A few weeks ago, much was made of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers startling lack of third down success against the New Orleans Saints, as the team went 1-for-9 on money downs in a humiliating 38-3 loss on Sunday Night Football. But although that mark was awful, the real culprit for the team’s lack of success wasn’t third down at all. It was first down.

Against New Orleans in Week 9, the Bucs first down plays before being down 28-0 gained the following yardage: 0, 0, 2, 0, 11 and then an interception on the tipped screen pass. It was an atrocious start for an offense that couldn’t afford to have an atrocious start given how poorly the Bucs defense played that night.

That lack of first down success has been a constant thorn in the Bucs offensive side all season long. On third downs, the Bucs are actually converting at a respectable 43.6 percent clip, good enough for 13th in the league. Their EPA and success rate numbers are even more impressive. Yes, with their talent they could be better, but in most games the Bucs have had strong success on third down thanks to Tom Brady, despite an offense that consistently puts them in disadvantageous second and third down situations.

After 11 games, the Bucs EPA on first down is -0.040, 24th in the NFL. For those who don’t know, EPA (Expected Points Added) is a football statistic that seeks to measure the value of individual plays in terms of points. This is done by calculating the Expected Points (EP) of the down, distance, and field position situation at the start of a play and contrasting it with the situation at the end of the play. With the talent they have, a negative EPA ranking 24th in the NFL is a truly unacceptable mark.

It gets worse. The Bucs are 30th in the NFL with a 38.7 percent first down success rate, meaning that 61.3 percent of the time, they don’t pick up even four yards on first-and-ten. Only the Broncos and Chargers are worse on first down.

The biggest culprit is the run game. On first down runs, the Bucs have a 29.7 percent chance of picking up at least four yards, which correlates with a -0.174 EPA. Those marks are terrible enough for 28th and 25th place in the NFL, respectively.

We saw no better evidence of this lack of first down success than on Monday night, when the Bucs rolled up heavy personnel packages and ran right into the strength of the Rams defense between the guards. The yardage gained on first down runs on Monday night: 0, 2, 6, 5, 1, 2 (TD), -1, 2, 1, 2, 6. So out of 11 first down runs, seven failed to net more than two yards. TWO YARDS! Running the ball on first down, especially where the Bucs were running it (inside), became a complete waste on Monday night.

Coming out on the first play of the game running right at the Rams strength was a very interesting call. The Bucs get the shaded nose tackle to shift pre-snap, which is what they wanted, but A.Q. Shipley still can’t get down on the MIKE linebacker in time to make a block. That’s asking a lot of your backup center. Couple that with Michael Brockers blowing up left guard Ryan Jensen, and you’ve got a half-yard loss on your first play of the game.

There were curious run calls in this game, but much of the Bucs woes were due to execution and the Rams brilliance against the run. I won’t get too deep into the weeds, but even when the Bucs had a good scheme dialed up, the blockers blew it or the Rams made them pay.

Watch Brockers (No. 90, right defensive tackle) before the snap. He shifts gaps to make Shipley’s job of blocking back on him nearly impossible. Basically untouched, Brockers is able to sniff out the play and make the tackle-for-loss. Combine that with Chris Godwin missing his block on the cornerback playside, and the result is ugly.

There were also plays where the Bucs blocked everything well enough to achieve at least success rate (Four yards on first-and-10), and the running backs screwed everything up. Here’s two plays of Leonard Fournette playing the running back position blind.

The first run of these two plays is actually on second down, but you get the idea. Fournette has been a mess running the football all season, and was once again a mess on Monday night.

Look at this hole! All Fournette has to do is make the safety miss and it is clear sailing to the end zone. Every running back’s dream. He cuts back into the defense and gains only six yards. This was his most successful play! There are three running backs on every team in the NFL that can make this play, and Fournette can’t do it. He proves it every week. Start trying other options.

*Deep breathe*

Anyway…

When the Bucs throw the ball on first down, they are markedly more successful than when they run it (true of almost every team), but still not successful enough. The Bucs are only 22nd in dropback success rate (47.8 percent) on first down, and 21st in dropback EPA. There are many reasons for that, but one of the main reasons on Monday night was dropped passes and failed deep shots.

Of the team’s nine first down incompletions against the Rams, two were drops by Ronald Jones and Fournette, and four were deep shots that frankly, didn’t have a chance. I’m ok with taking deep shots, but the Rams have allowed less air yards and less pass plays of 20 yards or more than any team in the NFL, largely because they play two deep safeties all the time. Going deep on first down a few times a game is a good idea, but when it isn’t open, there has to be some shorter options on the play for Brady to come back to in order to keep the drive on schedule.

Byron Leftwich and Bruce Arians were unable to provide that with their calls on Monday night, and the result was a ton of second and third-and-longs. Although they showed some patience early in the game, they ultimately didn’t wait out a Rams defense that wants you to throw deep so they can get you in long down-and-distances.

