I’ve avoided writing this article until Week 15 for two reasons. First, you need a large sample size before determining how good a team’s red zone offense is, so that part required patience. Second, I didn’t want to jinx the Bucs red zone offense. As they prepare to square off against Atlanta’s fourth-best red zone defense in the league, you can now officially blame me if Sunday goes poorly for Tampa Bay.
But through 13 games this season, the Bucs own the NFL’s sixth-best red zone offense, converting trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line into touchdowns at nearly a 71 percent clip. In their three most recent games Tampa Bay has converted at an even higher rate, 75 percent, after some bumps in the red zone road against New Orleans and Carolina in Weeks 8 and 9. In a year where offensive consistency has been elusive, the Bucs have overcome those struggles in the red zone, scoring on 34 of 48 trips during the 2020 season.
The man responsible for the majority of that success has obviously been Tom Brady, who has thrown 24 of his 30 touchdowns in the red area, with zero turnovers. Of the Bucs 10 red zone rushing touchdowns, Brady has also accounted for three of them, using his patented quarterback sneak to get home near the goal line. Play-calling also deserves a tip of the cap, as the Bucs have often found ways to work players open in the red zone for touchdowns. When they haven’t, Brady’s perfect ball placement on fades and high-point throws in the back of the end zone, as well as his ability to even buy some extra time in the pocket (TD to Evans in first half against the Chargers, TD to Godwin against the Raiders), has kept the Bucs offense rolling.
The biggest impact at receiver has come from Mike Evans, who has hauled in nine of his 11 touchdowns in the red zone, all of which have come from inside the ten. But the presence of Rob Gronkowski on the team’s 2020 roster has also been critical, as the veteran tight end has hauled in all five of his scores from inside the 20, including one to open the second half on Sunday. Chris Godwin has been efficient in his nine games this season, catching five of six red zone targets for three scores.
Make no mistake, this is easily the best red zone offense in Bucs history, and it’s a huge reason why their offense is likely to finish the 2020 season as the highest-scoring group Tampa Bay has ever had, despite the fact they’ve run out their fair share of fourth quarters while protecting leads this season. That’s a far cry from last year’s 458-point group, who was rolling up garbage time touchdowns and yards every other week.
Some will balk at the Bucs sixth-ranked red zone offense, suggesting they should be even higher given their level of talent, but it’s important to note that ranking is much more of a casualty of a season where red zone offense has completely exploded around the NFL. In 2019, the Bucs 2020 rate would have been comfortably in second place, and from 2008-2017, Tampa’s current 70.8 percent conversion rate would have been fifth-best of the decade.
It’s also a far cry from Dirk Koetter’s red zone offenses, which struggled in Tampa Bay and have struggled mightily in Atlanta as well. The Falcons are currently 31st in the NFL in red zone offense after finishing 25th a year ago under Koetter as offensive coordinator. During the former head coach’s time in Tampa Bay, the Bucs offense never finished better than around league average, and were 20th in the NFL or lower during three of Koetter’s four years as the team’s offensive shot caller.
For all the things I wish Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich would change about their offense, there is no denying the team’s success in the red zone this season. It’s been a huge part of why this Bucs team is likely headed back to the playoffs, and why they can still be a threat there if they can find consistency as an offense between the 20s.
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