Welcome to the new in-season edition of Bucs Briefing! From now on, 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. Can Richard Sherman Help The Bucs?
Probably. If he is signed. We’ll see.
Anyone expecting Richard Sherman to come in and play at a Pro Bowl level has their sights set too high. Could he do it? Maybe, but there is a lot to learn in a short amount of time, and he’s not in football shape. But Sherman doesn’t need to be an All-Pro to be worth signing. He really just has to be better than Ross Cockrell, Dee Delaney and maybe Jamel Dean. That’s a bet I’m willing to make.
I don’t know what Sherman wants to be paid. I also don’t know the extent of his off-field situation. So I can’t speak to those aspects of his potential signing. What I do know is that Sherman has played 10 years in the NFL and never had a below average season. You can probably count the number of bad games he’s had in his career on one hand. Last year, you needed two hands to count ’em up for Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting.
CB Richard Sherman – Photo by: USA Today
If Sherman is signed, it would be shocking if he isn’t an upgrade over every non-Carlton Davis III cornerback on the roster. He’s also a terrific scheme fit, as the Bucs are predominantly a zone team (Cover 3, Cover 4) that will occasionally flex into press man as a change-up. Sherman is very experienced in those roles, and his declining athleticism won’t be exposed as a result. His physicality, tenacity and tackling would be critical traits for a Bowles’ cornerback as well.
On the field, the fit is great. In the locker room, assuming Sherman is the same person he’s always been in his NFL career, the fit has potential too. Sherman has been heralded as an elite leader and a terrific communicator. The Bucs have a secondary full of guys on rookie contracts, with Cockrell the lone elder statesman. Could it behoove them to learn from a technique/football IQ master like Sherman?
Maybe. Or maybe it throws off the whole vibe, considering the young and chippy “Grave Diggers” just won a Super Bowl. Perhaps they feel like they’ve matured past the point of needing a Sherman-like savior to fix their problems.
But their play hasn’t shown it, and that’s a critical factor here. Will Murphy-Bunting be back by midseason? Will Dean end up on injured reserve? If both corners are playing again by Week 8, what does the starting lineup look like? Is Murphy-Bunting going to be okay sitting out in base defense? Is Dean going to be okay not playing at all unless there’s an injury? Will it stunt his development for the future?
On the field, there is no question that any version of a past Sherman is an upgrade for the Bucs cornerback room. The rest of the fit is a little bit murkier. If Sherman is signed, it may tell us that Murphy-Bunting’s injury could extend for most of the regular season. And it may tell us the team is a bit skeptical that Dean can be “the guy” opposite Davis for most of the year. That’s an understandable perspective, but it may come with some consequences.
6. 2020 Postseason Heroes M.I.A. For Bucs
I’ve talked at length on the last two podcasts about all the schematic and design issues I have with the Bucs defense. I won’t belabor those points here. Despite the weaknesses of Todd Bowles’ coaching style, several Bucs players need to improve their play. And that starts with their defensive captain, Devin White.
Through three games, White doesn’t have a sack, tackle-for-loss, forced fumble, pass breakup or interception.
“Jon, you don’t care about stats like that, do you?”
No, I don’t. Not in a vacuum. But what made White playable last year was his propensity for splash plays. Even in a season where he struggled, White had nine sacks and 15 tackles-for-loss in 2020. Most importantly, in the playoffs White intercepted two passes, recovered a pair of fumbles and had two tackles-for-loss.
White was one of the heroes of the Bucs playoff run, and no one can ever take that away from him. I’ll contend that his performance against the Saints in the divisional round is one of the best games I’ve ever seen by a linebacker. But the larger sample size of his career suggests a player tilting closer to disappointing than dominant. In year two, that wasn’t a huge deal yet. In year three, it’s starting to become a big deal.
White has as much physical and athletic talent as any linebacker in the NFL. The ceiling for him couldn’t be higher. But until he stops playing so out of control, missing tackles, running out of his assigned coverage areas and taking out teammates rather than opponents, White is doing more harm than good on passing downs.
The story is a little bit different for a player like Antoine Winfield, Jr. Winfield’s floor has been much higher than White’s. He’s not blowing coverages or hanging the defense out to dry. But where are the splash plays Winfield and Bowles promised before the year? He’s not taking chances in coverage or making plays on the ball from a deep safety position. Winfield is an assignment sound player, but if he wants to be great, he needs to create turnovers.
