For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coming off a home victory against the Cleveland Browns means this is less of a ‘must win’ game than it would have been following a loss, but with a road trip against the Carolina Panthers (4-2) awaiting the Bucs in Week 9, taking a two-game winning streak with them would be huge.
Both teams have a lot of injuries, as teams try to fight off the injury bug. For the Bucs, going into their first game without starting middle linebacker and team captain Kwon Alexander, this will be a big test to see how new defensive coordinator does uniting his squad.
For the Bengals, going against Tampa Bay’s many offensive weapons with Jameis Winston starting his third full game since returning from suspension is going to be no small task as they are missing several defensive contributors including linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
Nothing in the NFL is certain, and even though the Bengals come into this home contest against the Bucs as favorites, there are several things Tampa Bay can do to come out victorious.
Here are a few of them.
1. Play Close and Crash to the Ball
Key Strategic Player: LB, Lavonte David
We saw more man, and more press man, in Week 7 than I can remember in a long time from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The team will need more of the same to defend against Cincinnati’s tendencies this week.
Currently, Andy Dalton ranks in the bottom half of starting NFL quarterbacks when it comes to his average intended yards per throw (8.1).
What this means is more often than not, when faced with tight coverage, Dalton is going to take the shorter options or check-downs more often than not. Especially earlier in the game when his team isn’t pressing or playing from behind.
On this play, the Kansas City Chiefs do a good job from the snap through the play staying with Bengals receivers. However, two opportunities are missed because once Dalton sees good coverage across the field his mind immediately looks for the shorter routes.
Tight end C.J. Uzomah comes open across the middle and past the sticks and Dalton appears to look right at him. However, it also appears this glance at his tight end is all for show as he immediately moves to throw to running back Joe Mixon out of the backfield.
Watching the clip again, while the pocket is getting tighter around the Bengals quarterback, a proper read of Chiefs safety Ron Parker would have allowed Dalton to anticipate A.J. Green coming open a full ten-yards past the sticks.
When Mixon gets the ball Kansas City has a defensive back and linebacker in great position to make the stop and force an early punt.
A well-timed throw to either player would have yielded a Cincinnati first down. Instead, Dalton opted for the check-down as he tends to, and Kansas City defenders then crashed down on Mixon preventing him from moving the chains.
Buccaneers like Lavonte David will be critical to executing a similar sort of strategy this weekend as he will have to contribute with solid coverage and take smart angles to ensure receivers are tackled before getting too far upfield.
2. Read and React in the Run Game
Key Strategic Player: RB, Peyton Barber
The Bengals have had a tough time tackling this season and its just part of the reason they are currently surrendering 4.98 yards per carry; fourth worst in the league entering Week 8. They’re also one of just nine teams allowing 120 rushing yards or more on average per game.
But those are averages and can sometimes be skewed by lopsided results in one or two contests. The same goes for this as Cincinnati has not allowed 120-yards rushing in each game this year. In fact, they held opponents under 80-yards during the first two games of the year.
The biggest chunk of rushing yards came against the Carolina Panthers when they ran the ball over 40 times including 28 carries by Christian McCaffrey for a total of 184-yards (6.6 ypc).
What should be concerning Bengals fans though, is the way the run defense has regressed as the season has moved forward.
Tampa Bay’s running backs aren’t necessarily in the same tier as those, so Cincinnati fans are likely hoping this will be the week their defense shrinks those averages a bit.
However, there’s a key behavior by the Bengals defense I feel has led directly to this uptick in run production, and something the Bucs can use to their advantage. It’s a lack of patience.
The first is Tevin Coleman and the second is rookie Ito Smith. Both backs attack the line and look for their opportunity to take advantage of a defensive front which has a tendency to get swept away in the tide when pursuing horizontally.
The cutback defenders are too far from the play to make a difference or they simply get blocked out of the play. This is also important in play-action bootlegs as it opens the opportunity for crossing routes to come free in front of Jameis Winston with the majority of the defense flushed in the opposite direction.
I’m not suggesting the running backs simply hang back on every carry, but Peyton Barber has shown the ability to read the field better than most expect and Ronald Jones is already known as a shiftier kind of back than Barber.
If Cincinnati can’t correct this tendency, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could very well make it four-straight opponents against them to gain over 100-yards on the ground.
