The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had probably the worst offensive line in the year last season. It was so awful that the Bucs are starting two second-round rookies and a center they picked up off the street during the season, and the line is much, much better. But the improvement along the offensive line is obscuring one other development: the Bucs have a quarterback who consistently makes the line look much better than it really is.
The Bucs' offensive line has allowed just 17 sacks this year, ranked 7th in the NFL (though Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate ranks them 19th). They've allowed 61 quarterback hits, which ranks 11th. The Bucs' passing game is humming, with Jameis Winston's 7.7 yards per attempt ranked ninth in the NFL. All in all, it looks like the Bucs are doing a very good job of protecting Winston -- but Pro Football Focus consistently says the Bucs' individual linemen are struggling, and if you turn on the tape you'll see linemen get beat with surprisingly regularity -- especially tackles Gosder Cherilus and Donovan Smith.
As Cian Fahey put it:
Cherilus is awful. Penalties and beaten so often in this game.— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) November 23, 2015
So what's up with that? A lot of it is Jameis Winston, who has been remarkable at adjusting to pressure and navigating the pocket for a rookie quarterback, or even an NFL quarterback. By this I don't mean scrambling and improvising in the face of pressure, but stepping up in the pocket, letting the play develop, getting rid of the ball on time, and making subtle adjustments to avoid pressure. I'd say he's the best quarterback at handling pressure within the structure of the offense to enter the NFL since Andrew Luck in 2012 -- and before Luck, we may have to go back to Philip Rivers to find someone having success at this particularly part of his game this early on. And Rivers sat for a couple of years.
That ability was firmly on display against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Winston was frequently under pressure and managed to get passes off with a linemen just a few steps removed from getting a sack. Another factor has been Dirk Koetter's willingness to keep in extra blockers and help the line with play designs like screen passes and quick slants. The line is also much better than it was last year, when it was a complete disaster, but these factors have a huge impact.
This is obvious when we turn on the film. We can see some of the plays where linemen got beat and allowed pressure on Winston below -- these are eight of the 19 dropbacks Winston had in the first half on Sunday.
Winston's ability to handle pressure is evident in those clips, as he repeatedly stands in the pocket and makes throws despite defensive linemen being inches away from laying a hand on him. He feels the pressure and adjusts, but he doesn't overreact and prematurely leave the pocket or run into sacks -- something he did more frequently early in the season. That's a big part of why Winston looked very good on Sunday, and it's something all of the great quarterbacks have to have, because in the NFL you are going to get pressured with some frequency.
Those pressures are not isolated: they happen in every single game the Bucs play, and almost every lineman is guilty of letting a few guys through. Of course, that's part of being a lineman -- I don't think the Bucs' line is particularly bad at this -- but there's plenty of room for improvement. And you can see that the pressure affects Winston at times, too. The touchdown to Sims could have been picked off, mostly because Evan Smith gets pushed back into him. The dropped interception on a screen pass also had a lineman steps away from laying a hit on him. The third-down throw to Sims where he had to stretch and roll was inaccurate in part because of pressure, and the near-interception on the goal-line to Jackson was also a result of pressure.
But overall, Winston's reactions to pressure have been very impressive and the consistent improvement we've seen in that area is even more encouraging. It's one major reason to believe he's turning into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.