SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL:
A note from SR: I’m back from vacation and I appreciate you living with two “Best Of SR’s Fab 5” sections in the last two SR’s Fab 5 columns. From this point forward it’s all fresh Bucs content as we are less than a week away from the start of Tampa Bay’s 2016 training camp. To kick off PewterReport.com’s training camp coverage, I’ve decided to use this edition of SR’s Fab 5 to list the 4 areas the Bucs must improve in order to reach the playoffs. Enjoy.
FAB 1. BUCS MUST STOP BEATING THEMSELVES WITH PENALTIES
The first rule of football is “Don’t beat yourself.”
With parity across the NFL, facing every opponent is difficult each Sunday. Why make it easier on your foes by helping them with turnovers and penalties?
The winner of the turnover margin plays a big role in the outcome of most NFL games because possessions are so precious in football. But penalties occur far more often than turnovers, especially in Tampa Bay over the past two years under Lovie Smith, who has produced the most undisciplined Bucs teams in franchise history.
You’d better believe that Smith’s inability to reduce Tampa Bay’s amount of penalties played a big role in his firing shortly after the 2015 season. The Bucs beat themselves with a franchise-high 143 accepted penalties, which tied Buffalo for the most in the league last year. Tampa Bay was flagged a total of 165 times, but 15 other penalties were declined and six were offsetting.
The Bucs accumulated 1,195 penalty yards last year, and averaged nine flags for 75 yards per game, which is ridiculous. In 2014 when Smith’s team had the fifth-most penalized squad with 118 penalties for 939 yards, Tampa Bay only averaged seven penalties for 59 yards.
After Tampa Bay recorded 121 penalties for 1,136 yards in the last year of the Greg Schiano regime, Smith was supposed to make the Bucs more disciplined, but that didn’t happen. Even though accepted penalties went down slightly in Smith’s first year in Tampa Bay, the amount of penalties called actually went up.
Former Bucs head coach Lovie Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
There were 136 total flags called on the Bucs in 2013 with 121 being accepted and 15 being declined. In Smith’s first year as head coach in Tampa Bay in 2014, the Bucs were flagged 149 times, which was the second-highest total in the league behind Detroit (151). A staggering 26 flags were declined and five were offsetting, which produced 118 accepted penalties for 939 yards.
While it appeared Smith was making progress with penalties in 2014 with three less fouls for 197 less yards, the Bucs were actually going in the wrong direction and only indicated improvement due to teams deciding to decline over two dozen fouls. The Bucs’ failure to become more disciplined from 2013 led to disastrous results last year.
When a team like Tampa Bay gives up 75 yards in penalties per game that’s a touchdown drive as most drives start at the 25-yard line. So whether it’s a heavy day for penalties on the offensive side of the ball with holding calls and false starts with those 75 yards essentially negating an opportunity for a touchdown, or a heavy day for penalties on the defensive side with personal fouls and defensive pass interference calls essentially giving up enough yardage for a touchdown, Tampa Bay can’t afford to spot their opponents an extra seven points and expect to be successful.
“There will definitely be a lot of stress on that and I think it will be accomplished,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. “Sometimes you have players that have penalties their whole career and it’s tough to get that out of him. But when it’s several guys that aren’t normally penalized that start to have recurring penalties, then you start to realize you have a problem and you need to stress it a lot more. I would bet that it will be resolved to a degree with Dirk Koetter.”
The amount of 15-yard penalties the Bucs had last year was staggering with 31, which were eight more than the year before. The 15-yard fouls included 13 unnecessary roughness calls, four facemask penalties, four illegal block above the waist, four roughing the passer calls, two unsportsmanlike conduct, one clipping, one leaping penalties, one horse collar tackle and one disqualification.
Bucs DE William Gholston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
There were more personal fouls (31) in Tampa Bay last year than there were offensive holding calls (29), which speak to the lack of discipline exhibited by Smith’s players. The biggest offenders were Gholston, Conte, Evans.
