The league-average in yards per play (ypp) gained/allowed this season is 5.64. While the Bucs’ offense managed a relatively disappointing 5.3 ypp against the Carolina Panthers in their Week 13 rematch, they played clean football and came away with the victory.
I’ve talked a lot about the Bucs’ running game. So here’s a good play, one of the best of the season:
At the snap, the Bucs have seven blockers and the Panthers have not eight or nine but an equal seven defenders in the box. I’m not sure if Barber was supposed to follow the fullback, but he sees a giant hole and hits it for a 17-yard gain. Imagine that.
Two plays later, Jameis Winston scrambled for an 18-yard gain to set up first-and-goal.
Here is some excellent analysis on the play from Seth Galina:
Winston seems to have a problem looking off the Mike linebacker on some quick game concepts. Here he has a slant-fade up top but he never freezes the Mike during his dropback. Now when he wants to throw the slant, Kuechly is in the window pic.twitter.com/hS8zaqrUkr— Seth Galina (@SethGalina) December 6, 2018
This was a problem for Winston in college too. He’s better and more consistent looking off safeties in the intermediate to deep game but he will sometimes have trouble with linebackers in the hook/curl zones.
One thing that defensive coordinator Mark Duffner has done better and more consistently than Mike Smith is scheme pressure on the quarterback.
Here newly signed linebacker Kevin Minter times this perfectly, and it was well-disguised. You can tell that Cam Newton is surprised by it. The Bucs lack talent and speed in the secondary, and being creative with blitzes and stunts has helped cover up the deficiencies on the back end. The Bucs have also had horrific injury luck at linebacker this year, and Minter was recently placed on injured reserve.
This sack, on 2nd down, helped set up a 3rd and 16. This is how you put your players in position to succeed. A 3rd and long situation like this gives a huge advantage to the defense.
On this 3rd down, Newton throws an interception and the Bucs take over in the red zone at the 20-yard line. This sequence of events is not a coincidence.
Carolina had the ball at the 19 and had to get to the 35-yard line for a first down. When Newton is releasing this throw none of the Bucs’ seven coverage defenders are closer to the line of scrimmage than the 30-yard line, meaning they’ve all dropped into deep coverage. Turnovers are largely luck, and interceptions are no different. But you can reliably get more interceptions by defending more passes. That sounds a little John Madden-ish, but what I mean is making it a contested catch. The Bucs were horrible at doing that under Smith, because they were generally nowhere in the vicinity of the receiver they were trying to cover. But that’s what Lavonte David does here, and the Bucs get lucky as the ball pops up instead of hitting the ground. Safety Andrew Adams is johnny-on-the-spot.
Because of the defense’s failures for a large part of the year, the Bucs’ offense has had the worst starting average field position of all teams in the NFL. This means, on average, they’ve had to cover more ground than anyone else in order to score. So starting on the opponent’s 20 is something worth cherishing. Not only would you like to see the defense help out the offense more like this, but you should also expect the offense to get in the endzone here more often than not.
Here is the first play of this series. As you can see, Winston has a 3-route combo to his right, the boundary. He has Peyton Barber on the checkdown, a receiver in the flat, and Evans running a comeback on top. Evans slips, and Winston dumps it to Barber, but good coverage by Luke Kuechly breaks it up. But, if you notice, after Winston ran the play action he whipped his head around to read the backside post route first before he hesitates and then dumps it. I want to let Galina break this play down too (if you like this kind of awesome stuff, please follow him on Twitter):
Is this a new, more risk-averse Winston? Has he turned a corner? He appears to pass up the post for a fear of throwing an interception. However, it also likely cost the Bucs a touchdown as the play was there if the placement is right. Unfortunately, the Bucs couldn’t put the ball in the end zone this series, settling for a field goal.
This is a play that you’d have liked to see in Winston’s first or second year, as Winston should have been trying to moderate his aggression and confidence and find that fine line between aggressive and reckless. It’s possible Winston is finally going through that process. Or maybe he’s lacking confidence, or is just really afraid of throwing more interceptions and it’s just there in the back of his mind. It’s hard to say for sure.
The Bucs’ defense didn’t have a good day. They gave up 6.8 ypp, and 8.8 yards per rush. On this play, running back Christian McCaffrey gained 53, and set up the Panthers’ only score of the first half.
