Two things stick out when re-watching the Bucs defense against the Rams’ offense in Week 3: Mathew Stafford’s missed opportunities, and Tampa Bay’s mistakes erasing otherwise strong play in man coverage.
Rams’ Missed Opportunities
The Rams could’ve put up 40+ if they executed better to start the game. Their opening drive ended on a short, missed pass intended for a wide open Van Jefferson with the pocket collapsing. However, not all mistakes were induced by the Bucs’ pressure.
Todd Bowles called Tampa 2 on a first-and-10 during Los Angeles’ second offensive possession. Sean McVay dialed up a middle read variation, similar to the Bucs’ staple Go concept, off of split zone action. Lavonte David — the pipe player in Tampa 2 — was displaced by the fake. This created space for Cooper Kupp over the middle, but the ball went a bit over his head and through his hands.
Stafford missed again on third-and-10 on the same drive. With the Rams in a 3×1 set, the Bucs went to Stubbie. Stubbie is a match quarters coverage that creates a triangle over the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers.
McVay countered perfectly. Unlike Stubbie’s sister coverage Stump, the trips side cornerback cannot abandon the No. 1 receiver on a short underneath route. Instead, he’s locked in man coverage. Thus, David — who was correctly playing with inside leverage — had no support outside against Kupp’s sail route, as Jamel Dean followed his receiver underneath instead of dropping into a deep zone. But that’s not even where the ball went! With Mike Edwards eyeing Kupp, the No. 3, through his cut, Ross Cockrell was left one-on-one against Desean Jackson’s post route, which cut after Kupp’s route, with outside leverage.
Stafford’s underthrown pass bailed out the defense. The drive that should have ended with seven points ended with a punt.
Stafford missed another explosive opportunity to Jackson. Yes, he was hit immediately after the throw, but the Rams expect Stafford to hit this.
Tampa Bay’s defense appeared to be in quarter quarter half coverage, also known as Cover 6. Up top, on the Cover 2 side, Jackson’s corner route went past where Dee Delaney sunk. Antoine Winfield Jr. therefore drove down hard to compensate. However, Jackson’s corner route was actually a corner-and-up that left him wide open.
According to Sports Info Solutions, the Bucs’ defense played variations of Cover 1 on six of the Rams’ dropbacks. Stafford went 4-5 for 75 yards, one touchdown, and one sack. While I think the Bucs could’ve actually had success with Cover 1, which we’ll get to in a moment, this was another missed opportunity by Stafford.
Los Angeles picked up the blitz well, but Stafford still leaned back instead of confidently stepping into his throw, thus sailing the ball over a wide open Kupp.
Man Coverage Mistakes
As mentioned, the Bucs’ numbers playing Cover 1 weren’t pretty. But it’s not because Tampa Bay couldn’t cover, it’s because they couldn’t get out of their own way.
The Bucs were playing Cover 1 and sending five again. And as is often the case, Devin White added on as an extra pass rusher when his assignment, the running back, stayed in to pass protect. The Bucs’ coverage was excellent. However, this play was undone because David was offside pre-snap.
The defense showed man coverage across the board, and their three cornerbacks on the trips side were aligned on the same level instead of being staggered. Stafford saw this and signaled his receivers into a post-slant-wheel combination that created a natural rub for Kupp. Delaney maneuvered through traffic well, but the route concept created enough space for Stafford to throw a downfield dime.
Tampa Bay made the same error on the very next play! It’s difficult to stagger much this close to the end zone, but it was still too easy for the Rams to create a pick out of their bunch formation. Defenses often solve this issue with banjo coverages.
The Bucs were playing 1 Lurk on third-and-5. In this variation of Cover 1, the defense starts in a two-high alignment before a safety comes down to play the robber position in the middle of the field. Tampa Bay actually covered well, but White carelessly picked Carlton Davis and let Jackson come open for a first down.
Bucs Defensive Solutions
I believe the Buccaneers can handle the Rams in man coverage. But they can’t get in their own way, literally and figuratively. Further, when they do play Cover 1, I would prefer to see more 1 Lurk, 1 Cross, or 1 Hole so that they have more support over the middle of the field. Jon Ledyard detailed this further in Bucs Briefing. Blitzing the Rams is not the answer.
Cover 2 man under, or 2-man, should also be a bigger part of the game plan this time around.
Deep safety help let Davis play a trail technique against Kupp. And despite looping inside, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka got all the way outside once Stafford threatened to scramble. The Buccaneers had success with 2-man against the Eagles, but they were cautious with its usage because of Jalen Hurts’ abilities as a runner. Stafford won’t beat the Bucs with his legs, and they can contain him without a spy.
The Bucs, again, covered perfectly with 2-man. I also like how Edwards was eyeing Kupp all the way from the opposite side, and it almost made the coverage look like 1 Cross.
When playing 2-man against dropbacks in Week 3, Stafford went 2-6 for nine yards. The Rams have been in the middle of the pack in terms of efficiency when facing 2-man for the whole season. Stafford’s season-long stats against 2-man reflect that, as he has only gone 17-32 for 243 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, and four sacks.
There’s no clear blueprint to stop McVay and Stafford. But self-inflicted mistakes are the sure-fire way to lose. The Bucs can’t depend on Stafford missing, and they must clean up their own errors if they are to win.