The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started hot. 2-0 against two playoff teams from the 2017 NFL Playoffs including the defending Super Bowl Champs. It didn’t even matter Carson Wentz wasn’t there, because Wentz didn’t win the Super Bowl!
Then came Monday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers. A clumsy, uncoordinated, and all around sloppy performance in the first half completely defeated what would turn out to be a much better second half.
Tony Dungy may have left Tampa on that night like he left when Jon Gruden came in. Unsatisfied with the end state and feeling like they could have done better.
But, it was just one loss, and a close one. You could even argue the Bucs should have beaten their third-straight playoff team. All was going to be ok, and the team would be fine.
Then came Chicago. Here’s a basic illustration of how that game went:
Suddenly, the atmosphere surrounding this team was much different.
Coaches were being called on to be fired, general manager decisions were being brought into question, player efforts were being scrutinized. It was not good.
Considering many predicted this team to start 0-3 before getting Jameis Winston back, a 2-2 record heading into the bye week would have been considered a victory.
It’s not the record which has people bothered, it’s how the Buccaneers got there. There have been plenty of good things to talk about with this team so far this year, but there have also been bad things.
Today, I have the spending duty of sharing with you the things I feel will continue to drag Tampa Bay to the bottom of the NFC South, should they refuse to address them.
This is why: The Buccaneers will continue to lose.
REASON 1: NO RUNNING GAME
There are precious few quarterbacks in football who can continuously throw into double and triple coverage with success. None, to be exact.
Even the New England Patriots have to run the ball to help get Tom Brady favorable passing situations.
Of the top five teams in passing yards this season (Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh and Oakland) only one of them also has a running back touching the ball 20 or more times per game on average.
The Rams also happen to be the only team in this five with a winning record. Coincidence? Not entirely.
Now, I’m not saying the wins and losses have correlated with Barber’s touches exclusively. He had similar first half touches against the Steelers to those he had against the Saints. Still, the Bucs were behind at the half and ultimately lost.
There’s more to football than running. But, if the cross-comparison of the Top-5 passing teams has shown anything, it’s that the ones who can also use their running backs are more likely to have sustained success than those who can't.
There are a couple of things the Bucs could try.
For starters, utilize the backfield players more often.
On many occasions watching teams who have two running backs with different skill sets, you’ll see them both on the field at the same time.
Tampa Bay doesn’t do this nearly enough.
Whether it be Ronald Jones or Shaun Wilson, both of them bring what Barber doesn't: Speed.
Lining both Barber and one of the other two on either side of the quarterback gives the Bucs an important run-pass option opportunity.
Put both running backs in draw/protect mindsets where they either help block or take the ball from the quarterback, depending on what the quarterback sees.
Stacked box with a blitz read inside the tackles? Check into a pass on a quick slant or screen and take advantage of the over-pursuit of the defense.
Standard box with the linebackers leaning forward? Hand to the quick guy and have Barber lead block into the gap the linebacker fills. Let Rojo or Wilson make a cut, get upfield and see what they can do.
Loose box with no firm dedication one way or another by the defense? Have Wilson kick out wide on the snap hopeful a linebacker and/or safety take a few steps with him and give the ball to Barber to run through the gaps.
Sounds easier than it is, but that’s just one thing the Buccaneers could try to shake up the running game without trading for holdout almost-thirty year olds.
REASON 2: PASS DEFENSE
Yeah, you’re surprised. I know.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have allowed 1,432 yards of passing offense so far in 2018, worst in the NFL.
Quarterbacks are completing 77.1% of their passes too, again, worst in the league. The Bucs defense has given up a league high thirteen passing touchdowns. They’re second-worst allowing over 40% of passes completed to go for first downs and have surrendered 20 pass plays of 20-yards or more.
All of this while opposing quarterbacks are racking up an average QBR of 130.5.
It’s not good.
Injuries have played a part as has youth. Sure.
Brent Grimes started the year injured, and just as he got back on the field Vernon Hargreaves III went down for the year.
If that wasn’t bad enough, starting safety Chris Conte tried to muscle through a knee injury just to make it worse and compromise his season as well.
Now, with three rookies playing some serious minutes, the secondary is leaking and the ship is sinking because of it.
It’s got to get figured out, quickly.
It’s hard to say. Head coach Dirk Koetter was right about one thing when addressing whether or not defensive coordinator Mike Smith would be fired, there’s no way to just fire a guy and make it all better.
Could an interim defensive coordinator do better? Sure. But for one reason only. Because the defense would look different.
Therein lies the key, folks. Doing something different.
There was a comment by Smith last season which has stuck in my gears ever since. When asked why Hargreaves was playing such soft coverage on the outside, he stated it was up to the defender on whether to play soft or aggressively. That’s terrible.
As the coordinator, Smith needs to set the tone for the defense. The tone cannot be, ‘play as hard or soft as you like’. A mentality like this one creates exactly what we saw in Chicago.
Some guys are jumping routes, while others are playing 15-yards off the same routes. The result? Plenty of holes and receivers sitting on deserted islands ready to receiver the football.
Smith needs to control the direction of the defense. Are we playing soft and outsmarting quarterbacks? Are we playing aggressive and physically controlling the skill positions?
Choose one. Quickly.
My preference, aggressive man coverage with two deep coverage with blitzing linebackers.
It’s fairly simple. Put the safeties in zone coverage and man-up with everyone else. Don’t have a guy to cover? Blitz.
Yes, it’s simplistic. Overly so. And believe me, I wouldn’t expect the team sits there and makes no other coordination's, reads or adjustments. But relying on a scheme which relies so heavily on the entire unit reading and reacting to the same thing is worse.
