The 49ers aren’t a good team, but Kyle Shanahan is one of the best playcallers in the NFL. The Buccaneers did what they not only had to do but should do - beat bad teams by more than one score.
The 49ers, for their part, utilize lots of heavy personnel packages, 12 and 13 (one running back and two or three tight ends) and such. This is mostly because they don’t have much talent at wide receiver. That’s one reason emerging star tight end George Kittle has quickly become a household name. But they like to throw off play-action out of these formations to help. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Bucs’ secondary looks good on days when they face teams with depleted receiving corps.
Fun fact, San Francisco’s quarterback for this game, Nick Mullens, was Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s quarterback when both were at Southern Mississippi.
Let’s get to it!
On Tampa Bay’s first drive, they faced a 3rd and 1. Here’s the play:
So the Bucs had 6 blockers vs 7 defenders in the box. Quarterback Jameis Winston makes a check and Chris Godwin comes across the formation to help block. But it’s man coverage and the defender follows, so that makes it 7 blockers and 8 defenders. If you’ve been wondering why the Bucs can’t run the ball, here’s one of the reasons. They constantly run into outnumbered boxes. The other reason is players frequently miss their blocks. Here, the main culprits are tight end Antony Auclair and right guard Caleb Benenoch. Godwin doesn’t really get enough of his man either. It’s a stuff for no gain, and the Bucs were forced to punt.
Tampa Bay is the worst run blocking team in the NFL. They get stuffed on 27 percent of their runs, which ranks 31st. They are 8th best in converting 3rd and 4th and short, or situational football such as this play, but here they couldn’t get it done. There are ways to be creative to help even up the numbers. The most obvious is running the quarterback, like what the Jaguars do with Blake Bortles. That’s not really an option here (no pun intended). The other way is to run a counter, to get the defense flowing one way and run the other. Or they could run power by pulling an offensive linemen, which adds a gap. They could also run RPOs, like second level ones where the QB reads the linebacker. And sometimes they do some of those things.
But that’s not what they do here. The 49ers like to run with one or two tight ends, sometimes aligned in an unbalanced formation. Instead of having them block though they can send them out on routes, which is clever and helps un-clutter the box. But with the Bucs, it seems that what you see is what you get. Almost like they prefer packing as many bodies in that small space as possible and...hoping it works out? When Doug Martin was good, this is what he was good at; juking guys behind the line of scrimmage, because he was shifty and had good vision. He was better the more bodies you packed in. But that seems like a bad process and anyway Martin isn’t with the Buccaneers anymore. Even if every player makes his block you’re still likely asking the running backs (whispers: and Tampa doesn’t have great running backs) to juke a defender in the hole. For needing one yard it may not matter, but most situations aren’t 3rd and 1.
I think what they should much more often is try to vacate the box by spreading defenses out, run out of 11 or 10 personnel (one or zero tight ends) instead. I get doing it the way they are helps in setting up things like play action later, but I just don’t know what the Bucs are thinking with their run game. The other thing they could do is give their quarterback the freedom to make a run/pass check. Both flipping the play and/or checking to a pass if the numbers to run aren’t there. This is something Winston frequently did in college, and did it at a high level. It is baffling that the Bucs don’t appear to allow their quarterback that freedom. It very much seems a, ‘you run the play as it’s called’ type thing. In case you suspect it’s just a Winston thing, it’s not. I saw the same thing with Ryan Fitzpatrick.
There were 8 defenders in the box and one deep safety on that play, so the other two receivers, Adam Humphries and Mike Evans, were in one-on-one coverage. Shouldn’t that automatically be a check to a pass? What’s the point of spending years and millions of dollars and draft capital to acquire dominating receiving talent to not use it in situations like that? Not to mention a simple rub route would be sure to get one of them open, too. And it’s not just this year. It’s been every year with offensive line coach and running game coordinator George Warhop and head coach Dirk Koetter. It drives me nuts. I just don’t get it.
On their second drive, this should have been a touchdown:
Winston perfectly hits Mike Evans in stride, which is great to see as it happens far too infrequently. He does lead Evans a little bit to the outside, and you’d like to see him put it right over the shoulder so Evans can continue running in a straight line. But, the reason this play didn’t score is more on Evans in my opinion. He is a good enough athlete to not go out of bounds here. I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that Evans couldn’t keep his balance here while tracking the pass. One reason Winston struggles throwing deep to DeSean Jackson is Winston isn’t as precise as he needs to be. He struggles judging Jackson’s speed, and Jackson’s catch radius is smaller, despite the fact he is elite at tracking and adjusting to the ball in the air.
Here’s the first touchdown. Winston wants Evans on a slant in the slot to the left, but the defensive back is doing a good job of jamming Evans with a tremendous amount of contact. Winston then looks at Cameron Brate, who is running his bread-and-butter red zone seam route where he makes contact with the defender pushing out to create space and turns back inside. But Winston has to bail the pocket because of pressure, and in doing so helps re-establish center Ryan Jensen’s block. They go to scramble drills, and Winston connects with Brate.
I won’t show the plays because you guys have seen them enough by now, but Caleb Benenoch hasn’t played well this year. It’s been a disaster. Alex Cappa hasn’t played much this year because he’s not any better. The Bucs simply lacked a quality-starting right guard this season. I get having holes on your roster, or I should say weak spots, but I don’t really understand how it happens that you have a spot where nobody can play. One play he is playside and he gets put on skates and the run is blown up with nowhere for the running back to go. On the next he gets a free release to the second level and just runs right by the linebacker who cuts in behind him in the gap and blows the play up.
Here is San Francisco’s first touchdown.
Carlton Davis is a big press man outside cornerback. That’s who he is. He isn’t particularly shifty - he wins with length and strength. I appreciate new defensive coordinator Mark Duffner’s recent comments about running or fitting the scheme to his players. It sounds great now that Mike Smith is gone. But this play is exactly the opposite of that. Davis should never be in the slot; it’s a huge mis-match, and that mistake by the coaches put six points on the board for the other team.
Winston did a great job this game being more decisive. In that I mean he did a better job eliminating downfield options more quickly than he might have in the past where maybe he would wait to see if an opportunity would come open. Football Outsiders ranked him as the 4th best quarterback in the NFL in Week 12 in defense-adjusted yards above replacement. They had this to say:
On passes to receivers within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, he went 23-of-24 for 169 yards and nine first downs, including a touchdown.
Ah, what could have been if he had a system these past years where he was given three options on every play and coached to ‘find the open man’ instead of having to read ‘touchdown to checkdown’. Regardless, Winston was very good at scrambling and taking what the defense gave him instead of trying to force things. Hopefully he can keep it up.
Lastly, a lot was made about this game being Vita Vea’s coming out party. I’m not so sure. He had a great game, to be sure, and he looked better. But the 49ers are bad and he’s still raw and struggled with some things. And, not to take anything away from him, he did get a bit lucky.
Here’s Vea’s 4th quarter sack. It’s a good play. He is generally the last one off the snap of the ball, but he is quick here and uses his strength and size well. What is encouraging is he did everything well that was in his control, and he beat All-Pro left tackle Joe Staley here to boot. But this is also just horrible quarterback play.
Right here Mullens has a receiver open on the slant. If he didn’t want to throw it he should have moved to his left, which would have re-established Staley’s block on Vea. Instead, Mullens has poor pocket awareness and pocket movement, and Vea gets his sack. A better quarterback would have escaped this sack, but the fact that Vea caused quick pressure is encouraging. He flashed some of his potential in this game. He just has a long way to go to raise the floor of his play where he’s doing these kinds of things regularly.