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. What Is Going On In Bucs Secondary?
To be honest, it might be easier to tell you what isn’t going on in the Bucs secondary these days. Through 13 games, Tampa Bay has had absolutely zero cohesion in their defensive backfield. Last week, Carlton Davis III returned, but Jordan Whitehead was ruled out with a calf injury and Mike Edwards was suspended. Then Jamel Dean bowed out with a concussion, and both Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting were shaken up during the game.
This week, Richard Sherman and Dean returned, while Whitehead and Edwards remained out. Seventeen plays into the game, Dean was gone again. Davis also missed a few plays after being shaken up for the second game in a row. So how did the Bucs handle another week of moving pieces?
Bucs CB Jamel Dean – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
With Dean out, Murphy-Bunting and Davis started in base defense. But the Bills kept Tampa Bay in nickel most of the game, which meant 67 snaps for Ross Cockrell. That’s the most snaps Cockrell has played in a game all season! It’s telling that the Bucs, who essentially benched Cockrell for Edwards a few weeks ago, would rather have him at nickel than bring in Sherman to play outside with Davis, moving Murphy-Bunting to nickel.
Then again, it could have just been a match-up oriented move. Cockrell was tasked with guarding the smaller, shiftier Cole Beasley a good bit. That likely wouldn’t have been a pretty match-up for Murphy-Bunting. It wasn’t for Cockrell either, as he gave up eight catches on nine targets for 83 yards.
On the back end, Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Andrew Adams locked it down for most of the game. But Sherman rotated in as well, specifically in pass-obvious situations. On the Bills’ first third down of the game, a third-and-18, Sherman was out there as the Bucs ran a 3-safety deep look. Winfield and Cockrell were the other two deep defenders. On the next drive, Sherman was the lone single-high free safety with Adams off the field and Winfield blitzing.
Bucs CB Richard Sherman – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
It’s not a knock on Sherman, I’m just not sure I’d trot him out there as a deep safety anymore. It’s a brand new position for a player who can’t rely on athleticism at all. There is very little margin for error in any of his movements. So when Sherman missed a coverage rotation late in the game that could have been the Bills game-winning touchdown, I put that on the coaches. And when he has to fill the alley to tackle a screen and takes a tough angle a play or two later, I blame the coaches for putting him in that spot.
Sherman’s interception came at cornerback, so maybe there is still a role for him there. I think he’s a wonderful No. 4 cornerback for the Bucs moving forward, but the safety experiment is an adventure I’d rather not be a part of. In non-emergency situations, anyway. If Dean can’t go against the Saints, Sherman and Davis should start outside with Murphy-Bunting in the slot. Winfield and Adams should be at safety if Whitehead remains out. Cockrell can be the No. 3 safety in case of injury. There’s enough moving pieces each week without putting guys at new positions needlessly.
6. Bucs Run Game Transformation Is Stunning
I don’t know if anything about the Bucs has been as stunning as the transformation to their rushing attack. I’ve already written at length about how a once duo/inside zone heavy team has become shockingly multiple in how they run the football. That remained true on Sunday, as the Bucs used pullers all game long to test the Bills on the perimeter and in space.
On Leonard Fournette’s first touchdown, the Bucs ran power sweep (also known as Packers Sweep). Two guards pull to the perimeter while the rest of the front down blocks. On the backside left tackle Donovan Smith is releasing downfield to look for work. He found some.
While Ali Marpet, Alex Cappa and Smith all hit highlight reel blocks here, don’t overlook the effort by Tristan Wirfs and Rob Gronkowski up front. Because their down blocks are so devastating, especially Gronkowski’s, the Bills scraping linebackers are basically left on an island. I don’t care how good your linebackers are, that’s a lot of grass to defend against a power sweep. Fournette doesn’t have to do much, but notice how he aligns right behind Donovan Smith before cutting outside? That sets up a monster pancake by Smith on the safety.
This season the Bucs’ raw rushing numbers are much better than a year ago. But their advanced numbers carry an even more dramatic improvement. In 2021, the Bucs have the second highest expected points added (EPA) per rush. They also have the second-highest success rate per rush, too. Success rate is defined as a play that gains at least 50 percent of the yards required to move the chains on first down, 70 percent of yards to gain on second down and 100 percent of yards to gain on third or fourth down.
