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 Coaches Tab Dean As CB2
I’ll be honest, I had my doubts. I didn’t think the Bucs coaching staff would be able to help themselves from putting Sean Murphy-Bunting back in the starting lineup in base defense. But give defensive coordinator Todd Bowles some credit. While Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis III were out injured, Dean stepped up and played great. He’s earned the opportunity to start opposite Davis, and on Sunday his play was rewarded.
Of course, Dean ended up bowing out with a concussion about halfway through the game. But before the injury, he was playing extremely well. His best reps came in the red zone, during the Bucs’ goal line stand to force a Falcons field goal.
Dean is playing patient and under control in man coverage, being careful not to take any false steps. As a result, his positioning as the ball is coming out is much better than it has been in the past. That improved technique is giving quarterbacks less room to find an opening when targeting the third-year cornerback. Dean was thrown at three times on Sunday, and these are two of them. On the third, he came up and made a terrific open-field tackle on Kyle Pitts, holding the catch to zero yards.
Dean has always had better peaks than Murphy-Bunting, but his cerebral mistakes have always held him back just when it looks like he’s taking a leap. In 2021, Dean has been much cleaner from the neck up. With Murphy-Bunting struggling, Dean has taken full advantage to earn more playing time. Head coach Bruce Arians also seemed optimistic that Dean could clear concussion protocol by Sunday’s game against the Bills.
That would be huge for Tampa Bay. I’ll never rule out the possibility of an inexplicable clunker or two that Dean seems to leave us with every year. But he’s in the midst of the best stretch of his career. If Dean can keep this up, it could pay dividends for the Bucs secondary.
6. Bucs Using Gronkowski Better In 2021
It was a slow start in 2020, but once Rob Gronkowski got rolling, he was tough to stop for opposing defenses. But it took a while for the Bucs to deploy him in ways that best utilize his skill set. In fact, it really hasn’t been until 2021 that Tampa Bay has maximized Gronkowski’s usage.
For most of Gronkowski’s career in New England, he played about 450-550 snaps in the slot or out wide each season. In Josh McDaniels’ offense, Gronkowski was constantly on the move. He flexed away from the formation to dictate coverages consistently, and was often isolated in pre-snap alignments. This opened up Gronkowski’s route tree, allowing he and Brady to work their favorite concepts from a variety of different looks.
But in 2020, the Bucs didn’t really see Gronkowski that way. They brought him in almost as a luxury move; a courtesy to Brady at a cheap enough cost. Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich saw Gronkowski as a player who could boost the team’s run blocking, help out in pass protection and make a few plays in the red zone too. I truly don’t think either coach dared to imagine that vintage Gronkowski would be suiting up for Tampa Bay.
But fast forward to 2021, and even the second half of 2020, and that’s pretty much what Gronkowski has been. Last year, the big tight end caught fire over the final 11 games of the season. Counting the playoffs, Gronkowski had four 50+ yard receiving game and six touchdowns. It wasn’t anything awe-inspiring, but it showed he could be a bigger part of the offense. The future Hall of Famer finished the 2020 regular season with 45 catches for 623 yards and seven scores.
Not everyone has been able to witness Gronk week-to-week this season, but it's been pretty tough to tell the difference between peak Gronk and 2020 Gronk in the passing game this year, especially over the 2nd half of the season. Just a monster. pic.twitter.com/1YbPGexB6G
In 2021, Gronkowski has been even better. Through just six games, Gronkowski has 33 catches for 436 yards and six touchdowns. That’s an average of 73 yards and a touchdown every time he steps on the field. Over a full 16-game season, Gronkowski’s numbers project to 94 catches for 1,241 yards and 17 touchdowns. Basically doubling up (or better) his numbers from a year ago.
Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski – Photo by: USA Today
One of the big reasons for Gronkowski’s jump in production has been his alignment flexibility. Last year, the Bucs played Gronkowski in-line on 88 percent of his snaps. In 20 games (counting the playoffs), Gronkowski aligned in the slot just 80 times and out wide just 40. Compare that to his last season in New England, when Gronkowski spent 350 snaps in the slot and 103 out wide in just 16 games.
To be clear, the Bucs are never going to approach those numbers due to the team’s star power at receiver. But Gronkowski has already been flexed in the slot 54 times this season, despite playing just over six games. He’s spent 21 reps split outside as well. Over a 20-game season like last year, that would project to 180 slot snaps and 70 wide snaps.
Gronkowski has also seen a massive drop in pass protection reps this season. Last year, Gronk was pass blocking on 104 snaps, the most of his career. This year, his average pass protection reps per game has gone from 5.3 to 3.3. In the past two games, Gronkowski hasn’t spent a single play as a pass blocker.
They aren’t Patriot-numbers, but the Patriots didn’t have the Bucs’ receivers either. What it does represent is a step in the right direction for Gronkowski. He’s still the kind of talent you can isolate and create match-ups for in the passing game.
