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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 NFC South Falling Further Behind Bucs?
Early in the season, there was plenty of talk about how the Panthers were a rising young team in the NFL. Fast forward to the end of the year, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Defensively, yes. Carolina has some nice pieces. Safety Jeremy Chinn, cornerback Jaycee Horn and edge rushers Brian Burns and Haason Reddick could be excellent building blocks. Maybe Reddick and Stephon Gilmore both stay as free agents, and the Panthers lure away a difference-maker at defensive tackle. Or Derrick Brown makes a third-year leap.
Bucs LB Lavonte David and Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
What’s the ceiling? This isn’t going to become the Saints’ defense. And offensively, the Panthers are lost. They have a ton of money tied up in Christian McCaffrey, who is always hurt. There’s been rumors of Robby Anderson’s discontent for awhile now. Carolina is four starters away on the offensive line, one of the NFL’s worst units.
And they don’t have a clue at quarterback. Sam Darnold is already under contract for next season after the Panthers picked up his fifth-year option. But Darnold isn’t the answer, so expect another move this offseason. Are they a desirable destination, especially with smoke around Matt Rhule’s seat next year?
The Falcons might have the head coach/general manager combination. Only time will tell, although the early returns on the new regime’s first draft are pretty brutal. Outside of no-brainer pick Kyle Pitts, it’s been a rough year for Falcons’ rookies. The team has invested a ton in the offensive line, but guard Chris Lindstrom is the only recent pick that has worked out. They are just as bad in the trenches on the other side of the ball, and the secondary needs help, too.
With Atlanta, the worst part is its timing. Right now, the Falcons are a below average team that isn’t bad enough to draft where it needs to be drafting. The Falcons tried to compete this year when they should have tanked. Matt Ryan, Jake Matthews, Cordarrelle Patterson (UFA), Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones are all still good players (not great), but they aren’t on the same timetable as the rest of the Falcons roster. Atlanta needs to trade some of them, collect assets and go all-in on a rebuild.
Right now, cornerback A.J. Terrell is essentially their only defensive building block. On offense, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage (UFA) and Pitts are a strong trio, but quarterback, O-line and running back are all major question marks. It’s hard to see Atlanta competing for a division title in 2022.
Bucs OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Saints RB Alvin Kamara – Photo by: USA Today
The Saints are the wild card. They’ve made bad cap situations work, but at what cost? They kept as much of their core together as they could this past offseason, but the depth has suffered. They’ve got major question marks at quarterback and wide receiver, the two most important positions on an offense. New Orleans could try to trade Michael Thomas this offseason, but his price will never be lower. Alvin Kamara has looked like a shell of himself this season, but he’s only 26. Still, running back shelf lives can be short.
The Saints offensive line is good, but left tackle Terron Armstead will be a free agent. So will safety Marcus Williams, a key piece of what they do defensively. New Orleans might also have a timeline issue. Players like Kamara, Armstead, Demario Davis, Cam Jordan, Malcolm Jenkins and others want to win now. Perhaps head coach Sean Payton can be thrown into that mix, too. But, unless the team can find a way to foil the cap once again and add talent, especially at quarterback, this offseason, it’s going to be a bumpy ride for the Saints for a few years.
Bottom line – all three teams have major quarterback questions, short and long term. The Bucs have their short term answer. As long as Tom Brady keeps ballin’ and wants to keep playing, that will give the Bucs a huge advantage in the division.
6. Curious First Down Approach By Bucs
Some people aren’t going to care about this because the Bucs blew out the Panthers this week. I get it. Given the missing pieces on offense, this was a good offensive performance. But it was far from their best. And their play sequencing was a big reason why. On Sunday, the Bucs called 23 first downs run and five first down passes. That is a jaw-dropping discrepancy that cannot become a trend.
On first down runs, the Bucs had an EPA (Expected Points Added) of -0.069 on Sunday. That’s a negative EPA despite the fact that ran for two touchdowns on first down! A -0.069 EPA ranked 16th among all teams in Week 16. That means the majority of their runs on first down were so ineffective that they still ended up being of negative value to the team, despite two of those runs scoring touchdowns.
