Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.

Sikkema’s Stat(s) of the Week

If it was easy, everybody would be putting in an application whenever an opening came up in college football and the NFL. But, the fact of the matter is, calling plays isn’t easy.

This isn’t Madden. It’s not just about running “Four Verts” every play knowing there will be a window between the linebackers, or a mismatch in man coverage that you can call, at least one out of every three times, for a guaranteed first down – it’s more than that. It’s about running to set up the pass. It’s about passing to set up the run. It’s about running out of one formation one play just to set up a pass out of that same formation the next time around. It’s about moving your pieces to move their pieces to call a play which sets up another play which sets up a play you’re not even going to call until the next half.

And yet, it’s about each down individually. It’s about setting up the story so you can get to the masterpieces of an ending when it all comes together; the beginning and the finale.

I’m a big fan of the TV show “How I Met Your Mother.” I’ve gone through all nine seasons of the show multiple times, and it still makes me smile, laugh, cry, etc. If you haven’t seen the show, you’re a fool. If you have, you know there’s a lot of controversy with the final season; how the show ended, the episodes leading up to it, how they brought characters to their end, and so on and so on. I wish that things ended better for the characters, but loved how the story was told and the magnitude that the final season brought together.

Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter - Photo by: Getty Images

Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Getty Images

Sometimes I feel like just watching that last season again, but I can’t just watch the ninth season. If I just start at the ninth season, they’re just random episodes to me. Even though I’ve seen the show a million times and I know the backstory, I’m not as invested or connected unless I’m re-invested. If you don’t vividly remember what Ted (the main character of the story) had to go through and the steps of each episode that led him to meet the woman of his dreams, you won’t get the ninth season and all that it really is.

You can’t just skip to the ending, because, if you do, the ending won’t work. There are layers that you have to take to get there, that’s what makes a finale a masterpiece.

For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the men behind their offensive game plan – head coach Dirk Koetter and offensive coordinator Todd Monken – they seem to be wanting to get to the most memorable parts before establishing the backstory.

The team’s 38-33 loss at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals was just the latest edition of some questionable offensive play calls and play designs that has been the Bucs 2017 season thus far. In the blink of an eye, the game was nearly out of hand. The defense certainly did not do its part to help the offense remain balanced, but even when you take shots from an opponent, you have to be able to hit back.

Yet, hitting back doesn’t always mean you have to hit a big play. Sometimes it just means to control the game, to sustain a drive, to get in some rhythm, to let your defense forget about their mistakes and re-group. But, that’s not what the Bucs offense has done much of at all here early in the season.

Part of me thinks that’s because this team is becoming too predictable in the first half, when things are more structured, and I have a few numbers to back that up.

Koetter has told us that they like to keep things about 50-50 in terms of pass-run on first-and-10, as well as second down and anything from 1-6 yards. On first downs, the Bucs have passed the ball 81 times as opposed to 58 run plays. They have been down for a good amount of their games, so there’s an expected bump on pass plays. On second down, however, they’ve passed the ball 68 times and only rushed the ball 27 times. That tells us they’re either not having the success they want on first down, or they’re out-thinking themselves with what might be working.

Of the 81 times Tampa Bay has passed the ball on first down, the team has gained 726 yards. Of the 58 times the Bucs have run the ball on first down, they’ve gained 262 yards. That’s an average of 8.9 yards through the air and 4.5 yards on the ground. Both of those numbers are healthy, so what gives?

Whatever it is, it’s leading to some bad third down numbers, and that’s ultimately what’s killing this Bucs offense in the first halves of games, and what is leading to them losing control to good teams.

If you just look at the third down conversion percentage for the year, the Bucs are right in the middle of the league at 38 percent. However, like the inflated first down passing yards, the third down conversion rate is inflated as well from those “garbage time” drives when teams are playing softer defenses that allow for first downs, but not touchdowns.

Bucs TE Cameron Brate & head coach Dirk Koetter - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Bucs TE Cameron Brate & head coach Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Let’s look at some third down numbers from the first halves of games. In the first quarter of games, the Bucs are just 2-of-15 on third down. Of those 15 third downs, eight of them have the team in third-and-6 or longer. In the second quarter, the Bucs are 7-of-19 on third down. Of those 19 third downs, 13 were from third-and-6 or longer.

What do those tell us? Well, for one, it tells us that whatever those first down averages are are going to waste. It also tells us that this team is doing a bad job of playing the “smaller game.” In every drive, you don’t think, “How can we get six points here?” Instead, you think, “How can we get into third-and-short?”

When you think like that, you put yourself in good situations to convert. The Bucs don’t do that, and it worries me that they might be thinking too big picture. We all know how Koetter loves “explosive plays.” Yes, you want to run plays that can get DeSean Jackson a home run ball, but rarely do those ever come early on – you build to that.