Last year, the Bucs ranked 10th with a negative EPA per rush. Their success rate was even worse, ranking 22nd among all 32 teams. In 2021, Byron Leftwich, Tom Brady and Harold Goodwin have completely transformed this area of their offense. And the Tampa Bay offensive line is thriving as a result. The Bucs are experiencing the key to a great rushing attack – efficiency, not volume. Hats off to their offensive shot callers for this massive area of growth.
5. Easy Bills Fans, Refs Screwed Bucs, Too
Following their team’s loss to the Bucs, a popular outcry from Bills fans has been to criticize the refs. Far be it from me to claim they don’t have a right to do that. While I disagree that Carlton Davis III interfered with Stefon Diggs on the Bills’ final shot at the end zone on third-and-goal, Bills fans have a few other legitimate gripes. The 19-yard defensive pass interference on an underthrown deep ball to Mike Evans was a bad call. But the Bills weren’t the only team dealing with incompetent officiating.
On second-and-6 with 3:35 left in the game (the play above), Byron Leftwich got crazy aggressive. The Bucs offensive coordinator called a play-action shot, with Brady rolling out and throwing deep to Chris Godwin, the only option on the play. But as Godwin released downfield, Bills cornerback Dane Jackson grabbed him and hung on. Jackson’s hold was so egregious, it actually turned Godwin’s body off of a vertical track. Brady’s pass fell just incomplete due to the infraction.
A penalty would have given Tampa Bay a new set of downs from midfield and forced Buffalo to use both of its remaining timeouts. Even with a punt, the Bucs could have pinned the Bills deep in their own end. And with three new downs to work with, Buffalo may not have gotten the ball back at all.
Instead it went to third-and-6, were the Bucs got screwed even worse. Brady brushed off some contact and fired to Godwin for a first down. The 10-yard gain would have taken Tampa Bay to the Buffalo 45-yard line and forced the Bills’ second timeout. From there, the Bucs would have had a new set of downs to force the Bills’ final timeout and drain clock. It wouldn’t have been “game over,” but it would have seriously hampered the Bills chances to come back.
Instead, Donovan Smith was called for holding on this play. Just an outrageously bad call. This is an elite pancake block, and Smith somehow is penalized for it.
This penalty offset the Bills’ hold on Leonard Fournette out of the backfield. As a sidenote, that hold is what caused Brady to pull the ball down here in the first place. Due to these horrifically bad calls, the Bucs were forced to try again on third down. Brady was sacked off the edge, and Tampa Bay had to punt with 3:16 left in the game.
NFL officiating is horrible. But it is horrible without bias. The Bucs entered Sunday’s game against the Bills benefiting from less penalty calls than any team in the NFL. In this game, both teams have some legitimate grips. But the Bills lost because the Bucs were the better football team in Week 14, not because of the officials.
4. Gronk Having A Special Season
Is Rob Gronkowski the best tight end in the NFL this season? It’s really difficult to make an argument against him. In seven games, Gronkowski has 38 catches for 498 yards and six touchdowns. The future Hall of Famer missed almost six full games due to injury after a hot start. If you extrapolate Gronkowski’s numbers over a 17-game season, you’d get 92 catches for 1,209 yards and 15 touchdowns. No big deal, just the second most productive season of Gronk’s career.
What’s crazy is the tape has been every bit as impressive as the numbers have been. Gronkowski had a relatively quiet game on Sunday, but his contributions were critical. Grabbing five passes for 62 yards, Gronkowski made a couple key plays after the catch against the Bills.
What a nasty whip route against one of the more athletic linebackers in the NFL. The fact that Gronkowski is still beating cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers in man coverage every week is a testament to how little his game has declined. He’s also one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL after the catch, ranking fifth in YAC per reception.
Everyone is buzzing about the Breshad Perriman walk-off touchdown, but it might not have happened without Gronk’s second down effort in overtime. On second-and-17, the Bucs offense was in a brutal spot in overtime. With the Bills dropping out to take away Brady’s deep options, the Tampa Bay quarterback quickly found Gronkowski in the flat. One-on-one with Taron Johnson in the open field, Gronkowski rumbled away from the cornerback to pick up 14 yards. Great block by Mike Evans to allow him to pick up the last five yards. His heads-up play set up a manageable third-and-3 situation on Perriman’s 58-yard jaunt.