Gholston’s six personal fouls – four unnecessary roughness, one facemask and one roughing the passer – were the most on the team, and his eight penalties were two more than he had in 2014. Gholston had two personal fouls during that season and needs to keep his temper in check, especially as he enters a contract year.
Conte was only flagged five times last year, but all five were personal fouls. He had two facemask penalties, one horse collar foul, one unnecessary roughness call and one leaping penalty. Four of those infractions came from poor tackling technique, and better coaching from Brett Maxie this season should solve Conte’s issue.
Evans’ over-aggressive demeanor manifested itself in five offensive pass interference penalties in addition to three personal fouls. In the final game of the season and Smith’s last game as head coach in Tampa Bay, Evans was flagged for shoving Carolina cornerback Josh Norman after no pass interference was called in the end zone, and then was disqualified for cursing at the official.
As Licht said, it’s tougher to get players with a history of drawing flags to curb committing penalties, but it can be done. McCoy was the most penalized Buccaneer in 2013 with 11 flags. Five of those were pre-snap penalties, such as offsides, encroachment and neutral zone infractions, but five were personal fouls, such as roughing the passer and unnecessary roughness calls. A year later in 2014, McCoy displayed more discipline and was only flagged seven times – all were pre-snap penalties. Last season, McCoy reduced his number of penalties down to five with just one 15-yarder, a roughing the passer call.
Better coaching and an adherence to technique can reduce some of the penalties, such as holding calls and pass interference, and that’s where Koetter and his staff come in. The other part – the discipline to keep calm, not retaliate to avoid personal fouls, and to avoid pre-snap penalties like offsides or false starts – is on the players through better communication between the players and the coaches and the implementation of some real consequences by the staff.
I’m excited that Koetter used officials during the Bucs’ offseason work and plans on bringing refs to training camp to help the Bucs players reduce the number of flags during the season. It was a practice that Jon Gruden used as he became the most winning coach in franchise history from 2002-08.
When I brought up the idea of using refs at practice last year to Smith in a press conference he scoffed at that notion and haughtily dismissed it. That’s part of the reason why he’ll be coaching at Illinois this fall instead of in Tampa Bay.
Smith just paid lip service to the penalty situation during his two years with the Bucs. Koetter knows better and is actually trying to do something about and deserves credit for it.
The Bucs led the league in penalties last year – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“Unfortunately, we were last in the league in penalties last year, so we’ve had a lot of educational sessions about penalties and how they hurt us this year,” Koetter said. “I do feel like having officials on the field helps reinforce the fact that there is a consequence for some things we do. We’ve asked these officials, these men and women, to throw a flag just like you would in the game and we’ll discuss it later.
“We’re going to have several opportunities to work with officials in training camp similar to this and when we work against both Jacksonville and Cleveland. I think our guys are responding to it. It’s never going to be perfect, but we’re working to get better.”
If the Bucs can find ways to avoid beating themselves in 2016 more wins will be a natural byproduct of that this season.
“That’s one of the biggest things that they’ve been talking about is penalties,” McCoy said. “Regardless of what the penalty is. We were [ranked] really low; we were just not good when it came to penalties. We were at the bottom of the totem pole when it came to that, so we have to be a lot better. Coach Koetter has been emphasizing it and Coach [Mike] Smith for sure. You can’t be a top defense with letting guys start a drive, whether it’s field position or you give a team a third-and-2 as opposed to a third-and-7 – that can really mess you up. So penalties have been highly emphasized for sure.”
FAB 2. BUCS PASS DEFENSE HAS TO BE TIGHTER, MORE AGGRESSIVE
When Bucs head coach Lovie Smith decided to take over the reins of the defense last year and usurp the play-calling duties from Leslie Frazier in the process, my first thought was, “Uh oh.”
