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FAB 1. Arians Must Be More Aggressive
I’d like to begin this week’s SR’s Fab 5 column with an important message brought to you by this young cheer squad from Fairhope, Ala. in my randomly selected YouTube search.
I’ve heard this cheer for nearly a decade as I coached Pop Warner youth football, and my daughters were on the South Pasco Predators cheerleading squad, yelling it out every Saturday in the fall.
After watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stumble to a 3-2 record thanks to sloppy, penalty-ridden affair in last Thursday night’s 20-19 loss at Chicago, it’s time for head coach Bruce Arians to stop fooling around and set the tone.
Before the Bucs take the field against the undefeated Packers on Sunday before a nationally televised audience on Fox, Arians needs to huddle up with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and state what this team’s identity is from this point going forward.
The Bucs identity needs to be that of an aggressive team that is going for the jugular in all four quarters of every game – offensively and defensive.
Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.
Sweep the leg if you have to, Buccaneers.
If you’re reading this and thinking this is a bad reference and that this tactic won’t work because Daniel LaRusso defeated Cobra Kai’s Johnny Lawrence at the end of The Karate Kid movie, I’ll tell you that LaRusso’s “crane kick” was illegal and that Lawrence should have retained his All-Valley Karate title.
But I digress.
Arians needs to either be aggressive and “no risk it, no biscuit” – or not.
But he can’t be in between.
“In between” was last Thursday night in Chicago where defensive coordinator Todd Bowles played too much soft coverage in the first half before playing tighter coverage in the second half. The result? Letting Bears quarterback Nick Foles get comfortable in the second half and lead his team to two touchdowns and a 14-13 halftime advantage, although one TD came on a short field due to a Bucs turnover.
Bowles dialed up the heat in the second half and finally made Foles uncomfortable after he was barely harassed in the first half. Tampa Bay’s defense finally played aggressive football and came up with seven quarterback hits and three sacks in the final two quarters, and after surrendering a touchdown catch to tight end Jimmy Graham in the first half, cornerback Jamel Dean played much tighter coverage in the second half and had four pass breakups.
The Bucs kept the Bears out of the end zone and held them to just two field goals in the second half.
Imagine what would have happened if Bowles’ defense had played the first half like it did the second half?
I asked Bucs outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, who recorded his third sack of the season in Chicago, if the team should have been more aggressive in the first half to prevent Foles from getting into a rhythm.
“I won’t say he got comfortable, but we gave him that,” Pierre-Paul said. “At the end of the day that game is gone. I feel like we gave them that game and we beat ourselves. I wouldn’t say he got comfortable. I would just say we got comfortable and we beat ourselves.”
I beg to differ. Without much pressure and the Bucs playing soft coverage with a sizable cushion on the Bears receivers, Foles was 7-of-8 for 64 yards on Chicago’s first touchdown drive, and 3-of-4 for 27 yards and a touchdown on the second touchdown drive in the second quarter.
I followed up my question to Pierre-Paul and asked him if it was a matter of not playing aggressive enough?
“We got caught lacking, basically,” Pierre-Paul said. “We got caught lacking.”
I’m not exactly sure what Pierre-Paul meant when he used the term “lacking,” and didn’t have the chance to ask another follow-up question on the conference call to clarify. Did he mean “lacking in aggressiveness?” Did he mean “slacking?” Did he mean “lagging?”
Because all three of those interpretations mean the same thing, really.
I got the gist of what he was saying.
The Bucs have three press-man cornerbacks in Carlton Davis III, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Dean. Having them play off coverage with the regularity that they did on Thursday night is not playing to their strengths.
It’s the same thing when Pro Bowl pass rusher Shaquil Barrett is asked to cover a running back downfield on a wheel route. That should never happen because that’s not what Barrett does best. Barrett plays much better going forward than he does going backwards.
Players want to play aggressive, and with the talent on this team, Arians, Bowles and Leftwich should let them do just that. But it has to start with the direction from the top.
