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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. Did Bucs Manage End Of Game Correctly?

Although I appreciate Bruce Arians thinking critically about end-of-game process against the Colts, I don’t have a major issue with how it was handled. Speaking to the media on Monday, Arians has said he wishes he would have told Leonard Fournette to go down before scoring to chew more time off the clock. The result would have been a chip shot field goal for the Bucs with no time left. Instead, Fournette scored to give Tampa Bay a 38-31 lead with 20 seconds left.

Both situations represent near certain win percentages. Personally, if I know I can get a touchdown with that little time left, I’d rather avoid leaving anything up to a long snapper, holder and kicker. Obviously if there were more time on the clock, or the Colts had more timeouts, I would kick the field goal. But because of how little time remained and the fact that Indianapolis would have needed a touchdown to win, I had no issue with Fournette scoring.

Arians also said he would not have had Bradley Pinion kick it deep in hindsight. I slightly agree with his self-critique here. Obviously allowing any kick return opportunity with 20 seconds left is sub-optimal. But Pinion had sent every other kickoff in the game out the back of the end zone. In fact, over the past several years, Pinion is near the bottom of the NFL in kickoff returns allowed. He simply almost never leaves much chance for a return.

So it was surprising to see Colts returner Isaiah Rodgers field that ball just four yards deep in his own end zone. Rodgers wasn’t touched until Mike Edwards tracked him down at the Bucs 32. Assuming the Tampa Bay coaching staff didn’t expect Pinion to put the ball in play, I understand their process. Better to allow no return at all than a chance of something happening on a squib kick. But if Pinion isn’t 100 percent to put the ball out of the end zone, better to just squib it next time. Not many long kickoff returns happening on squib kicks.

6. Winfield, Jr. Making The Leap

One of the quietist truths of the Bucs 2021 season is Antoine Winfield, Jr. going from good starter to possible breakout star. Through 11 games, that is where the second year safety is trending. Of course, the quest got a lot louder when Winfield Mossed wide receiver Michael Pittman for his second interception of the season on Sunday.

Winfield actually has three interceptions this season, but one was called back due to a penalty on Will Gholston. It’s hard to impact the stat sheet with great consistency when you play as much free safety as Winfield does, but he’s finding a way. In nine games, Winfield has five pass breakups, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, a sack and two tackles-for-loss. But so many of his best plays aren’t even going on the stat sheet.

I’ll give you two examples from each of the past two games. Against the Giants, pressured caused Daniel Jones to throw an errant pass on fourth down, skipping the ball short of the intended receiver. If the pass had been on target, Winfield probably picks it off.

Winfield’s processing here is crazy. He opens to the first vertical threat, then reads Jones’ eyes and drives downhill on the backside crosser. If Jones’ throw is catchable, Winfield is gonna take it away.

On Sunday, Winfield did the same thing. But instead of forcing an incompletion, this one resulted in a sack.

Carson Wentz wants to throw the deep crosser to the tight end on this play. But Winfield reads his eyes and drives hard on the receiver, forcing Wentz to pull the ball down. The pressure finally arrives as Wentz steps up, and Shaq Barrett drops him for a sack. It’ll go on Barrett’s stat sheet, but Winfield should get credit for it, too. That’s the marriage of coverage and pass rush that Bruce Arians has talked about all season.

Winfield has been outstanding in every phase of play this season – coverage, blitzing and in run defense. He’s pushing for a Pro Bowl bid if he can pick up a few more interceptions this season. Given what a revolving door the Bucs have been at cornerback, Winfield’s importance can’t be overstated. He’s been the team’s most consistent defensive player all season. If that continues, Tampa Bay’s pass defense might have a chance when Carlton Davis III returns.

5. Edwards = Game-Changer

Are we making a big enough deal out of Mike Edwards? It sure feels like we aren’t making a big enough deal out of him It’s becoming really hard to justify any argument to take him off the field. Not only is Edwards not a liability in coverage this season, he’s been a clear-cut difference-maker.