Winfield was so great at playing the ball in college, but in the NFL we are still waiting to see it. The Minnesota product had just one interception last season and another in the postseason, off a tipped ball from Mike Edwards. The Bucs need him to be more opportunistic moving forward. Cutting down on his four missed tackles, an aberration for Winfield, would help as well.
The Bucs were counting on players like White and Winfield, stars in the postseason, to take another step this year. It hasn’t happened through three weeks. Sean Murphy-Bunting, who had three interceptions in the playoffs, is on injured reserve after a brutal first quarter against Dallas ended in injury. That puts more emphasis on Winfield to become a true playmaker, and on White to become at least more consistent down-to-down. The Bucs defense will look a lot better if Tampa Bay’s young star defenders can make a leap.
5. It’s The Little Things For Bucs Offense
For the vast majority of the game, the Bucs played very well on offense. Despite being forced into a more predictable game plan due to the team’s defensive failures, Tom Brady and Co. were impressive. But a few offensive failures on a day where the defense left them little room for error, were killers.
Hope everyone has a chance to watch what Brady is doing this season. Special stuff every game. Great job by Marpet on Donald here too pic.twitter.com/ZsKaLw4tAW
• On the Bucs’ third drive of the game, they moved the ball swiftly to the Rams 48. On third-and-5, Brady dropped a dime into the hands of Rob Gronkowski despite a crowded pocket. But the ball went off Gronkowski’s hands for an incompletion instead of being a first-and-10 for the Bucs in the red zone. Tampa Bay had to punt, and Los Angeles scored the first points of the game 14 plays later. It was the fourth dropped third down of the season for the Bucs.
• Later in the first half, the Bucs had a chance to cut into the Rams 14-7 lead with a late drive led by Brady. An Aaron Donald strip sack took Tampa Bay out of field goal range at the L.A. 45-yard line. With 16 seconds and one timeout left, the Bucs had time and the whole field to work with in order to get into range for a Ryan Succop field goal. But Scotty Miller made a poor decision in the open field, leaving Succop with a 55-yard kick.
Brady hit Miller over the middle with plenty of time and space for the receiver to turn and get up field for some additional yardage. Miller might not have made it through the middle of the field zone cleanly, but he certainly would have picked up at five yards or so, making the kick more manageable. Instead Miller stops his feet, indecisively shifts his feet and gets dropped at the 37.
One of the things holding Miller back from more playing time is that his athleticism isn’t an asset when he has the ball in his hands. He’s a great deep threat, but you need to be more than that to play over some of the receivers in Tampa Bay.
• It wasn’t an offensive play, but with the Bucs trailing 28-14 midway through the third quarter, a Bradley Pinion shanked punt handed the Rams a field goal. A miserable 15-yard boot set the Rams up with a first down at the Tampa Bay 37. Los Angeles only managed seven yards, but Matt Gay hit the 48-yard field goal for a 17-point lead.
• Finally, in the third quarter, another Gronkowski mistake cost the Bucs a touchdown. On second-and-goal from the 8, Brady laced an out route to Gronkowski. The veteran tight end ran a great route to get open, but thought he was closer to the sideline than he was. Gronkowski jumped early and couldn’t reach the pass. If he takes one more stride, it’s a pretty easy catch and a touchdown.
Those few mistakes were really costly for Tampa Bay. They took points off the board or gave them to the Rams. Los Angeles might be the best team in the NFL right now. On a day where the Rams committed just one penalty, didn’t turn the ball over, took no meaningful sacks and dropped just one pass, Tampa Bay’s flaws were magnified.
4. Ryan Jensen, Difference-Maker
Quietly, Ryan Jensen is having a fantastic season in Tampa Bay. Yes, Aaron Donald dusted almost every member of the Bucs offensive line at some point, but Jensen was a huge part of holding the All-Pro in check. Donald’s lone sack came off the edge, where he played most of his snaps on Sunday. But when the defensive tackle was inside, Jensen’s awareness was a huge part of giving Brady time before Donald could get home. He assisted on multiple Donald rushes, saving a few reps when Alex Cappa or Ali Marpet got into trouble.
The Rams also run one of the more intricate pass rush packages in the entire NFL. They blitz a good amount, but even when they rush four, Los Angeles is a constant array of stunts and games up front. Without Jensen’s communication and activity, the Bucs would have fared much worse.
