hold Up?
Yes, the Bucs offensive line weathered injuries to Tristan Wirfs and Ryan Jensen, which understandably shook the unit up some. But, outside of Ali Marpet, Tampa Bay’s O-line struggled. Jensen was solid, but there were more miscommunications against blitzes and games than normal. Donovan Smith also gave up too much pressure around the edge. He was even tossed to the ground on multiple plays.
On one reverse pancake near the goal line, Smith was carried back and deposited on Jensen’s ankle. That’s when the center stayed down with an injury in the second quarter. Alex Cappa was knocked back off the snap often, giving up penetration on a couple run plays. He was also beaten soundly on a few pass protection reps, allowing pressure in Tom Brady’s face.
Bucs LT Donovan Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Despite having the fastest time to throw of any quarterback, Brady was sacked four times. On three of the sacks, he had almost no chance to get rid of the ball. Honestly, Josh Wells played better than most of his counterparts in this one. If Tampa Bay’s offensive line plays like it did against the Eagles, the Rams will bury the Bucs.
This unit, along with Tom Brady, has to be the strength of the team moving forward. Brady is already throwing faster than humanly possible. He was off-target on just one pass on Sunday, in a ridiculously accurate performance. There is simply not that much more he can do. The Rams defense is not going to give the Bucs receivers a pass at the line of scrimmage. Los Angeles will do their best to muck it up and force Brady to hold the ball for even a normal length of time.
If Tampa Bay’s offensive line can hold up, Brady can make the defense pay. But right now, the questions out-weigh the answers. As you saw in the Rams beatdown of Arizona, that’s not a great place to be as an offensive line going into this matchup.
Solution: Scheme + Brady Can Alleviate Pressure
The Bucs have one outstanding thing going for them regardless of who plays on the offensive line: Tom Brady is their quarterback. And he’s still lightning fast from the pocket. In fact, only Ben Roethlisberger had a faster time to throw than Brady this season. But Roethlisberger played in an RPO heavy offense that was designed that way. In Tampa Bay, Brady just reads out concepts that quickly. On Sunday, Brady released the ball in 2.10 seconds on non-sacks. That’s 0.24 seconds faster than his season average!
“He’s extremely good at that,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “It might not be to the guy, but he knows the combination. As soon as the ball is snapped, that combination, he deciphers right now which one’s getting it. That’s as simple as you can make the game for the quarterback. But a lot of them can’t process that information.”
Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Brady is a masterful and rapid decision-maker. But early during the 2020 season, the Bucs offense wasn’t playing to his biggest strength. It was simply long ball or check down, and there was very little success in the short-intermediate areas of the field. Since the bye week last year, the Bucs have slowly shifted in a more efficiency-based direction. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich has done an impressive job of rebuilding the concepts around the talent at his disposal. That innovation will need to continue on Sunday.
Against the Eagles, Brady attempted just one pass of 20-plus air yards. He completed it to Mike Evans for a 36-yard touchdown that iced the game. But Brady lived short-to-intermediate, tearing apart the Eagles’ soft coverage. The Pro Bowl quarterback had Philadelphia well-scouted, knowing how zone-heavy they were as a defense. When Philly switched to man coverage more than expected, Brady found all the right matchups, even if the receivers struggled to separate.
On the season, the Rams are one of the least man coverage heavy teams in the NFL. They play predominantly zone, rushing four with a variety of stunts and blitzes. L.A. is predominantly a Cover 3/Cover 4/Cover 6 defense that will pattern match more aggressively than the Eagles. In Week 3, they stuck to this exact script. Limited man coverage and go heavy zone to take away big plays.