Obviously there are the splash plays. Edwards leads the Bucs with three interceptions and seven pass breakups this season, despite playing the ninth most snaps on the defense. He’s scored two defensive touchdowns, garnered a couple key pressures and forced his first fumble of the season on Sunday. The turnover resulted in a Bucs touchdown.

Over his last 605 snaps on passing plays, Edwards has six interceptions, 15 pass breakups, one forced fumble and two defensive touchdowns. Edwards also had an incredible interception of Derek Carr last year that was called back because Shaq Barrett was barely offsides. He deflected both passes that Winfield picked off last year, against the Raiders and against the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

One of Edwards’ six picks was the final pass of Drew Brees’ career. Edwards also broke up Aaron Rodgers’ goal line desperation pass on third down in the final throes of the NFC championship game. And on Sunday, he saved the Bucs from an embarrassing overtime situation by tracking down kickoff returner Isaiah Rodgers and pulling him out of bounds to prevent a touchdown.

And to top it off, Edwards is almost never a liability. He gave up one touchdown this season on a coverage miscommunication against the Rams. And he surrendered just one touchdown last season. Other than the miscommunication touchdown against the Rams, the longest play Edwards has surrendered this year is 16 yards. Last year it was 13 yards.

Y’all know I’m a deep analysis guy. But there isn’t much more to be said here. You don’t take guys off the field that make plays like this. Let Mike Edwards cook.

4. Is Murphy-Bunting Just Not Good?

Yes. I try to avoid doing this with players, because typically things aren’t this black-and-white. Especially on a team as talented as the Bucs. Very few players on the roster could be described as below average, at least for their role. But right now, and for most of his career, Murphy-Bunting has just not been a good player for the Bucs.

The third-year cornerback played 16 plays against the Cowboys in Week 1 before dislocating his elbow. Thirteen of those snaps were passing plays. On those plays, Murphy-Bunting surrendered five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown on eight targets. He was lucky a few more balls weren’t completed on him, as he got turned around on one route, and had Dak Prescott miss CeeDee Lamb for a big gain on another.

It was clear that Dallas identified Murphy-Bunting as the weak spot and attacked him relentlessly. In his first game back, the Giants tried to do the same thing. Murphy-Bunting was better against a struggling offense, but still gave up a few catches, committed defensive pass interference due to bad technique and then nearly did it again later in the game. Officials picked up the flag because the offensive player was just as much at fault.

Against the Colts, Murphy-Bunting was a mess again. He gave up a big gain on a penalty, allowed a 62-yard touchdown and was consistently out of position to make plays. Murphy-Bunting just doesn’t play with great instincts in coverage. In zone, he just doesn’t have great feel for what’s developing around him. He’s never been a ballhawk as a spot-dropping player, so positive plays are limited and catches are frequent for the offense. Murphy-Bunting should be better in man coverage, but his technique is too messy for his talent to shine.

I know everyone will hearken back to his three-interception performance in the playoffs. Murphy-Bunting definitely made a couple impactful splash plays, two of which were the result of good coverage. But even in the playoffs, at his “best,” Murphy-Bunting left a lot to be desired. The Packers gained over 80 yards targeting him in coverage, and Washington beat him for a key touchdown.

Murphy-Bunting has now played almost 2,000 snaps for the Bucs, and we have yet to see him take a step forward and maintain that level of play. Regardless of the scheme, and regardless of whether he plays outside or in the slot, his play has been below-average. I know he’s a great kid and he’s super smart with all the tools to be a strong starter. But it just hasn’t come together, and he remains the weakest link in the Bucs defense.

With Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis III back in the lineup soon, the Bucs have their starting cornerback duo. Dean needs to replace Murphy-Bunting in base defense as the team’s right outside cornerback. The Auburn product has been far more good than bad while playing more snaps than ever before this season. That’s more than you can say about Murphy-Bunting any year he’s been with the Bucs. Todd Bowles will at least insist on playing Murphy-Bunting at nickel, but how do you take Mike Edwards off the field right now?