At all times, Jensen is an extremely bad dude. I cannot overstate how important I believe that is on the offensive line. The whole group has adopted his edge. He plays with too much emotion at times, but I’ll live with a penalty here and there for the tone he sets every game.
Last year, O-line guru Brandon Thorn and I talked at length about how the Bucs didn’t utilize the athleticism of their offensive line in space enough. This year we’ve seen it a lot more, and Jensen is thriving. Getting the big center downhill in space was a nightmare for the Rams on several screens in this game.
Donovan Smith 👀. Then Jensen and Wirfs in space. Bucs offense getting them out a lot more this year. Awesome to see pic.twitter.com/W6jkbef7pK
The Bucs are going to have a tough decision with Jensen in free agency this offseason. It’s hard to hold onto three high-priced offensive linemen, and Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet are already locked up. Losing Jensen would be a big blow however. I don’t envy GM Jason Licht trying to decide how to spend the team’s cap space next offseason.
3. Play Mike Edwards
The irony of a Bucs defense, in desperate need of playmakers, playing their best playmaker just 23 snaps on Sunday, is not lost on me. Look, I get it. I know Edwards is not a size/speed athletic marvel.
But is Dee Delaney? Is Ross Cockrell?
Because, with Murphy-Bunting and Dean out, those are your other choices. Delaney playing 30 more snaps than Edwards against a Sean McVay offense is just bad personnel deployment.
Bucs S Mike Edwards – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Bucs clearly wanted to run more man coverage against L.A., even after Dean exited in the first quarter. Edwards may not be an ideal man coverage slot, but given the injuries Tampa Bay has, the options are limited. Asking Cockrell and Delaney to play on islands cost the Bucs often on the first few Rams scoring drives. It could have cost them even more if Matthew Stafford hadn’t missed a few throws too.
I’m never going to pretend Edwards is an All-Pro pining for playing time. I recognize he has limitations in his skill set that made him a third-round pick. But when the Bucs lost Dean and it was clear the Rams were doing what they wanted on offense, Edwards should have been in the game the rest of the way. Asking him to spell Jordan Whitehead for 35-40 percent of the game just takes one of your two better defensive backs off the field at all times. The Bucs aren’t deep enough in the secondary to misuse personnel to that degree.
Moving forward, I would expect to see the Bucs back in more zone-heavy defensive packages. That should open the door for Edwards to play more in the slot, especially if Dean is out and Cockrell has to start on the outside. And if the Bucs are worried about Edwards in man coverage, try Winfield in the slot. But playing Delaney over asking more of your three quality safeties isn’t maximizing your defensive talent.
2. Road Gets Easier For Bucs
The Bucs loss to the Rams did not do much to change my mind about Tampa Bay. The Rams are an elite football team firing on all cylinders right now. Tampa Bay can reach another level on offense still, which should be enough to shelter its defense in the regular season. A quick look over the schedule reveals the Bucs play a slate of miserable quarterbacks after facing three of the best in Weeks 1-3.
Week 14 – JAWSH ALLEN Week 15 – Winston Week 16 – Sam Darnold Week 17 – Zach Wilson Week 18 – Sam Darnold
Of the bottom 10 offenses in the NFL right now, the Bucs face eight of them in the coming weeks. Still, whooping up on bad quarterbacks/offenses does not make a defense all-of-a-sudden good. Bowles’ unit has many challenges ahead of him, as he figures out who he can rely on in the secondary.
The Bucs defensive coordinator must also figure out different ways to impact the quarterback. Tampa Bay has blitzed 12 more times than the next closest team this season, but has only three sacks to show for it. I’m not overreacting to the sack numbers however, because good quarterbacks typically don’t get sacked a lot. Still, the Bucs can definitely win more one-on-ones up front.
Those wins, and subsequently more sacks, will come. The Bucs are not an elite one-on-one pass rushing team, and they weren’t last year either. But Tampa Bay still has an array of talented one-on-one rushers, which combined with their aggressive blitzes and creative games up front, usually results in high pressure rates. Right now, the Bucs have the least sacks in the NFL. By next week’s Bucs Briefing, I highly doubt that will still be the case.
1. Laugh A Little
Please enjoy these clips of Brady shoulder-faking and eye-manipulating these linebackers into another dimension. What a performance by Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback on Sunday.
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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