Much has been made about the performance of Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Donovan Smith and others on the Bucs offense, and to varying degrees there is blame to be placed on all of them.

Brady can’t throw that pick-six to Janoris Jenkins on an out route across the field.

Evans can’t mess up a middle-field read resulting in an interception or drop passes when he is targeted.

And Donovan Smith can’t be beaten like a rag doll by backup-caliber pass rushers.

But all of those things are fixable. Individual errors that are uncommon for Brady and Evans and unlikely to be as bad as they were on Sunday for Smith. The bigger issue the Tampa Bay offense faces in hitting its stride comes from the coaching staff, not anybody on the field.

The Bucs need to stop trying to establish the run.

This statement does not mean the Bucs need to stop running the ball completely. It also does not mean Tampa Bay has no shot at running the ball successfully this season. It simply means they need to stop trying to establish that part of the offense before focusing on the passing game. It’s a backwards approach compared to every bit of data we have on play sequencing.

According to this graph by The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin, the Bucs had one of the lowest early down pass frequencies in the entire NFL last week, a tendency that puts them well outside of what offenses have found to be successful in years past.

FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer studied league play sequences from 2009-2018 and detailed his findings in this outstanding article, including the following:

Pass-rush-rush is the most successful three-play sequence, followed by pass-pass-rush and rush-pass-rush. On first down, passing will net you at least 5 yards (enough to make the play a success) 47 percent of the time, while running the ball will get you the same result just 32.8 percent of the time, 14.2 percentage points less often.

On Sunday, the Bucs ran the ball on eight of their 11 initial first downs, not gaining more than four yards on a single carry. That is essentially eight inefficient plays (we’ll stop short of calling them “wasted plays”) to begin drives, consistently putting the team in third-and-less-than-ideal situations.

Saints DE Cameron Jordan and Bucs RB Ronald Jones II
Saints DE Cameron Jordan and Bucs RB Ronald Jones II – Photo by: Getty Images

Tampa Bay saw two of its five first half possessions end on a 3rd-and-9 and a 3rd-and-14, both of which began by a running play on first down. The team’s play sequencing was predictable, and the Saints linebackers and safeties took advantage, consistently firing out into the line of scrimmage without any respect for the pass.

Things didn’t get much better in the second half either, despite the Bucs trailing. There were less early down runs due to the game situation, but they were just as maddening when they did occur. After Brady had completed five straight passes for 66 yards (well, 28 yards came on a DPI) in the third quarter, the Bucs inexplicably called two straight runs with newly acquired Leonard Fournette into a pair of 8-man boxes.

Those two runs netted them a total of three yards, setting up a 3rd-and-7 that fell incomplete. The goal should always be 3rd-and-4 or less. Was the most efficient, highest-percentage call on 2nd-and-10 another run? Absolutely not. Poor play sequencing ruined a drive that could have been a touchdown, instead forcing the Bucs to settle for a field goal. And that’s just one example of several throughout the game.

The Saints’ aggressiveness against the run on early downs is a big reason why when the Bucs did go to the air in the first half, the results were successful. A first down play-action pass to Chris Godwin for 29 yards on the team’s first drive was one of the best offensive plays of the day and the key catalyst to the Bucs gaining an early 7-0 lead. On another drive in the early second quarter, Brady found Justin Watson for six yards on first down, more yards than gained by any of the team’s initial eight first down carries.

That wasn’t a memorable play, and that is kind of the point. The objective on first down isn’t always to get 29 yards or to score on a vertical shot. The objective is to make each down after that more manageable. By putting themselves in 2nd-and-4, the Bucs have opened up a world of possibilities for their playbook. They could run, they could take a shot, they could throw a screen, they could run any route combination imaginable in that down-and-distance, and the defense won’t know what to expect. When a team has an opponent on its toes like that, the offense has started to tilt the pre-snap advantage in its favor.

That’s why winning first down is so important, and why choosing the option that nets a team at least five yards 14.2 percentage points more often than the option that does not (running the ball), is the smart decision. It allows the playbook to be wide open on second and even third down, and makes you far less predictable on offense.

