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
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
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.
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: email@example.com
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