Murphy-Bunting is smart, hard-working, big, athletic and young. The Bucs don’t need to give up on him entirely. But right now, Dean is simply better and more consistent. And he was better most of last season, too. It’s a tough spot for Tampa Bay’s coaches, but limiting Murphy-Bunting’s role seems best right now.

The good news for Bucs fans? Every time I write about how it’s time to finally bench Murphy-Bunting, he plays better the next week. So look out, Atlanta! Time to change up that game plan.

3. Bucs Run Game Keeps Evolving

If you’re a regular Bucs Briefing reader, you know that I’ve been extremely complementary of the evolution of Tampa Bay’s run scheme this season. I’ve already gone into a ton of detail with it, so I’ll just pull a couple plays to show how they are continuing to find success outside of the vertical double teams in duo that have been a Bruce Arians staple over the years.

This play isn’t even successful, but it’s a good example of the Bucs pinning and going around defensive tackles while making defenders win laterally. It’s a huge deviation from their normal scheme, and it gives the second level of the defense a lot more to process.

This is Counter Trey, with the Bucs pulling the backside guard and bringing the tight end across the formation. Everyone else up front down blocks except for the backside tackle, who steps down to look for any run-through in the B-gap, before hinging on the backside defensive end. To the boundary side, Tyler Johnson has to go get the playside linebacker.

Tristan Wirfs does an awesome job here, sling-shotting the edge defender down the line of scrimmage and into the 1-technique. This opens up a massive initial lane for Leonard Fournette. Obviously Nick Leverett gets a little confused on which linebacker he’s picking up, which allows the backside linebacker to make the play. Great block by Cam Brate on the nickel defender, too.

I almost fell out of my chair when I saw this. The Bucs ran a wham block! Wham is a scheme that leaves a defensive tackle unblocked at the line of scrimmage, then brings the tight end down to seal off the rush lane behind him. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich called this after showing the Colts pullers several times. As soon as the 3-technique sees Leverett pull, he crashes down to chase the puller. That gives Rob Gronkowski an easy wham block, and gives Ronald Jones a massive lane to run through. Technically this is ‘wham-bam’, but Leverett misses the ‘bam’ block here on the other defensive tackle.

Huge credit to Johnson for another terrific block here. Andrew Sendejo triggers downhill super fast from his safety spot, but Johnson still roots him out brilliantly. Also the strong playside lockout block by Donovan Smith. He locks out that right arm and keeps the defensive end from coming back inside.

So we’ve seen power and duo, normal Bucs staples. They’ve run counter and outside zone with greater frequency this season, and now we’re seeing them screw with defenses with pullers. Leftwich and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin are even mixing in some dart scheme action, pulling the backside tackle as a variation to duo. When that tackle is Wirfs, look out!

The Bucs don’t block this up perfectly, but because they are threatening outside a little more, some of the blocks don’t matter as much. For example, Alex Cappa loses his block on DeForest Buckner, but because the Bucs are running outside of him, they can get seven yards before it matters. Dart is typically run toward the nose tackle, so Ryan Jensen and Leverett work the double team to the backside linebacker. As long as Smith can turn out his defensive end, a relatively simple block, Wirfs and Fournette can do the rest.

Leverett can’t quite get the backside linebacker, but again, it’s seven yards without perfect execution. By not running right into the teeth of the defense over and over, and instead threatening them on a side a little more, you’ve simplified the variables. You don’t have to displace the whole interior defensive front to have success. Using angles to their advantage with a more horizontal-then-vertical run approach has changed everything for the Bucs run scheme.

Lastly, cannot say enough about how good this offensive line has been. Run game and pass protection, the Bucs offensive line is playing better than any unit in the NFL. They should have four Pro Bowlers up front if Ali Marpet can return soon. Fournette might get the credit, and he’s been solid. But anyone watching the tape knows the scheme and the offensive line play have been the difference makers for the Bucs run game this season. Scott Reynolds is writing more about one particular member of the offensive line whose play has been exemplary this season in this week’s SR’s Fab 5.