Bucs QB Tom Brady
Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: Getty Images

When the Bucs lost yardage, were stopped for no gain or gained two yards or less on first down (which was the majority of the time), it was pretty obvious what was coming on second and third down. It allowed the Saints to be able to tee off as pass rushers, dial up blitzes and trap coverages and play two safeties deep. A better option for the Bucs would be to throw on first downs and put them in better second and third down situations to be able to run the football when a defense doesn’t know what to expect.

Combine that data with the information we have on the success rate of play-action, which the Bucs flashed on Sunday, and Tampa Bay’s offense could have a formula for success on first down. Outside of the 29-yard completion to Godwin, Brady’s 9-yard touchdown toss to O.J. Howard, the 28-yard gain off a defensive pass interference penalty to Scotty Miller and a 23-yard gain to Chris Godwin to convert a third-and-1 were all huge plays that happened out of play-action passes.

If Bruce Arians and play-caller Byron Leftwich deploy more play-action, throw more in general on first down and run less overall – and a lot less in early down situations – their offense will be better positioned for the success that they already have the talent to achieve. But because of their lack of consistent early down positive results on Sunday, their offense struggled to sustain drives and score the points they should have, even against a quality opponent like the three-time NFC South champion Saints.

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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chefboho

So much truth to this article. Sometimes Leftwich becomes to predictable with his play calling. How many times does this team start a drive on 1st down with a run up the middle? get creative or let Brady audible to his own calls.

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scubog

Didn’t the Bucs, with Byron calling the plays, have a top 5 offense last season? Just saying.

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Dave

They had a top 5 offense because a) the QB turned the ball over 37 times, including 7 pick sixes. So short fields for their opponent means less field to travel to put a FG or TD on the board. Which means more possessions in a game for the Bucs offense. And b) 37 TO’s and 7 pick sixes, meant Bucs were in negative game scripts and constantly chasing games. Aka: constantly throwing to try and come back in games. The whole we had a top 5 offense argument is irrelevant without context. When you’re a top 5 offense, and… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Dave
chefboho

Spot on Dave. I don’t even feel the need to add to your statement. You nailed it

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Naplesfan

Anybody can make any argument with statistics. The Bucs did not lose the game on Sunday at New Orleans because of an inefficient offense – indeed, the Bucs ran a much more efficient offense than the much vaunted Saints, out producing them 325 to 280 yards. The Bucs DID lose the game on Sunday because of several muffed plays (three turnovers plus blocked kicks), which had exactly zero to do with the coaching and play calling. We all know this, yet Ledyard is furiously spinning that the loss is on the coaches. That is simply stupid and galling. The ONLY… Read more »

Pete Wood

Tom Brady’s two interceptions had everything to do with the play calling. With the pick six, Bucs ran for no gain on first down, then ended up with a 2nd and 15. Saints knew they were going to pass. Second int came on a 2 and 9 after a one yard run on first down.
Bucs don’t run on first down and Brady isn’t painted into a corner. He doesn’t have to pass and Saints aren’t as prepared.

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destinjohnny

You can never forget the personel limitations that we have on the line.
Jason’s has only had 7 drafts to get it right. But who’s counting

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ScottC543

Let’s also not forget where we are today, one of the favorites to win the SB this season. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then, huh?

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destinjohnny

If we had to field a team of draft pics… how would that look?
We have to draft better.

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Dave

Umm pretty good actually. Here’s the draft picks we would put out onto the field.

M.Evans
C.Godwin
L.David
A.Marpet
D.White
C.Davis
V.Vea
R.Jones
J.Evans
A.Winfield Jr
OJ Howard
T.Wirfs
S.Murphy-Bunting
S.Miller

I’m not saying that’s a SB contending roster, but that’s a very solid competitive roster. Definitely top half of the league in talent. I don’t know how anyone can say otherwise.

