Optimistic Buc fans felt confident in the team's chances against the Titans last Sunday; cynics would have pointed to a rookie QB, protected by two rookie OL and a fill-in at right tackle, as reasons to not get one's hopes up. Yet, no-one would have predicted just how badly the Buccaneer defense performed against Tennessee, and in particular, the ease with which Marcus Mariota threw pass after pass, touchdown after touchdown, slicing the ball through the air like a hot knife through butter.
We've already heard that the Tampa 2 wasn't the problem on Sunday, as explained already by Sander and countless others on Twitter, and of course in the comments section of almost every Bucs Nation article publishes since the game.
But if the Tampa 2 wasn't the problem - what was? I turned to the All-22 footage to get some answers...
Play Action Problems
It's already been said enough times that the defense's biting on play-action hugely hurt them against the Titans, but the All-22 footage showed exactly how true that is.
It's said that the best way to sell a play-action pass is to pull linemen, and that's exactly what the Titans did on this play inside the Bucs' redzone. Linebackers are often keying on OL as much (if not more) than they are on backfield action, and as a result, just pulling two blockers was enough - Mariota didn't even need to pretend to hand the ball off. As you can see below, the two pulling blockers (circled in black) have Lavonte David suckered in, and moving in the wrong direction. This is particularly damaging to the Bucs, as they are lined up in man coverage - and David's responsibility is Bishop Sankey.
Not only was David pulled out of position by the pulling blockers, but he takes an incredibly flat angle to Sankey - and even Lavonte's speed isn't going to let him catch up to Sankey at that angle of pursuit.
Resultantly, David's out of position when Sankey makes the catch, and all the running back has to do is turn up field and cross the end zone for a touchdown.
This wasn't a one-off for the defensive captain either; on Mariota's first touchdown of the day, he only had to flash the ball at Sankey, and David, who was lined up in man-coverage over Kendall Wright in the slot, drifted towards the backfield. That small amount of drifting away from Wright was enough for the receiver to pull away from David, catch Mariota's pass, and then race 52 yards for a touchdown.
It wasn't only David, however. Danny Lansanah was ccaught out of position due to biting on the play-action. The Titans start off in a pretty tight formation; Mariota will fake a handoff to the tailback running to the left, then boot out to the right. This is everyone's coverage assignments:
Lansanah starts to flow with the tailback, before he realises Mariota's kept it. He trails Delanie Walker across the middle of the field, who appears to be the second read on the play. The first read is fullback Jalston Fowler, who David actually does a good job of coming down and covering.
Lansanah, however, just cannot keep up with Walker. The moment he moved out of position due to biting on the run threat, he gave up enough inside leverage for Walker to beat him just through speed. As a result he's wide open when he catches Mariota's pass.
Finally, just to prove that it wasn't just linebackers who were caught up by play-action, here's a play were former Titans' corner Alterraun Verner gifts his former team an easy completion. Verner is responsible for Anthony Fasano, but as you see below, while he initially moves with Fasano, his eyes are glues to Mariota as he fakes a handoff.
Verner just completely ignores Fasano at this point - if anything, it looks like he's been charged with backside contain against the read-option (and one might suggest that, had Verner stuck with Fasano, Mariota may well have tucked-and-ran). Still, Verner comes right down to where Mariota is standing, and all the Titans' QB needs to do is dunk it over the top to Fasano, and the TE will take it 18-ish yards to the Bucs' 2-yard line.
Rubbed the Wrong Way
All those four passes had one thing in common: they all came with the Bucs' D playing different man coverages. However, there's something the Titans did on a few occasions that really took advantage of the Bucs being in man, especially when press-man: using rub plays.
Rub routes are similar to pick routes - in fact, if there's a hard-and-fast difference, please let me know in the comments, but google seems to suggest the difference is if it's caught, it's illegal and a pick route; if you get away with it, it's a completely legal rub route.
The basic concept: two receivers run patterns that cross each other, and if the defense is in tight man, the receiver running the 'over' route may-or-may-not-totally-inadvertently-I-swear-you-guys-it-was-an-accident run into the defender covering the receiver running the 'under' route. That leaves the 'under' receiver wide open to go make some yards.
