Playing on Monday Night Football has given the Bucs the added benefit of knowing all the stakes. Week 11 couldn’t have gone much more favorably for Tampa Bay. On Sunday, the Packers lost, dropping the Bucs NFC title game opponent to 8-3 on the season. The Packers play the Rams next week, before heading into their Week 13 bye.
Meanwhile, the NFC South remains comfortably in the Bucs control. The sliding Saints dropped their third straight game, falling to the Eagles 40-29. New Orleans (5-5) plays three of their next four games against the Bills, Cowboys and Bucs. The Bucs other primary challenger in the division, Carolina (5-6), lost to Washington 27-21. Atlanta (4-6) also fell in Week 11, losing to the Patriots on Thursday Night Football.
Without doing anything, the Bucs improved to 92 percent to make the playoffs and 82 percent to win the division, per 538. With a win against the Giants on Monday Night Football, the Bucs’ percentages will jump to 95/86. Losing the game would be a disaster, all but eliminating Tampa Bay’s chances at the No. 1 seed.
Here’s three burning questions going into Week 11.
1. Will the Bucs offense keep hurting itself by not using play-action?
I’ve mostly praised Byron Leftwich this season, and for good reason. The third-year offensive coordinator has done a good job diversifying the Bucs offense, but now the real test comes. Opposing defenses have adjusted to his adjustments, and now Leftwich must break some tendencies on Monday Night Football.
Bucs QB Tom Brady and OC Byron Leftwich – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
One of those areas is play-action passing. Currently, Tom Brady ranks 25th out of 29 quarterbacks with at least 230 dropbacks in percentage of play-action passes. Just over 20 percent of the Bucs passing play are play-action attempts, in an era where play-action rates are increasing every year. To make matters worse, the Bucs are averaging 1.7 yards more per play-action pass attempt than on a normal dropback. Brady has eight touchdowns to one interception in these situations. Tampa’s star quarterback has an adjusted completion percentage of almost 84 percent on play-action passes, the second highest-mark in the league, per PFF.
To put it bluntly, play-action is a cheat code for almost every offense. 24 of those 29 ranked quarterbacks are averaging more yards per attempt on play-action than without it. On top of those overwhelming numbers, we already know the Bucs excel at play-action. Last year, Brady averaged 3.2 yards per attempt more on play-action attempts than normal dropbacks. That was the best mark in the NFL. Yet Leftwich and Bruce Arians only utilized play-action on just 19.7 percent of passing plays, the 25th-highest rate in the league.
There is no gentle way to put it. Not using more play-action this season is coaching malpractice. It’s an ignorance of clear cut numbers that simply will not stand in 2021. On top of that, it primarily attacks the weakest layer of almost every defense: linebackers. The Giants linebackers have been brutal all season. If the Bucs go after them with play fakes and open up the middle of the field, the offense will prosper. If not, another long night could be in store for Brady and Leftwich.
2. Can Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul bounce back?
Bruce Arians called Barrett and Pierre-Paul’s Week 10 performance their “poorest” of the season. He wasn’t lying either, as the edge rushing duo combined for just one tackle against Washington. It was a miserable showing, the second straight such performance by Barrett and Pierre-Paul. In week 11, both players need to bounce back.
Bucs OLBs Shaquil Barrett andJason Pierre-Paul and DT Ndamukong Suh – Photo by: USA Today
Since Pierre-Paul returned from injury in Week 5, the two pass rushers have switched their typical alignments. Barrett is now playing the vast majority of his snaps across from opposing left tackles, and Pierre-Paul across from right tackles. I can only assume the change is to aid Pierre-Paul while he plays with a torn rotator cuff. When Joe Tryon-Shoyinka plays, his snaps can be deployed from either side.
Left tackle Andrew Thomas is expected to return from injured reserve for Monday night’s contest. Thomas is easily the Giants best tackle, showing improvement in his second season. The Bucs would be wise to move Pierre-Paul back to the right side and let Barrett handle the better matchup in Nate Solder. Solder has been a revolving door all season at right tackle. Pierre-Paul should split his snaps with Tryon-Shoyinka, while Barrett tries to take advantage of the best matchup up front.
Without Vita Vea, the Bucs coaches are going to have to get creative up front. That might mean more of Pierre-Paul as an inside rusher, playing with Tryon-Shoyinka and Barrett on the field. Yes, the Bucs might surrender something against the run. But that’s a better alternative than getting shredded through the air by another subpar quarterback.
1. Can Mike Evans beat James Bradberry?
Bucs WR Mike Evans and Giants CB James Bradberry – Photo by: USA Today
I’ve been told that Evans lost more matchups than he won against Bradberry when the cornerback was in Carolina. That may be the case, but Evans was the definite winner last year when the Bucs and Giants met. Although the final stat line was just ok – five catches, 55 yards and a touchdown – the tape revealed Evans’ dominance. He consistently created separation against Bradberry, the timing and connection on throws was just a bit off all night.
Evans is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career. With Antonio Brown out, Scotty Miller uncertain and Rob Gronkowski still working his way back, the Bucs need Evans to be great. Few players have been better than Evans against the Giants over the years. The star receiver has 32 catches for 582 yards and six touchdowns in five career games against New York. Evans has scored all six times in the teams’ last four matchups. He’s put up over 120 yards three times as well.
For the Bucs offense, the game starts here. If Evans get more single coverage than normal, they’ll need him to win regularly. If he can best Bradberry again, I’d expect a big night.