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DT25

This 100%…our defense, which has seemingly turned a corner into “pretty damn good” territory, is chocked FULL of Licht draft picks. Like 80% of it are players he drafted. This narrative about Licht has fallen apart substantially since Arians and Bowles got here…looks rather obvious now that the poor coaching and player development that preceded them was really holding this team back. Licht hasn’t been perfect…no GM is. But he’s built a solid foundation of talent, both through the draft and free agency. That’s his job…now its the on the players and coaches to do theirs. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb… Read more »

stlbucsfan

This would require us to take a realistic view of our offensive line and no one at One Buc is willing to do that. They think Jensen is some nasty mauler but in reality he opens no holes in the passing game. They act like they have hidden info on Donovan Smith that makes him elite but no one can ever see it. Market is praised but certainly not a difference maker in the run game. We call plays like we have Dallas OL, just Bc we foolishly overpaid 3/5 starters in that u it doesn’t make them elite. The… Read more »

DT25

Marpet and Jensen are both better pass protectors than they are run blockers…but neither is bad at run blocking. Takes an entire OL to be an efficient running team though…one guy out of position or missing an assignment can result in collapsing running lanes. Donovan is absolutely one of the primary reasons our running game tends to struggle. He’s just not mobile enough to beat defenders to their spots and lead the way when the ball is run to the left, and he has major issues ensuring the backside is protected when the ball is run to the right. I’m… Read more »

stlbucsfan

The Bucs don’t run the ball well left, right or center so the whole unit should be in question. Jensen is the top paid C in our division and has never shown that type of production. Marpet is solid but not special. Cappa another decent player with Wirfs having the potential to be special. Donovan is somewhere between 20-25 in terms of LTs which doesn’t warrant his pay check. If our OL was paid middle of the pack money I’d be quiet but the amount of money invested in that unit should yield better results. Demar Dotson was gone Sunday… Read more »

Dave

You’re the only one that thinks Marpet and Jensen are overrated. Jensen per pff was one of the highest graded centers last season at 79.5. In week 1, Jensen was again among the top centers in pff grade at 82.5, Marpet had the lines 2nd best grade at 78.5. Cappa had a 72.5, and Smith was last at 64. Marpet is top 1/3 at his position, and Jensen is a top 5 center. If PFF continues to grade the line above average every single game, at some point you have to question the factor playcalling is having on the results.… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Dave
DT25

My personal belief is the playcalling sets them up to fail more often than not. Leftwich doesn’t use a lot of creativity in his play calls or when he calls them, so we run into defensive fronts that expect we’ll likely be running the ball. Also the PFF grades are combined pass protection and run blocking…our line has consistently graded higher in pass pro than run blocking. You can just see on film the difference between “good” run blocking OLs (see the Browns last night), and ours. We consistently allow the backside of runs to break down, or OL fail… Read more »

owlykat

Absolutely agree Jon. Leftwich is a poor play caller! I hope some other team thinks he is part of the Bucs success this year and hires him away. BA wants him to be a Head Coach but the Bucs would be fools to entrust him with that job. Brady would be smart to change the plays he does not agree with from Leftwich. BA should turn over play calling to Brady.

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DT25

I’d be more accepting with this approach if our OL was more competent in blocking for the run game. And even then, I’d STILL think we are running the ball too often on early downs. Not even super run heavy teams like the Titans are running that often early on. I’m hoping it’s all a set up for later games…like we wanted to try to keep the Saints offense off the field by grinding clock and show some film to other teams preparing for us that we are overly committed to the run, only to hit them with some play… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by DT25
surferdudes

This is BA’s, and Tom’s last rodeo. After next year or this year if things go south both could very well be gone. If I were Arain’s, and my last coaching stop I had Tom Brady, I would be the one calling the game. I don’t understand why BA is passing up this opportunity. I did not see a game plan that was much different from most of last years game plans. The sideline throw pick six, the miscommunication with Evans that resulted in a pick over the middle, we’ve seen this movie before, and it didn’t have a happy… Read more »

jiggyjoe

Two things for sure: The Bucs were out coached by the Saints and they lost the football game. These two things need to be fixed.

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thegeebo

Anyone who has been seen my comments knows that since the very first week of the Byron Leftwich offense, I have been smashing my head on the wall and my fingers on the keyboard in frustration of his play calling, game management, and sequencing. With all these weapons in the passing game, we continue to play offense like it’s 1993. I truly don’t understand it. I thought that Brady would right the ship with more say in the offense, and the first drive against the Saints validated that. It was plain to see that Brady heavily scripted that first drive,… Read more »

Dave

100% spot on dude! Couldn’t have said it better

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SaskBucs

I would also like to see more passing on first down. The rushing game plan should change anyway with our poor run blocking OL. The Bucs WRs and TEs are decent blockers, Rojo and Fournette have size and are shifty, instead of pounding the middle so often, I would like to see some short sweeps and pitches.

