Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
Good teams move the ball. Great teams score points in the red zone. Champions score touchdowns.
The 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers learned in their own hard way that those three statements, while progressions of one another, are far between with each requiring more will, more focus and more intuitiveness than the step before it.
The Bucs finished the 2017 season as the league’s ninth best offense in terms of moving the ball with 363.5 yards per game. But, when it came to scoring, their 335 total points ranked 18th in the league. And, even beyond that, when it came to crunch time, finishing the drive within striking distance, the Bucs ranked just 24th in the league in the red zone when it came to touchdown conversion percentage – often settling for field goals rather than touchdowns, and therefore deficits on the scoreboard.
And thus, PewterReport.com’s #GottaGet6 movement was born for 2018.
The Buccaneers have to start turning defensive stands into field position, field position into well-maintained drives, drives into points but more importantly drives into touchdowns. Just ask Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
“We finished 24th in the league (red zone TD efficiency) and what is interesting about that is it just would have taken five more touchdowns and you jump from 24th to eigth because the sample size is so small,” Monken said. “You had like 53 opportunities, which was seventh in the league. We got down there seventh most in the league, but we didn’t take advantage of those opportunities … I got a chance to meet with the team, and I don’t sugarcoat things very much and we absolutely chose to suck. We made that decision as an offense to play poorly, we did.”
“Chose to suck” – I couldn’t have said it any better myself. The Bucs had one of the best red zone wide receivers in the league, one of the fastest players in the league, one of the best receiving tight ends in the league, and they still couldn’t punch the thing in with great regularity.
So, if they had the weapons, was quarterback Jameis Winston to blame? Let’s take a look.
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The five best red zone teams in the NFL last season were the Jaguars, the Eagles, the Saints, the Patriots and the Packers. Coincidentally enough, all but the Jaguars had their team’s quarterbacks in the Top 6 with regards to completion percentage – and it’s really the Top 5 teams because both Nick Foles and Carson Wentz played for the Eagles.
So how did Winston measure up? Not great.
Winston’s competition percentage in the red zone was 31st out of the Top 32 that are listed above. Now, to be fair there are some good quarterbacks around him; Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, and Winston did throw 12 touchdowns with no interceptions, but 12 isn’t even in the top half of those guys, and put him closer in company with Trevor Siemian, DeShone Kizer and Tyrod Taylor.
Simply put, Winston has to be more accurate with his passes.
But, maybe it’s not all on him. What about his supporting cast? Better yet, what about how it was used?
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Above we have the Top 16 red zone contributors last season. I had it go to 16 instead of 15 to show the three Eagles players all right there.
What stands out right away, anything? To me, what stands out is that the only exclusive outside receiver in the Top 10 is Adams, and you don’t see another one until Dez Bryant and Mike Evans. Adams has Aaron Rodgers, the greatest passer of all time, throwing to him, so that’s a bit of an outlier there. But, the rest of those guys all operate in middle (slot) roles and consistently succeed in space. Keenan Allen, Cooper Kupp, Jarvis Landry and Antonio Brown are all slot masters. Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce are mismatch nightmares inside. And the other, Larry Fitzgerald, is an outside receiver, but the Cardinals have been very creative with him, including playing him on the inside in the red zone to maximize what he can do – the Bucs learned that the hard way over the last two season.
Am I saying that you don’t want dominant outside receivers to throw the ball up to in the red zone? Of course I’m not. However, would you say that Landry is better than Evans? Would you say that Allen is better than Julio Jones? Would you say that Kupp is better than DeAndre Hopkins? Because I wouldn’t. And yet they all produced more in the red zone. Why?
“We’ve spent a lot of time studying the red – studying other teams in the red zone – and it’s funny, you look at total red zone opportunities and the total number of marginal difference between success and being average and being poor, as Coach Monken pointed out, if we had just scored five more touchdowns, we would have been in the Top 8,” Buccaneers quarterback coach Mike Bajakian said. “It doesn’t take a whole lot to improve, it’s just a matter of execution. You study those teams that are at the top of the NFL, and what you realize is that they’re not reinventing the wheel. I’m thinking I’m going to watch the Philadelphia Eagles and I’m going to get all these great ideas on what they’re doing in the red zone, and you know what, their plays are the same plays we’re running, they’re just playing pitch and catch.”
I believe that. I believe that Winston and the Buccaneers do have to execute better, but I also think they need to position their players to be more successful, too. Evans got 26.4 percent of the team’s red zone targets. Brate was next with 18.1. Those are fine. Those are their main “man beaters” and “zone beaters.” I have no problem with that. But after that, it got a little head-scratching. Chris Godwin was next with 11.1 percent, and if you’ll remember his only touchdown of the season came on the last throw of the year, which wasn’t in the red zone. Then it was actually running back Charles Sims, DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard at 8.3 percent a piece. I don’t really know how Jackson ends up with the same amount of red zone targets as Sims and less than Godwin, but that isn’t what those other best teams in the league are doing. The other teams have their style and stick to it, which the Buccaneers are also doing, but that style doesn’t seem to be what their roster could be doing best.
Godwin getting the third-most targets tells me they emphasized throws to the outside. Those are the harder throws, and again I ask of this offense: why are you not making things as easy as they could be? Jackson on a dig route over the middle or an inside break in the back of the end zone with a tight end compliment route either layered or crossing. The Bucs have the skill sets to have zone beaters and man beaters in the red zone on the inside and that includes using Evans in the slot, too, at times. They just haven’t been able to either put guys where they might have a better chance of succeeding or doing so and failing to execute.
So then how do these other top teams in the league make it look so easy? Is it something the Bucs aren’t doing, or just something they need to do better? We take a lot at the film on the next page.