Although I didn’t have a good feeling about it, I understood why Smith did it. After coming in with high expectations as a proven, veteran coach, Smith disappointed out of the gate with a troubling 2-14 record that essentially put him on the hot seat. If Smith was going to go out, he was going to go out with him being in control.
When the Bucs stumbled to a 6-10 record with the defense struggling mightily, Smith was a goner. It was one thing that Smith was the head coach presiding over another losing record in Tampa Bay, but the fact that he was also in charge of the defense when he came to the Bucs as a supposed defensive guru was quite damning.
Titans QB Marcus Mariota – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The most damning statistic of Smith’s defense was the fact that it gave up an NFL-high 70 percent completion percentage, which was absolutely ridiculous.
“We can’t accept that,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. “It’s not good. We’re certainly going to do everything we can to reduce that. It’s not good. That’s why we got Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves.”
And not just Grimes and Hargreaves. Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter started revamping the defense with a new coordinator in Mike Smith and a new defensive coaching staff. Cornerbacks Josh Robinson and Grimes bolstered the secondary that couldn’t stop the slant pass, and defensive end Robert Ayers was added in free agency to help the team’s pass rush.
“Brent Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves, Noah Spence, Robert Ayers – we want those guys to affect the quarterback,” Licht said. “We have to do a better job of affecting the quarterback. We have to cut the head off the snake. Affecting the quarterback with multiple looks and an assortment of various pressure packages I think that will go a long way to solving that problem.”
With a predictable four-man rush and predictable coverages, star quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Eli Manning), backup quarterbacks (Matt Hasselbeck, Ryan Mallett and Case Keenum) and rookie quarterbacks (Marcus Mariota) alike picked apart Tampa Bay’s secondary.
Grimes and Hargreaves will be new starters in the secondary. Ayers and Spence will likely be new starters upfront at the defensive end position.
“Confusing the quarterback with different looks is important,” Licht said. “You can affect the quarterback with better play in the secondary, too.”
Bucs CB Josh Robinson breaks up a pass – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Mike Smith’s scheme calls for cornerbacks to backpedal, which wasn’t the case in Lovie Smith’s scheme. The change in technique and scheme has already paid dividends for a secondary that intercepted just six passes last year.
Grimes, Hargreaves and Robinson joined holdovers from last year – Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks, Jude Adjei-Barimah, Chris Conte, Bradley McDougald, Keith Tandy and Major Wright – in breaking up more passes and intercepting more balls during OTAs and the mini-camp than at any memorable time last year. By backpedaling and not getting their hips turned, Tampa Bay’s defensive backs were able to react to more throws and break on more passes by Jameis Winston and the other quarterbacks, much to the consternation of the Bucs receivers.
“We have to change up what we do and become more of a vertical threat off the line and get their hips to open up,” Bucs receiver Adam Humphries said. “If we don’t, they are going to jump on our underneath routes. As a slot receiver, or just a receiver in general, you have to work on being more explosive off the ball and working on your cuts and keeping your feet underneath you. You have to be very technical and stay true to your fundamentals when DBs are playing that type of technique.”
Smith’s coverages and the backpedal technique that is used is not only producing results in pass coverage in the secondary, it’s also helping Tampa Bay’s receiving corps sharpen their routes and forcing the receivers to become more explosive off the line as a result.
Up front, the Bucs have been using variations of a 4-3 under scheme with a combination of zone blitzes and blitzes paired with man coverage. Smith is blitzing from all areas of the field from the nickel cornerback to the safeties to the strongside linebacker to the middle linebacker to the weakside linebacker. The Bucs primarily just blitzed the Mike and Will linebackers last year.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo: Cliff Welch/PR
Winston and the Bucs quarterbacks are seeing a wider variety of looks this year in practice, which is not only sharpening Tampa Bay’s pass rush and affecting the quarterbacks’ throws, but also sharpening Winston’s ability to make throws against the blitz, which will pay dividends on Sundays. Opposing teams can prevent the Bucs from piling up huge sack numbers by getting rid of the ball quickly, but Tampa Bay’s secondary can now make teams pay for doing that by jumping those throws quicker than before due to better technique.