The plays that you call on offense have layers for you to take deep shots down the field, but it feels like with the plays that are being call now on first-and-10 or second-and-long either every route is going 10 yards down the field or it’s not being caught. The drag routes, the crossing routes, the level routes aren’t there as much as they need to be. It feels like when this team is in second-and-10, they think that if they don’t pick up the first down, it’s a long shot – which then just forces another long throw on third down if they don’t get it.

This team needs to start prioritizing setting themselves up in third-and-short situations. If you can do that and grind out a few first downs, those big plays that Koetter just can’t wait to get to will come. But if you don’t call plays to make a defense uncomfortable, then they won’t be vulnerable the way you want them to.

Here’s one example of that – the area where I think the Bucs need the most improvement: running from the shotgun formation.

Of the 15 third downs the Bucs have faced in the first quarters of games, 12 were from the shotgun formation (on long and short distances). Of the 19 third downs the Bucs have faced in the second quarters of games, 16 were from the shotgun formation.

It’s clear that, short or long, the Bucs want to be in shotgun on third downs, and yet Tampa Bay has had the fewest total plays (10) in the NFL that were runs from shotgun – the fourth fewest percent at 2.47 percent. What does that tell you? That says  that even if the offense does its job and gets itself into an ideal third-and-short, the Bucs are not going to run it – and the other teams know it! You cannot tip your hand like that in the NFL.

If Charles Sims is on the field on a third down, they’re not running the ball. Heck, if any running back is on the field for third down from the shotgun Tampa Bay is not running the ball whether it’s third-and-2 or third-and-12. That number cannot be that low, and that’s part of what I’m talking about with being predictable.

Turn to the next page to see a few examples on film of just how the Bucs are predictable on third downs, and how they can make things easier on themselves on any down with some adjustments to offensive designs – things that will help Winston plenty as well as the conversion percentage.

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About the Author: Trevor Sikkema

Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: trevor@pewterreport.com
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Horse
3 years ago

Good Article Trevor. I wish you would go after the Defense as hard as you do the Offense because there is our main problem? Just look at the Saints; anything different about them on Offense? No. It’s their Defense that’s gotten better because the last three years they have drafted high and often on defensive players. Obviously our Head Coach needs to let go the Offensive play calling and get his focus totally on being the Head Coach. Gruden was experienced at it, so was the Cardinals Coach; Koetter’s not; he can’t do both, but we all know that was… Read more »

Horse
Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
3 years ago

Trevor, thank you. Don’t get me wrong, your Article was very informative. I do want to say one thing about the offensive anaysis? Yes we do throw more on 1st down than run; the problem I see with the passes is most of them have to be very precise type of passes, and it might be better to throw a simplier pass such as a comeback quick pass or a quick slant pass; being the theme of quick. Just my thoughts.

Dude
Reply to  Horse
3 years ago

I think earlier in the week Smith told Hargreaves to start playing tighter and not so soft on coverage, but Hargreaves didn’t respond. I would say that’s on Vernon and not all on Smith. But Smith should have gotten on him during the game about his soft coverage, and if Vernon still didn’t respond Smith should have taken him out and put him on the bench. So I would say that is on Smith if he didn’t do that.

Destino102
3 years ago

A good example of what this offensse can be is Last Year Week 1 against Atlanta. After the game Koetter even said he knew Atlanta’s defense was one that didn’t give up the big play and that they attacked them with short routes. As far as what formations we were in, I can’t remember, but I do remember us taking our time to move down the field with runs and quick passes, and completing many of our 3rd downs. That style opened up the big plays as we were able to hit Evans 2xs for big plays and also ASJ… Read more »

Naplesfan
3 years ago

I appreciate your effort here to analyze the Bucs playcalling, Trevor. You’re an analyst, that’s what you do. it’s an important perspective. But play calling is only one element – execution is a bigger element. If the defense let’s the other team’s offense run them into the ground using a likely Hall of Famer running back getting his first real action of the season, and then the defense also does not provide good secondary coverage, and if your quarterback jams his shoulder on the first series of the game and can no longer drive the ball … then offensive playcalling… Read more »

GrafikDetail
Reply to  Naplesfan
3 years ago

i agree somewhat BUT if playcalling & scheme weren’t a big part of the equation then lovie’s horrible defenses was more on the players’ execution & not him which we know is not true

Naplesfan
Reply to  gafikdetail
3 years ago

There was more to Lovie Smith’s incompetence than playcalling, though he was of course not the offensive playcaller anyway. He was also a poor judge of talent who evidently exercised a lot of control over personnel selection, and in selecton of his assistant coaches. He was also a guy who made constant excuses for poor performance on the field. If the head coach accepts mediocrity, then so will his assistant coaches and players. And finally, Lovie Smith was a buzz killer who did not know how to interact with the players.

tnew
Reply to  Naplesfan
3 years ago

I will agree with the defensive players had to come out an execute better, but the offense has been a pretty constant theme while Koetter has been here. To add, DJax, Howard and Godwin, while getting Sweezy back on the Line and not being dramatically more dynamic offensively is what gets changes made at the head coach position. I’ll give Fitz credit for what he did. He shredded a butter soft defense that was giving the underneath zone while losing 31-0. He also was the benefactor of two turnovers from the Cardinals. One was a pick 6 and the other… Read more »

