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Offseason X’s and O’s Part 1 - Receivers and Routes

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The start of our journey to understand the Bucs.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Minicamp Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next few weeks we are going to be looking at the inner workings of football. With each video, we will move step by step through the X’s and O’s of offenses and defenses. Along with each video, we will tie the concepts we learn back into the Bucs. We will look at how our players succeed and fail within the complex chess match that is football. We will also try and dive into the mind of our coaches and their choices in scheme, plays, and personnel.

In the first video, we are going to be analyzing how individual receivers get open. While simple, it will later help us understand how plays are designed.

In the beginning of the video, I talk about how plays, or X’s and O’s, don’t care about personnel. This means a team can change personnel on the field and still run the same plays or concepts. To the Bucs, this was especially important when the team lost several of its wide receivers to injury. In theory, the coaches can adjust to using heavier personnel (more tight ends) without having to change passing plays. This idea is going to be explored even further in the next video where we will discuss how formations only have a minimal effect on plays.

Moving forward, we look at some of the primary ways that receivers get open against defenses. We can really separate the ways into two categories: getting open vs. man and getting open vs. zone. While there can be overlap in certain situations between the two, there is often a distinct difference with how we beat both types of defenses. This also means that there are going to be different traits that receivers have that make them better at beating either type of defense and we can make some decent generalizations about them.

First, more effort and ability is often required by receivers to get open verse man than there is to get open verse zone. If we re-visit the streak route by our outside receiver verse man, we can see that our receiver has to potentially beat press, have enough speed to get past the defender, stack the defender, maintain his vertical position on the defender before the pass, and then secure the catch while the defender simultaneously makes contact- something which is often the case against man coverage. We can then compare that to the play where our offense ran all curls verse cover 3. On that play, the outside receiver’s job is to get as much speed as possible before breaking his route, break back towards the quarterback, wait for the pass, and then maintain the catch through possible contact. We can see that it doesn’t require a receiver of Mike Evans’ caliber to succeed on the all curls play. However, it often does require a player like Mike Evans’ to succeed verse a good corner on a streak route verse man.

This comparison is pretty extreme and won’t hold true in all comparisons between man and zone, but it is good to recognize that it takes a very skilled receiver to consistently get open verse man while it is often up to the stretch or other concept that is being used against the defense to determine if a receiver is open or not verse zone. However, know that there is still a ton of skill and technique that receivers use to beat zone and we will explore some of them in the next few videos.

Since 2010 (or even earlier) the Bucs have largely lacked receivers who would consistently get separation against man. Beyond Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, who have the Bucs had? Mike Williams was very hit or miss, Adam Humphries is serviceable and I hope he develops, but who else? This is a big issue that may have been solved this offseason. The additions of DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin can leave us hopeful that the Bucs may be able to field 3 or 4 receivers that can be reliable against man coverage.

The second generalization we can make is that a good quarterback can make up for a lack of good receivers versus zone coverage, while it is often very difficult to do so against man. On a streak route against man, what is the best throw our quarterback can make if our receiver doesn’t stack his defender and instead runs next to him deep? The route wasn’t called to be a fade so our receiver probably hasn’t left enough space to the sideline to throw a shoulder fade, and if we lead our receiver vertically then we are probably giving the defender a 50/50 on the ball. So the best answer is probably that our quarterback shouldn’t make this throw in the first place.

On the flip side, a good quarterback often can find open receivers against zones as long as his receivers get off press and get into their routes fast enough. This difference may explain why a team like the Patriots favor smaller, shiftier receivers. They want guys that can get separation against man and then they can rely on Tom Brady to pick apart the zones. This is especially true when we consider that the Patriots don’t attack vertically as much as a team like the Bucs. I would be very interested in seeing the comparison of Jameis Winston’s efficiency against man and against zone. I’d venture to say the offense probably did much better against zone.

Going forward, the Buccaneers should have a receiving core worth boasting about. The addition of DeSean Jackson should help all facets of the passing game. When we consider the concept of vertically stretching zones, having a receiver with DeSean’s speed amplifies the effect of the stretch to another degree. Furthermore, Chris Godwin may turn into a huge steal if he develops his route running. In the limited tape I watched, he shows he can get separation against defenders from top teams (USC and Michigan State) and that he has the hands to make contested catches. However, within these games he also showed some flaws in his route running that would have helped his QB make much safer throws.

For the second video, I take the concepts we learned above and apply them to game film. There won’t be an article for this video but if you love seeing game film broke down you can check it out here.

In the next few videos we will be looking at how plays are designed and also dive into how the quarterback reads plays and finds open receivers.

Feedback and questions are appreciated!