The most unpopular person in any NFL organization during a given week of the season is almost always a team’s offensive coordinator. The benefit of hindsight gives every fan and analyst the opportunity to wield their armchair quarterback opinions, and social media provides the vehicle to promote such opinions with the support of a spur-of-emotion response from followers and colleagues.
Sometimes, those critics are spot on. Sometimes, for many different reasons, they miss the mark entirely.
During Tampa Bay’s 25-23 win against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football, most of the criticism of offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich was actually unwarranted, especially in the second half.
The Bucs are a team that has lived and died by what they have accomplished as a passing offense for years now, and that’s the way it should be. Wins in the NFL in 2020 most often occur due to offensive success in the passing game, and that is perhaps the only aspect of a winning formula Tampa Bay has represented over the past five seasons.
So when the Bucs attempt to establish the run as they did early Monday night against the Giants, fan and analyst response is understandably critical.
“This isn’t what the Bucs do!”
“This isn’t how their offensive line was constructed to win!”
“The Bucs running backs aren’t good enough to lean on consistently!”
Agreed, agreed and agreed. But while Leftwich deserves some criticism for his early game approach as Tampa Bay trailed 14-6 at halftime, he’s not getting enough credit for the way he altered the Bucs’ attack in the second half, going pass heavy with great success, especially on early downs.
On Monday night, Leftwich called runs 13 times on first down compared to 18 passes. Seven of those first down runs came on the Bucs’ first three drives of the game, with the other six coming in the second half. But of those six second half first down runs, Leftwich called three of those first down runs on the Bucs’ final drive of the game, which began with just under seven minutes remaining in the contest and Tampa Bay holding a 22-17 lead.
It’s understandable the Bucs would want to establish the run to some degree at that point in the game to burn some clock and force the Giants to burn their timeouts, although I would have preferred a return to split zone and counter from a schematic standpoint after Tampa Bay had a little bit of success running those concepts in the first quarter.
But throughout the majority of the second half, the Bucs were a pass-first, play-action heavy offense on early downs, and it’s the biggest reason, outside of Daniel Jones’ mistakes, that they emerged victorious on Monday night.
On Tampa Bay’s first drive of the second half, the team went play-action twice and New York defended it well both times. But Leftwich stuck with it, calling a seldom-used play-action pass out of shotgun, with Tom Brady hitting tight end Rob Gronkowski streaking down the seam between the linebackers’ late drop into zone coverage.
Watch how the false run key of right guard Alex Cappa pulling holds the linebackers and allows the window to open up just enough to get the ball to Gronkowski for a gain of 16. Also note the terrific job by Gronkowski of bending his route to the middle of the field just slightly, slipping between the underneath zone and away from the boundary safety to give Brady the perfect lane for a throw. That’s excellent attention to detail from the veteran tight end.
On the very next play the Bucs go play-action again, holding the underneath coverage near the line of scrimmage to open up throwing windows for routes breaking back to the quarterback. By going heavy personnel and just two wide receivers, the Bucs force the Giants to load the box, but they need one of their two receiving options to work open on the play.
Cue Mike Evans doing what he does best, running off cornerback James Bradberry with a strong vertical push before breaking back to the ball on the curl route. It’s a 20-yard gain off a first down play-action pass, and the Bucs are in the red zone.
Bucs fans might have thought they were dreaming when Leftwich dialed up a third consecutive play-action pass – again from the shotgun. This one netted Tampa Bay a 14-yard gain off a defensive pass interference penalty, setting them up with a first-and-goal situation at the Giants’ 3-yard line. The Bucs would end the drive on the next play with – you guessed it – a first down 3-yard TD pass off play-action to Gronkowski. Four straight first down play-action passes gave the Bucs their first lead of the game, 15-14.
Tampa Bay’s next drive of the game began at 9:59 of the fourth quarter, with the Bucs trailing 17-15. Facing a 1st-and-20 after a holding penalty by offensive tackle Joe Haeg, Leftwich wasted no time in being aggressive to go after the lost yardage.
Leftwich correctly anticipated the seams being open with the Giants in zone coverage and the New York linebackers struggling to get much depth in coverage all night. On one of the biggest plays of the game, Brady pulls the trigger to rookie receiver Tyler Johnson down the seam for 20 yards and a huge conversion to get the Bucs on the cusp of field goal range.
But field goals would end up being an afterthought, as Leftwich stayed aggressive on the very next play of the game.
On first-and-10 the Bucs go 13 personnel from under center, again forcing the Giants to load the box. The play fake doesn’t get New York’s defenders to bite as hard as it did in the third quarter, but a great route by tight end Cameron Brate against linebacker Blake Martinez created separation for a 25-yard gain on first down. On the very next play the Bucs again went play-action pass from shotgun on the 8-yard line, with Brady pulling the ball from Jones’ stomach to launch a perfect fade pass to Evans for a touchdown.
For the game, Brady was 14-18 for 150 yards and two touchdowns on first down throws, while also picking up an extra 14 yards on a first down pass interference penalty. Leftwich’s aggressive first down play-calling netted seven double-digit first down gains through the air, including three of 20 yards or more.
The Bucs second-year offensive coordinator also consistently dialed up the play-action pass with tremendous results, as Brady went 10-11 for 110 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 10 yards per attempt per Pro Football Focus. Tampa Bay’s last six drives of the game ended as follows: FG, FG, TD, Punt, TD, FG. Not bad for an offensive coordinator curiously accused of being too conservative at times.
The large sample size of evaluating Leftwich as a play-caller simply doesn’t show that to be true. He’s one of the most aggressive neutral situation offensive play callers in the NFL, with the below graphic being posted before Monday Night Football (which would have slightly elevated the Bucs’ rate).
The Bucs also almost never run the ball on 2nd-and-long, staying away from one of the lowest percentage play calls in the NFL. Heading into Week 8, the Bucs were the fifth-least likely team in the league to run the ball on 2nd-and-long, a sign that Leftwich is aggressive to go after yardage early in long down-and-distance situations.
The Seahawks have almost entirely excised the 2nd and long run — aka the worst play in football — from their offense pic.twitter.com/ttsaqjjKgN
There are certainly gripes to be had with Leftwich, on Monday night and beyond. The run concepts he wanted to deploy in the game made little sense given the Giants defensive strengths up the middle at middle linebacker and defensive tackle, and his third-and-1 play call to run at the A-gaps with the Giants outstanding defensive tackles in a Bear front could have contributed to Tampa Bay losing the game, or at least allowing the game to go into overtime.
But criticizing Leftwich for a run-heavy approach, especially on early downs, wasn’t really fair on Monday night, especially in the second half. If anything, Leftwich’s pivot to a pass-heavy, play-action oriented attack over the final 30 minutes was one of the biggest reasons why the Bucs emerged victorious on Monday night. In a game where there wasn’t much to be excited about outside of the result for Bucs’ fans, Leftwich’s process was a clear positive in getting the team to 6-2 at the midseason point.
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