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How well did the 2017 Buccaneers handle pressure?

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What does it mean for the 2018 season?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are under a tremendous amount of pressure. Head coach Dirk Koetter and his coaching staff, and perhaps general manager Jason Licht and his front office, are all potentially facing the prospect of losing their jobs and having to uproot their families if Tampa Bay can’t make the playoffs. Licht hand-picked Koetter, passing him the torch after Lovie Smith showed he wasn’t up to the task of rebuilding a team that crumbled years earlier when Jon Gruden was fired. Now Koetter prepares to face his own judgement.

Oh, and the Bucs now own the league’s second-longest playoff drought (ten years) behind only the perennial laughingstock Cleveland Browns (fifteen years).

On top of that the team’s franchise quarterback Jameis Winston was again accused of sexual assault and subsequently suspended for the team’s first three games — only the most difficult projected three game opening stretch in NFL history — roiling the fanbase and potentially throwing the team into chaos just weeks before the start of training camp. The pressure from the media and from the fans to cut Winston has been deafening.

It’s too easy to feel like the allegation, or what it implies, is just one more mistake on top of a mountain of other mistakes made over the years by other men. One that no doubt threatens to be the catalyst for a cascade that will turn the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into the Tampa Bay Browns, but is just the tip of an Olympus-sized nemesis of the team’s own making, one that must be conquered before Tampa Bay can regain its former glory. But there are no easy outs here. Not when talking about exorcising the demons we ourselves created.

It was a monumental mistake by Winston on both a personal and professional level, one that is apart from and far eclipses the benign football mistakes of the past by the Glazers, Gruden, Barry Allen, Mark Dominik, Lovie, Dirk, Licht, and more. Not only is his status as the team’s franchise quarterback now fully up in the air, but so is Winston’s very job, putting everyone else’s jobs in even more jeopardy.

Winston’s situation is a microcosm of what the franchise itself is going through, as he’s created his own personal mountain he must now climb. His future with the club hangs on his play in 2018, even if his actions on a football field should have absolutely nothing to do with whether he should be fired over an allegation of sexual assault, or the argument that sexual assault should itself be disqualifying of employment. The irony is while Winston’s play shouldn’t be allowed to save him and his personal failings, his play is the only thing that can save these Bucs. Play oft-criticized for being inconsistent and head-scratching.

We know how the NFL works, and first-round picks, much less first-overall picks, often get many chances to provide dividends on the team’s investment. It appears the Glazers are going to give Winston another chance; perhaps one last chance.

It doesn’t just feel like the future of the franchise hangs on the razor’s edge - it actually does. Should Winston be cut outright before the season, or fail to play well after his suspension, or should the Glazer’s clean house after the season for any reason, the franchise is looking at another rebuild just five years after picking Winston to lead a rebuild. Such a decision would essentially acknowledge they’ve put the franchise back by perhaps another decade.

No pressure.

No pressure is also partly how the Bucs got in this mess, and if they are going to do anything to save themselves or to give Winston a chance to save them, to cut that mountain down to a manageable size, it starts with pressure. Specifically, by applying some of their own.

Pass Pressure

It comes as no surprise but the Bucs were the worst defense in the league last year at generating pressure, per Football Outsiders (FBO). Even when they did get pressure on the quarterback they were still the worst defense in the league. When they didn’t get pressure they were still only the 23rd best defense. FBO had this to say about the 2017 Bucs:

The Florida team to really pick on is Tampa Bay, which had the lowest pressure rate (26.0 percent), and even when the pressure did get there, the Buccaneers still had the worst DVOA (-17.5%). As Aaron Schatz already pointed out, nine of Tampa Bay’s 22 sacks (a league-high 41 percent) were non-pressure plays (coverage sacks or plays where the quarterback was at fault). Tampa Bay’s solution was to cut underwhelming veterans in the trenches and surround Gerald McCoy with Jason Pierre-Paul (40 hurries in 2017), Vinny Curry (28 hurries), and first-round rookie Vita Vea. Curry actually had more hurries as part of Philadelphia’s rotation than anyone in Tampa Bay last year. That influx of talent should make a difference.