3. Get Parallel on Third Downs
Key Strategic Player: WR, DeSean Jackson
This one is a bit more obvious and cliché, but let’s dive a little deeper on this.
Entering Week 8, the Cincinnati Bengals are converting third downs successfully 42% of the time. Twelfth best among NFL teams. However, they’ve only had to try 77 times this season; ninth-fewest.
Like other stats, the Bengals are up and down here too. Three times this season they’ve converted 50% or more of their attempts. Three times they were held to 40% or less, and just once - against Miami - Cincinnati was held to under a 20% conversion rate. Somehow they won that game.
So, you could say this is an area of strength for them.
Tampa Bay hasn’t always done so well holding teams back on third downs, but they are in the top half of the league in this respect. On the season, the Bucs are allowing conversions on 39% of third down plays (14th in NFL) with 70 chances (3rd lowest).
On two occasions, this defense has allowed a conversion rate of 50% or more, with both coming in losses.
Three times in 2018, the Buccaneers defense held their opponent to under 35%. Two of those coming in wins with the only loss coming against Pittsburgh. Last week against Cleveland, the Browns converted just 21.43% of their third down tries, going 3-14 on the afternoon.
Flipping sides, the Bengals are allowing 56% of the third downs they face to be converted into first downs. However, they’ve also faced the second-most in the NFL with 100 so far this year.
It’s clear the Bengals defense knows how to get their opponents into third down situations, it’s just a matter of Jameis Winston and the Bucs’ offense converting and turning conversions into points.
How they do it might be just as important though. Despite losing the game, the Indianapolis Colts converted over 64% of their third downs against the Bengals (11-of-17).
Nine of those conversions came on pass completions where Andrew Luck found a receiver running parallel to the line of scrimmage.
Of the six non-conversions by the Colts, one was a goal line run stopped by Cincinnati and two others were sacks or incompletions coming on plays of third-and-ten or more. One also came when Luck tried to find a receiver on a vertical route while he had an in-breaking receiver open.
Cincinnati’s best third-down defensive performance came at home against the Miami Dolphins where they held Ryan Tannehill and company to a conversion percentage of less than 31%.
The four conversions by the Dolphins all came in different ways. The first came on an in-breaking route where the receiver ran parallel to the line of scrimmage, similar to what the Colts had done. The next came on an in-breaking seam route by Danny Amendola with the ball placed in front of the receiver as the defender trailed behind.
For the next two, one was a quarterback draw out of the shotgun on 3rd and 1 and the other was an amazingly inept display of tackling by the Bengals as three defenders failed to tackle or even hinder Kenyan Drake’s progress while he took a dump-off give up pass on 3rd-and-16 for a 17-yard gain.
None of the failed attempts came while attempting to complete a route running parallel to the line of scrimmage.
One 3rd-and-5 failed on a swing pass to the running back. Another, this time needing seven yards, was an overthrown pass intended for a tight end running a vertical route.
A third failed on 3rd-and-2 when the Dolphins tried to hit a wheel route to their running back out of the backfield.
On one 3rd-and-1, Miami tried to hit yet another vertical route much further downfield than they needed it to be.
Four failed conversions came on 3rd-and-15 or more, so I’m not even counting them here to be honest.
And finally, there was a 3rd-and-10 attempt towards the end of the game which ended as Tannehill threw the ball away after finding nobody open on four vertically running routes.
In the following gif file, the first play shows the converted pass where Tannehill found his receiver running a parallel route. The final two show a couple of the failed attempts you read about earlier.
If the Colts and Dolphins show us anything, it’s that Cincinnati’s defense is much better at covering up and down the field than they are across it.
Desean Jackson is the Buccaneers’ fastest and quickest receiver. Sending him on in-breaking routes, slants, or drag routes will get him free of his defender and allow him to run after the catch to convert crucial first downs.
He and Winston have struggled to connect vertically, so going up against a defense so willing to allow parallel passes to land with ease is an opportunity the offense must capitalize on.
Converting third downs, and preventing Cincinnati conversions won’t win the game alone, but they will go a long way to helping ensure the Bucs get out of “The Queen City” with a victory.
No one strategy can win a single game, but all of them combined help to put teams in place to come out victorious in a league designed to create parity. Through these three strategies, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can put themselves in a position to win and push their record back above .500 for the first time since Week 3.