Tampa Bay did just this at the end of the third quarter against Atlanta. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich wisely isolated Gronkowski on the backside of a 3×1 formation, putting him in single coverage. But Brady saw the match-up and changed Gronkowski’s route, taking a shot at the end zone.
“That second touchdown definitely brought me back to the heyday, with the fade,” Gronkowski said after the Bucs victory. “[Brady] gave me an audible. I wasn’t supposed to have a fade, but he saw it. Just reminds me of the heyday with us.”
By heyday, Gronkowski means the peak of he and Brady’s excellence in New England. For a year or two, many believed those days had run their course. But Brady and Gronkowski keep showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Now that the Bucs coaching staff is doing more to weaponize Gronkowski, opposing defenses are no closer to finding answers for the duo than they have ever been.
5. Did the Bucs Find A Hidden Gem?
I’m not one to overreact to small sample sizes, as listeners of the Pewter Report Podcast know. But Cam Gill might be a future Hall of Famer.
Okay, okay. Maybe that’s an overreaction. Multiple-time Pro Bowler. Maybe that’s more realistic.
In all seriousness, it’s hard to imagine being more impressive in 17 defensive snaps than Gill has been. Despite barely playing, Gill has two sacks in just 14 pass rush reps. Last year, Gill managed a sack and three pressures in just 19 pass rush reps. That means he’s averaging a sack every 11 pass rushes in his career right now!
Obviously that sample size is too small to be sustainable, but it goes to show how impressive Gill has been when he’s played. Against the Giants, Gill made his six snaps counts with this sack.
My favorite play of the game was absolutely Bucs special teamers Cam Gill and Pat O'Connor destroying Nate Solder and Will Hernandez for a sack lol. Gill pancaked Solder with his back 😂 pic.twitter.com/xHk4EQIADz
The Bucs edge rusher flies off the left edge, but the Giants are ready for him. Right tackle Nate Solder sets deep, expecting the outside rush. But he sets too deep, considering the chip help he’s getting from the running back. Gill wisely charges hard up-field, gets Solder to turn his hips and then spins inside at the last second. A stunned Solder gets pancaked by Gill’s violent change-of-direction, allowing the sack. It’s not too often you see a speed-to-power pancake spin move sack!
Against Atlanta, Gill made a splash, too. Playing a season-high seven snaps, Gill notched a sack and a nice pursuit tackle against the run. It wasn’t a gift sack either, as Gill beat Jake Matthews with a bull rush-rip move transition off the edge.
That’s a quality left tackle that Gill is taking to the woodshed with this rush. What more can he do with a bigger workload? We don’t know yet, but it might be time to find out. Consider that Jason Pierre-Paul has played 494 more snaps than Gill, yet has just half-a-sack more.
Of course, sacks aren’t the only determination, either. Pierre-Paul’s struggles as an all-around contributor are becoming more evident each week. Whether it’s his shoulder injury or a natural decline, he’s quickly slipping down the list of options for the Bucs across from Shaq Barrett. Pierre-Paul has been decidedly bad as a run defender and pass rusher, and the Tampa Bay coaches are finally accepting reality. The veteran edge rusher’s snap counts have dropped for five consecutive weeks.
Last year, that would have been a death knell for the Bucs defense. But this season, Gill is boosting the team’s edge defender depth in impressive fashion with two sacks. I don’t know what the ceiling is for Gill, but I know I want to find out.
4. A Plea For Scotty
Against the Falcons on Sunday, Breshad Perriman saw the field for 59 snaps. That’s 59 more snaps than the Jets thought he was worth in free agency last year. It’s 59 more snaps than the Lions wanted to play Perriman when they cut him in August. That’s right, Perriman couldn’t make the vaunted Lions wide receiver corps (sarcasm). He couldn’t get on the field in Chicago either, where they didn’t elevate him from the practice squad for one play, let alone 59.
But on Sunday, Tampa Bay felt like he had earned 59 snaps. Fifty more plays than Tyler Johnson, who was demoted against the Falcons. And 55 more snaps than Scotty Miller, who is curiously out of favor in Tampa Bay despite an incredible impact-per-snap track record. All Perriman did with the opportunity was drop one pass and catch another for five yards. In three games, Perriman has seven targets, three catches and two drops. One of those drops was a touchdown against the Giants in Week 11.
Bucs WR Breshad Perriman – Photo by: USA Today
“BP has had a couple good weeks of practice,” Arians said on Monday. “He brings an explosiveness out there. It was a game where I felt like – Tyler [Johnson] has been playing [well], Scotty [Miller] has been playing [well], but I wanted to get him on the field more. He does block well, and he does everything. It was more just getting him the reps.”
Practice? We’re talking about practice? Not the game? Practice?