Los Angeles defensive coordinator Brandon Staley counted on Arians getting greedy and leaning too much on the deep ball, and ultimately he was right. Monday wasn’t a story of Brady missing the deep ball, although he absolutely threw some ugly passes, it was a story of the deep ball not being there at all, and Brady, Arians and Leftwich still hunting it. The result was two turnovers, one on first down, and an offense that was forced to overcome far too many second and third-and-longs to be successful, especially against a Rams defense designed to take away the chunk play.

Which brings us to our other problem: the Bucs are ALWAYS in 3rd down situations. Their 140 third down attempts this season are the third most in the NFL. By itself that isn’t a huge problem, but keep in mind we already know they are one of the most unsuccessful teams in the league on first down. That means they either have to be amazing on second down (they are around league average) or convert third downs at an extremely high clip to be successful on offense. As good as Brady has been on third downs, it’s a bad recipe for consistent success when you become that predictable for a defense on two of your three downs, especially a defense as good as the Rams, or the Saints a few weeks ago.

The Bucs were remarkably bad on first down on Monday night, especially in the run game, but it’s been a problem area for them all season. If they don’t get it solved soon, they’ll be looking at a 7-5 record on Sunday night when the world champs come to town. Play design, play-calling, blocking, running backs, receivers and quarterback literally all have to be better, or this offense could end 2020 with a whimper rather than a roar.

All first down stats can be found at the wonderful site www.rbsdm.com

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

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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fredster
2 months ago

Arians (or Lefty’s offense) I guess it’s same thing supposedly…is too much high risk low percent. Now if we had stellar O line maybe would work better. Way I see their problems it is lot simpler than the great breakdown here. 1.) can’t run ball. Some is scheme, some is our RB’s, and most is the O line imo. They get pushed back and you can’t run when getting pushed back period! 2.) They refuse to move chains with Easy high percent passes. So may times in 3rd and short and they try throw deep, long developing routes that do… Read more »

Last edited 2 months ago by fredster
matador
Reply to  fredster
2 months ago

Well said. I vote for Fred as OC!

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scubog
Reply to  matador
2 months ago

Oh no, not another election!

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4CTheMarket
Reply to  fredster
2 months ago

The passing game is too volatile. We need more high% throws because we cannot run it effectively. And big play offenses only work if you can also get consistent runs of 3-5 yards. If you get 1yd on first down, incomplete deep ball on 2nd down, then all of a sudden it´s 3rd and 9. That´s when the defenses have the advantage. Now if we ran for 4 yards, incomplete deep ball on 2nd down, then it´s “only” 3rd and 6. Much more managable. We waste too many plays in the running game on all those 1-2 yards and even… Read more »

WeAretheChamps2002
2 months ago

So why is Fournette getting half the work load? I think the argument your making Jon is that he is just not that good. It looks like Fournette either loves hitting his own offensive linemen, or that he’s afraid of contact. How can a back with his size not take advantage of it? One word comes to mind, “soft.” It’s hard for me to believe that he is a better option than KV. I think the second argument you’re making is that Leftwich isn’t a good playcaller or imaginative, and I agree. Winston overcompensated for Leftwich’s inept calling by throwing… Read more »

chefboho
Reply to  WeAretheChamps2002
2 months ago

agree with every word you say. This offense is incredibly predictable, they don’t use motion to confuse the defense, they have no idea how to utilize their players properly, and they cant game plan or adjust for shit. I’d can both Arians AND Leftwich if it meant getting an offensive guru like Bieniemy. At least he’d be creative

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RW
RW
Reply to  chefboho
2 months ago

You have to look at the coaches when you QB’s main strength is his football IQ and you give him a very basic predictable system to work with. That and refuse to make in game adjustments.

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drdneast
Reply to  WeAretheChamps2002
2 months ago

Agree with you about Fornette and KV. Let’s go with KV.
After the Saints game, I was pretty much done with Lefto.

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RW
RW
Reply to  WeAretheChamps2002
2 months ago

I guess they feel Fournette is the best pass blocker of the backs. Not saying much.

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peter benet
2 months ago

Terrific analysis, Jon. Help!

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Architek79
2 months ago

We aren’t winning a Super Bowl with these issues. That’s a truth that we all need to accept.

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rm71
2 months ago

In NE, designed screens on 1st down solved this problem. Always gained 3-7 yards, set up manageable 2d and 3d downs, which opened up playbook. If the RBs in Tampa can’t handle it, surely Godwin or AB, lined up in the slot with Gronk and the left side of the line blocking forward, could do it pretty successfully.

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BBBBucx
2 months ago

The only part of our O worse than our Passing Game is our Running Game. Give the Vandy kid a shot. It’s not like Fournette has done anything but get comfortable and worse each week. Vaughn needs to challenge Fournette for the back up reps. And Jones taking catching lessons from Roberto Duran. And our Passing Game?? Brady made a two decade living throwing to his backs and WRs on shallow crosses. Our RBs have proven they will not catch. Please try Vaughn again so we know what we have. He did it in SEC. And we do not have… Read more »

Last edited 2 months ago by BBBBucx
RW
RW
Reply to  BBBBucx
2 months ago

Think the Saints offense as well. And what the Rams did to the Bucs.

