Buccaneers vs. Seahawks: The worst coaching decision

Steve Dykes

Of all the elements that caused the Bucs to implode in the second half of yesterday's game, there may not have been a single bigger harmful factor than a coaching decision in the third quarter

There is plenty to be angry at with yesterday's game, and the disappearance of the offensive production the Bucs seemed to have magically found in the first half has to be up there with one of the most anger-inducing. But I want to focus in on one particular drive that I feel marked the turnaround in the team's fortunes - one that swung momentum so far in the Seahawks' favour that every Bucs fan probably knew what would come next.

More specifically, I want to ask what the hell the offensive coaches were thinking on the drive that, in my opinion, killed the game.

The situation: third quarter, 5:00 on the clock, 24-14 on the score board. Glennon has gone 11/15 at this point; Mike James, 22 carries for 120 yards. Roll scene, as listed by ESPN's online box score:

  • 1st & 10 at TB 20 M.James right tackle to TB 23 for 3 yards (B.Wagner, T.McDaniel)
  • 2nd & 7 at TB 23 M.James left tackle to TB 40 for 17 yards (K.Chancellor)
  • 1st & 10 at TB 40 M.James left tackle to TB 44 for 4 yards (B.Wagner; E.Thomas)

All well and good - except for an extra line on that final play:

  • PENALTY on TB-T.Crabtree, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced on TB 40 - no play.

Look, holding penalties are going to happen. Part of the problem is that referees don't enforce holding penalties nearly as often as they should - I could almost guarantee you that at least 75% of plays in NFL history feature offensive holding to some degree; it's often just how players block, their grip often slides to outside of the 'box' (the area on a defensive player where you're allowed to grip), especially when trying to seal the edge on a run.

I don't blame Crabtree for that, it happens, some refereeing crews will call the penalty more often than others but no crew calls all holds, or else each game would last twice as long. Sometimes (in fact, most times) it's better to just let the game flow than constantly kill the momentum with penalty flags for holding - but when it's especially obvious, as it was in this case, the referees are going to call that almost every time.

It happens. What is inexcusable, in my opinion, is how the offensive coaches reacted to now being thrust into a 1st & 20 situation - another example of coaching inflexibility hurting the Bucs at the worst possible moments.

I understand that Glennon was throwing far, far, far too much in his first four games, especially last week's primetime humiliation at the hands of the Panthers, as I said in my weekly QB review. It should also be clear to most people that the commitment to a balanced run/pass gameplan is what got the Bucs to being 21-0 ahead at one point, particularly due to the emergence of Mike James. (How exciting will next year be, by the way? Martin and James could give Arian Foster and Ben Tate a run for their money as best running back duo in the NFL).

But situations change, and coaching staffs need to adapt.

How did Mike Sullivan et al adapt to finding themselves at 1st & 20?

By substituting James - who at this stage was now 24 carries for 140 yards, or 5.8 YPC  - for Brian Leonard. Fair enough; Leonard is their third-down back, the situation is likely going to call for some passing, why not put in the guy you trust both as a sixth pass blocker and as a sure receiving threat out of the backfield?

The next two plays, as catalogued by ESPN:

  • 1st  & 20 at TB 30 B.Leonard right guard to TB 32 for 2 yards (T.McDaniel; M.Bennett)
  • 2nd & 18 at TB 32 B.Leonard left tackle to TB 36 for 4 yards (R.Bryant; T.McDaniel)

Our coaching staff's response being at 1st & 20, inside their own half, with the Seahawks having scored touchdowns on their last two possessions and now trailing by only ten points, is to take the ball out of the hot hand and to have their third-down running back run up the middle. Twice.

You can even understand the logic on first down, not that I agree with it: the Bucs sub in Leonard in passing situations, so with Leonard in on 1st & 20, Sullivan might have been hoping the Seahawks were assuming a pass was coming, so a run up the middle would have caught them by surprise. Like I said, it's not a call I agree with, but you can at least see the logic. Sullivan gambled on what the defense would do, and lost, the run being stuffed for a very short gain.