The Bucs already have an outstanding array of weapons. But adding Gronkowski’s prowess at all three levels of the field – and as a blocker – has made the offense borderline unfair. He’s just such a good, all-around player that can be relied upon in so many different situations. If Bucs fans didn’t have an appreciation for Gronkowski’s game last year, they sure should this season.
3. New Record For Pancakes By Bucs O-Line?
You’ve already seen the aforementioned pancake by Smith that was erroneously called a hold. What if I told you that was just the tip of the iceberg? This is the most physically punishing game I’ve ever seen the Bucs offensive line play. On Sunday, they were intent on attacking the Bills defense. They wanted to force Buffalo to match their tenacity getting off blocks and tackling. And the Bills couldn’t do it.
From the third snap of the game, the Bucs front was setting the tone. On a tunnel screen to Godwin, Ali Marpet knocked Tremaine Edmunds back and finished him.
Ali Marpet getting an early pancake on Tremaine Edmunds. Caught him flush, knocked him back then buried him. pic.twitter.com/bM7MxZ3vLW
On the Bucs next drive, Donovan Smith made an incredibly athletic play, racing across the field to destroy Bills safety Jordan Poyer. This Block Of The Year candidate opened a clear path for Leonard Fournette to score the game’s first touchdown.
Lowkey critical block on the Lenny long TD was Gronk sealing Rousseau inside. What a great block. And of course Donovan Smith with block of the year candidate pic.twitter.com/qk12qpdrFz
Later in the game, Jensen’s persistent dominance got the best of Oliver. After being push-pulled to the ground, the Bills defensive tackle executed a double leg take-down on Jensen and got flagged for a personal foul. It’s incredible how often Jensen can get inside the head of opponents.
As dominant as Jensen, Marpet and Wirfs were, nobody had as many pancakes as Smith. He piled up at least four de-cleaters, punishing the Bills up front.
Unfortunately, one of Smith’s pancakes ended up on top of Giovani Bernard. The Bucs running back got squished like a bug on the play and was carted to the locker room. Hopefully he is able to return this season in the playoffs. Just an unlucky bounce on a great play by Smith.
Right now, the Bucs offensive line is playing like the best unit in the NFL. They are physically dominating people, and mentally handling opposing blitzes and games up front. Wirfs, Jensen and Marpet are having All-Pro years, and Smith isn’t far behind. If this unit can keep it up, the Bucs will have a huge advantage over their opponents in the postseason.
2. Could Tampa Bay Capture No. 1 Seed?
Yes, they absolutely can. Thanks to the Cardinals’ mistake-filled loss to the Rams on Monday Night Football, the Bucs’ path to the top seed is looking more favorable. Tampa Bay has the easiest remaining schedule of all 32 teams, with four games against teams with losing records. Win out, and the Bucs will have a chance at the top seed. All they need is for Green Bay to lose one time.
The Packers are playing excellent football right now, but games against the Ravens, Browns and Vikings remain. Will they slip up at all? Perhaps it isn’t likely, especially with Lamar Jackson a question mark for Week 15. And regardless of what the opposing win percentages say, the Bucs’ final slate won’t be easy. The Saints are getting healthier and are fighting for their playoff lives. Week 15 should be a bloodbath. Tampa Bay should be able to win their final three games without playing their A-game, but even one loss could knock them down the seeding.
Bucs OLB Jason Pierre-Paul- Photo by: USA Today
Does the No. 1 seed really matter for the Bucs? It certainly could. After all, the Bucs are undefeated playing at Raymond James Stadium this season. But they did lose coming off the bye a few weeks ago, and weren’t very crisp out of their bye last year in a win over the Vikings. The first-seeded team gets a bye week in the playoffs. The Bucs also won it all as a wild card team last season.
All of that sounds good for a narrative, but in reality it has nothing to do with this season. There are advantages and disadvantages to being the lone playoff seed with a bye.
If the Bucs get it the top seed, they’ll have a chance to get healthier and more prepared. But they will also be more likely to face the Cowboys or the Rams, both of whom shredded their defense this season. Right now, the Cowboys and Rams have a strong chance of meeting in the No. 4 vs No. 5 seed match-up.
Like I said, positives and negatives to all scenarios amidst the top three seeds. Now all we can do is wait.
1. Laugh A Little
Most of y’all know I’m a huge fan of the NBA. But you don’t have to be to appreciate this moment. Malika Andrews did not have to do this to poor Richard Jefferson. This is savage.
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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