The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one of the most efficient offenses in the league, but they could be even better. Tom Brady is on pace for a historic season, the receiving weapons are as good as any in the NFL and Byron Leftwich has made clear strides as an offensive coordinator. Even the Bucs’ running game has diversified and become serviceable. 

With Leftwich designing plays intelligently and players executing at a high level, the Bucs do the difficult things well. But their first down play selection, which is comparatively easy to control, has been uninspiring. 

The Buccaneers rank fourth in early down passing frequency, but this is deceiving. Tampa Bay has, by far, the biggest discrepancy in their first and second down play calling frequencies in the league. They rank 21st in neutral first down passing rate, throwing the ball only 46 percent of the time less than the Patriots, Ravens, and Vikings. As a reminder, ‘neutral’ is defined as when there are more than two minutes remaining in the half and when neither team has less than a 20 percent chance of winning the game. 

Bucs QB Tom Brady

Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

The Bucs completely flip the script on neutral second downs, throwing it 82 percent of the time. For reference, the Chiefs rank second at 72 percent. This is partially due to how infrequently the Bucs create favorable second down rushing situations with their first down play-calling. 

In general, handoffs on second down generate an Expected Points Added (EPA) greater than zero when there are three or fewer yards needed to pick up a first down. Tampa Bay is only in second-and-3 or less on 13 percent of their neutral second downs. That mark ranks 25th in the league. Passing more often on first down would allow them to run more often on second down, thereby becoming more unpredictable. 

Despite being a run-heavy first down team, Leftwich doesn’t call much play action. The Bucs rank 22nd in first down play action usage. 36 percent of Tampa’s first down passes use play action. As mentioned, the Ravens run the ball less than the Bucs on neutral first downs, but they call play action on a league-leading 53 percent of their first down passes.

Overall, across all downs, the Bucs rank 30th in play action usage at 19 percent. Meanwhile, per Sports Info Solutions, Brady has been the most efficient play action quarterback in the NFL this season. He’s averaging two more yards per attempt with play action than without it. 

One argument in favor of running on first down could be that Tampa Bay’s opponents are playing the pass. Aside from the fact that the Bucs are inducing even more blatant pass-first situations with their second down frequencies, this argument doesn’t hold up well. For one, the Bucs are actually around middle of the pack in terms of how often they face Middle of the Field Open (MOFO) defenses. These can also be described as two-high safety coverages.

Unlike last season, when the Buccaneers underperformed against two-high coverages, Brady has excelled this season against MOFO. 

The Buccaneers don’t need to will their opponents into taking away the run because they pass the ball well, anyway. Moreover, teams that are committed to playing two-high coverages against the Bucs aren’t going to stop playing light boxes even if the Bucs do run the ball a lot. In fact, that’s exactly what those opponents are hoping happens, and that’s why the league as a whole has trended towards this light box strategy.

Even though the Buccaneers have been relatively efficient on the ground this season, their dominance has come through the air. On neutral first downs, Tampa Bay leads the league by a decent margin in passing efficiency with a dominant 0.350 EPA per play. When rushing on neutral first downs, the Bucs average -0.070 EPA per play.

Bucs QB Tom Brady and HC Bruce Arians

Bucs QB Tom Brady and HC Bruce Arians – Photo by: USA Today

In an imperfect example of Simpson’s Paradox, here’s why first-down passing frequency matters: The Eagles, despite being a far less efficient passing offense than the Bucs, rank higher than the Bucs in overall first down efficiency. Why? Because they throw the ball more often. Philadelphia calls dropbacks on 56 percent of neutral first downs, ranking seventh in the NFL. Again, Tampa Bay throws it on only 46 percent of neutral first downs. If Jalen Hurts can do it, I’m pretty sure Tom Brady can too!

The Bucs’ offense will be productive regardless of their tendencies. They are just that talented. But there are relatively easy, yet significant, improvements available to them. This doesn’t necessarily mean they need to throw more as a whole. Simply shifting their passing frequency to first down would be extremely impactful. This would consequently create more run-favorable second and third downs. Using more play action would go a long way as well.

Over Brady’s entire career with the Patriots, only the Eagles dropped back more often on neutral first downs. For the Bucs offense to be at their absolute best, they need to put the ball in their quarterback’s hands. And they need to do it before they waste a critical down.

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About the Author: Paul Atwal

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surferdudes
2 months ago

Couldn’t agree more, good analisist.