Reducing the completion percentage of opposing quarterbacks by 10 points from 70 percent to 60 percent is the goal. Who were the two teams to only allow quarterbacks to complete 60 percent of their throws? Carolina and Denver, who just happened to be the participants in Super Bowl 50.
FAB 3. BUCS NEED TO SCORE MORE POINTS IN RED ZONE
The good news for Tampa Bay’s offense last year is that it reached 6,000 total yards for the first time in franchise history. The Bucs averaged 375.9 yards per game in 2015, which ranked fifth in the league ahead of offensive powerhouses like New England (sixth), Atlanta (seventh) and San Diego (ninth), as well as Super Bowl runner-up Carolina (11th) and Super Bowl champion Denver (16th).
However, Tampa Bay didn’t make the most of that yardage, and was the only team in the top 6 not to score at least 400 points in 2015. The Bucs scored just 342 points (including defensive scores) last year, which was 64 points behind the New Orleans Saints, which had the league’s second-ranked offense and the NFL’s eighth-ranked scoring offense.
Most Total Yards In The NFL During 2015 Season
1. Arizona – 408.3 yards per game – 489 points
2. New Orleans – 403.8 yards per game – 408 points
3. Pittsburgh – 395.4 yards per game – 423 points
4. Seattle – 378.6 yards per game – 423 points 5. Tampa Bay – 375.9 yards per game – 342 points
6. New England – 374.4 yards per game – 465 points
Despite all of the yards it amassed, the Bucs had the league’s 20th-ranked scoring offense, averaging 21.4 points per game. With a defense surrendering an average of 26.1 points per game it’s no wonder Tampa Bay had a 6-10 record.
Yards don’t win football games – points do.
The number one thing Dirk Koetter’s offense needs to do in its second year in Tampa Bay is score more points.
Bucs HC Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“When you win six football games, you’ve got a lot of stuff [to work on],” Koetter said. “We’ve got to score more points, number one. Any time you come in and you change a lot of stuff in a system, whether it be offense, defense or special teams, and then you don’t have any, or very few, coaching changes in that area, especially with the play caller and the philosophy behind both the run game, the pass game, the protections, you should expect better execution in year two. Honestly, the numbers are really not as important as how that affects our team in a better chance to win games.”
New offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Todd Monken conceded that the Bucs didn’t make the most of their scoring opportunities last year.
“We had a great year offensively as a start, but penalties, turnovers, errant throws, drops – what else needs to be said?” Monken said. “There were a lot of points that were left off the board, and when you [take care of] that, then you add some consistency to your offense. Sure you can average 24, 28 points a game but getting 10 in one game and 38 in another, that’s not very good. You want to be consistent every week and consistency comes from doing those little things. Plus as our young offense, our core nucleus of players, gets better – the O-linemen, the running backs, the receivers, the quarterback – we should continue to be more consistent.”
A big reason why Tampa Bay had the NFL’s 20th-ranked scoring offense last year was the fact that the Bucs had the 22nd-ranked red zone offense. Koetter’s offense scored touchdowns just 52.94 percent of the time in 2015, which was actually a slight decrease from 2014 when the red zone offense converted touchdowns 53.85 percent of the time. Having a rookie quarterback certainly played a role in that less than desirable statistic.
In fact, Winston ranked 33 out of quarterbacks with at least 25 red zone throws last year, and that’s the area he must improve the most in for Tampa Bay to have any chance of producing a winning record and a possible playoff run in 2016.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
During his rookie season, Winston completed 30-of-75 passes (40 percent) for 228 yards with 15 touchdowns and one interception inside opponents’ 20-yard line. Inside the 10-yard line, Winston completed 13-of-37 passes (38.89 percent) for 75 yards with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions.
