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.

Bucs RB Ronald Jones II and QB Tom Brady

Bucs RB Ronald Jones II and QB Tom Brady – Photo by: USA Today

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.

Bucs OC Byron Leftwich and QB Tom Brady

Bucs OC Byron Leftwich and QB Tom Brady – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

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.

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.

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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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chefboho
9 months ago

I get what you’re saying Jon, but the fact that they were down by so much in the first half was because of the constant behind the chain run up the middle on first down. Being behind in the second half and not doing it as much doesn’t excuse the simple fact that on first down this team has been predictable. Lucky we have studs all over the offense to make up for lackluster first down plays. I think i remember them doing one sweep run to the right with Fournette and it went for almost ten yards. I guess… Read more »

Last edited 9 months ago by chefboho
ngldevin
Reply to  chefboho
9 months ago

I’m more upset with Arians for the cowardly field goal at the end of the game than I am at leftwich. Thought we missed a lot of plays in the first half that were there for the making. Cleaned it up the second half. Got the W! I’ll take it.

bucballer
Reply to  ngldevin
9 months ago

I think Brady was a little upset as well!

Ian
Ian
Reply to  ngldevin
9 months ago

If we would have gone for it on 4th & 2 there at the end of the game and gotten stuffed with a 5-point lead, and then NYG did exactly what they ultimately did and drive down the field for a TD, we would have lost.

In retrospect, coach absolutely made the right call by kicking the FG to go up by 8 and guarantee we would get at least one more drive on offense in OT if the Giants willed themselves to a TD and 2pt conv.

bucballer
9 months ago

Yes, I don’t enjoy BL calling runs and thus making the Bucs a little predictable. My problem with BLs play calling is where he chooses to run the ball when he does call a run play. To continue to run dives right up the middle into the Giants strength. Do we not run the ball on any sweeps or runs outside the tackles?

DT25
Reply to  bucballer
9 months ago

Agree. Running out of shotgun with RoJo has produced the most successful runs we’ve had this season. Not sure why we are so obsessed with running single back dives up the middle so often on early downs. I’m OK with running the ball on 1st at the rate we do…just use some damn variety.

Last edited 9 months ago by DT25
bucballer
Reply to  DT25
9 months ago

Yep!

Dave
Reply to  DT25
9 months ago

Perfectly put! The best run calling systems in the league(Shanahan, Kubiak, Stefanski, Kingsbury, Roman, Pederson, McVay, Payton, Reid), all do an excellent job of mixing up run types, and calling runs that play to the strengths of their RB’s and OLine. We absolutely do NOT do that. Especially Rojo. Last year, BL constantly gave Rojo and Barber the exact same type of runs over and over. And those were 2 completely different style backs. It’s proven by many great offensive minds, that a great system makes great backs, and not great backs being great in any system. Shanahan, Kubiak, and… Read more »

Last edited 9 months ago by Dave
Ian
Ian
Reply to  DT25
9 months ago

Because our run game is solely meant to set up the play-action pass. And guess what… it does just that!

drdneast
9 months ago

I belief the chief complaint about BL is that he continue to try and slam the ball up the middle with very few positive results.
I certainly don’t mind him calling running plays but at the same thing time after time on first down gets aggravating and predictable and has seen very little positive results.

twspin
9 months ago

Bucs were not up for the Giants at all. But they found out the Giants were up for them. We got lucky and Luck counts. We have been on the other side of this situation countless times. Never underestimate an opponent in this NFl. Even the worst team can eat your lunch if you are not prepared mentally.

Eddie
Reply to  twspin
9 months ago

And that should fall on the shoulder of the coaching staff. The team was not prepared or up for the Giants game.

bucballer
Reply to  twspin
9 months ago

In fact, twspin, the Bucs have a history of playing down to their opponent! We’ve seen it time and time again, even with backup QBs who light it up against us! Play every game balls to the walls. The other team gets paid too…

Horse
9 months ago

Why do fans focus on the offensive coordinator and not the defensive coordinator if the game is close?
I’m more concerned about our defense.
Jon your thoughts?

bucballer
Reply to  Horse
9 months ago

Because the defensive coordinator is not calling the predictable 10 dive right up the middle…again!

Last edited 9 months ago by bucballer
Greg Abdul
9 months ago

Too many of us are too used to losing. Brady is one of the greatest QB’s to ever play the game. Fournette is a super back that went off in the first five picks when the Jags picked him. We have got All Pro players at every skill position on offense. So if they run the ball, we have great backs. If they throw it, We have got a great passing game. Please guys. Think like winners! Think about how we match up with Seattle, the Cardinals and the Saints. This team is winning! why would anyone complain about our… Read more »

Last edited 9 months ago by Greg Abdul
bucballer
Reply to  Greg Abdul
9 months ago

Hey Greg… I agree. Some of us r not complaining about our side. Some of us r only stating the obvious… if we play like we did against the Giants, against Kansas City, we will lose. Only trying to focus in on that which will make this team even better. And that is a little less predictably in the run play calling by running outside the tackles as well… which enables RoJo to use his speed. Nothing more or nothing less. We r all Buc fans. And we r enjoying this ride. But the effort against the Giants will not… Read more »

Last edited 9 months ago by bucballer
Greg Abdul
Reply to  bucballer
9 months ago

The Chiefs matchup is the SuperBowl….AFTER we beat the Seahawks and the Cardinals.

The Wall
9 months ago

I’m not buying it Jon. What you’re saying is he did a great job of play calling in the second half. Why do we have to wait until we’re behind to start “great” play calling? It’s almost like he has to be forced to start opening up. I get that an offensive coordinator can make some bad calls, but come on, everybody in the football world knew what he was going to do. He effectively killed our first few drives. Maybe we should hire a first half offensive coordinator. I’m sure he’s a good guy but our offense isn’t built… Read more »

scubog
9 months ago

We Bucs fans have complained about the Offensive Coordinators and the predictability of the plays since the beginning. Coach John McKay even concurred with the fans about the notion of “executing the offense”. 28 Pitch again? Back in those days, folks who disdained the idea of a college coach in the NFL, would claim that “the Bucs run college plays” to which I would ask that the person draw me up a “college” play and a “pro” play and explain the difference. No one ever did. Of course the fans also sit in the stands and predict the next play… Read more »

Ian
Ian
9 months ago

Excellent analysis, Jon. At least Byron keeps the defenses guessing by leaning toward the run on first downs long enough and then lures them into PA fakes as soon as they key in on the runs. I don’t think any D.C. would guess we would have gone PA 4x in a row on that TD drive.

Now the really interesting part begins when he has all three pro bowl receivers healthy and two good RBs to pound the rock. Bring on the competition, because we are just heating up!!

Kimba
1 month ago

reading this now as it is a link from an article today about Leftwich and Bowles pff ranking. Jon Ledyard–love your podcasts and all your articles, you are easy to listen too. Please stop using these tiny gifs–I cannot see the numbers of the players–pic is so small it is a useless tease. find a way not to ever do this again thankyou.