Arians lets his coordinators call the plays, but he’s the one in charge of game day management. I applauded his effort to be aggressive and go for it with a Tom Brady sneak on fourth-and-1 from the Bucs’ own 19-yard line. Arians trusted his offensive line and Brady to convert that first down. Eight plays later, Ryan Succop nailed a 25-yard field goal to help Tampa Bay build a 13-0 lead.
So why not go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Chicago 7 with 4:52 left?
A first down followed by a touchdown would have given the Bucs a 23-17 lead and made the Bears have to go for a touchdown of their own to win the game. Instead, Arians opted to kick a 25-yard field goal to take a brief, 19-17 lead.
The rationale was that the Bucs would take a two-point lead and then have the defense make a stop or two to win the game, but that didn’t happen. The Bears wound up kicking the game-winning field goal with 1:13 left in the game.
Tampa Bay’s defense needed to make a stop after taking a 19-17 lead regardless, right? So if the Bucs went for it on fourth-and-1 and failed, the Bears would have gone conservative and likely tried to run the ball, chew some clock and sit on their lead in the shadow of their own end zone. That likely wouldn’t have worked against the league’s top run defense and my guess is that the Bucs would have prevented the Bears from getting anything more than a couple of first downs before getting the ball back around midfield from a Chicago punt. With all three of its timeouts and the two-minute warning, Tampa Bay would have had plenty of time to try to drive for a game-winning field goal.
Perhaps the Bucs would have been more successful than they were attempting to do just that with 1:13 left and no timeouts the way it played out.
Field goals get you beat in the NFL. Touchdowns win games.
Arians has seen enough football in his 68 years on this Earth to know that.
Arians should have gone for it on fourth-and-1 at the Bears’ 7-yard line.
In fact, EDJSports.com produced some analytics that back up that argument. Kicking the field goal to take a 19-17 lead gave the Bucs a 51.9 percent chance of winning the game. Failing to convert on fourth-and-1 would have reduced the etam’s chances of winning to just 43.8 percent.
That’s an 8.1 percent decrease.
Yet, converting for a first down would have increased the team’s chances of winning to 67.1 percent, which was a 15.2 percent increase. That’s a risk that Arians should have taken.
Playing aggressive doesn’t mean playing stupid or taking unnecessary risks. Going for it on a long fourth-and-1 at the Chicago 7-yard line in the fourth quarter would have been a good, aggressive call, whereas it going for it if it was fourth-and-4 at the Chicago 11 instead of kicking the field goal would not have been the right call. Going for it on fourth-and-4 would not have been aggressive – it would have been stupid.
With the way the offensive line was blasting holes all night for Ronald Jones II, who averaged 6.2 yards per carry en route to 106 yards rushing, Arians should have trusted his players to get one yard – especially since they did it earlier in the game from their own 19-yard line.
On Thursday’s conference call, Brady hinted that he would have preferred going for it on fourth-and-1 late in the game.
“Coach is going to make those decisions and he’s going to do what he thinks we need to do in order to win, so he and I talk every day,” Brady said. “He knows how I feel about that. I think any time a coach trusts you like that it empowers you to want to do it and continue to make the plays. So when you go for it on fourth down you know the risk in doing that, and when you make it happen, you know you’re going to get another opportunity. I’ve been on teams where we didn’t get those opportunities do it, and you’re frustrated that you didn’t get those opportunities but sometimes you don’t deserve them. We have to keep earning them and that’s through good execution.”
On Tuesday, I asked Arians what the Bucs have to do in order to have success against Rodgers, who has completed over 70 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. His answer?
Be aggressive. That was music to my ears.
“He’s playing at a really high level,” Rodgers said. “One thing [is] you have to get after him – that’s for sure. You can’t play scared. Knowing that the ball is going up – back-shoulder throws, he’s the best there is. You’ve got to cover your guys [and] you’ve got to do a great job. I think more so [it is] the improvisational plays when he gets out of there. That’s really when he’s at his best.”
Arians needs to do his part and not coach scared, either.