While his lack of turnovers should be commended, and it should be noted that Winston scored six rushing touchdowns inside the red zone, his completion percentage in the red zone was definitely sub-par by NFL standards.
By comparison, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, who was the best red zone quarterback in the league last year, completed 48-of-73 passes (65.75 percent) for 323 yards with 26 TDs and no interceptions. Once inside the 10-yard line, Stafford was even better with a 75 percent completion percentage (27-of-36 throws) for 107 yards. Twenty-one of Stafford’s 26 red zone scoring strikes occurred from 10 yards in.
Top 10 Most Productive Red Zone Passers In 2015
1. New England QB Tom Brady – 60.92 percent – 27 TDs, 3 INTs
2. Detroit QB Matthew Stafford – 65.75 percent – 26 TDs, 0 INTs
3. Arizona QB Carson Palmer – 51.19 percent – 25 TDs, 1 INT
4. Jacksonville QB Blake Bortles – 50.52 percent – 25 TDs, 2 INTs
5. Carolina QB Cam Newton – 57.33 percent – 24 TDs, 0 INTs
6. NY Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick – 52.05 percent – 23 TDs, 1 INT
7. Washington QB Kirk Cousins – 63.29 percent – 22 TDs, 0 INTs
8. San Diego QB Philip Rivers – 59.72 percent – 22 TDs, 2 INTs
9. NY Giants QB Eli Manning – 50 percent – 20 TDs, 5 INTs
10. Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers – 46.39 percent – 20 TDs, 4 INTs
Winston needs to really improve by 10 percentage points to get to where he is throwing at least 20 touchdown passes inside the red zone to crack the top 10 and truly become an elite quarterback. If he does that, the Bucs’ red zone production increases significantly as does the point production.
Panthers QB Cam Newton – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Tampa Bay can look no further than NFC South division foe Carolina for the recipe for success in terms of points and making the playoffs. The Panthers barely won the NFC South in 2014 with a 7-9 record and had a 48.15 percent red zone touchdown percentage. Last year, Newton and the Panthers were the league’s best red zone scoring team with a 69.44 percent touchdown percentage.
That 21-percenatge point improvement was second only to the improvement made by the New York Jets, which improved from 36.17 percent in 2014 to 66.04 percent in 2015 – an increase of nearly 30 percent.
If Winston’s red zone completion percentage improves by 10 percent that should trigger a red zone efficiency improvement of a similar percentage and mean more points for Tampa Bay.
More points in the NFL usually means more wins, and that’s the ultimate goal for Koetter and the Buccaneers.
“There isn’t one area on this team where we can say we’re good at,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. “We have to get better in all areas. Dirk will be the first to tell you that. We have to score more points. We have to score more touchdowns. We have to be in the top 10 in scoring offense – not just the top 10 in yardage.”
FAB 4. WINSTON MUST MAKE MORE BIG PLAYS DOWNFIELD
Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston was criticized for not being the most accurate downfield passer last year, but the numbers state he was actually pretty good, especially for a rookie. The first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft completed 12-of-25 passes (48 percent) thrown 20 yards or more for 321 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Before you scoff at the notion that Winston completing less than half of his downfield throws is a bad thing, it should be noted that only five quarterbacks with at least 20 pass attempts of 20 yards or more completed at least 50 percent of their throws. And downfield accuracy does not equate to point production.
Bucs WR Mike Evans – Photo by: Getty Images
New England’s Tom Brady was the most accurate downfield passer last year and he completed 11-of-23 passes (56.5 percent) for 340 yards, but without any touchdowns or interceptions. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger was the second-most accurate downfield thrower completing 10-of-22 passes (54.5 percent) for 406 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.
Where the Bucs want to see Winston improve is producing more yards and touchdowns from his deep throws, and that means offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter needs to call for more shots downfield. The Idaho State Journal interviewed Koetter this offseason where he discussed a conversation he had with good friend Marvin Lewis, who is the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals and a former coaching colleague.
