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The Bucs should steal more concepts

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Football is a copycat game.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Minicamp Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the 11th best offense in the NFL last season. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The passing game carried the offense, finishing 9th best while the running game floundered, finishing 25th. In fact, the passing game was the only real strength on the entire team.

General Manager Jason Licht is trying to change that, hoping an influx of athletic talent at running back and a massive influx of physical talent on defense will turn things around. But that doesn’t mean the passing game shouldn’t look to get better.

As Bucs Nation has addressed many times previously, the spread is here to stay. Seattle, New England, and now especially the Philadelphia Eagles have won Super Bowls in recent years by incorporating or fully relying on “college” spread principles. As Andy Reid stated, the NFL is usually about five or six years behind college. When it comes to the spread, the NFL has tried to resist this change. But it is inevitable, and so the Eagles, copying from Andy Reid and his Kansas City offense that combines the West Coast with spread concepts, adopted it along with some wrinkles from Carson Wentz’s time at North Dakota State, and along with elite talent on both sides of the ball catapulted itself to spearhead the revolution taking place in full swing.

Football is a copycat league. Everyone copied Tony Dungy’s Tampa 2 defense in the mid-1990s to early 2000s, and Dungy himself copied it from a play in the mid-1970s Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Reid and the Chiefs smashed the Patriots last season and the Patriots turned around and used some of the plays Reid called against them the very next week. All or almost all NFL teams now use some kind of spread principle, but we have seen a difference in who is willing to go all the way in running a “college” offense and who isn’t. With the Eagles winning last season’s Super Bowl, expect this evolution to accelerate even faster.

All of this is to say, if you are an NFL team in 2018 and you aren’t stealing spread concepts, you will be left behind, quickly. If you didn’t spend this summer visiting other NFL teams or college teams picking up some wrinkles you might be looking for a job soon. College evolution is now arguably on its 4th or maybe even 5th-generation spread offenses, and these offenses are so good elite defenses regularly give up 30 points per game. Bad ones give up 60. The current NFL rules make it a possibility that NFL fans might see a toned-down version of this, but one that will nonetheless change the game significantly enough that fans will notice.

So what could the Bucs add so they don’t get left behind? Well, lots of things. They could run more zone read, especially in the red zone. They could copy more pick routes, and indeed if OTA’s are any indication, they have flirted with that. If they want to make it a true RPO (run-pass option) they could package the zone read with a quick-hitting pass concept like a slant, or a bubble screen. There are third-level RPOs targeting safeties like what Baylor had been running, and the Bucs want to be nothing if not aggressive. And speaking of screens, the Bucs could get better there as well. Here’s one of their screens last season from Week 15 against the Atlanta Falcons:

This is a pretty straightforward concept. The receivers to the play-side try to vacate the area of defenders, which is good, except the defense is playing zone coverage which means they have their eyes on the quarterback and the backfield and rally down quickly. Pamphile manages to get to and bury his man in space. Tampa Bay’s offensive linemen couldn’t always do that last season. But there’s no blocker for the other linebacker, who does a good job reading it quickly, and Charles Sims goes down for a one-yard loss. Even if Sims had been able to shake the linebacker earlier the two corners would have ensured a short gain.

Sean McVay had the Los Angeles Rams humming last season with one of if not the best screen games in the league last season. Among other things it’s one reason why Goff went from a historically awful rookie season to a pretty good sophomore campaign. Here’s an example why:

I’m not arguing the Bucs should put this much into their screens, but they could do a lot better at disguising what they’re doing. The jet sweep is a distinctly spread concept used to horizontally stretch defenses and it’s used here as a dummy. But the beauty is this play can also set up the sweep for a later time. It’s these kinds of wrinkles that can help make your offense less predictable, and more explosive. It’s worth noting the Bucs did try a straight-up jet sweep last season, but Bernard Reedy and Jameis Winston fumbled the exchange.

Tampa Bay’s fans have been waiting since at least 2013 for a good pass defense. Until and unless the defense can prove they’re up to the challenge it will continue to be up to the offense to carry the load. Incorporating stealing more spread concepts is one way to stay ahead and afloat until that happens.