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drdneast

I spoke about two major factors on Monday that contributed to the Bucs loss and it wasn’t Donovan Smith’s poor game. The first was the Bucs terrible special teams play which resulted in poor field position for the Bucs and excellent field position for the Saints. The second was the putrid play calling by Lefty. As the always quotable Ray Perkins once said, “if I wanted to hand the ball off the whole game I could have hired a truck driver.” Well we could have put one in on first down plays on Sunday and given Brady a quick blow.… Read more »

BigSombrero

Interesting deep dive into percentages and play calling. The thing that the article fails to mention are the number of times Brady audibles to a run. The defense dictates the play by their alignment. Brady responds accordingly.

The Bucs were just out-executed on Sunday. Point blank.

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bucballer

Predictably is a killer. Plain and simple. BL has to do a better job in play selection. As I’ve stated many times before, if I can predict the call from my couch on any given play, then so can the defense. They said first drive was scripted and we went right down the field and scored. U have the GOAT at QB. Perhaps he may be adept at calling the plays more so than BL. This OLine IS improved from last year. It’s still a little weak at LT, but I’m pretty sure this is his last season with the… Read more »

SufferingSince76

I know it’s cliche, but the more things change the more they stay the same. Use Brady’s strengths to our advantage and let him audible all day if necessary. BA’s stubbornness is infuriating!!

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Ron Potter

MUCH MORE needs to be made by media and fans regarding Leftwich. This is basically a rookie Offensive Coordinator still. What is it with our media and fans targeting Winston, targeting Brady, targeting OL, targeting RBs, targeting draft picks… when our OC situations of the last 10 years have been a circus! Tedford quits and we go 2-14. The running game and Winston’s best year happened at the same time when Koetter reported to Lovie Smith. After blaming Lovie, Koetter couldn’t handle HC and OC play-calling at the same time and Monken was actually better but he wouldn’t let Monken… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Ron Potter
Dy-nasty D

@Jon Ledyard The logic of the 3-play sequence is flawed. Football is always situational. The sequence pass-rush-rush is successful because it means that 1st down pass was completed and was a successful gain. However, if the 1st down pass is incomplete, the sequence changes. The most successful 3rd downs are always runs because that means that at least one of the two previous plays was successful. The least successful sequence ends with a 3rd down pass because the previous plays were probably unsuccessful and you have to get more yards. It’s situational. You can’t sequence plays pass-run-run if your pass… Read more »

compewterpirate

Excellent article Jon and whereas i would concur that some stats are relatively meaningless, these offensive sequencing statistics are ones that cannot and should not be ignored. The body of data is so large and compelling that it really should constitute the basis of an OC’s play calling. There were times last Sunday when I could have sworn a late 90’s Clyde Christiansen was calling the plays, so unimaginative was the play calling on first down. If Leftwich can’t get more imaginative and creative than ‘3 yards and a cloud of dust’, then let Brady audible his own plays at… Read more »

scubog

So let me get this straight. We have a top 5 offense last season and generate more offense than arguably the top NFC Super Bowl contender this season, yet our play calling is lacking. Hmmmmmm. In my view it’s the execution as much as it is the design of the play. There’s an old saying “a poor plan well executed is better than a good plan poorly executed.” This game was lost by the Bucs, not won by the Saints, because of individual mistakes. I will say this. Last year, and so far this year, defenses have loaded up and… Read more »

Dave

The total yards had ZERO to do with play calling, and EVERYTHING to do with a QB that turned the ball over 37 times, had 7 different back to back possessions due to a pick six, and due to his nfl record amount of TO’s, constantly had the offense in frantic comeback mode. A top 5 offense from a winning team is one thing. A top 5 offense from a losing team, who was constantly in garbage time in the 2nd half is a whole other thing. You’re not using the “top 5 offense” in context. For instance, right off… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Dave