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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. Bucs WRs Were Ready For Physical Matchup
From the outset of the game, the Bucs wide receivers clearly wanted to set a tone. After losing the war against the Saints secondary last year, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin were purposeful in their physical demeanor on Sunday. Godwin got things started with a nasty double move on C.J. Gardner-Johnson, followed by a devastating stiff arm.
Gardner-Johnson is one of the Saints’ verbal enforcers, but teams that have challenged him physically have often found success. The Bucs had clearly scouted this out and were ready to go after him early. Godwin torched him all game, as Gardner-Johnson gave up 126 yards through the air, per PFF. But the Bucs wanted to break his spirit, too. A couple plays after Godwin’s stiff arm, Evans went after the defensive back as hard as I’ve ever seen him try to block an opponent.
Speaking of Evans, he finally got the better of Marshon Lattimore, his longtime nemesis. Some of that was reflected in the box score, where Evans had two catches for 48 yards, including a 41-yard score on Lattimore. But the All-22 really revealed Evans dominance, as he was open on several occasions without a completion. Early in the game, Brady just overthrew him on a deep ball that would have been a touchdown. Evans was also grabbed by a flailing Lattimore with the ball in the air, but there was no call.
Then, on the game-ending interception, Evans beat Lattimore across the field for what could have been a big play. As Brady admitted after the game, the quarterback simply made the wrong read. Evans showed great physicality to bully through Lattimore’s jam at the line of scrimmage and create separation.
Despite the game result, it was an impressive showing for Evans and Godwin against a secondary that got the better of them a year ago. Adding in Godwin’s eight catches for 140 yards and a touchdown, the Bucs’ dynamic duo finished with 10 catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns.
With Antonio Brown in the fold for Round 2 on December 19, I can’t wait to see how the match-up goes. The Saints already know Gardner-Johnson can’t handle Godwin. Bradley Roby and Paulson Adebo had their hands full with Tyler Johnson. Brown will be a problem for them. If Evans can win against Lattimore consistently, Tampa Bay’s passing attack could have a bigger day than the 375 yards they put up on Sunday.
6. Tyler Johnson, Stepping Up
Losing Antonio Brown and Scotty Miller has created a void for Tyler Johnson to fill this season. He doesn’t have Miller’s speed or Brown’s … well, anything … but Johnson has performed admirably. The second-year receiver has 14 catches for 191 yards on the season, although he’s still looking for his first touchdown of the season. There have been a few route-running errors, but nothing that can’t be fixed. Johnson’s ability to make splash plays despite being an average athlete looks pretty sustainable at this point.
In eight games, Johnson has two catches of 31 yards or more and another 19-yarder. More importantly, Johnson has forced a missed tackle in each of the past two games and picked up 40 total yards after the catch. With defenses bailing out to take away the deep ball, the Bucs desperately need their weapons to make plays after the catch. Johnson has obliged wonderfully the past two weeks.
When Brown returns, Johnson’s reps will be limited once again. He might even lose some opportunities to Scotty Miller when the speedy receiver is back. But Johnson’s future remains bright and he continues to get better. He’s popular in the locker room and Mike Evans has spoken glowingly about him. It’s good to see him playing well with the spotlight on him on Sundays.
5. Huge Missed Call Swung Game Before Halftime
There were obviously several bad or missed calls that swung the Bucs’ Week 8 loss in the Saints’ favor. That’s not an excuse for the result of the game, so much as a necessary recognition of reality. We don’t have to pretend like officiating errors didn’t exist so that we can be harder on the Bucs. They had plenty of their own issues that are worthy of criticism. But abysmal officiating also changed Sunday’s game. Both can and were true. Neither should be a debatable point.
One of the biggest officiating mistakes came on Tom Brady’s first interception. Two obvious defensive holds went uncalled, both occurring right where the ball was thrown. These are inexcusable misses, especially given the result of the play.
To put it bluntly, Gardner-Johnson’s interception of Tom Brady never happens if he isn’t holding Tyler Johnson 10 yards downfield. The entire point of this concept is for Johnson to push coverage vertically, along with Mike Evans on the outside. This will allow a ton of space for Godwin to break into toward the sideline. It’s a terrific concept, but in some ways the Saints are ready for it.