Naplesfan
Reply to  tnew
3 years ago

Coaches gotta coach, and players gotta play. The offense – other than Winston’s inability to throw the ball after he jammed his shoulder – was actually not the problem on Sunday. It was the defense that allowed three straight TDs and a FG before the half, and the aforeentioned inability of Winston to throw. When Fitz was let in the game, he produced, the rest of the offense produce 33 points. Same playcallers both halves …so what the heck changed? You want to blame it all on the coaches. The coaches have a share of the blame, but 90% of… Read more »

Horse
Reply to  Naplesfan
3 years ago

You go ahead and believe what you want to believe that’s okay. I don’t have a problem with what you’re saying; I don’t necessarily agree with all of it though.

GrafikDetail
3 years ago

great article T!! & i haven’t even read 2&3 yet LOL your “how i met your mother” analogy was spot on… and i’d like to add, even when the Bucs do get into 3rd & short situations, it seems all the routes and/or throws are 10+ yards down field and low percentage anyways… and i end up screaming at my screen “JUST MOVE THE CHAINS!!”

Alldaway 2.0
3 years ago

Koetter doesn’t want to run the ball. You bring in Sweazy, move Marpet to center, draft OJ Howard and…the Bucs play calls have been pass, pass, pass, etc. Yeah pass is more effective for scoring points, but to sustain drives and short down situations you need to run the ball. I have had this argument with people many times where they claim if you are averaging 3.0 YPC from running the ball that you should give up and just go pass. I disagree 100%, because imagine a scenario where the Bucs pass on first and ten and it is incomplete.… Read more »

tnew
Reply to  Alldaway 2.0
3 years ago

Their running schemes haven’t been overwhelmingly creative either.

tnew
3 years ago

Thank you for writing this article. When I started reading it I thought it was only going to be about play calling, but from my perspective the play design is the real culprit. I have had the time to watch more football this year and have purchased gamepass. I’m no offensive coordinator but the Bucs seem to be doing nothing but saying, here’s who we are and we are just going to out execute you. I have been a HUGE OJ Howard fan, but if he’s going to be used in this manner, he was a waste. Koetter has no… Read more »

cgmaster27
Reply to  tnew
3 years ago

Well said, I know everyone wants to put the blame on the guy throwing the ball, but as I said after watching last weeks game. There was time when Jameis had all day back there and NO ONE was open! That’s all on the scheme and routes.

Naplesfan
Reply to  cgmaster27
3 years ago

So you’re saying that if nobody is open, it’s the coach’s fault? Exclusively? Wow, so you mean that receivers have no responsibility to get open, they just go run the designed route, if if they can’t get open, they can go the the sideline confident they did their job and it’s all on coach? That is a ridiculous assertion, cg. This entire post and thread are actually off target. Players gotta play, and make plays. It’s extremely self-serving for Winston fanboys to blame all the failures of their guy on the coach. But it’s the pathetic norm amongst certain folks,… Read more »

Dude
3 years ago

Sometimes I do question Koetter’s play calling, and clock management. He doesn’t seem to use the run to set up the pass. Even if the run is not working out, as long as your still running the ball, the defense has to defend it and dedicate defenders to stopping it. I think Koetter is a little impatient and abandons the run way too soon. Like Trevor has mentioned, I think they need to set defenses up for the long ball, and in the meantime use higher percentage passes to get Jameis in a rhythm and better yardage on earlier downs.… Read more »

Jon G
3 years ago

I call for Jon Gruden

vtrantb
3 years ago

Trevor, Nice article and confirming my assertion about Koetter’s fascination of going “4-wide” on third and short. Until I saw your video, I didn’t realize it was actually 5 wide. What’s wrong with going 4 wide (if that wasn’t enough) and having Martin in the backfield? In fact, the best time to run is when you have all the defenders spread out. At least, you make the defense play honest and just not rush indiscriminately upfield with no RB to pick a blitz or flare out of the backfield. I will take my chances that Martin can get 2 yards… Read more »

BrianDorry55
3 years ago

Great article man. I too have wondered why this passing game is so damn vertical right now. I get that Koetter has run a vertical offense for years, but either he’s doing it to a greater extent or Jameis isn’t throwing to the slants and crosses. I feel like 90% of the targeted routes are seams, fades, hitches/curls and screens. Which is strange, because Jameis can shred a defense with slants over the middle. We’ve seen him and Mike show great chemistry on shorter routes over the middle and they’ve gone away from it. This passing game is just very… Read more »

Dakota
3 years ago

I can easily agree That some of our playcalls ain’t the best, and they should be tweaked..but we have been behind in basically every game. It really limits us. Particularly in the run game. If we can start faster, and have our defense not giving up a huge lead to start the game I believe we will see allot of differences.

Although I can’t understand the 4/5 wide on 3rd and 2. We should be running Martin in that situation.