At least in my simplified version every player can be confident in their assignments.
The players have to execute the scheme. But if the scheme is too complicated for the players, then the scheme needs to come down a notch or two.
It’s successive approximation 101.
REASON 3: ONE WAY OFFENSE
Too many times over the past few years we’ve witnessed a Tampa Bay offense which seems to be fixated on one method of offense or another.
It’s not always the same one, but it’s almost like a CD - if you remember CDs - that would skip, just not always at the same place.
You don’t know when it’s going to happen, but you know it will, and when it does you get frustrated to the point of property destruction.
In the beginning of the season, the Buccaneers offense hit big play after big play throwing the ball deep at a rate rivaling Madden tournaments.
Then, defenses adjusted. And the Bucs didn’t. Against Pittsburgh, the Steelers adapted by selling out to get in Ryan Fitzpatrick’s face. The result was turnovers and a passing game which just couldn’t do what they wanted and didn’t figure out how to counter until it was too late.
Against Chicago, the Bears played to protect against the deep ball. This left the quick and short stuff open more often than not.
Still, Tampa Bay insisted on trying to beat the defense with deep passes. Why? Because that’s what they want to be. You know what I want them to be? A winning offense.
Levels. At least in the beginning.
I’m all for the occasional first-play shot deep. And every once in a while you need to attack them deep across the field to keep all of the defenders on their heels. Got it.
What doesn’t need to happen is play-after-play of deep routes followed by a deep route followed by - gasp - a deep route.
On a crucial series against Pittsburgh late in the game, the Tampa Bay offense ran two plays in a row where the quarterback progression was entirely past the line of scrimmage. This wasn’t an expiring clock situation. There was no need to try and get the ball down field in one or two plays.
Then, on third and long, when the defense knows the offense will play for the sticks the Steelers unleashed a pass rush which had beaten the Bucs much of the night.
It worked. And the Buccaneers ended up with a short gain, which on first down would have translated to more yards and a better situation for the drive overall, but in this case ended with a punt.
On first down, it was very clear the Steelers were playing off coverage. No attempt to take advantage was made.
You know when it’s hard for defenses to adjust? When they’re on the field. Calling plays with short, intermediate and deep reads predicated on what a specific defender does at the snap gives the quarterback many options depending on how he reads the defense.
Allowing the possibility of short or medium gains early in the possession will open the door for easier conversions later and also give the offensive play-caller a few downs to see what the defense is trying to do, and effectively counter.
REASON 4: HAND PROBLEMS
Dropped passes, missed blocks, and failed sacks.
In their two losses, the problems have resided with the hands on the field for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The team has had opportunities. Even in the game in Chicago. Early on Mike Evans had a dropped pass which ultimately led to a punt. There’s no guarantee a catch by Evans would have led to a score, but it certainly would have been a nice opening shot following the Bears’ first touchdown of the game.
First-and-ten following a 16-yard completion to your star receiver is a lot better of a situation to play from than 2nd-and-10 following a drop.
The examples go on from there. A completed sack by Gerald McCoy in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh and the Bucs have another shot to win that game. Proper blocking in the shadow of their own end zone does the same.
As long as this team continues to beat itself with their own hands, they’ll continue to struggle moving forward. They have to fix it over the bye week.
This is all on the players. Football players have been taught how to catch, tackle and block since they were children.
A lot of it is execution. Most of it is concentration.
I guarantee if you send Chris Godwin through the gauntlet he holds on to the ball. Put Mike Evans on the practice field with a coach and a pad to hit him with, and he holds on to the ball through contact.
But it’s not translating to the game. Evans’ drop issue is bigger than the others in my eyes. This is the franchise’s best wide receiver to date. He’s elite. He can’t drop those balls. Not as often as he has.
In the team’s two losses, he’s had easy drops. They need him to bring those in.
I’m more strict than some, so my answer is simple. Drop a pass, you sit the series. Fumble? You sit the series or the next if the defense recovers.
Miss a block? This one is a bit trickier given the current state of the offensive line. But I would have no issue benching a player for a series after a missed block. Just adjust (there’s that word again) the offense to compensate for that absence.
This team feels like one making too many mental mistakes, and not caring enough about making them. And if the coaches don’t care, why would the players?
REASON 5: WEAKNESS FROM THE TOP
How many times have we heard Dirk Koetter throw himself in front of the bus to resist bad-mouthing a coach or player? Too many.
Too many, ‘fire me first’ or ‘it’s on me’ or ‘blame me’, moments.
It’s time to actually do it.
I’m not saying fire Dirk Koetter five weeks into a 2-2 season. I’m saying the canned responses need to go.
Koetter said last week this thing isn’t about personal relationships. It’s a business. Well, if your business has underperforming employees, saying it’s all your fault isn’t going to get them better at their jobs.
As the man at the podium, it’s time Koetter stops shielding his people from embarrassment and starts motivating them to get better.
Tell. The. Truth.
If Kwon misses an assignment, say Kwon Alexander missed an assignment. If Mike Smith’s defense wasn’t prepared correctly to face the Chicago Bears’ offense, say so.
This isn’t throwing people under the bus, and he can - and should - accept responsibility for the deficiencies while being forthcoming about where the deficiency originated.
Diamonds are made from pressure. A mine with one point of failure will always eventually collapse on itself.
If the Bucs continue losing, what will be the biggest reason?
This poll is closed
No Running Game
The Coaching Staff - Starting with Koetter