2. Bucs Outlook Is Favorable

Thanks to their comeback win over the Colts, the Bucs have the NFC South and a playoff berth all but locked up. According to 538’s model, the Bucs currently have a greater than 99 percent chance of making the playoffs, and a 97 percent chance to win their division. The Saints, Panthers and Falcons are all currently below .500.

As for the path to the top seed in the NFC, the Bucs are a little behind in that regard. Without getting into the weeds too much, Tampa Bay has a 17 percent chance at getting the first round bye. That’s behind the Cardinals (40 percent) and Packers (39 percent). Here are the remaining schedules for each team:

Bucs: @ Atlanta, Buffalo, New Orleans, @ Carolina, @ Jets, Carolina.
Combined Opponent Record: 30-38

Packers: Chicago, @ Ravens, Browns, Vikings, @ Lions
Combined Opponent Record: 23-32-1

Cardinals: @ Bears, Rams, @ Lions, Colts, @ Cowboys, Seahawks
Combined Opponent Record: 27-39-1

It’s a pretty favorable slate for all three teams, but the Bucs only have a single game left against a team with a winning record. Matt Ryan, Josh Allen, Taysom Hill, Cam Newton or P.J. Walker or Sam Darnold and whoever is quarterbacking the Jets is a schedule most teams would take heading into the playoffs. Still, the Bucs will need some help from other teams to make it happen.

If the postseason started today, Tampa Bay (No. 3 seed) would play San Francisco (No. 6 seed) in the Wild Card round. We’ve got a long way to go still, but it appears six teams are set for the playoffs in the NFC, including the Packers, Cardinals, Bucs, Cowboys, Rams and 49ers. The seventh spot is anyone’s guess at this point. Washington currently holds the slot, but the Vikings, Falcons and Saints share the same 5-6 record. The Eagles and Panthers sit just outside of that group at 5-7.

Lastly, while 538 may not love the Bucs’ chances to win the 1 seed, the model is pretty optimistic about their playoff success. Tampa Bay is given a 13 percent chance to win Super Bowl LVI, just behind Arizona and Green Bay again. We’ll see about that.

1. Laugh A Little

I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving was outstanding this past week! My wife Brit and I and our two daughters Caylee (5) and Harper (2) had a great time in Jacksonville with family and friends. We were also blessed with incredible food all week long. Thanksgiving dinner was amazing, but the highlight of the eating experience might have been this aesthetically-pleasing, delectable charcuterie board, designed by my sister-in-law.

Not only is it the biggest charcuterie board I’ve ever seen, it was also the best I’ve ever tasted. Cranberry-covered goat cheese, pimento cheese, dried fruit and even a little candy mixed in! Incredible stuff. Now I’m hungry again!

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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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Bradley Smith
Bradley Smith
5 months ago

Murphy-Bunting now is a lot like Dean was at the start of the season. Maybe with game reps, he will get better with time like Dean. Lining up 10 yds off the line makes it easier for completions. Press coverage and disrupting the route will help too.

Horse
Horse
5 months ago

It always comes to this doesn’t it. Family and food. Glad you had a great Thanksgiving Jon.

Captain Sly
Captain Sly
5 months ago

Picking on SMB again and Praising AWJ. Huh! Go back and watch the clip, Bonehead Bowles’ defense calls for 10 men at los inside the tackle box, and 1 safety deep (AWJ). SMB is in press man giving a free release expecting Winfield to cover deep but actually watch the bad angle AWJ took. Egregious! Part of my problem with your analysis is it’s mostly agenda driven with no real objectivity. “SMB is the weakest link in this defense”, when just last week he was PFF’s highest graded Bucs defender!

DerLutz
DerLutz
Reply to  Captain Sly
5 months ago

SMB is sometimes hard to watch, but on the TD I have the same opinion as you. I have not seen the All 22 but on the TV angle it looks like SMB expects Safety help in the middle, but Winfield bits on the crosser below. When I see the Winfield chapter, it looks like he is biting too often on crossers and the colts attacked Winfield and not SMB in this Play.

toofamiliar17
toofamiliar17
Reply to  DerLutz
5 months ago

Did you guys totally miss Arians talking about this play? He said that if SMB was expecting help, he shouldn’t have been. It may have been a tough assignment, but it was clearly still his job to be locked up with his guy one on one that play, and he failed. I’m still not quite ready to write the guy’s obituary, but it is what it is. When the coach who knows the actual call tells you a specific guy screwed up, he probably is the one who screwed up.