Bucs WR Cyril Grayson – Photo by: USA Today
In sharp contrast, the Bucs had the highest EPA of any Week 16 team on their five first down passes. Tampa had an EPA of 1.272 on first down drop-backs on Sunday, with a mile between the Bucs and second place. More first down passing would obviously create some regression, but it would still be light years beyond the negative value created by so many first down runs.
In general, the Bucs did not run the ball consistently well on Sunday. Don’t let the numbers fool you. Sure, they finished with 159 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. But 55 came on one Ke’Shawn Vaughn run, while 11 more came on a Tom Brady scramble. Fourteen more came on a trick play end around to Cyril Grayson. Ronald Jones carried 20 times for 65 yards, while Vaughn had 15 yards on his other six carries.
Here are the results of the Bucs’ runs in Week 16: 5, 3, 4, 5, 55 (TD), 0, 4, 4, 4, minus-2, 9, 1, minus-1, 2, 3, minus-1, 3, 1, 1, 2, 0, 14, 7 (TD), 2, minus-3, 16, minus-1, 12, minus-1, 0 and minus-1.
If you’re keeping track at home, that’s seven negative yardage results. In addition, the Bucs had 18 carries that resulted in five or less yards. That’s 25 plays that resulted in five yards or worse for the offense. Out of 31 rush attempts! In contrast, the Bucs average 7.2 yards per pass attempt on the season!
Obviously the Bucs ran too often, although the game being over in the third quarter had a lot to do with that. I’m not as concerned about that part, but I am concerned with the play sequencing. If the Bucs are going to run the ball that much on first down, why aren’t they using more play-action? You and I know you don’t need to run the ball for play-action to work. But if they believe you do have to run it to use play fakes, why did Brady only have six play-action passes on Sunday?
These things probably won’t matter against the Jets or Panthers to finish the regular season. But if they become trends into January, they’ll matter against true NFC contenders – a lot.
5. Bucs D-Line Committed Murder
If this Bucs Briefing is a little shorter than past Bucs Briefings, it’s because there isn’t as much to glean from this game as other contests. Sure, I could post 30 clips of the Tampa Bay D-line massacring the Panthers O-line, but do you really need to see that? Okay, here are just a couple.
When I tell you this game was a colossal beatdown in the trenches, I mean it. Will Gholston looked like a Hall of Famer for four quarters. Ndamukong Suh was constantly in the backfield, and Vita Vea crushed several people. A bull rush by Suh on right tackle Taylor Moton created the game’s only turnover.
Shaq Barrett was on his way to a multi-sack game before his injury. And despite dropping into coverage nine times and often serving as a spy, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka made his mark, too.
At times, the Panthers were totally overwhelmed up front. The Bucs notched seven sacks and were inches away from at least five more. In the second half, the tape became almost comical. Guys like Steve McLendon were winning as pass rushers in ways that I’d never seen them win. Todd Bowles’ games and blitzes had the Panthers offensive linemen scrambling. It was pretty similar to the Dolphins win over the Saints on Monday night, honestly.
Currently, Tampa Bay trails only the Dolphins in total sacks this season. Miami has 45 to the Bucs 44. If the Bucs can collect six over their next two games, they’ll have the second 50-sack season in franchise history. Remember when they had three sacks total heading into Week 4? Feels like a long time ago after watching Sunday’s beatdown.
4. Brown Cooked Gilmore
Last Friday, Scott Reynolds asked me via text if the Panthers would have Stephon Gilmore shadow Antonio Brown the entire game and travel with him wherever he lined up. Here was my response:
“Probably yeah, if Evans is out. But Gilmore won’t hold AB if the Bucs let him cook and he’s healthy. I’ve seen this movie before with AB. Y’all are about to see it too.”
Simply put, when Brown is healthy, he’s pretty much unstoppable. Gilmore is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but it just doesn’t matter against Brown. He’s a complete game-changer for any team that he suits up for. And he’s one of the most consistent players in the league. Here’s a great breakdown by Brian Baldinger on Twitter.