It works particularly well when receivers are bunched, as shown below: the inside bunched receiver, Harry Douglas, runs a wheel route (in yellow) 'under' a quick slant by Kendall Wright, shown in red, along with Sterling Moore's path (who is covering Wright). Johnthan Banks, who is in man coverage on Douglas, is shielded from following the wheel route by Wright and Moore coming in the opposite direction. As a result, Douglas is wide open and takes Mariota's pass twenty yards to the Bucs' 12 yard line.
The Titans did almost the exact same thing later on in the game on the Bucs' goal line, again with Wright 'rubbing' for Douglas to come open, and with Moore again covering Wright - just this time in the opposite direction. In this case, it's Verner who gets shielded from Douglas, and Mariota gets himself another touchdown.
Out the Zone
So, those were some of the issues that plagued the Bucs in man coverage, but they had their zone coverage issues as well. However, it's important to point out that on these three plays, only ONE of them may have been on a Tampa 2 coverage, and even then, the Mike's actions make make it unclear whether it was true Tampa 2, or just a Cover 2 zone. But first, Mariota's first professional completion:
On this play, the Bucs were certainly playing a Cover 2 zone, only dropping six and sending a blitzer instead. As you can see, the corners have the curl-flat zones, Moore as the nickel and Lavonte David have the hook-curl zones, and the two safeties have their deep halves.
This, of course, leaves one quite obvious window - a soft spot between Moore's and David's zones. Unfortunately, Delanie Walker (circled below) is running a pattern right into the window.
In David's and Moore's defense, they do a pretty good job of narrowing that window significantly - but it's just enough for Walker to make the catch.
This play comes on a Cover 3 look instead, with corners Banks and Tim Jennings, and safety DJ Swearinger taking the deep thirds, Kwon Alexander taking the middle zone, and Sterling Moore and Major Wright taking the curl-flat zones. Again, this leaves gaps in coverage, in this case the two hook-curl zones.
Kendall Wright runs a simple seam into this open zone, and Mariota finds him for a 22 yard gain that got down to the Bucs' 2, courtesy of some poor tackling after the catch was made.
Finally, a play which arguably is Tampa 2 - two deep safeties, corners sinking in the flats, and all three linebackers dropping. However, Alexander never takes that characteristic deep drop of the Tampa 2, which suggests that makes it debatable as to whether it was Tampa 2 or merely Cov 2 zone. Nonetheless, the issue here isn't one of Alexander - it's of Lavonte David. David, in his defense, probably executed his assignment - this appeared to be more a defeat of scheme than of the player.
As you can see below, Anthony Fasano out the slot runs an in-breaking route that takes him through David's zone. However, Kendall Wright on the outside will be running a post in behind Fasano.
As Fasano enters David's zone, he comes down follows Fasano until he reaches his landmark, at which point he would be handing him off to Alexander - but Mariota throws the ball to Wright towards the deeper part of David's zone. Again, in this instance, this isn't David's fault - it's one of the vulnerabilities of scheme. It's essentially a high-low read, on David: if David comes down to cover Fasano, as he does (circled in yellow below), then Mariota throws to Wright over the top, into the area David leaves open (circled in red). If David would have dropped to cover Wright, however, I suspect that Mariota would have thrown to Delanie Walker, who was running a slightly shorter crossing route in the opposite direction, that would have come open with Alexander covering Fasano.
Finally, a play that just was just a result of stupidity by players that should have known better, as pointed out by former Bucs DE and SB Nation analyst Stephen White as part of an epic twitter rant this morning.
Below, I've drawn lines from Lavonte David and Tim Jennings to both Walker and Fowler. We're again in man coverage here, and the two defenders are between them responsible for the Tennessee tight end and full back - but I'll be damned if I know who was responsible for who; and by the looks of it, neither did the defenders.
David and Jennings both go to cover Fowler in the flat. As a result, Walker just needs to hitch up quickly and Mariota has as easy a touchdown pass as he's likely to ever throw in the NFL.
So, as you can see, there isn't just one reason why Mariota was able to beat the Bucs; whether it was man or zone, playing press or soft, no matter what the Bucs' D attempted to do with their coverage, a mixture of good reads by Mariota against the zone, and good play design against man coverage (along with some good old-fashion communication break down on that last play) made Mariota look like he'd been in the pros for years, while the Bucs defense looked a far, far cry from what everyone believed Lovie Smith would bring to town. Hopefully, it can be fixed sooner rather than later, or it's going to be a very long season in Tampa Bay.