After destroying opponents to end the regular season, the Bucs offense hasn’t been as crisp through two playoff victories. Yes, they were impressive against Washington in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, putting up 31 points while amassing 507 yards of offense, but the Bucs were also 1-of-5 in the red zone, had five drops (one of which was a touchdown) and converted 43 percent of their third down opportunities. That’s not a bad mark, but when you’re rolling on offense the way the Bucs were, their situational football should certainly be better.
Things got worse against another good defense in New Orleans, as the Bucs managed just 316 yards of offense and 4.6 yards per play while scoring nine points from drives that began in their own territory and going 3-for-6 in the red zone. If not for four turnovers by their defense, setting the Bucs offense up with touchdown drives from the Saints’ 40, 20 and 3-yard line, the Bucs offense didn’t look threatening enough to win that game on their own.
Against Green Bay, the missed opportunities cannot continue. No team has turned the ball over less than the Packers (11), no team is better in the red zone (78.5 percent, best in recorded NFL history in regular season), no team is better on third down (50.5 percent) and only one team (Pittsburgh) has taken less sacks this season (21). In short, the Packers do not beat themselves and they are terrific in situational football, so the Bucs have to match that output to get to the Super Bowl this Sunday. The biggest area the Bucs must clean up is their red zone execution.
I must admit, I am extremely surprised that I have to write about red zone efficiency as an area of concern for the Bucs, as they were one of the best teams in the NFL inside the opposing 20 all season long. But over their past three games, all victories, the Bucs are 6-for-16 in the red area, good for an abysmal 37.5 percent. Compared to the 70-plus percentage the team was at before this three game stretch, it’s clear their recent performance in the red zone is extremely out of character. But all it has to do is linger for one more game to prevent Tampa Bay from a trip to the Super Bowl.
Here’s the back-breaking play or sequence of plays that have led to each of the ten Bucs red zone failures over the past three games.
No. 1 vs. Atlanta – Mike Evans drops TD, gets injured
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After Evans dropped touchdown and injury, the Bucs messed up a screen pass and then Brady had to throw the ball away on third down with nobody open. Bucs screen game execution has been a problem all year, but this drive would have been a touchdown if not for the weird Evans’ injury. Not a concerning drive.
No. 2 vs. Atlanta – 2 minute drill, Leonard Fournette fails to get out of bounds to stop the clock, Tom Brady spikes the ball, then Cam Brate falls down out of his break on third down, looked like he was going to be open.
If Fournette gets out of bounds, the Bucs have second and third down to take end zone shots. That was a big negative play that cost them a shot at scoring, and then Brate falling down on what looked like a terrific anticipatory pass by Brady was another self-inflicted mistake. Again, no concerns with the process here, just have to execute better.
No. 3 vs. Atlanta – Red zone kneel down
Come on. It’s 2021, we can’t weed these out of our stats?
No. 4 vs. Washington – Two throwaways under pressure and a Fournette run on second down. Nobody was open on either pass.
The first legitimately excellent defensive stop by a team against Tampa Bay in the red zone. I wasn’t wild about the play calling though. On first down from the 18, you don’t need three of four routes to be in the end zone on your first down pass attempt. But protection was the main issue on first and third down, forcing Brady throwaways.
No. 5 vs. Washington – Chris Godwin drops TD on slant, Rob Gronkowski catches TD, but can’t get both feet in
Washington defended well on every play, but Brady fired in a laser that went through Godwin’s hands on first down. Then Gronkowski was forced out before he could get his second foot down on a contested catch over a linebacker. I wish the Bucs used more motion-at-the-snap in the red zone to get Brady quick looks and help receivers get open, but chalk this failure up to execution again.
No. 6 vs. Washington – Ted Larsen surrenders sack on 2nd-and-2, 3rd-and-7 pass to Antonio Brown tipped at line of scrimmage
The first of two Ted Larsen drive-killing sacks. Let’s hope Aaron Stinnie doesn’t have the same problems arise on Sunday against Green Bay.
No. 7 vs. Washington – 3rd-and-18 16-yard pass to Godwin following another Larsen-surrendered sack takes Bucs to the 19-yard line, where they kick a field goal on 4th-and-2.
Larsen killed the drive, but the Bucs didn’t reach the red zone until it was fourth down. Not really a red zone failure in my opinion.
No. 8 vs. New Orleans – Two Fournette runs get Bucs to 3rd-and-1, then a slant pass to Gronkowski is broken up. Brady had Godwin open on the backside, but wanted Gronkowski on the quick throw frontside. Bucs don’t go for it on 4th-and-1, kick FG.
Against Washington and Atlanta, most of the Bucs red zone issues were execution errors. Against the Saints, I thought coaching failed them on their first scoring drive of the game. After two Fournette carries netted nine yards, an incompletion on third down left the Bucs looking at a 4th-and-1 from the Saints 8-yard line. Bruce Arians opted to kick the field goal and cut the Saints lead to 6-3, but the numbers show he should have gone for the touchdown.
—> TB (0) @ NO (6) <— TB has 4th & 1 at the NO 8
Recommendation (VERY STRONG): 👉 Go for it (+5.8 WP) Actual play: 👟🏈 R.Succop 26 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-Z.Triner, Holder-B.Pinion. pic.twitter.com/0mpHpJi892
Now, when you get four turnovers on defense, it’ll make a lot of bad coaching decisions look fine in retrospect. But this one could have cost the Bucs a game in which they were the better team. For what it is worth, I also would have ran it on third down, then again on fourth down if I didn’t get it on third.
No. 9 vs. New Orleans – 3rd-and-15 10-yard pass to Brate with five seconds takes Bucs to the 19-yard line, where they kick a field goal to end the first half and tie the game at 13.
The play before this, Godwin dropped the 29-yard touchdown pass from Brady, but the completion to Brate was the first time the Bucs had entered the red zone, similar to No. 7 on this list. So while it shouldn’t count as a red zone failure, it does count as a failed execution in enemy territory that should have resulted in a touchdown.
No. 10 vs. New Orleans – 2nd-and-9 incompletion to Gronkowski in the back of the end zone, ball off his fingertips.
Tough throw and catch, just a tad too far from Brady, but still a play you’d love to see your playmakers make in the playoffs. The third down pass from Brady was broken up by Marshon Lattimore, but even if completed I don’t think it would have been a first down. It was a good play call and read, the execution was just a tad off.
There are only about two red zone possessions where the opponent legitimately stopped the Bucs (No. 4 and No. 8), and one of those could have been a successful trip with better play-calling on third down and a more aggressive approach on fourth down.
Still, the Bucs biggest issue in the red zone has been execution. Three of these ten drives have ended in field goals because of dropped touchdowns, which if caught bump the Bucs up to 56.5 percent red zone efficiency, a much more workable mark. Two others (No. 3, the kneel down, and No. 7) shouldn’t even count as red zone failures. And a little more aggressive coaching on No. 8 likely gets the Bucs in the red zone, the percentages show us.
The Bucs play-calling in the red zone, for the most part, is not an issue. They are getting people open and getting the looks they want the vast majority of the time, and they have all season long. Tampa Bay simply needs to execute better in the passing game, as receivers have failed to come up with the tough catches in the most important area of the field. If Godwin and Gronkowski can get back to their normal selves, and protection can continue to hold up well, the Bucs should be able to return to their regular season success against a Packers defense that ranks tenth in the red zone this season.
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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