Bucs QB Tom Brady and Rams DT Aaron Donald – Photo by: USA Today
It didn’t really work. Despite the loss, Brady shredded the Rams in Week 3. If the Bucs defense hadn’t surrendered a season-high in points allowed, the game might have been different. Also, a critical Rob Gronkowski drop deep in Rams’ territory and seven penalties killed the offense. A Bradley Pinion 15-yard punt also gave the Rams the ball at the Bucs’ 37, handing them three points despite an L.A. three-and-out. Brady was 41-55 for 432 yards without Antonio Brown in the lineup. Gronkowski also was injured, exiting the game for a portion of the contest.
I think the Rams will feel good enough about holding the Bucs to 24 points in the last meeting. They’ll play pretty similarly, sticking to what they do and relying on their front four to create enough game-changing plays to win. The Bucs need to use all their schematic tools to win. Play-action, first down passing, using tempo, early down screens and extra help for whoever is lined up across from Aaron Donald.
The Bucs CAN do all of this stuff. They are at their BEST when they incorporate these tools into their offense. Will they accept those facts and build a game plan around it?
Concern: Rams Man Coverage Could Stymie Bucs WRs
I know Mike Evans wants to face man coverage. I get it. Evans against man coverage is a tough ask for the opposition. But for the rest of the Bucs offense, man coverage isn’t exactly an ideal setup. When Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman and Scotty Miller face man coverage, the results haven’t been as pretty this year. On Sunday against the Eagles, they weren’t that pretty either.
According to Sports Info Solutions, nine of 10 Brady passes versus man coverage were on target. But drops, failure to separate at the catch point and failure to make combat catches were an issue. Perriman isn’t a great route runner. Miller struggles to separate against bigger corners. Johnson is an average athlete.
Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
So the onus will fall on Evans and Gronkowski to get open consistently. Both players can do so, but expecting Evans to be singled is probably foolish. Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris has coached against Evans his entire career in the NFC South. He is not about to lose to Evans with no Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown to worry about. You’ll either see Jalen Ramsey do more shadowing than he’s done most of this season, or you’ll see plenty of doubling on Evans.
Tampa Bay’s star receiver may still get his production, but expecting him to win on every passing down is unrealistic. Gronkowski could be big, but the Bucs will need to get creative with him. The bulk of Gronkowski’s production has come over the middle of the field, and I don’t think the Rams will give that up easily. Their post-snap safety rotations might clog up areas where Gronkowski usually gets open in the middle of the field. But given how often the Rams work to Cover 3, Gronkowski could find space down the seams
If the Bucs’ depth receivers can’t step up and get open, it could be a long night for Brady and the Tampa Bay offense.
Solution: Play-Action + Tempo + Schemed Deep Shots
Okay, here’s the reality. This one is the toughest for me to come up with a true solution for.
But the reprieve for the Bucs might be this: the Rams play man coverage at one of the league’s lowest rates. They also align in press coverage at a league-low rate. So it would be a little out of character for them to shift to a man-heavy scheme. However, they do aggressively pattern match, so it won’t be the same as facing the Eagles. What Brady sees post-snap will look like man pretty quickly.
Two things I think the Bucs can do to open things up: play-action and tempo. Play-action will open up the middle of the field a good bit. The Rams don’t have great athletes at linebacker, so forcing them to move and drop and find receivers seems like the way to go. If they don’t respect the run, the Bucs should be able to run it well enough up front to force them to change strategy. Play-action should also slow up the rush if the line sells it right.
Bucs WR Mike Evans – Photo by: USA Today
In the past, a lot of the Bucs shot plays have been off play-action. On Sunday, they’ll need some splash plays to stay alive. Yes, the Rams are aligned to stop big plays. But that hasn’t stopped them from happening this year. Los Angeles has given up 10 40-plus yard pass plays and 53 20-plus yarders. Those aren’t the worst numbers in the league, but they’re far from the best. Also, both starting safeties might be out for the Rams.
The Bucs have to find a way to put the Rams inexperienced safeties in conflict with route concepts. And they need to give time for Brady to take a few shots. Play-action will help that happen. The Bucs can’t expect to string together 4-5 10-play drives that all end in seven points with their current personnel against this Rams defense. They need some shot plays, and they have the horses to do it. Time to throw nine routes and let Perriman and Miller be who they were created to be.
