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Film Review Week 9: Bucs at Panthers

Tampa Bay plays with one hand tied behind its back.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense was, just a few short weeks ago, on pace to be the worst defense in NFL history. Finally, too late, head coach Dirk Koetter fired Mike Smith. In stepped linebackers coach Mark Duffner. As first reported by Pewter Report here, Duffner simplified the playbook to cut down on mistakes. Specifically, he vastly reduced the amount of checks pre and post snap that players have to process. This allows them to play faster.

But there are drawbacks to that. Not being able to check when a receiver goes in motion, or for whatever other reason, can and often is bad. The check was built into the playbook for a reason. It can make your defense easier to read and figure out (not that it wasn’t already).

It should be said that in three seasons Smith couldn’t teach his playbook. The cardinal rule of coaching is to put your players in the best position to succeed. That often means making things as easy for your players as possible while still making it hard for your opponent to figure out what you’re doing. Smith did neither of those things.

The Bucs have looked better since Duffner took over, but they’re still not good. There isn’t really any reason to hope Duffner can succeed this year where Smith failed. There’s simply not enough time, on top of a bunch of other reasons. But here’s what stands out - they are still undisciplined. They bite or freeze on play-action. They can’t tackle. That’s the story of this Carolina game.

0-0 Game. The Bucs and Panthers trade punts, then the Bucs take over on their second possession.

Ryan Fitzpatrick had several options open underneath, and I have no idea what he’s seeing here. It’s a horrible decision and throw and gives the Panthers a first at the Bucs’ 10-yard line. This defense is bad. The only thing that will help them is good field position, like when the opponent starts inside their own 10. Making the defense take the field with the opposite of that is very bad.

7-0 Panthers

On Carolina’s next possession:

The Panthers used a ton of motion and misdirection in this game to great effect. You see everyone here bite on the play-fake to McCaffrey, even Jason Pierre-Paul. No one stays home as everyone over-pursues. You also get a great look at safety Justin Evans. His athleticism is so good. He sticks his foot in the ground and covers an insane amount of ground in a short period. Unfortunately, the same issue that plagued him in college hurts him here, and he doesn’t use proper technique to break down the runner and finish the play. The corner also could have shed their block faster, but whiffs on the tackle too. RB/WR Christian McCaffrey is a good shifty player, but the Bucs have to tackle better. They will be facing him for years to come.

14-0 Panthers.

The Bucs’ red zone scheme design has largely been terrible, as Dirk Koetter’s vertical offense is too vertical for the compressed space you get down here. In 2016, the Bucs were 20th in points per redzone trip, and 24th in 2017. Todd Monken has helped here tremendously, and they rank 13th in 2018. It was higher before the Bucs started having a redzone turnoverpalooza. But having watched all of these games now you start to see the same handful plays over and over. Teams know what to expect. It’s too stale.

When you look around the league you can easily argue they haven’t gone nearly far enough in being creative and scheming easy looks. So it’s worth celebrating here when they have a good design, except for the part about getting your QB blasted:

O.J. Howard runs a pivot route from his alignment as an H-back, and walks in for the easy touchdown. More of this, please.

14-7 Panthers.

On Carolina’s next possession is an example of a mistake, even when there’s no miscommunication:

Check out the top of the screen. The corner has zone leverage at the snap, playing off coverage with his hips to the field instead of the receiver. You can see the corner point to the linebacker and they switch assignments on a check. Except, the hesitation by the corner during the switch, and his positioning close to the sidelines, means he has no chance to make a play on this pass. It results in a huge wide-open passing lane with no linebacker to challenge it, because the ‘backer drove to the flat to cover McCaffrey.

A few plays later:

More misdirection. More poor eye discipline. It feels like Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner is toying with this defense.

21-7 Panthers

The two initial issues here in my opinion are first that Vinny Curry didn’t hold the edge or run this out. He has to keep his outside arm free and run his man down the line to squeeze this play or force the ballcarrier back inside. He isn’t able to. And second Brent Grimes gives a laughably weak effort in run support. It’s another good design by Carolina to pull a lineman on Grimes. He has no chance once the OL gets to him. But he has to recognize this faster and run up to force this back inside. Instead, he just sits and waits for the OL to come to him to get run over and gives up the edge. Lastly, this is just horrifically bad tackling by everyone else.

28-7 Panthers

Again, more play-action to freeze the linebackers. Grimes just doesn’t have the athleticism and length to make this play. The Bucs need better players. If you’re playing him it’s because your corner situation is bad.

Still, both these plays are great placement from Cam Newton. Linebacker Ardarius Taylor doesn’t do a bad job, but Greg Olsen deftly gets separation and does an insane circus catch. The problem here is safety Jordan Whitehead, who is a step slow to read it and doesn’t even attempt to challenge the catch. He is too deep in the end zone and too shy to attempt contact as Olsen is bringing this in. Still, this is a little bit of a tip your cap play.

35-7 Panthers

And that’s how the Bucs’ horrible defense gets out-coached and outplayed and gives up 5 touchdowns with 4 minutes left to spare in the first half. When it was too-little too-late the offense did this:

This is great design. It even accounts for the defensive end so your QB doesn’t get destroyed! Where has this been all season? Where has it been for the last three seasons before this one?