Mike Pengelly
2 months ago

Great points above. I know all the stats show Brady’s efficiency at play action is off the charts. Why not do it more often? Giving him even a split second more time to seek out our receivers and/or to give them more time to get open has paid dividends in the past…why not start doing it more regularly?

drdneast
2 months ago

When I read an article like this it makes me realize why I laugh out loud whenever I read one of PR’s stories about Lefto becoming a head coach somewhere. As far as I’m concerned Lefto is an average OC who has been lucky enough to have Tom Brady land in his lap. When you get down to the hard stats his glaring weaknesses begin to appear. Much like last year before the off week, Lefto has fallen into the same traps as he did the previous season. Limited play action and a heavy slant of running on first down.… Read more »

The Wall
Reply to  drdneast
2 months ago

Totally agree!

fredster
Reply to  drdneast
2 months ago

We don’t always agree but Lefty isn’t ready for head coach job imo either. He’s still growing as play caller but ready for head coaching? Makes no sense to me.

Naplesfan
Reply to  fredster
2 months ago

Your opinion isn’t worth spit. Anybody who can help the GOAT play better than he’s ever played before in his career is clearly someone very good at his job as an offensive coordinator. However being a head coach involves some different skills, which obviously you and drd are completely ignorant of – unless you can point to some other Super Bowl championship teams that you general managed and picked the head coaches for.

SMH!

Naplesfan
Reply to  drdneast
2 months ago

Reading your comments reminds me again why most readers here don’t bother with your comments, which are generally revolting and disgusting.

The Wall
2 months ago

Why is this obvious to nearly everyone in the NFL except Leftwich? The facts don’t lie. There is no way he can be a head coach until he demonstrates he can learn from experience. is he just stubborn? I just don’t get it.

Spitfire
2 months ago

Yeah I don’t get it. I don’t understand how someone could seem so unaware of how obvious their play calling is. It’s a testament to how successful we still are, but it’s definitely something that needs to change. It’s almost blatantly obvious that he wants to be predictable in order to catch the team off guard two or three times a game when it’s absolutely needed. It rather see them be unpredictable more often and through play action. Teams like the Rams seem unstoppable at times due to play action despite being more a stage in talent. There are other… Read more »

toofamiliar17
Reply to  Spitfire
2 months ago

The Titans are a great example of what play action does for a QB. Now, the old school instinct might be to argue that they CAN run play action so much because they’ve had Derrick Henry, human wrecking ball, and defenses will trip over themselves trying to stop him. But we know, statistically, that this just isn’t the case. Run play effectiveness at the positive impact or lack thereof of play action. Put simply, if the QB turns around and reaches out to hand the ball to the RB, most LB are going to come downhill hard looking to make… Read more »

Naplesfan
2 months ago

I don’t care much about statistical anomalies as described in this post. Anyone can make any argument they want for any play call or offensive design using stats. I don’t think football is nearly as much about stats as it is about other factors, such as player mindset, the flow of the game, where the other team’s head is, and simply imposing one’s will on the defense by being better at offense than they are at defense. By these standards, we do pretty well. But there are some things the Bucs offense can improve upon going forward: 1) Cut the… Read more »

fredster
Reply to  Naplesfan
2 months ago

So your expert arm chair opinion his play calling is perfect and he’s head coach material? Lol. Funny stuff. Play action isn’t used enough period. The stats and results speak for themself.

Naplesfan
Reply to  fredster
2 months ago

I’m not criticizing the play caller. I am discussing some elements of our offensive play that can be improved upon. Big difference between what I wrote and what you and a few others like drdneast who rant endlessly about going after the play caller. The play caller cannot cause players to make better decisions – and in case you didn’t figure it out yet, the GOAT can call his own plays as the offense and defense line up, and he does that a lot, and he is pretty good at it. But then the players also have to execute –… Read more »

toofamiliar17
Reply to  Naplesfan
2 months ago

I don’t think it was your intended result, but your first paragraph just made me laugh and laugh. It appears that you don’t even actually know what the word “anomaly” means, since everything that’s described here is not anomalous at all. Thanks for the good time!

scubog
2 months ago

Let me get this straight. We have a top 5 offense, Brady is on a pace to establish new team passing records, the team is 6 dash 2 with an excellent chance to finish 15 dash 2 and we have folks who have never designed or called a play other than “Run to the Buick, turn left and I’ll throw it to you before you hit Mrs. Bailey’s garbage can”, criticizing Leftwich because he doesn’t call enough play-action on 1st down. Got it. I’d rather see us be more successful on 3rd and 1. Seems to me the offensive passing… Read more »

Ted in Tampa
2 months ago

Your latest report says White and David had a discussion about reducing penalties. How can a conversation about reducing penalties take place and not include #76 Donovan Smith????? This year, Smith leads the Bucs in penalties and is tied for 3rd place for penalties in the entire NFL. Last year, Smith led the Bucs and the entire NFL in penalties. Do you see a trend here? And more than the number of penalties, Smith’s errors come after critical progress has been made by the Bucs (i.e. 3rd and long). Next year there is going to be a good number of… Read more »