Gardner-Johnson is sitting on an outside break by Godwin after he funnels Johnson to the safety. Brady thinks it’s man coverage because of the aggressive way that Gardner-Johnson latches on to Johnson off the line of scrimmage. If the defensive back is forced to play this legally and be contact free after five yards, Brady would never make this throw. He’d be able to recognize the coverage and would likely take the shot one-on-one to Evans on 1st-and-10.
But because Gardner-Johnson is permitted to commit illegal contact and defensive holding on the same play, Johnson is never able to push him down the field. He can sit comfortably on anything out-breaking, while also preventing Johnson from being an option on the play. Godwin is also grabbed around the waist out of his break after getting the cornerback flipped the wrong way with a great jab step at the top of the route. The clear hold prevented him from arriving to the catch point in time to see what would happen.
Two opportunities to make the correct call, and the officials blew them both. Instead of a first-and-10 for the Bucs at the Saints 46 with less than two minutes left in the half, the ball went the other way. The Saints took the turnover and marched 35 yards to the end zone for a 16-7 halftime lead. Yes, the Bucs defense should have made numerous stops on the day that they didn’t. But an embarrassing defensive performance shouldn’t subtract from an embarrassing performance by the officials.
4. Dean Has Earned Starting Spot For Bucs
It’s hard to overstate how good Jamel Dean has been for the Bucs this season. After the team lost Sean Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis III to injury, hope appeared to be lost. Subsequent injuries to Richard Sherman and Dee Delaney put the secondary in an even worse position. Through it all, Dean has been a stabilizing presence at right cornerback. In a year where the Bucs defense has disappointed, Dean has been one of their best players.
Over the past month, Dean has put receivers in a vice, weekly. He’s been targeted 18 times over the past four games, allowing seven catches for 65 yards. Dean has also broken up six passes and intercepted two. The splash plays are there and the consistency in coverage is finally showing up.
One of the biggest reasons for Dean’s uptick in success has been the Bucs increase in man coverage. On Sunday, Tampa Bay played their highest man coverage rate of the season, per Pro Football Focus. Over the past four weeks, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has consistently elevated the man coverage snaps for this secondary. Dean, who told me last week that he feels more comfortable in man coverage, has thrived.
One of the bigger questions when Dean stepped into the starting lineup was how he would defend the run. Typically only used in nickel defense, most of Dean’s snaps have come in pass-likely situations during his career. But Dean has been excellent in run defense, showing the ability to come downhill, wrap and finish. He’s gotten off blocks and even had a tackle-for-loss against the Bears. Right now, Dean is operating at the height of his powers.
Bucs CB Jamel Dean – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
After the bye, Murphy-Bunting and Davis might be back from injuries. Obviously Davis will start at left cornerback, but what happens on the right side? How can the Bucs sit Dean given how he’s played in recent weeks? Murphy-Bunting has never had a month of his career where he’s looked as good as Dean has. Murphy-Bunting’s playoff interceptions were pivotal, but he still gave up plenty in the passing game during the postseason.
It deserves mention that Dean has played against average receiving corps and below-average quarterback play during the past four games. Match-ups will get harder, and I’m sure his inconsistencies will rear their head again. But Murphy-Bunting hasn’t exactly inspired much confidence in his career, either. He was the worst player on the field in Week 1, even for the 13 coverage snaps he played.
If Dean can stay at right cornerback, Murphy-Bunting can focus exclusively on playing as a nickel corner in this defense. It could be the best fit for everyone moving forward. But will the Bucs coaching staff see it that way? They are enamored with the vocal presence and leadership of Murphy-Bunting, despite his poor play in the past. How they treat this situation will be fascinating to watch.
3. Bucs’ Pressure Issues Continue
As I’ve written before, Todd Bowles’ entire defensive philosophy begins with pressuring the opposing quarterback. His defense currently leads the NFL in blitzes and blitz percentage by a country mile. During the 2021 season, the Bucs have blitzed 144 times, or 40 percent of their defensive snaps. The next closest team is the Miami Dolphins, with 113 blitzes on 33.6 percent of snaps. That is a mind-boggling discrepancy.
Last year, the Bucs blitzed 268 times in 16 games, per Pro Football Reference. This year, in one extra game, the team is on pace for 306 five-man pressures at a slightly higher rate than last season. Bowles has always been blitz heavy, but it actually worked last year. According to PFR, the Bucs created pressure on over 27 percent of snaps, the third-best mark in the NFL. Tampa Bay also finished fourth with 48 sacks.
Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
This year, the results are drastically worse. The Bucs are generating pressure on just over 24 percent of snaps, 17th in the league. Despite blitzing at a higher percentage than everyone else, Tampa Bay has just 17 sacks, around league average. That puts them on pace for 36 sacks, 12 less than last season despite an extra game.
By itself, those numbers aren’t awful. But when you build a defense around getting pressure, especially through blitzing, it better work. And right now, it isn’t working nearly enough for the Bucs defense. In fact, it didn’t work at all on Sunday.
Essentially, the Bucs just set a modern day record for the number of blitzes without creating a single pressure. The Saints offensive line is outstanding, but that’s pretty embarrassing. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh did record the team’s lone sack, but it didn’t come on a play where the Bucs were blitzing.
It’s concerning on multiple levels, too. Why aren’t the Bucs winning more one-on-ones up front? After a hot start, why isn’t Vita Vea winning more as a rusher? Why doesn’t the athletic Joe Tryon-Shoyinka play more snaps if the team needs a pass rush spark? Does Devin White have a pass rush move to beat a running back other than running into them at full speed?
But the more concerning aspect is that Bowles’ blitz schemes don’t seem to be working. Why that is, I’m honestly not sure. I need someone with a greater understanding of his various packages than I have to explain it to me. But a lot of offenses are using max protect, locking it down against Bowles’ pressure schemes, and still finding an open receiver underneath.
It’s impressive that the Bucs have given up so few big plays down the field this season. But they are letting below average quarterbacks stay afloat against them by permitting easy outlet passes. Pressure can’t get home in time, and coverage is caught short on numbers. If the Bucs defense can’t figure out how to generate more consistent pressure and sacks, their secondary may not hold up even when healthy.
2. Where Do Bucs Go From Here? Up!
Tampa Bay’s 6-2 start to the season should at least be a 7-1 mark, so in that sense there has to be a little disappointment in the team’s record. But considering the Bucs’ injuries and how badly they’ve beaten themselves in both losses, I don’t have much concern moving forward. The schedule is favorable, the Bucs are getting healthy across the roster and they aren’t going to continue to commit turnovers and penalties like they did on Sunday.
The Bucs’ biggest issues – penalties, tackling, health and coverage – have already improved or will improve out of the bye. I wrote on Monday that the Bucs are not only second in the NFL in penalties, they’ve also benefited from less calls than all but one other team. Even if they keep up the infractions, officials are eventually going to start throwing more flags on the opposition.
Bucs DT Ndamukong Suh – Photo by: USA Today
The two biggest Bucs concerns – creating consistent pressure and running too often on first down – probably aren’t severe enough to derail them in the regular season. Can they figure those two things out in time for the playoffs? Tampa Bay can improve its play-action rate, personnel deployment and pass coverage moving forward. But none of those things have been debilitating issues for them this season.
The most important aspects for long term success are still in place. The Bucs are receiving elite quarterback and offensive line play, and their receivers have been excellent. As the run scheme evolves and the passing game continues to find more answers in the short-intermediate game, the Bucs offense should have a huge second half of the season.
Can the defense keep up? Even if Bowles’ unit is just average the rest of the year, it should be enough for the Bucs to finish 14-3 at worst. Getting Carlton Davis III back will be huge. If he and Dean can keep playing at the level they have been this year, the Bucs’ marriage of rush and coverage should be the best it has been. Free safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. has also been lights out over his past few games. Could he be set to break out?
I have concerns about the Tampa Bay defense. But I want to allow the unit the chance to get healthy and hit its stride. The Bucs face just two teams with winning records the rest of the season. One of them, New Orleans, will be quarterbacked by Trevor Siemian or Taysom Hill. I think the best is yet to come for Tampa Bay in 2021.
1. Laugh A Little
The Bucs were incredibly physical with the Saints on Sunday. They committed way too many penalties, turned the ball over and lost the scheme battle on defense. But there were a lot of good things about Tampa Bay’s process in Week 8. The way their offensive line is playing is a huge reason why you should buy their stock heading into the second half of the season. Watching center Ryan Jensen and right tackle Tristan Wirfs work on Sunday provided a few laughs.