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captain ahab
2 months ago

The offensive line has played poorly here for years. I believe I have mentioned before that the great Jim Brown would struggle behind this line, does not matter who is at running back if the line loses the trench battle.

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RW
RW
2 months ago

So for all those guys dumping allover on Brady, including BA, can we agree that it wasn’t just TB12’s bad decisions but an additional combination of poor blocking, suspect play calling and predictable offensive scheming that contributed to the offensive performance the other night.
For Arians to throw most of the blame on Brady when there are other contributing factors is either naive, cowardly or based on jealousy.

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BBBBucx
Reply to  RW
2 months ago

Yup!
I think if you look up
“Coach” — In sports, a coach is a person involved in the direction, instruction and training of the operations of a sports team or of individual sportspeople. A coach may also be a teacher.
So what are BA and Lefty doing to help TB play better?? And use the things that made him the GOAT!

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drdneast
2 months ago

That was an excellent dissection, Jon. The teams OC has been riding on Brady’s back all season to try and incorporate BA’s offensive strategy into a winning scheme and it just isn’t working. I stated Monday that the Bucs lost again because they were outcoached and you pretty much proved it for me. Repetitively slamming the ball into the A gap and trying to go deep on a Tampa 2 is a sure way to lose a game in the NFL. Carolina was trying to do the same thing the Rams did but just didn’t have the talent to achieve… Read more »

bucballer
2 months ago

This coaching is a real problem folks! I know… the OLine could use an upgrade at LT fo sure. A good coach marries his game plan to the talent he has and plays to its strengths. Arians has his offense and then tries to make the talent fit that offense. We were sold that Arians would adapt his offense to those things that r comfortable to the likes of Brady. This hasn’t happened. Brady clearly isn’t happy and at his most productive self in this scheme. Everybody watching can tell that this offense is all wrong. When ur OLine is… Read more »

EastEndBoy
2 months ago

Bottom line: Great execution can make up for bad play calling; or Great play calling can make up for bad execution…but when you have both bad play calling (like predictably running on 1st down, straight ahead into the game’s best DT) AND bad execution (like you masterfully demonstrated with Fournette, and could just as easily be shown on Brady’s 1 for 9 long balls with 2 INTs), the result is equally predicatble.

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RW
RW
2 months ago

Jon this is definitely the best and most well researched article I have read in this forum all season. Well done!

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Madman
2 months ago

Good lord that’s some atrocious RB vision! Blocking is bad too but even when there’s a hole LF finds a way to get tackled. smh

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scubog
Reply to  Madman
2 months ago

Good observation Madman. There are always holes. The great running backs find them. The average ones don’t. In the examples shown here, Fournette is playing soft.

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Bucsfan1983
2 months ago

Byron Leftwich calling plays and Bruce Arians not taking over play calling, is killing this Bucs offense.

27 games as Bucs play caller, Byron Leftwich is just not getting it done.

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The Wall
Reply to  Bucsfan1983
2 months ago

I don’t think Arians would do any better. After all, he said Leftwich called a good game. No, he would call the game exactly the same way.

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PatrioticChief
2 months ago

This was Brady’s worst performance to pressure ratio of the season. He deserves blame. The quarterback let the team down last night. That being said I think the coaching staff on offense has let the team down against every legit defense they have played and I don’t hear BA taking any responsibility for that.

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RW
RW
Reply to  PatrioticChief
2 months ago

I bet Brady is frustrated by the same things we all see as well. He sees the lack of run blocking, the poor and predictable play calling, the lack of a sophisticated offensive scheme and is trying to overcome them all and do too much. Even last year with no weapons, Brady never made as bad of decisions as on his two pics . But last year he and Josh McDaniels (the OC on the Pats) were totally on the same page. This year with BA and Lefty not so much.

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BucHarbour
2 months ago

Time to let Vaughn take over for Fournette. Can’t do any worse, and, from what little we’ve seen, he was actually a good upgrade, and can catch.

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Dave
2 months ago

It’s mind numbing to me just how much the coaching is playing a part in the inconsistency of this team. So long as BA and BL keep Brady from running the type of offense that’s made him the goat for the past 20 years, this team has no chance of playing for a SB. Why you would you possibly want Brady to operate a deep pass, passing game? Why would you not want him to do what he does best to maximize his strengths, the offense, and the team as a whole. And that’s not even mentioning the horrible defensive… Read more »

RW
RW
Reply to  Dave
2 months ago

You said it all: “Coaching is far and away the biggest problem on this team”
And AB isn’t the biggest problem although some guys might have got pissed off by bringing him in. In the last 3 games they played 2 really good defensive teams and were pushed around. That’s the reason for the bad stats.

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