FAB 4. Is Specialization Hurting The Bucs?
Identifying the latest trends in football is important and sometimes following them is generally a good idea. We are in the midst of specialization in football, especially in the NFL, and the Bucs are willing participants on both sides of the ball.
I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I’m not sure being trendy is serving Tampa Bay well.
Take a look at the Bucs defensive line. Defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald do a good job against the pass and the run, but Chris Baker and Sealver Siliga are the team’s designated run stuffers. Because Siliga is so one-dimensional and rarely plays – just 42 snaps this season, which is one tenth of the snaps McCoy has played – he was inactive for the Buffalo game where the Bills ran for 173 yards, two touchdowns and a 5.2 average. In hindsight the Bucs could have used him.
Here are the playtime snaps and percentages for Tampa Bay’s defensive line this year:
DT Gerald McCoy – 420 plays – 86 percent
DE Robert Ayers – 363 plays – 74 percent
DE Will Gholston – 255 plays – 52 percent
DE Noah Spence – 247 plays – 58 percent
DT Clinton McDonald – 211 plays – 43 percent
DT Chris Baker – 175 plays – 42 percent
DE Ryan Russell – 145 plays – 41 percent
DE Will Clarke – 66 plays – 15 percent
DT Sealver Siliga – 42 plays – 21 percent
Defensive end Will Gholston is a designated run stuffer, and only plays just over half the snaps on defense, giving way to Noah Spence, who is now on injured reserve, and Ryan Russell in passing situations on Tampa Bay’s nickel rush unit. But is that really effective?
Spence had one sack in the first six games before needing another shoulder surgery. Russell, who has played in 14 games with the Bucs dating back to last year, has one career sack. With Russell only playing 41 percent of the snaps, an average of about 25 plays per game, does he get enough snaps to adequately get a feel for the offensive tackles he faces? Does he get enough snaps to have time to set up some pass rush moves?
Given Russell’s production, he doesn’t truly deserve many more snaps, but what the Bucs really need is a defensive end that can do both. Ayers is that kind of player, evidenced by the number of snaps he’s received, but at age 31 he’s not the player he once was. Moving forward, Tampa Bay would be better served by scrapping the defensive specialist theory and just find two defensive tackles and two defensive ends that can play 60 snaps a game and stuff the run and rush the passer.
While that might seem like a challenge to find such players, the Bucs have had several complete defensive ends in the past, including Chidi Ahanotu, Steve White, Greg Spires and Simeon Rice, who was better against the run than he received credit for. Given the money the Bucs gave Gholston in the offseason – signing him to a five-year, $27.5 million contract – I would play him full time at left defensive end.
Gholston has 10 career sacks, which is nine more than Russell has, and averages 2.5 sacks per year. Perhaps with more opportunities to rush in obvious passing situations Gholston will improve, but he’s not given the opportunity. He’s getting paid $7 million this year. Why isn’t he given a chance to fully earn that money?
Why are the Bucs paying $7 million for a part-time player? It’s the same thing with Baker, who is getting paid $6 million to play 36 less snaps than McDonald, who is making half of what Baker is. It just seems like the situational players on Tampa Bay’s defensive line aren’t producing like the team expected and overpaid as a result.
The Bucs are also playing four players at safety with second-round draft pick Justin Evans now starting at free safety and the Bucs rotating Chris Conte, T.J. Ward and Keith Tandy in at strong safety. Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Mike Smith has said that he plays certain safeties in certain situations due to their strengths and skill set.
But doesn’t that essentially tip off opposing offenses to what coverages the Bucs might be running on certain plays due to the personnel they have on the field? I think those tendencies could be easily spotted through film study by assistant coaches.
On offense, the Bucs have Doug Martin, who is their starter on running downs, and Charles Sims, who is the team’s third down back. Martin has decent hands, but isn’t the most reliable pass catcher. He’s caught five passes for 52 yards and been targeted 10 times this year.
So when he’s in the game, the Bucs run the ball or they throw it and he’s a seldom-used targeted receiver. There is a certain predictability to Tampa Bay’s running back usage, especially when Sims in the game.
Sims rarely runs the ball out of the shotgun set and has eight carries for 31 yards. When he’s in the game – even on third-and-2 – it’s going to be a pass. You know it, I know it and opposing defenses know it. If Sims is a target in the passing game, it’s on a screen, it’s a swing pass or it’s a wheel route down the sideline.
Actually he hasn’t even been effective in that role this year. After catching only 24 passes for 190 yards and one touchdown last season, averaging 7.9 yards per catch, Sims only has 15 catches for 106 yards (7.1 avg.). Why not do something less predictable and send him down the seam, running him down the middle of the field between the safeties in a Cover 2 defense?
Or better yet why not find a complete running back that can run and catch the ball and play on all three downs? A few years ago the belief was that teams needed a two-back offense or a running back-by-committee approach because it’s a long season and injuries happen like it did in Week 1 to Arizona’s feature back David Johnson.
Feature backs are on the verge of being the new trend in the NFL like they used to for decades. What’s old is new again.
Johnson, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Kareem Hunt are the new wave of running backs that are featured on all three downs, joining the likes of Le’Veon Bell and Lesean McCoy, a couple of veterans that have been doing it for years in the league.
Sims is in a contract year and hasn’t done enough to be re-signed in my opinion because he’s too one-dimensional. Martin will turn 29 in January and is slated to earn $6.75 million in 2018. The Bucs need to draft his eventual replacement and find a running back that can be a three-down player, one that is a dual threat as a runner and a receiver.
Tampa Bay needs to buck the old trend of specialization and get on the cutting edge of the new one – finding full-time players that can get the job done on offense and defense.