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 Wide Receiver Depth Falls Flat
I think fans and media are underselling the impact of not having Antonio Brown in Tampa Bay’s 9-0 loss to New Orleans, and not having Mike Evans and Chris Godwin for most of it. Especially considering Rob Gronkowski played one of the worst games of his career. Combine those four factors, and you’re not gonna do much offensively against the Saints. With their defense back at full strength, there is an argument that New Orleans actually has the best defense in the NFL.
Still, with Evans and Godwin, Tom Brady put up 375 yards and four touchdowns on the Saints in Week 8. He shredded their group, but unfortunately threw a late interception that wiped the previous 59 minutes of game action from everyone’s mind. And that was all without Brown and Gronkowski in New Orleans. But on Sunday, the players around Brady played so poorly and were so limited that he had no shot. It was maddening to watch live, and even more maddening to re-watch.
There are multiple failure plays by almost all the pass catchers in this game. But I’ll try to limit it to one play per person for this article. Check out PewterReportTV YouTube channel for more analysis later this week.
Darden was targeted three times on Sunday, with zero catches. Not sure he got open at any point in the game. Against the Saints secondary, that’s not super surprising. Darden was only going to see the field on offense this season as a gadget player or in the case of emergencies. Down four receivers on Sunday night, clearly it was an emergency situation.
I’m not going to be too hard on Darden, as a rookie who has had very few reps against a top-tier NFL secondary. But this play deserves some criticism. It’s a go ball with an outside release. With Marshon Lattimore playing off, you’ve got to get on your horse and look back when you’re in position to stack him. Darden needs to run right at Lattimore and make his cut outside about five steps away from Lattimore – not five yards! Then Darden slows up way early, doesn’t fight for position at all and gets sealed off from the throw. He has plenty of space to work with, and instead stacks himself behind Lattimore.
It’s a terrible route, but also not great effort, either. You have to fight for positioning and for the ball on deep shots. Darden does neither here. This is also probably the route he’s run the most since camp, given his position. Even as a rookie, you’d like to see a little better here.
I actually don’t have much criticism for Miller. He jumped into Evans’ spot, running a lot of vertical routes against the Saints’ 2-high coverages. Because of that, Miller was rarely an option due to the constant safety help he received. On one third down, Miller got open for a would-be touchdown across the middle of the end zone. But before Brady could get the throw off, Cam Jordan sacked him.
Johnson dropped a pass, blew blocks all night and did very little to match the intensity of the opponent. From the very first snap of the game when Lattimore bullied him in press coverage, almost creating an interception, Johnson struggled. I know he’s a limited athlete. That was obvious when Brady hit him in stride on two drag routes that both should have been catch-and-run first downs, but Johnson was caught from behind on both plays. It’s been obvious watching him struggle to separate for weeks now.
But the most disappointing thing about Johnson was how much he got pushed around. See the play below where he has to block on a quick receiver screen to Godwin and gets knocked backwards. The Saints corners wanted to be physical with the Bucs receivers, and Johnson wasn’t up to the task. In Week 8, Evans and Godwin physically punished the Saints defensive backs. But on Sunday, with those two players out, Johnson didn’t carry that mantle at all.
Now, obviously the Saints are a tough match-up for a bunch of guys who have barely played this season. I think Miller can still make an impact, and Johnson will have to step into Godwin’s shoes. He has a huge role the rest of the season, and he frankly has not earned that with his play. But the Bucs have no other options right now. Johnson will have to step up if the Bucs’ Super Bowl aspirations are to be held intact.
Moving forward, I expect Johnson to absorb most of Godwin’s responsibilities as the team’s slot receiver. Of course, Antonio Brown will also receive some of Godwin’s duties, especially as a desirable screen target outside. But the team might have to operate a bit differently, as Johnson is clearly not Godwin and doesn’t deserve a high amount of targets. Playing in the slot, where he’ll avoid more press coverage, will help Johnson. But he’ll still need to be a lot sharper as a route runner than he’s been.
