Welcome to the new Wednesday edition of Bucs Briefing! From now on, my weekly column will appear each Wednesday morning, detailing seven key observations on the team. This week we’ll focus heavily on my key observations from the first three weeks of Bucs training camp.
7. Brad Seaton May Have Closed The Gap
Bucs RT Brad Seaton – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
In the competition for the ninth offensive line spot, Nick Leverett has been the clear favorite through a few weeks of camp. But on Saturday, Brad Seaton may have closed the gap. Seaton wasn’t perfect, but re-watching the game revealed that he played much better than I originally thought. He looked like a clear-cut better option at tackle than Leverett, who struggled with speed and bend rushers against the Bengals.
This week at Bucs practice, Leverett has moved back inside to guard, splitting time with Earl Watford on the second team. Right now the Bucs are settled at their first three backups, with two interior offensive linemen in Aaron Stinnie and Robert Hainsey, and one tackle in Josh Wells. If the team is looking for one more tackle option in that ninth spot, Seaton will probably make the team. But if they feel confident in Hainsey’s ability to play tackle, that could make general manager Jason Licht more flexible with the ninth spot.
6. How To Carry 6 Non-Special Teams WRs
So, this one is going to be an adventure. Right now, the Bucs have six wide receivers that appear to be locks to make the final roster. None of them are preferable special teams contributors outside of Jaelon Darden in the return game. If all six are going to be active on game days, history tells us that at least one will need to be a kick coverage participant. But through almost four weeks of camp and a preseason game, that hasn’t been the case.
We know that Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Scotty Miller won’t be special teams options. Darden will return kicks, but won’t be on the coverage units. On Saturday, Tyler Johnson played just two special teams snaps, one on kick return and one on kickoff. He made a tackle on kickoff, but it was in pursuit after being walled off to the sideline, helping to allow a big return.
Bucs WRs Jaelon Darden and Tyler Johnson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Arians has maintained that it is important for Johnson to earn a role on special teams, but the numbers tell a different story. Johnson appears to be a lock to make the roster, despite not showing up in either of the first two punt teams. Perhaps Johnson will earn a spot on kickoff team, but I doubt it would be the coaches’ first preference.
So how do the Bucs circumvent their special teams shortage at wide receiver? The easiest path is having fourth-string running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn stand out at gunner, which he did on Saturday. They’ll monitor his special teams development closely in the next two weeks. It’s unusual for a running back to play gunner, but the Bucs will need an unusual solution if they are going to have six active non-specialist receivers on game days.
They’ll also need starting cornerbacks to continue to shoulder the load on kick coverage. That means Jamel Dean could remain as a gunner on punt team with Carlton Davis III and Sean Murphy-Bunting on kickoff. Because the Bucs put more kickoffs out of the back of the end zone than any other team in the NFL, it does give them more flexibility on special teams decisions.
5. A RoJo-Gio Backfield, Please
This is less about Leonard Fournette, who is not having the best camp, and more about what Tampa Bay’s other running backs have shown this offseason. Ronald Jones II has always been the superior runner, and he’s been far more sure-handed than Fournette through a month of camp. Jones is showing excellent burst and physicality as a runner, with improved timing as a receiver. He’ll never be a great passing downs back, but neither will Fournette.
Bucs RB Giovani Bernard – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Giovani Bernard, however, already is. He’s been everything the Bucs have hoped for and more this offseason. Bernard almost never drops a pass, gets open constantly underneath, creates a bit after the catch and is a monster in pass protection. The Bucs desperately need a player like Bernard on the field more, especially because he’s a legitimately good runner too. He actually might be a better fit in Tampa Bay’s duo scheme than Jones or Fournette, as Bernard can burst through creases off double teams with more acceleration.
Even Vaughn looks improved this offseason, and he’s more of a special teams asset than Fournette. The Bucs are doing their offense a disservice when they line up the former Top 5 pick over Jones or Bernard. The unit is simply better without No. 7 on the field.
4. Will The Bucs’ Run Scheme Improve?
I really don’t think so. The Bucs are painfully inefficient as a rushing offense, largely because they continually bring bees to honey by running so often out of 12 personnel with a wide receiver playing wing. Packing 10 of their 11 offensive players into a condensed space not only brings more defenders (i.e. variables) into that space, but it also makes it harder for running backs to see and decisively accelerate into space. We saw this again on Saturday night, when Tampa Bay rushed 17 times for an average of 1.7 yards per carry.
But until Tampa Bay shows a commitment to spreading the field more often when it runs, the results will be middling at best. Even with better backs, the outcome wouldn’t change much. The Bucs’ run-blocking scheme relies heavily upon moving defenders out of gaps to create holes for backs to run through. This flies in the face of a league that is finding greater rushing efficiency by creating angles with their blocking schemes to shield defenders from the ball, rather than fully displacing them.
Still, I don’t see the Bucs’ lack of elite run game efficiency as a major issue – yet. Right now, their run scheme is most effective because of how it sets up their passing game, which is dynamic. However, if more teams choose to play them from 2-high alignments this season, daring the Bucs to run it more successfully, I’m not sure they’ll have the answers on the ground.
3. Play-Action Explosion Coming?
The saving grace of Tampa Bay’s run game inefficiency is that by forcing teams to load the box, it does open up the play-action passing game from 12 (two tight ends) and 13 (three tight ends) personnel. After two seasons of clamoring for Arians to deploy more play-action passing, Bucs fans may finally get their wish. The team increased their play-action usage significantly following the bye week last year, using it at a season-high rate in the wild card and Super Bowl match-ups.
That rate of usage seems to have impacted the team’s practice habits. Although they ran just three play-action passes in their first preseason game, the Bucs have made a staple of almost every training camp session. They’ve created chunk plays galore off play fakes as well, opening up the middle of the field. Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will probably never use play-action as much as we want them to, but expect an increase this season.
2. Backup O-Line Impressing
Bucs G Sadarius Hutcherson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
In re-watching the Bucs-Bengals preseason game, I was really impressed with the second-team offensive line. Leverett had his struggles and Seaton lost a rep or two, but the interior trio was stout in the first half. On Blaine Gabbert’s lone touchdown drive, the Bucs offensive line of Leverett, left guard Sadarius Hutcherson, center John Molchon, right guard Aaron Stinnie and Seaton played well. Gabbert’s pockets were mostly clean, and the run game had its’ best push of the night.
Hutcherson’s torn ACL is a shame, as he was impressive against Cincinnati. Molchon has made strides at center, and could be a practice squad option. Stinnie has continued to improve as a player, even if his run game limitations will always be there. Losing starting offensive linemen in the NFL is extremely dangerous, but I feel more confident in the Bucs’ depth than many other teams.
1. Watch Out For Mike Edwards
It was only six defensive plays, but Bucs safety Mike Edwards looked very at home in the starting lineup for Tampa Bay. He had a pair of excellent fills against the run, the last of which helped cause a Samaje Perine fumble on the Bengals first drive. Edwards’ tackling was criticized as a rookie, but he made major strides in that area last year. I don’t view it as a liability for Edwards given how fast and decisive he’s seeing the game right now.
As a smaller safety without elite athleticism, Edwards game has always been predicated on instincts. He’s begun to thrive in Tampa Bay by relying on those instincts – in coverage and in run support. Edwards has continued to impress with his ball production, even while stepping into a strong safety role in Jordan Whitehead’s stead. If Whitehead remains out and Edwards continues to impress, it might be hard for the Bucs’ banged-up safety to win his job back.
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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