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
Case Freakin’ Keenum – the Buc Killer.
Keenum and the Vikings had a nearly flawless day against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense on Sunday, and the one question surrounding his performance is: How?
How does an NFL journeyman who has been a back up for a good portion of his career have such pedestrian numbers against every other team in the NFL, and yet when he plays the Buccaneers, his numbers go through the roof?
Keenum's career averages (compared vs. Bucs)
COMP %: 58.2 (+9.85)
YPG: 199.7 (+12.3)
TD-INT: 24-20 (4-1)
QB RTNG: 77.8 (+44.7) https://t.co/T1L1zxEL1u
— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) September 22, 2017
Those were Keenum’s inflated numbers against Tampa Bay, and that was before his third stellar performance against the franchise on Sunday, which led to the Bucs suffering their first loss of the season.
As funny as it is to pin it all on one team and label Keenum this Buccaneer killer, it’s not like there’s a curse involved. However, there might be trends, trends that other teams could use to devise a blue print for how to beat he Buccaneers defense if things aren’t changed.
(via NFL Next Gen Stats)
Completing 25-of-33 passes for 369 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions is an incredible day for any quarterback against any team, and even for Keenum against the Buccaneers, this was his best performance to date.
So, how? How did this happen?
To have good stats against a team you certainly have to be able to hit those short-to-intermediate throws to keep the chains moving, however, going average-to-above average in every deep third of the field is what allowed Keenum to have the day he did, and is the same formula that allowed him to have success against the Bucs in the past.
The Bucs play an off coverage style of defense. What that means is that their outside cornerbacks are anywhere from 6 to 10 yards off the line of scrimmage as to not give up anything over their head and keep everything in front of them to limit explosive plays. They like to be able to play damage control, read-and-react, and hope that good anticipation and recovery speed can force some plays on the ball and some turnovers here and there.
However, this is where Keenum has become the Buc killer. On the first passing play of the game, Keenum went deep down the sideline to wide receiver Adam Thielen, who beat Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves for a big gain (even though Hargreaves played it pretty well, he was just a step late).
This all started the chain reaction that sealed their fate – yes, on the very first throw.
The Bucs were without their top cornerback,Brent Grimes. So, on the outside, they had Hargreaves, who is only a second-year starter, and Ryan Smith, who was a backup getting his first career start. Because of the inexperience of both of these players, their confidence is vulnerable – get beat a few times deep and they’ll get super conservative.
That’s exactly what happened.
Hargreaves and Smith both got beat deep on different occasions, and you started to see that six- or seven-yard cushion turn into eight or 10 yards off. That extra space allowed for more room in the intermediate throws, which gave way to easier completion passes throughout the game.
But, Keenum’s deep ball stats and progressions aren’t the only stats worth knowing.
(via NFL Next Gen Stats)
Keenum hitting that first big pass truly sent this game into a spiral. The Buccaneers pass rush and run support really wasn’t doing all that poorly early on in the game, but that one completion caused everything to move negatively for them.
As the corners began to play more conservative after that first big pass, that opened things up underneath. Then, even when there was good pass rush (though it wasn’t too often), Keenum could get the ball out of his hands quickly. In fact, Keenum’s release average was 2.44 seconds, which was well below the league average of 2.644 (you may not think that’s a big deal, but it really is).
Knowing that his release was quick, scroll up to the chart above and see that, of the four starting defensive linemen, the only one who had a quarterback time better than average was Robert Ayers – McCoy and some of the other interior defensive linemen get doubled a lot, which is why theirs is lower, but still.
So, not only was the rush not getting to Keenum, but he was already getting the ball out of his hand so fast anyways because the corners and safeties were giving so much space. Then throw in the fact that the Bucs had to try to blitz to get pressure, and that just opened up more shorter routes and check downs to running back Dalvin Cook once Keenum connect a few more times deep.
It was the perfect storm.
I said before the game that there was no way Keenum could repeat his well above average numbers against the Buccaneers like he had before. Well, he did – and it was no fluke this time. It was all a part of a game plan that worked perfectly.
Minnesota’s plan all along was to start the game with Cook, take some deep shots downfield, hit one or two of them, then play a fast-release game from then on to counter the Bucs’ inevitable blitzes as the would try to manufacture pressure with some of their starters out. That carved up the Tampa Bay secondary down the field, got the players’ confidence down, and allowed Keenum to continue to hit deep once the Bucs were sucked in.
It was chess versus checkers.
Click to the next page to see a film breakdown of exactly what I’m talking about with types of coverages and pass rush, and what needs to change to avoid this in the future.