6. Tampa Bay’s Tight Ends Were Terrible
A week after writing that Rob Gronkowski has been the best tight end in the NFL this season, I’m now writing about possibly the worst game of his career. Down their top three receivers, the Bucs really needed Gronkowski to step up. And the big tight end did get open, beating Malcolm Jenkins a number of times! Unfortunately, Gronkowski had three drops and failed to bring in another tough couple catches.
This would have been a first down. The Bucs ended up punting.
This probably would have been a touchdown. I still have no idea how Gronkowski is unprepared for this ball. My only guess is that he somehow lost it in the lights. Is that actually a thing? I have no other explanation.
Somehow, Cam Brate was worse than Gronkowski. What a miserable season it has been for Brate. He’s dropped a multitude of passes and really struggled to create separation. Sunday was the worst however, as Brate got pushed around as a blocker and had two big opportunities go through his hands.
This is definitely a tough catch for Brate, but one he’s gotta make. Brady desperately needed guys to step up and make tight window catches, and his supporting cast failed all game. You can’t throw a ball under pressure into tight coverage any better than this. Brate has to make that play.
This one is a pretty routine grab despite the tight coverage. Again Brady places the throw perfectly, and again Brate drops it. A catch here would have resulted in a new set of downs in Saints territory. Instead, the Bucs ended up punting.
Even O.J. Howard could have caught his one target, but couldn’t fight through a little contact at the top of his route. It was the worst performance by the Bucs tight ends since I’ve been covering the team. On a night where they absolutely needed those guys to step up, they played as poorly as possible.
5. Offensive Line Delivers Dud In Critical Match-up
Even with the Bucs weapons dropping like flies, the one thing we could count on was the Tampa Bay offensive line. Right?
Wrong. One week after praising the Bucs offensive line for a complete beat-down of the Bills, the unit played its worst game of the season. Brady was under duress often in the first half, and a lot of it was early pressure. He had no chance to complete throws on a couple of the four times he was sacked.
That’s as fast and as bad as Alex Cappa or Tristan Wirfs have lost one-on-one all season. And it happened to come in a game where the Bucs needed them most. Brady was already facing the daunted task of threading tight windows all game. Doing it while under siege made it even more impossible.
Brady has nobody open initially, and the Saints have time to run their twists up front and create interior pressure. Brady tries to leak out to hit Miller on the pivot route, but is hauled down before he can throw. Another punt ensued.
I already showed you a Brady dime to Brate despite pressure in his face. Here’s a third down conversion to Miller despite immediate pressure in his face. Also, Miller keeps running instead of sitting down vs zone, which made it a harder catch for himself. But at least he actually made the play!
The second half was better for the Bucs offensive line, but overall it was still an ugly day for an elite unit. Tampa Bay’s O-line didn’t play anywhere close to its normal standards, and I’m sure the group knows it. The O-line will have a tough task this week against the Panthers’ explosive pass rush group. Carolina had four sacks last week at Buffalo and has 36 on the year so far.
4. Bucs Are In Trouble At RB On Passing Downs
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Ronald Jones II is the best pure rusher on the Bucs team. He’s more explosive and decisive than Leonard Fournette, and he breaks more tackles. If the Bucs are without Fournette for awhile, I don’t think the run game will drop off. If RoJo can hold onto the ball, Tampa Bay should be able to run it just fine.
But on passing downs, the Bucs are in trouble. With Giovani Bernard on injured reserve, the team must turn to Jones and Ke’Shawn Vaughn while Fournette is out. On Sunday, both players did shockingly little to advocate for more opportunities as receivers. This thread will tell you everything you need to know about why the coaches opted for Vaughn over Jones in pass-obvious spots late in the game.
2nd-and-7. Brady gets ball to RoJo with a lot of space.