“Marvin’s the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL, done an unbelievable job at Cincinnati,” Koetter told the Idaho State Journal. “Shoot, he’s an idol of mine. I’m proud of him.”
Koetter revealed to the newspaper one key piece of advice from his role as a defensive-minded head coach in the NFL.
“Throw deep,” Koetter said. “I’m serious. Marvin’s a defensive coach. I’m an offensive coach. He said offenses don’t throw deep enough.”
If Winston can continue to complete 48 percent of his downfield passes and Koetter can double the number of called shots downfield, Winston may be able to reach Blake Bortles-type numbers. Bortles completed 19-of-52 passes (42.3 percent) over 20 yards or more for an NFL-high 635 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Winston did a great job of taking care of the ball on his deep throws by not throwing any interceptions on passes 20 yards or more in the air. But if he can raise his number of touchdowns to five, which would match league leaders Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Tyrod Taylor, or more, the Bucs’ passing game and scoring offense would be taken to a whole new level.
One way to improve a team’s red zone woes is to avoid it all together and connect on deep touchdown passes more often. With big, 6-foot-5 targets like Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson capable of winning 50-50 balls downfield, and a speedster like Kenny Bell able to take the top off of defenses, more downfield shots are coming in 2016.
“Jameis is working on the deep ball with Mike and the other receivers,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. “It’s been a point of emphasis, that’s for sure.”
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• One of the reasons why Tampa Bay selected quarterback Jameis Winston over quarterback Marcus Mariota with the first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft was that Winston was the better downfield thrower. Mariota’s high completion percentage at Oregon was manufactured from a lot of short throws and bubble screens. Winston took more shots downfield at Florida State than Mariota did at Oregon and he was deemed to be a better fit for Dirk Koetter’s offense.
In fact, Mariota was the worst quarterback in the NFL last year when it came to downfield throws. He connected on just 3-of-21 passes (14.3 percent) for 88 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. That produced a deep-pass QB rating of 5. Compared to Winston’s deep-pass QB rating of 123, it’s clear the Bucs were wise to pass over Mariota in favor of Winston.
Bucs LG J.R. Sweezy – Photo by: Mark Cook/PR
• While the Buccaneers will be without left guard Logan Mankins, who was one of the biggest culprits when it came to penalties with eight last year, his replacement has some penalty issues he has to overcome, too. J.R. Sweezy drew 10 flags last year in Seattle. Sweezy had four holding penalties, three unnecessary roughness calls and three false starts. Offensive line coach George Warhop will have to work with Sweezy on using better technique to reduce the holding calls and having the newest Bucs offensive lineman play to the whistle rather than through the whistle to avoid the 15-yard penalties in Tampa Bay.
• I wanted to thank you for the great comments on SR’s Fab 5 over the last month. I read all of your comments and I have enjoyed your feedback by using some of those comments for my new SR’s Fab 5 Reaction columns, which come out every Tuesday on PewterReport.com. The SR’s Fab 5 Reaction furthers the discussion about the topics found in the most recent SR’s Fab 5 column, and allows me to answer questions you pose or dive deeper into my reasoning on those topics. Here is a link to last week’s SR’s Fab 5 Reaction in case you missed it. Due to its popularity, the new PewterReport.com feature will continue through the rest of 2016.
• Get ready for PewterReport.com’s training camp coverage by following @PewterReport on Twitter if you’re not already by clicking here.
• PewterReport.com will kick off its Bucs coverage on WDAE 620 AM next week during training camp with appearances on the Ronnie & TKras Show at 9:30 a.m. on Fridays, followed by appearances on the Ron & JP Show on Mondays at 1:30 p.m. Stay tuned for those regular radio appearances throughout Bucs football season in addition to more on-air times that will be added in the future.
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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
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