In defense of the coaches, Johnson has not played well for several weeks now. He’s blocking great and playing hard, but he is struggling to get open. What’s tough for Johnson is that he’s probably best in the slot, but Chris Godwin plays there heavily for the Bucs. That’s pushed Johnson outside, where his skill set doesn’t stand out as much. I still think he’s the best No. 3 option in the group, but I understand wanting to try a different approach.
Perriman might be a better outside receiver than Johnson for what the Bucs want in their offense right now. If it were Godwin hurt and not Antonio Brown, Johnson would be the one playing 59 snaps. I can rationalize that part of it. But what about Miller?
Since returning from injury, Miller has played just eight offensive snaps in two games. Yes, he messed up his route and caused an interception against the Colts. But he came back later in the game and drew a game-changing, 37-yard defensive pass interference penalty. He’s a proven deep threat with a track record of excellent play with Tom Brady.
Remember, heading into Week 9 last year, Miller led Tampa Bay in receiving yards. He’s created some of the most memorable plays in Bucs history, and is one of the NFL’s fastest players. Last year, Miller caught 33 passes for 501 yards and three touchdowns. And the games he played the most in were his best games.
I’m not saying Miller should be the WR3 over Antonio Brown, obviously. I’m not even saying Miller should strip Johnson and Perriman of all snaps. But I am saying he deserves more playing time than four snaps a game. A lot more. As long as Brown is out, there is no great option as the No. 3 wide receiver. So play the guy who just needs one play to change the game, rather than the guy with no recent track record of doing anything.
Brady dropping it in the bucket to Scotty Miller who we can see just open it up on this play and show off his speed pic.twitter.com/C8jMaHepH4
It didn’t take long for Carlton Davis III to remind everyone how important he is to the Bucs secondary. The fourth-year cornerback had a memorable return on Sunday, balling out against the Falcons aerial attack. Davis had three pass breakups in the game, and discouraged a handful of other throws with great coverage. He put the clamps on receivers all night, showing no ill effects from his torn quad.
Staying connected on a route like this in man coverage is really hard. Not only does Davis recover enough to be in position to make a play, but he also gets his head around and finds the football. It’s hard to tell if he gets a piece of it or not, but his presence at the catch point definitely forced the incompletion.
I love how Davis gives no ground here as Pitts drives vertically. Davis stays square to the line of scrimmage and drives is in Pitts’ pocket at the top of the route. At the catch point, the cornerback works around the receiver perfectly to knock down the pass without drawing a flag. Textbook stuff.
If the Bucs are going to get Davis at 100 percent and this new-and-improved Jamel Dean down the stretch, their defensive ceiling just got a bit higher. It remains to be seen how often the scheme will put them in position to make plays, but the Tampa Bay secondary feels like it’s trending up. Antoine Winfield, Jr. was lights out in coverage again in Week 13, and it sounds like Jordan Whitehead won’t miss too much time. One of the biggest tests of the season arrives on Sunday, however, when Josh Allen and the Bills come to town.
2. Playoff Outlook
Don’t look now, but the Bucs can clinch the NFC South with a win this week. They only need a couple things to go their way too. The Bucs need to beat the Bills, and have the Saints and Panthers lose or tie in Week 14. New Orleans plays in New York against the Jets, while Carolina hosts Atlanta. Both of those games at 1:00 p.m., so the Bucs will know what’s on the table before kickoff at 4:25 p.m.
But beating the Bills won’t be easy. I wouldn’t put much stock at all in Buffalo’s recent results. Yes, Buffalo has been inconsistent on offense. But they have one of the league’s most talented quarterbacks and plenty of talent in the passing game. Brian Daboll is an outstanding play-caller who will test the Tampa Bay pass defense relentlessly. Anything less than an A-game from Bowles will put a lot of stress on the Bucs offense.
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians and QB Tom Brady – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Bills defense has struggled against the run in recent weeks. They’ve also lost top cornerback Tre White to a season-ending injury. Despite the success of the Colts and Patriots on the ground against Buffalo, Tampa Bay needs to remember who it is. The Bucs are not the kind of offense that is going to pound it 25-40 times a game and win. The Bills have the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense, but they also haven’t been tested a ton through the air this year. By far the best quarterback they’ve faced this year has been Patrick Mahomes in Week 5. And that was in the throes of the Chiefs offensive slump.
If the Bucs lose, basically any hope of the No. 1 seed goes away. It’s an extremely important game, given how few sure-fire playoff teams Tampa Bay has faced this season. They’ve lost to two teams with .500 or worse records, and defeated three teams over .500. Two of those wins came before Week 5, however. The Bucs need a win to hang their hat on heading into a four-game stretch of games they’ll be heavily favored in. Can Tampa Bay go on a run to close out a 14-3 regular season?
1. Laugh A Little
The amount of funny, creative people on the internet is incredible to me. This video by actor Joshua Neal had me in tears this week. Extremely well done.
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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