Watch Brady's reaction when RoJo goes out of bounds 2 yards short of marker without fighting for the first down. Pulled Ro aside for a chat after the ensuing punt. pic.twitter.com/QNA6YdMs14
This isn’t the first time Jones has been criticized for going out of bounds when he could have fought for more yardage. Earlier in the year, Bruce Arians was frustrated when it happened as well. Brady went over and talked with Jones after the possession, imploring him to do better. However, at this point in Jones’ career, it’s unlikely to happen.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, Vaughn is also terrible. In his career, Vaughn has been targeted 12 times … and has five drops! He also fumbled away another catch. It’s almost impossible to be as bad as Vaughn has been as a receiver without trying to do it intentionally.
That couldn’t have been an easier catch if Brady ran out there and handed it to him. But hey, at least Vaughn stayed on his feet for that rep. That’s more than we could say for him later in the game.
It’s football malpractice watching Jones and Vaughn in the passing game. But it needs to be done. Like it or not, these two will share the majority of snaps if Fournette misses Week 16. So all these mistakes need to be fixed. If they’re not, the Bucs offense could get uncomfortable once again on Sunday.
3. Vintage Lavonte David Game
The Bucs defense played a great game on Sunday, and I’m barely making space for it in my column. Why? Well, I know that most of our readers want to see the offensive struggles broken down. But also, the Saints offense is pitiful. The Bucs defense should have dominated and did. Good for them. They’ll need to keep it up over the final three weeks against a couple of the NFL’s worst offenses.
Unfortunately, they’ll have to do so without Lavonte David. The Bucs veteran linebacker is likely out for the rest of the regular season with a foot sprain. David should be back for the playoffs, and the Bucs will need him. He was the best player on the field for Tampa Bay on Sunday against the Saints.
This was one of the biggest plays of the game, a third-and-short stop for the Bucs defense. Jason Pierre-Paul is unblocked on the end of the line of scrimmage, and uses a wrong arm technique on the pulling guard. This spills the runner outside of him, which is fine. It just makes a tough play for David to get all the way out there and turn the run back inside. Fortunately, David is already processing and moving to the ball. He gets outside the lead blocker and dumps the fullback with a huge hit. This forces Taysom Hill to stop his feet and allows Andrew Adams to chop him down. Great work by the whole Bucs defense, especially David.
Anytime the Saints run game tried to get outside, David was there to shut it down. He flew around all game, beating blockers to spots and finishing as a tackler. Oh, and he can also do this.
Not many linebackers taking a wide receiver-turned-tight end out on a slot fade. David is still the full package at the position, and he reminded everyone of that on Sunday night. The Pro Bowl linebacker finished with 11 tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack and a forced fumble. The Bucs will need him back at 100 percent for the playoffs if this defense is to reach its’ peak.
2. Playoff Scenarios For Bucs
According to the New York Times probabilities, the Bucs remain the most likely No. 2 seed in the NFC. That is, of course, provided they win their final three remaining games. Tampa Bay travels to Carolina to take on the Panthers this week, then New York to battle the Jets. The Bucs finish the regular season against Carolina at home.
Bucs WRs Antonio Brown and Tyler Johnson – Photo by: USA Today
If the Bucs handle business, they’ll likely be looking at a battle with the No. 7 seed in the NFC. Right now, that looks most likely to be the 49ers, the Saints or the Vikings. I think most Bucs fans would probably most like to see the Vikings in the Wild Card Round, but the 49ers and Saints are just better teams.
New Orleans has three easy games left on their schedule, but its quarterback play puts everything in doubt. The Saints host the Dolphins and Panthers, then travel to Atlanta to take on the Falcons. If they can win out, the Saints are actually the likely No. 6 seed. So if Bucs fans don’t want to see them in the playoffs, root for the Saints to win the next three weeks. Or, of course, if New Orleans loses every game it misses the playoffs completely.
Personally, I’ll always choose to play the team with no quarterback in the playoffs. Give Tampa Bay Evans and AB, on a playoff stage, and the Bucs won’t lose to New Orleans again. Especially if Gronk rebounds and Breshad Perriman shows up. I’d rather face the Saints than the 49ers in the playoffs, no question.
1. Laugh A Little
I love Keenan Allen. Dude has a lot of similarities to Mike Evans in the way he conducts himself. This answer is an all-timer.
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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