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.
As pointed out by @SheilKapadia today, the Packers' alleged commitment to the run game hasn't quite happened.
— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) September 16, 2020
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.
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.
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.