Brown is one of the most detail-oriented players I’ve ever watched. You can see a ton of examples in this video, including the 22-yard comeback where he gets up on Gilmore’s shoes before breaking the route off. He made sideline catches, contested grabs, great plays versus zone coverage and more. Every skill set you want in a wide receiver, Brown has. He carved up Gilmore on Sunday, reeling in 10 catches on 15 targets for 101 yards. Four of Brown’s receptions converted third downs for the Bucs.
The loss of Chris Godwin stings – mightily. I’ll always wonder what kind of records would have been shattered this year if all Evans, Godwin, Brown and Gronkowski got to play a full season with Brady. Maybe we’ll find out next year, but this year Brown holds a lot of keys in his hands for the Bucs. They haven’t lost a game this season with him on the field. If he and Brady can dominate like they did on Sunday, this is still a squad capable of winning it all.
3. Whitehead Playing Possessed
For most of last season, safety Jordan Whitehead was outstanding. He was one of the best run-defending safeties in all of football, and a very reliable tackler. Whitehead made plays on the ball in shallow zone coverage, and showed elite processing skills as a box defender. Even in deep coverage, Whitehead wasn’t a liability. He finished the season with nine tackles for loss, second most amongst all defensive backs.
Fast forward to 2021, and Whitehead has been even better. He’s made a massive difference when on the field, especially for the Bucs run defense. The fourth-year safety already has five tackles for loss in just 12 games. He’s blown up a ridiculous amount of runs in the backfield – even if he doesn’t get credit for a tackle in the box score. And Whitehead has also improved significantly in coverage, with three pass breakups and an interception on Sunday. Simply put, he was everywhere against the Panthers.
It’s linebacker-like, the way Whitehead dodges blockers and keeps his eyes on the ball. He was incredibly hard to hit on Sunday, slipping by several blocks for huge open field tackles. He’s become such a more decisive player in space than he was early in his career.
Whitehead has increasingly become a more important player in the Bucs defense. He’s not a single-high ballhawk in the middle of the field, but he does everything else well. His man coverage has improved too, and so have his ball skills. As Whitehead approaches what could be his final games in Tampa Bay, it’s hard not to envision losing him in free agency as a solid blow to Todd Bowles’ defense. With players such as running back Ronald Jones II, tight end O.J. Howard, outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and maybe even guard Alex Cappa becoming more expendable in free agency, could the Bucs prioritize bringing Whitehead back?
2. Playoff Seeding Outlook
The outlook for the Bucs is fairly simple. Currently, the Bucs are the fourth seed in the NFC. The Cowboys hold the second seed, while the Rams have the third seed. As long as the Bucs keep winning, a Rams loss is what they need to move up in the seedings. Even if the Cowboys win out, the Bucs will seize the No. 2 seed with two wins and a Rams loss.
Los Angeles plays the Ravens and 49ers to finish the season, so there will be no easy victories. The Rams have won four straight, although the most recent two have been relatively narrow victories against two teams with losing records. If they falter against the Ravens or 49ers, the Bucs will be back in the driver’s seat for the No. 2 seed as long as Tampa Bay wins its next two games. That will give them home field advantage in the playoffs unless they square up with Green Bay.
According to ESPN, the Bucs have the highest percentage chance to end up as the No. 2 seed.
Who are the most likely Wild Card round match-ups with the Bucs? Right now, it’s the Eagles by a good bit.
Of course, you’ll remember back in Week 6, when the Bucs beat the Eagles 28-22. The Bucs were up 28-7 at the end of the third quarter, despite playing a pretty average game on both sides of the ball. But seven penalties for 120 yards allowed the Eagles to score 15 unanswered points. A third down conversion from Brady to Brown sealed the victory.
I think Tampa Bay would love a rematch with Philadelphia in the Wild Card, especially in Tampa Bay. It’s certainly more ideal than facing the Cardinals or 49ers. So pray for a Rams loss, and that a depleted Bucs team can keep winning against lesser squads.
1. Laugh A Little
This was a pretty cool moment from Cordarrelle Patterson. Love seeing stuff like this.