In order to put safeties in conflict and challenge the Rams communication in coverage, the Bucs need tempo. It’ll keep L.A. from setting up all their stunt games on the defensive line, and it’ll force their young safeties to be on the ball. The opening script will be important for the Bucs. They need to win on some early possessions before Los Angeles can adjust to whatever schematic wrinkles are thrown at them.
Tampa Bay’s offense isn’t at full strength. But the Bucs have an elite quarterback and two elite weapons in the passing game. If the O-line can hang together, there is still a way to make this thing work. It just might be a very different path than we saw against the Eagles.
Concern: Sean McVay Has Lit Up Todd Bowles
In recent years, we’ve seen Todd Bowles figure out how to stop opposing offenses that have given him trouble. In 2020, Bowles was overwhelmed by the Saints in the regular season. But in the playoffs, one of his most brilliant game plans to date thwarted Sean Payton and Drew Brees. Then, in the 2021 regular season, Bowles held the Saints to nine points in the two teams’ second meeting. Even in the first meeting, penalties and turnovers did his defense in more than schematic flaws.
Rams head coach Sean McVay – Photo by: USA Today
Against the Kansas City Chiefs last year, Bowles was dominated in the Bucs’ regular season loss to Andy Reid and co. But in the Super Bowl, Bowles called the game of his life, holding the Chiefs to nine points in a 31-9 victory.
However, in three years and three meetings, Bowles has yet to slow down Sean McVay. In 2019 with Jared Goff, the Rams put up 34 offensive points and 518 yards in a loss. And only a Goff 4-turnover meltdown kept the numbers that low! It was a similar story in 2020, when Goff turned it over twice on ill-advised decisions, but the Rams still put up 27 points and 413 yards.
But this year was perhaps Bowles’ weakest showing against Los Angeles. The Rams churned out 34 points and 407 yards in Week 3, putting the game away before the fourth quarter. It could have been uglier too, as Matt Stafford missed several open big plays early in the game, before finding his rhythm.
In three meetings, Bowles hasn’t come close to figuring out McVay. The Bucs banged-up offense isn’t going to put up 30-plus points against the Rams without plenty of help. Bowles’ unit has to give it to them on Sunday.
Solution: Health + Kupp Stoppers
In three career games against Bowles’ defense, here are Cooper Kupp’s numbers:
2019 – 9 catches, 15 targets, 121 yards, 1 touchdown
2020 – 11 catches, 13 targets, 145 yards, 0 touchdowns
2021 – 9 catches, 12 targets, 96 yards, 2 touchdowns
Make no mistake. Everything the Bucs do defensively has to start and stop with slowing down Cooper Kupp. For all their faults, the Cardinals actually did a solid job of this on Monday night. Kupp finished with five catches for 61 yards, but 45 of those yards came with the game already over in the fourth quarter. The Cardinals played more man coverage than they usually do, bracketing Kupp inside-out with a corner and a safety. Arizona often buzzed a safety down to cut Kupp on in-breakers, keeping the corner in outside leverage for anything out-breaking.
Rams WR Cooper Kupp and Bucs S Antoine Winfield, Jr. – Photo by: USA Today
The Steelers deployed a game plan similar to this in 2019 against McVay. They held Kupp to four targets and zero catches on the day. Now, McVay and Kupp are both a lot better than they used to be. And the addition of Odell Beckham, Jr. is another concern. But the Bucs have to focus on Kupp first. He is the volume receiver in Los Angeles’ offense. On third downs, they need to bracket him and leave other guys one-on-one.
