FAB 4. Bucs – Steelers Game Notes
If time permits in my schedule, I plan on adding some notes about the previous week’s Bucs game from my film study during the week into each week’s SR’s Fab 5 column. I’m not going to spend a lot of time rehashing the obvious. Instead, I’ll try to dig deeper and offer some insight you may have missed when watching the game and tie it into the up-coming match-up.
Here are my thoughts from re-watching the Bucs vs. Steelers game.
• Bucs center Ryan Jensen was listed as questionable heading into Monday night’s game against the Steelers, and his effectiveness might have been impacted because he was not 100 percent. Whatever the reason, Jensen did not have a good game versus Pittsburgh in a couple of run situations, getting blown backwards to stymie Peyton Barber.
But Jensen’s biggest gaffe came on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pick-six when he was driven back into the quarterback’s lap in the end zone from Steelers nose tackle Dan McCullers. That forced Fitzpatrick to release the ball quicker than anticipated and the throw came out high – too high for Jacquizz Rodgers and it was picked off by linebacker Bud Dupree and returned 10 yards for a key touchdown. Although McCullers is a grown man at 6-foot-7, 352 pounds, Jensen is no shrimp himself at 6-foot-4, 319 pounds.
Jensen has played better than Ali Marpet did at center last year, but he hasn’t been dominant or consistent yet in Tampa Bay’s first three games, and he hasn’t been the best center in the NFL despite being the high-paid center in the league. If the Bucs’ ground game is going to be better than 30th in the league and average more than the 72.7 yards per game it is right now, Jensen will have to really get some push up front.
Jensen isn’t the only one that needs to improve with run blocking. Right guard Caleb Benenoch is the weakest link on Tampa Bay’s offensive line and was rocked backwards more than once in the run game and in pass protection. Benenoch played 52 snaps (71 percent) on Monday night, while Evan Smith played 21 snaps (29 percent) at right guard. I know that Benenoch – or perhaps Alex Cappa – is the future at the position, but I thought Smith played better. Benenoch missed two blitz pick-ups from what I could see.
And right tackle Demar Dotson was exceptionally shaky in the running game, especially down blocking to his left in the team’s zone blocking schemes. Dotson, who still isn’t 100 percent from his offseason knee surgery, allowed too much inside penetration on Monday night, and that’s been a recurring theme thus far this season for the veteran right tackle.
• Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter seemed agitated about the lack of success in the running game following Monday night’s loss to the Steelers.
“We just need to run it more, alright?” Koetter said. “We need more volume runs. I think we had 16 rushes, but a couple of those I’m sure are scrambles. We just need to run it more times. But, when you get down three scores in the first half, I think we had that ball the last drive of the third quarter and our analytics guy is telling me in my ear we only have three possessions left and we’re down three scores. So, guess what? You’re not going to run it too many times.”
Koetter wasn’t necessarily suggesting that the Bucs run the ball more in the second half trailing by 20 points, but there were some key instances where running the ball likely made more sense after watching the game film.
The first instance was when Tampa Bay was backed up to its own 2-yard line after a punt late in the second quarter. Jacquizz Rodgers came in for Barber – I would have left the bigger Barber in – and got two yards on first down. But instead of trying to run it out again to create more room for the offense to work with – or for Bryan Anger to punt – offensive coordinator Todd Monken called for a screen pass to Rodgers on second down and Fitzpatrick’s throw was off target, intercepted and returned for a touchdown to make the score 23-7.
Hindsight is 20-20, but Barber, who had an 18-yard run earlier in the game, might have banged out a first down and gotten the Bucs out of the shadow of their own goal posts.
Another instance where Koetter likely would have favored running the ball was after first-and-goal from the 5-yard line in the second quarter. Barber got a 2-yard gain on first down, but it could have been more if not for left tackle Donovan Smith, left guard Ali Marpet and tight end O.J. Howard failing to block defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Somebody should have blocked Tuitt instead of advancing to the second level. Tuitt and linebacker T.J. Watt, who knifed inside Dotson, both tackled Barber three yards from the end zone.
Then on second-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 3, Monken called for back-to-back passing plays, which were incomplete, and the Bucs had to settle for a field goal. If Tampa Bay gets a touchdown there, that’s four more points on the scoreboard and the Bucs win 31-30.
The Bucs ran the ball eight times in the first half and called 23 passing plays. Koetter wants more balance in the team’s offense moving forward, and he’s right to demand that from Monken, who has done a very good job of calling plays in the first three games.
• As much as Tampa Bay’s defense is to blame for Pittsburgh adding a touchdown right before halftime after taking over at their 25-yard line with 1:15 left in the second quarter, the Bucs’ inability to run the ball also contributed. After a 2-yard run down to the Steelers’ 3-yard line, Monken called for back-to-back passing plays that only consumed five seconds off the clock. Chandler Catanzaro’s 21-yard field goal came with 1:17 left in the first half.
Had the Bucs decided to run the ball on second and possibly third down, another 20-40 seconds would have come off the clock. Even if Tampa Bay had to settle for Catanzaro’s field goal and not scored a touchdown, the Steelers would have had less than 40 seconds left before the end of the half. That would have greatly diminished their chances of getting a touchdown by halftime.
Instead, Ben Roethlisberger was 8-of-9 passing for 75 yards on that drive, and threw a touchdown pass with 10 seconds left before halftime to push the score to 30-10. Had the Bucs given Roethlisberger less time to work with and made the Steelers have to settle for a field goal, Tampa Bay would have prevailed 27-26.
• Looking back at the game film, Fitzpatrick played much better than I thought he did in the first half. He was under duress a good deal of the time and two of his interceptions were due in part to poor protection issues. His other one, which was an overthrow of Mike Evans, was due to the fact that Evans stopped running his route, as Trevor Sikkema pointed out in his latest Cover 3.
The Bucs are doing the wise thing by starting Fitzpatrick in Chicago. He deserves another week to start based on his three-game performance, throwing for 400 yards in three consecutive starts, which is an NFL record. Head coach Dirk Koetter is doing the right thing.
• Tampa Bay rookie running back Shaun Wilson inexplicably strayed from his path of blockers several times during kickoff returns against Pittsburgh. On at least three occasions, Wilson was seen veering away from where the Bucs’ blocks were set up, and trying to create something on his own. The results were disastrous.
Wilson had five returns for 68 yards – a paltry 13.6 yards per return – with a long of 17 on Monday night. Wilson is now averaging 16.2 yards per kick return and has a long of 29, and Tampa Bay needs a better showing from the undrafted free agent.
“We were very poor in that last night,” Koetter said on Tuesday. “Our biggest issue last night [was] our returner and our blockers weren’t on the same page. More than once, we were blocking it one way and returning it the other and that’s just not going to work. That was disappointing. Obviously Pittsburgh challenged us to bring the ball out. They kicked it high and tried to get hang-time. When a team does that, you’ve got to get it past the 25 yard-line to make it a successful play. We can’t have that.
“It’s just like any other play, if two different parts of the play are on the wrong page or not on the same page, it’s not going to work out [well] and that’s exactly what happened with our kickoff return. I don’t care where we’re ranked in the league. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to see that we weren’t in sync with kickoff return last night. We’ve got to get it fixed right away.”