After Tampa Bay’s NFL-worse 26-percent, next worse were the Buffalo Bills. But here’s context to the numbers - Tampa was so bad that the distance between the last place Bucs and the 31st-place Bills is the same as the Bills to the 25th place New York Giants. It’s also worth noting that the NFL-average value/quality of defenses when creating pressure last year was more than three times better than Tampa. The L.A. Rams were 10th best when pressuring the quarterback and were four times better than Tampa. Staggering. It’s also worth noting that Vinny Curry played 56 percent of the Eagles’ snaps, third-most on their Super Bowl-winning team, and he just turned 30. It’s almost the exact same percentage of snaps that Robert Ayers played for Tampa Bay last year (second-most). Hopefully the Bucs don’t overuse him.

The difference in quality of defense when the Bucs blitzed and when they didn’t was also the smallest in the league, meaning it didn’t really matter what they were doing. They were just plain horrible, and it’s obvious Tampa Bay had little impactful talent at edge rusher last year. That has changed in a big way, but health is going to be extremely important to the Bucs, and recent history hasn’t been kind to them in that regard. If Tampa Bay is going to be a playoff contender they must begin drafting and developing their own impact edge rushers.

Pass Rushers

It appears as if there was nothing redeemable about the Bucs defense last season, but let’s dive into the Bucs’ pass rush splits anyway.

When it came to rushing four down lineman, FBO had this to say:

Not surprisingly, Tampa Bay had the weakest pass rush with a four-man rush, which it used 77.3 percent of the time. That strategy should be more viable this year with the defensive line additions of Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, and Vita Vea. If we’re still writing next year about Tampa Bay’s pass rush disappointing, then you can guarantee we’ll also be writing about replacements for head coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith. No pressure, guys.

I’m sensing a theme here.

When it came to actual blitzes, there are some surprising results. Tampa blitzed, or sent five or more rushers, just 19 percent of the time, or sixth-fewest. However, their pressure rate when blitzing was over 45 percent, or 12th-most. That’s pretty good! But here’s the downer/kicker - their DVOA was still 30th overall. Why could that be? There are lots of possibilities and this might be a topic that deserves a closer look in the future.

As for two to three-man rushes, the Bucs used them just about 4 percent of the time, or 25th most. Their pressure rate was just 19 percent, which ranks 29th. But interestingly, they were the 11th best defense when they did so! Obviously this is just situational football, but it seems like flooding the coverage with extra defenders paid dividends.

Finally, we come to blitzes that include a defensive back (no matter how many rushers were sent). Similarly to three-man rushes, the Bucs used it infrequently, at just 5 percent of the time. However, their pressure rate when sending a DB was over 55 percent, good for 10th best! But as with their blitzes in general, their defense when sending a defensive back was the second-worst in the NFL.

That’s really frustrating. When the Bucs blitzed they frequently got home, but even when they got to the quarterback they still couldn’t stop opposing offenses. Why? As for the Bucs’ defensive staff, I have some sympathy. I don’t think they did a good job last season but they also had to be frustrated that nothing they tried seemed to work. No wonder they stuck with four-down linemen so often. It seems like they just lacked talent both front and back. Clearly, Licht and his staff knew it, adding several down linemen in free agency and several physical defensive backs in the draft. It seems pretty obvious they want to move to a more physical brand of defense, and I hope they can get the rookies and newcomers up to speed quickly because this defense really needed that infusion of talent and physicality. Hopefully it translates to the field this season.

The 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers stand at a crossroads. Maybe it’s not irony at all. If the Bucs were to cut Winston now, or even after the season, he would almost certainly be given another chance because someone else in the league is sure to pick him up and give him another opportunity; his play on the field hasn’t been nearly as bad as his detractors paint it as. But his off-the-field decision-making has, and that should matter. Afterall, there will always be other quarterbacks to draft. But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe all society really cares about is what you can contribute to it, not take away from it, so maybe you can play your way back from sexual assault. Ben Roethlisberger did it, so there’s precedent. For whatever that’s worth. Maybe it’s simply that many fates are inextricably tied, for better or worse. Maybe all the Bucs need to do to win is to ignore the pressure and continue to build.