In Week 3, the Bucs didn’t have Sean Murphy-Bunting and they lost Jamel Dean early to an injury. Dee Delaney and Ross Cockrell played the majority of the game at cornerback. As a result, they played a ton of zone coverage and got toasted. On Sunday, neither of those guys are likely to see the field. Instead, it’ll be Dean and probably Murphy-Bunting, with Mike Edwards playing a role as well. That’s a big improvement for the Bucs if Murphy-Bunting can be his best self, or if he’s put in a sheltered role. We’ll see.
How should the matchups work? If I’m Bowles, I’m not wasting my time putting Carlton Davis III on Kupp. It’s not a great matchup for Davis, and you need him elsewhere. I’d deploy Davis across from Beckham everywhere he goes. Then I’d put Dean on Kupp when he’s outside, Murphy-Bunting or Edwards on him inside. Play Kupp with outside leverage and buzz a safety down on long-and-late downs. And hit Kupp off the line of scrimmage as much as you can.
The other option is to put Winfield in the slot for the second straight week. I’m a little skeptical of taking Winfield out of the free safety position against a quarterback like Matt Stafford. You need range and ball skills on the back end in this matchup. Edwards has ball skills, but lacks the speed and athleticism that Winfield has. Moving Winfield to the slot is an option, but I’d have it as Plan B.
Plan A: 2-Man, Cover 1 Robber (cutting Kupp), Cover 4 on longer down and distances. Davis on Beckham. Double coverage on Kupp, who will usually be in the slot. Dean on Van Jefferson. Linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White will need to deal with tight end Tyler Higbee most of the time.
Of course, all of these numbers in coverage can only mean one thing …
Concern: Can Anyone Stop Bowles From Blitzing?
Todd Bowles is going crazy this year. The Bucs have blitzed on almost 41 percent of their defensive snaps this season! That’s by far the most of any team in the NFL. Bowles sent 313 5-plus man rushes this year. The next closest team sent just 268.
Rams QB Matt Stafford – Photo by: USA Today
The approach worked against several quarterbacks this season. But it’s not going to work against Stafford on Sunday. Against the blitz this year, Stafford and McVay have been unstoppable. Per Sports Info Solutions, here are Stafford’s numbers against five or more rushers.
5-plus rushers: 85/118 (72%), 1,031 yards, 14 TDs, 0 INT, 8 sacks
4 or less rushers: 319/483 (66%), 3,855 yards, 27 TDs, 17 INT, 22 sacks
Can Bowles take this information and process it accordingly? Can he get away from his blitz-happy ways enough to put numbers in coverage?
Solution: Bowles Can Chill Out … Just Enough
In Week 3, Bowles only sent five or more rushers 11 times out of 39 dropbacks. That’s 28.2%, or for Bowles, a day off. And Stafford shredded him on those 11 blitzes, going 8-10 for 81 yards and a touchdown. One of the two incompletions was a drop. The Bucs sacked him one time, but the game was already over at that point.
Bucs SS Jordan Whitehead – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
That failure will likely deter Bowles from blitzing even that often on Sunday. I expect him to rely on four- and three-man rushes to get home, although he might get creative about which four he is sending. But I don’t think we’ll see him go all out sending extra pressure. He knows Stafford is too good for that. Against top-tier, veteran quarterbacks, Bowles has known when to pull back the reins a bit.
Of course, Bowles is going to need his four-man rush to do much better work than it did against Philadelphia. Can Shaq Barrett finally get the better of right tackle Rob Havenstein? Will the Bucs be smart enough to limit Jason Pierre-Paul’s snaps and let Joe Tryon-Shoyinka work as a pure edge rusher? I’d let Tryon-Shoyinka rush from the left side, and Barrett from the right. Use Pierre-Paul as a nickel rusher on long-and-late downs. And Vita Vea might need to play 60-70 percent of the snaps in this one. He’s the Bucs’ best interior havoc creator up front.
The game plan is there for Bowles to draw up a winner against the Rams. It’s going to be tough, and McVay will find solutions. Bowles will need to counter-punch. But with a fully healthy defense, Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator might finally be in position to slow down his nemesis.