Here, the Panthers use pre-snap orbit motion from the receiver (coming across the formation at the bottom of the screen) as a kind of misdirection. It is also possible the Panthers ran a version of this play the first time they met this season, and this is a counter to that. Regardless, the Panthers run Power here by pulling a lineman to move a gap and outflank the defense. David just misses the tackle, and it’s off to the races. Justin Evans has to come across the field and it’s not an easy play to make, but he does take a little bit of a poor angle here that really gives McCaffrey a ton of grass. Still, you just have to tip your cap to McCaffrey, who is a really good player and is used well by the Panthers, who waits until the last second to run from behind his block. Also, it’s only fair to note Evans is dealing with a toe injury that is limiting him, but he still manages to run McCaffrey down and save a touchdown, at least for a play.
After trading some punts, the Bucs ran concept I wish they’d do a little more often.
Here Winston pulls the ball on the play action which sucked in the linebackers and hits Chris Godwin on a slant while the corner has outside leverage. With the vacated space Godwin outruns the poor angle by the safety for 48 yards. Simple, easy, explosive, effective. Unfortunately, the Bucs would be hosed by the referees at the end of this drive by one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen, ruling Barber fumbled. At this point in the game the score is 10-7, but it should be 21-7.
Two consecutive sacks ended the Bucs’ next drive. Here’s the first.
The Panthers disguise a zone blitz by the linebacker and the safety as they drop a defensive end into coverage. Winston doesn’t see what he wants, and he feels the backside pressure and sees the blitzers and bails on the pocket. Adam Humphries gets easily open against the lineman who dropped into coverage but Winston doesn’t throw the ball to him, and instead eats a sack. Again, we are seeing Winston play with more than a little bit of caution, and the pros and cons of that. Eating a sack and living to play another down is great most of the time, but a throw to Humphries was in no danger of being intercepted.
On the second sack, the Panthers run a double stunt and two rushers get free on Winston and he’s dropped quickly. The Bucs were forced to punt, but they quickly got the ball back, thanks to a great play by cornerback Javien Elliott.
Elliott reads Newton’s eyes and just jumps the route. Fantastic play.
On the ensuing drive, here’s a 20-yard strike from Winston to Evans that gets the Bucs into the red zone.
A few plays later the Bucs punched it in on a rocket from Winston to Godwin with just 0:13 seconds left in the first half.
Winston wants Mike Evans on the flag route here but it’s well covered. He could have waited on the crosser underneath it but Winston bails the pocket. Godwin sees that and turns and runs for the other corner opposite Evans. The defender loses track of Godwin, doesn’t get enough depth, and Winston puts the throw in the right spot.
If you have time, please go through that thread by Galina, it is fantastic. I didn’t include every play he tweeted about.
The defense didn’t do well on a per-play basis, but they contested catches and were active in coverage. In the end they intercepted Cam Newton four times; once by Elliot and three times by safety Andrew Adams. It is worth noting that it is pretty rare for a team to average 6.8 yards per attempt, as the Panthers did, and only score 17 (or less) points. In fact, it’s only happened 26 times since 2010. Put another way, since 2016 teams that average at least 6.7 ypp while holding their opponent to 5.4 ypp or less are 63-14-1. Carolina’s 6.8 yards per play is almost exactly what they averaged when they faced the Bucs earlier this season, when they put up 42 points. Those four turnovers in this re-match, plus the turnover-free play by Winston and the offense, kept the Panthers from likely winning this game.
I bring this up to make an important point. The defense, per play, has improved by almost a full yard than when they were under Mike Smith. That’s tremendous. They are clearly getting more hands in passing lanes and on the ball. But, they still average allowing over 6 yards per play, which is still pretty awful. Where they’ve really improved is the pressure they are getting on opposing quarterbacks. Those pressures are turning into sacks and turnovers. It’s a dangerous game as the interceptions will come and go. Therefore, it won’t always go the defense’s way. Against the Panthers, it did.
Overall, Winston played a fantastic game. He was under control, and mostly made good decisions. Though his caution left some plays on the field, most importantly he didn’t make any big mistakes like turnovers. I think Bucs fans can live with that for now.
Lastly, Football Outsiders had this to say about Winston’s game:
Winston had a good day on deep balls against Carolina, going 4-of-6 for 72 yards, plus DPIs of 12 and 52 yards on two other throws.
Another thing worth noting, according to that link, is Winston is one of 13 quarterbacks this season that are currently completing at least 65 percent of their passes while being sacked on at least 6.7 percent of their dropbacks. Prior to 2018, only 11 quarterbacks have done that over a whole season. One of their theories for why it is happening so much more this year is QBs are more willing to eat a sack rather than risk a turnover, and live for a 3rd and long play. Being able to hit the 3rd-and-long play has been Winston’s M.O. since he entered the league, but his efficiency has gone up this season (when he’s not throwing interceptions, that is). It is nice to see him pairing that with better decision-making.