Running between the tackles again, with Leonard, on 2nd & 18? That one I really cannot understand.

What's worse? Facing 3rd & 14, Sullivan dials up the play he has dialled up so often this season - running back screen. And as with almost the entire season, it makes yardage but is shut down a good distance short of the first down marker.

The Bucs have not had success with this particular screen all year - why would they suddenly have success with it now? If you're going to do it, why not put James back in, as he'd been finding holes and lanes in the defense all game long?

More importantly: WHY NOT CALL THE SCREEN ON FIRST OR SECOND DOWN AND GET YOURSELF BACK TO A MANAGEABLE DOWN AND DISTANCE?

The Bucs had failed to convert just two third downs in the game to that point, on their opening drive and on the drive before the one we're dissecting, which ended with a Bucs' field goal. But of all the third downs the Bucs had converted until then, the longest was 3rd & 8. The two uncoverted third downs were 3rd & 8, before the field goal, and on the opening drive, a down and distance of third & 18 - when Glennon threw to Brian Leonard who made eight yards on the play, but was brought down far short of the first down.

And on this drive, facing third and 14, Mike Glennon throws to Brian Leonard who makes eight yards on the play, but is brought down six yards short of the first down.

It may be commendable to stick to a balanced offensive attack when the chips are down, but there is a difference in sticking to a balanced gameplan when you fall behind in games, and running straight up the middle with your weaker running back on long distances. TWICE. That's not "staying the course" in the face of adversity; that's stubbornness and inflexibility in the face of altered circumstances.

Rather than accepting they might have to step out of their comfort zone, the offensive coaching staff appeared oblivious to the big picture - the Seahawks' offense had clearly figured out the Bucs' D, and the only way to ensure a win was to keep Wilson & co on the sideline and keep putting points on the board - in favour of sticking slavishly to their gameplan. Again, the gameplan was not a bad one - but you need to be able to adapt when things don't go to plan.

The Bucs' inability to adapt in these cases led to the kind of insipid playcalling we saw early in the season, particularly against the Jets. It's simply not good enough, and it was ultimately a momentum killer - not just for the Bucs' offense, but for every phase of the game.

The Buccaneer offensive coaching staff's decisions of taking the ball away from the hot hand, running it twice up between the tackles on 1st & 20 and 2nd & 18 before following it up with the same running back screen that has failed all year resulted in the team's first drive since their first of the game not to end in points for the Bucs. That's momentum away from the Bucs' offense and towards the Seahawks' defense.

With only his second punt of the game, and their first since their opening series, Michael Koenen boots the ball inside the five-yard line - an excellent punt - the Bucs' punt coverage unit suddenly turns into a sieve as Golden Tate returns the punt 71 yards. Momentum away from the Bucs' special teams, which caused & recovered a fumble in the second quarter, and towards the Seahawks' special teams.

Taking over at the Bucs' 25 yard line, the team's defense holds firm, but the punt return meant that unless they could cause a turnover, Seattle were unlikely to come away without points. Sean Hauschka's field goal is good, and all of sudden, it's a one-score game.

And that, right there, was the game. Every subsequent Buccaneer possession ended in a punt. The defense tried to hold on, but without help from the offense... well, we know how it ended.

There are a lot of things that could have gone differently yesterday.

But taking the ball out of the hands of the guy who has sparked your offense in adverse circumstances without adjusting your playcalling to match the reality of being at 1st & 20? This loss wasn't a case of 'if the ball had bounced differently'; this loss was the result of what in my mind is a completely indefensible coaching decision that goes against all logic.

The gameplan may have worked in the first half, and Sullivan should receive credit for that, at least. And yes, Mike James did appear to have a contact lense issue on the sideline.

But knowing you're facing such a long down and distance, and knowing that Mike James isn't in there, calling for two runs up the middle and the same damned running back screen that has consistently failed all year?

Indefensible.

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