FAB 2. Bucs’ Pass Defense Among League’s Worst
Lost in Tampa Bay’s offensive explosion and 2-1 record to start the 2018 campaign is the fact that the Bucs defense has struggled mightily this year.
The Bucs defense ranks second to last behind Kansas City in yards per game, surrendering 433.3 yards, and is tied for last in the league with the Chiefs in terms of passing yards, allowing 362.7 yards. Tampa Bay’s scoring defense ranks fourth to last in the NFL, allowing an average of 30.3 points per game.
In terms of quarterback percentage, the Bucs have allowed the three quarterbacks they’ve faced to complete a stunning 77.9 percent of their throws, which ranks last in the league as you might expect. The next closest team is Buffalo, which has allowed a 74.2 percent completion percentage so far this year.
Twelve teams held opponents under 60 percent completion percentage last year. The team with the best opponent completion percentage was Jacksonville at 56.8 percent. The Bucs ranked fourth to last in the NFL, with Smith’s penchant for playing off coverage as the culprit in allowing Tampa Bay’s foes to complete 67.6 percent of their passes. The worst team in the league was Cleveland, which allowed 68.6 percent of the passes by opposing QBs to be completed.
The fact that the Bucs secondary is incredibly inexperienced and the fact that Tampa Bay has faced two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, in addition to Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles are two contributing factors in the high completion numbers. On some snaps against Philadelphia two weeks ago, the Bucs secondary features rookie cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart and rookie safety Jordan Whitehead, who began the season as a reserve, and third-year cornerback Ryan Smith, who only played defense beginning in 2017.
But there is more to it than that, according to defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who is calling more man coverage and more press coverage beginning at the line of scrimmage, which favors the physicality that Davis and Stewart bring to the table.
“We are not doing a very good job in terms of that and I think a lot of it has to do with a couple of things,” Smith said. “You mentioned who we’ve played, and those are no slack guys in the first three games. Passing is a lot more efficient this season, and we’re not the only team that is having issues with a high percentage of completion. The big thing we have to do is to continue to work to have the timing of the route being disrupted. Sometimes you do that and against certain quarterbacks you wish you hadn’t done that.”
Smith alluded to Monday night against Pittsburgh where Roethlisberger was flushed from his launching point several times only to maneuver away from sacks and throw receivers open that were initially covered. He’s also right in acknowledging that the Bucs aren’t the only defense that is getting abused through the air.
Whereas the Browns’ 68.6 percent completion percentage was the worst in the league a year ago, there are a whopping 10 teams – including all four NFC South teams – that have allowed at least 68.8 percent of passes – or more – to be completed against them, including seven teams that have surrendered at least a 70 percent completion percentage.
The NFL is going through an offensive renaissance right now, especially with the passing game, and Tampa Bay is helping to lead the charge. The Los Angeles Chargers led the league in passing yards per game last year with 276.9 yards. Tampa Bay had the fourth-ranked passing game in 2017, averaging 272.9 yards per game.
This year, the Bucs are leading the way by averaging an incredible 400.7 yards per game. There are currently six NFL teams that are averaging over 300 yards passing per game, and a total of 11 teams that are throwing for more than 276.9 yards per game, which led the league last year.
So is this the new normal in the NFL – and if it is, why?
The usage of RPOs – run-pass options – generate a high percentage of completions in the short middle of the field as linebackers are often briefly frozen with the play-action from quarterbacks on those plays. The heavy use of smoke routes – instant passes from quarterbacks taking a one-step drop and firing the ball to receivers – and bubble screens to receivers, in addition to quick flare passes to running backs in the flat also contribute to team’s high completion percentages. Those plays seldom generate 10 yards or more, but are commonly used on first downs instead of runs because they can generally pick up a quick five or seven yards, which is better than a run that might only pick up three or four yards.
Bucs free safety Justin Evans said that the defense needs to do a better job against the pass, but creating takeaways is more important than allowing a high completion percentage. Through the first three games, Evans has a fumble recovery for a touchdown and recorded the team’s first interception of the year on Monday night.
“I don’t want to say you can’t limit a quarterback’s passing because you definitely can, but it’s the NFL and it’s a hard league,” Evans said. “This is a hard game and it’s an offensive game. Everybody’s passing the ball now. The offense is going to get theirs, but the defense is going to get theirs, too. It’s not easy.”
Evans, who only has 14 NFL starts, said that as Davis, Stewart and Whitehead gain more experience with each snap they play, the better Tampa Bay’s pass coverage will be.
“The more experience you get the better you get, so as DBs we’d love for that [completion percentage] to go down, but as long as we’re not giving up busted plays and letting balls go over our heads they’re going to catch some,” Evans said. “If they’re catching over 70 percent that’s just what it is, but we have to play sound with no balls over our heads and no busted plays and go from there.”
Smith, the team’s defensive coordinator, said that recent league rule changes have opened the door for an offensive explosion in the passing game – much to the chagrin of NFL defenses.
“There are no more bang-bang hits,” Smith said. “We’ve taught our players if he’s in a defenseless position you can’t hit him. Of course if you can’t hit him he’s probably going to have a good opportunity to catch the darn ball. That’s changed some. I’ve said before – I think it was last week when someone asked – offenses are doing a great job of working on the spacing and they are going to throw them into tight windows because guys know now that if you hit them. Not only is it a 15-yard penalty, but it’s also going to come out of your back pocket [with a fine].”
On Monday, veteran cornerback Brent Grimes returned to action for the first time this season and gave up a 27-yard touchdown to Antonio Brown and several other catches to JuJu Smith-Schuster, including a 43-yarder in the first half. Grimes also missed some tackle opportunities in the run game, and had an awful game.
Meanwhile, Smith, the team’s third-year cornerback, had the best game of his career against Philadelphia in Week 2 where he broke up two passes and allowed just one catch for two yards. After playing over 90 percent of the snaps on defense against the Eagles, Smith was relegated to special teams duty and didn’t play a single snap on defense.
If the 35-year old Grimes can’t shake off the rust from his groin injury and continues to play poorly, Smith, who is a much better tackler, should at least split reps at left cornerback moving forward. Smith said he understood going bench to the bench on defense against the Steelers.
“It wasn’t tough, I mean BG came back,” Smith said. “I knew it was going to happen and if my number gets called I’ll be ready. I’m just doing what I have to do to help the team and that’s it. As for the high completion percentage we’re allowing, we can’t really dwell on it. It happened. We just have to work every game to lower that percentage.”
Football is a game played in the fall, and as temperatures drop and more games are played in inclement weather, teams will be forced to run the football with greater regularity and that could mean fewer passing yards and likely a lower completion percentage as September turns into October.
One thing that should Tampa Bay’s pass defense in the coming weeks is facing second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on Sunday in Chicago and Cleveland’s rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield in four weeks. While Evans says the Bucs can’t afford to take Trubisky, his lack of experience and the fact that he’s learning a new offense this year under new head coach Matt Nagy should help.
“If anything we could probably try to mess with his head a little more because Drew and Ben have seen things a billion times, so they probably knew exactly what we’re going to do, so it’s probably hard to try and disguise coverages,” Evans said. “If anything, that’s probably the only thing we can exploit because he’s an NFL quarterback and he starts – so you’ve got to respect that or he’ll make you look bad.”