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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

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

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

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.

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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
fredster(@fredster)
1 month ago

The O line did well pass protecting but there were very few holes in run game imo. Saints Defense seemed be in backfield a lot especially second half of game. The pass rush is an issue. JPP been hurt all year and Arians won’t play Tryon more. Seems dumb to me but guess that’s why he gets paid the big money lol. Bucs will be a force in playoffs if they stay healthy and Davis can return. SMB who knows dude is so inconsistent. To me the pass rush issue is sometimes complicated but I think the main reason the… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by fredster
Captain Sly
Captain Sly(@captain-sly)
1 month ago

We can analyze this from every angle and even over analyze this but the truth is that we got out coached in this one. Our backup DB’s vs their backup WR’s. Their key injuries vs our key injuries. However when a team loses their starting QB 1st half and you allow the backup to lead a game winning drive, You got Out Coached!

RW
RW(@rwp111)
Reply to  Captain Sly
1 month ago

As Jon mentioned when the Bucs Dline ( and blitzes) generates no pressure all game expect the D backs to get torched. Also the Saints ran for 150 yards on the “best” run defense in the NFL. Game, set and match right there.

Captain Sly
Captain Sly(@captain-sly)
Reply to  RW
1 month ago

Yeah but again the blitz is a pressure package called from the coach on the sideline, we got the sack when we didn’t blitz. Bad Coaching Decision!

JSW
JSW(@pewtereyes)
Reply to  Captain Sly
1 month ago

Agreed! Do you think if Brady had gone down in the 1st quarter, with Blane Gabbert in concussion protocol, that Ryan Griffen or Kyle Trask would have won that game for us? As unlikely as that would be, it’s far more likely than Seimens beating the Bucs! And yet, it happened! I only hope Todd Bowles and Bruce Arians get their revenge…

surferdudes
surferdudes(@surferdudes)
1 month ago

This team needs a defensive tackle that can get to the QB. Suh, and Vea are great run stuffers, and they can push the pocket, but neither can beat an O lineman to the QB like Donald can, or Sapp could do. JPP has been handicapped by injury, and is not playing up to snuff so we have no pass rush. Shaq is easy to deal with when no one else is a threat. Nelson is totally useless, Tryon isn’t getting enough snaps. I don’t see our defense magically getting better.

plopes808
plopes808(@plopes808)
1 month ago

Last year we saw the defense carry the offense at times. This year has been the opposite with the defense so banged up. This bye week is coming at a great time and should allow us to get back a few of our key pieces. Once the defense gets healthy and plays as well as the offense, we will be very hard to beat.

drdneast
drdneast(@drdneast)
1 month ago

Yoy just can’t miss defensive holding calls like the one’s in Brady’s first INT, especially the very obvious one that was capped off with a hands to the face, unless you want to. That game was fixed.

Eddie
Eddie(@oct62020)
Reply to  drdneast
1 month ago

On top of that, why does the Saints seemed to know what kind of plays we are running, both on offense and defense. Just seemed like they were at the right spots before our players.

drdneast
drdneast(@drdneast)
1 month ago

That punch Wirf’s through into the DL was almost as good as Godwin’s stiff arm.

drdneast
drdneast(@drdneast)
1 month ago

I don’t think it’s that big of a secret why the Bucs aren’t sacking the QB as often, the QB’s are getting rid of the ball a lot faster on shorter routes. You even said yourself not as many deep balls have been completed on the team. Mystery solved.

Captain Sly
Captain Sly(@captain-sly)
Reply to  drdneast
1 month ago

When you blitz you leave the middle of the field wide open, qb’s are just throwing to the vacanted area. There mystery solved More.

scubog
scubog(@scubog)
Reply to  drdneast
1 month ago

It’s amazing how similarly you and I see the game when others seem so blind to what is obvious to you and me. Having a secondary that should be called the “Backstreet Boys” because these guys were literally pulled off the street and still be comparatively effective, is a remarkable coaching achievement. Teams are simply following the Cowboys’ game plan of QB’s getting rid of the ball to outlets before the pass rush can get home. The hope is that the Bucs will commit a penalty or miss a tackle. Both of which the Bucs have been all too accommodating.… Read more »

Spitfire
Spitfire(@spitfire)
1 month ago

I’ve been sayin since the start of the season that all year long the Officals have been nit picking our flags and completely ignoring most of the potential flags on our opponents. It’s just about blatant enough that they should launch and investigation (which wouldn’t matter if it’s coming from the top). It’s almost like they are trying to make up for getting crap about all the calls on KC in the first half of the Super Bowl (even though the were legit calls). I am not worried at all. This loss will fuel the rest of our season. We… Read more »

JSW
JSW(@pewtereyes)
1 month ago

I won’t lament any of the penalties against the Bucs Sunday. They were all valid – even though a bit ticky-tack. What I have a problem with is the Saints were doing the exact same things – holding receivers and taunting – and the refs never called them, even once! I have no problem if an officiating crew wants to call a strict game – or let the boys play. But it has to fair on BOTH sides. If the refs call a fair game, the Saints never win that one!!! (Still doubt my conspiracy theory of the NFL having… Read more »

drdneast
drdneast(@drdneast)
Reply to  JSW
1 month ago

I agree with all your points.

JSW
JSW(@pewtereyes)
1 month ago

Interesting that Dean’s uptick in play coincides with Richard Sherman’s arrival. Dean has always had the physical skills! It’s the mental side he struggles with. And he will never be as intelligent as SMB. But with Sherman’s tutelage and the use of more man coverage, Dean has shown that he can play lights out!
So far, SMB’s career has been “all or nothing” – mostly nothing. I would rather watch Dean or Sherman play.

Horse
Horse(@horse)
1 month ago

Clean up the tackling, stop the taunting, and we’ll be fine. Go Bucs! Keep the Repeat alive! Excited to be going to DC to watch the Bucs play.

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