Captain Sly
Captain Sly
Reply to  toofamiliar17
5 months ago

I personally don’t remember Arians saying that but I have a bigger problem with the poor defensive scheme. 10 guys around the line of scrimmage TEN! So now it’s 1 on 1 and a 50/50 ball even before the QB releases the ball. OC worth his Salt will take those odds Every Time Every Play!

Captain Sly
Captain Sly
Reply to  Jon Ledyard
5 months ago

Funny because you disagreed with Arians after the Washington loss when he said “Brady’s interceptions were on him”. Hmmm, Maybe you don’t have an agenda but it sure feels like Brady’s mistakes are looked at differently than SMB and others.

FinkleisEinhorn
FinkleisEinhorn
5 months ago

Thanks for being so blunt on SMB. It’s 100% true. I understand on that TD play, he was likely expecting safety help, but throw that play out, and there are hundreds of other examples of how trash he is. He doesn’t have good long speed. He has terrible footwork. He has no instincts. He has literally no redeeming qualities on the field.
The very few splash plays are because teams throw at him a dozen times a game – blind squirrel situation.
I’m honestly not sure he’s better than any of lowly backups.

Buc-Up
Buc-Up
5 months ago

Looks like another one of Licht’s CB picks that hasn’t cut it. See Vernon Hargreaves (1st), MJ Stewart (2nd), and Ryan Smith (4th). That’s only maybe 2 out of 6 if Jamaal Dean still pans out. Note that both Davis and Dean are 6’1 and every one else is under 6′. Except Smith who was a bust at CB & S but a Special Teams ace. Small CB don’t fit the current or past Defensive systems run by our DC’s, so Licht needs to stop drafting them!

Buc-Up
Buc-Up
5 months ago

I’m hoping Murphy-Bunting turns it around because we need to use our 1-4th round picks on the OL and front 7 to either replace or groom behind aging starters.

Buc-Up
Buc-Up
Reply to  Buc-Up
5 months ago

Or leaving Free Agency

drdneast
drdneast
5 months ago

LOL. I could take that board of food, sit it on my lap in while I sit on my lounger and not move all Thursday watching the NFL if I had a catheter.

scubog
scubog
Reply to  drdneast
5 months ago

Hysterical! My favorite holiday too. Watch football for four days straight, plus Monday night. If I was ever to get an organ enhancement it would be a bigger bladder. How convenient that would be. Never thought of a nifty attachment like a catheter. Suppose I’d have to get my wife to dump it. Nahhh, she hasn’t touched anything down there for years.

toofamiliar17
toofamiliar17
5 months ago

SMB may be trash. I’m not quite there yet, but yea, very possible, and I think we’ll know soon enough. Learning of the injuries the guy played through last year, and with his improvement in the playoffs, I came into this year with a “wait and see” approach with him. Dallas was bad, but it was a bad quarter against a dynamic passing attack. Whatever, move on. He came back against NYG and had a great game, and then a rough outing last week. He flashes the physical ability IMO to be a strong press man corner, but yea, overall,… Read more »

drdneast
drdneast
5 months ago

Like it or not, SMB is our third best CB which makes you wonder why Licht drafted a QB in the second round who we hope won’t see the field for the next two years, especially with the SB window being so narrow. Moron.

drdneast
drdneast
5 months ago

Wasting that second round pick on a bench warming QB is going to be as glaring a mistake in the playoffs as the Packers GM drafting Jordan Love with a first round pick.

Captain Sly
Captain Sly
Reply to  drdneast
5 months ago

Get your panties checked out because those you’re wearing simply are Too Tight!

scubog
scubog
Reply to  drdneast
5 months ago

My goodness……….not again.