As Nat Moore said on the Dolphins broadcast last night, the preseason is the opportunity to work on some things you didn’t do so well at last year. So what did the Buccaneers need to work on?
On Offense, it’s the running game and playcalling. On Defense, everything. Preseason games are basically glorified scrimmages so what we can take away from them isn’t too much, but we can glean a few things.
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken called the plays last night, and I thought he did a really good job. Better than Dirk Koetter in my opinion, if we’re being honest. He mixed in the run and the pass on first downs:
On first downs in the first quarter with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, Monken called five passes and three runs. Fitzpatrick finished 5/5 with 8.66 yards per attempt (ypa) on first downs and 6/8 for 6.9 ypa overall. Monken called two passes before calling running back Peyton Barber’s number on a first down and he ran well; his three carries yielded 5.66 yards per rush (ypr) as a good change-up.
On first downs in the second quarter with Jameis Winston in, Monken called nine passes and two runs. Winston finished 6/8 with 8.5 ypa and one sack on his first down attempts, and 11/13 for 7.8 ypa overall. Ronald Jones III didn’t have a great night behind the Bucs’ patchwork second-team offensive line, and his two first-down rushes went for one yard (a goal-line rush, so to be fair we should factor that out), and a loss for one yard.
Together, the offense on first downs finished 11/13 for 111 yards at 8.5 ypa and one sack and four rushes for 4 ypr. Juxtapose that with Koetter’s NFL-high rush rate of 66 percent on first downs early in games over the last two seasons, at a 3.3 yards per rush rate.
It may have been the preseason, and maybe the Dolphins won’t end up being any good, but the process finally looks right; over the course of a season that’s a lot more yards, and opportunities to score. In large part because, perhaps counter-intuitively, passing on first down puts the offense in more manageable second downs much more often than running does. That in turn makes second down a standard down (as opposed to an obvious passing down where defenses have an advantage of likely knowing what’s coming) where the defense will again have to respect the threat of the run, which in turn also helps play action, and so on for third downs. Balance begets balance.
On top of that, we actually got to see an RPO (run-pass option) in the red zone. Winston’s throw was a bit too high for WR Bobo Wilson, but to Mike Evans it would have very likely been at least a first and goal and maybe even a touchdown.
I’m not sure but I believe this is a second level RPO; Winston is reading the linebacker. Winston holds it just long enough to get the linebacker to take a couple steps forward to help open up the passing lane, and then pulls it and throws it. I’d like to see his decision-making here be just a bit quicker and his throw placed better, but the linebacker did a great job forcing a tough decision and throwing angle. But, process and not results. Execution is something to work on, but any play call that gives your quarterback an easier read and throw in compressed space is a good play call. This is something the Bucs need a lot more of in the red zone this season and I hope it continues.
So, why did Monken call plays? It’s a change I’ve been calling for for a while now, but now that we’ve seen it, I’m more convinced than ever that Monken should call the plays going forward. But it raises plenty of questions. If Dirk’s plan was to call plays this season, why let Monken have a shot? If he does it better than you, how can you go back? And if Monken is a better play caller, is it fair to ask what we’re even doing here? I’m not saying Monken should be the head coach or anything, far from it. But if Koetter is an average playcaller (his offenses have historically not scored points, only finishing in the top 10 in points per drive three times in the last eleven seasons and not since 2012) and average head coach (14-18 record), and your assistant does what you’re known for better than you...where do we go from here?
To be honest, I don’t think Mike Smith has changed his scheme up that much and I don’t think it was a good night for him or the defense. I still saw a lot of what we saw last year - McCoy being an unblockable beast, occasional flashes of a pass rush from others, problems with run fits, and a lot of what looked like soft quarters coverage.
Ryan Smith had a particularly rough night; he can’t start for this defense, and that makes the battle between Davis and Vernon Hargreaves one of the key ones to watch. The Bucs badly need Carlton Davis to lock down the other outside cornerback spot opposite Brent Grimes, who is 35, so Hargreaves can play the nickel/slot, where he’s much better suited. And if Davis does, was it because he’s legitimately starter quality, or because no one else on the roster is?
I’ve seen a variation of the above crossing play be successful vs this defense so often in the last two years I’ve lost count. I didn’t really see much of what I was hoping to see in terms of improvement, and I don’t have great expectations for the defense this season. I think they’ll be better than last season, but they were the worst in the NFL last year.
I’m not sold on Mike Smith being the answer to fix what’s wrong, but to be fair, at this point the secondary doesn’t seem to be there, whether it’s because of scheme, talent, or inexperience. Is Smitty playing his scheme because he thinks it works or because he doesn’t think he can run anything else with the talent he has? I don’t know. What I do know is your first team defense giving up over 10 ypa to David Fales is really, really bad.
General Manager Jason Licht spent premium draft picks on physical corners Davis and M.J. Stewart. I wish we could see more of that physicality being displayed. Let Davis use his size; playing ten yards (ten yards!) off the line of scrimmage isn’t his game. And to be sure, Davis and Stewart had pretty good nights, and Davis had two pass breakups.
This offense is much closer to being a finished product than the defense, and unlike the defense appears to be trending in the right direction, but we’ll look for week to week improvement in both squads as the preseason goes on.