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Bucs 2017 Routes Snapshot, Part 2

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How much, how good, and where can they improve?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tennessee Titans
Aug 18, 2018; Nashville, TN, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard (80) after a reception during the first half against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 1, based on Football Outsiders’ Routes by value (DVOA - value per play, and DYAR - total value), we looked at curl, out, dig, slant, drag, and the go/fly route. We saw how the Bucs run quick outs and drags a little bit less than other teams and conversely ran curls, digs, and fly routes relatively frequently. Lastly, we compared that to 2016’s numbers to see if there was a pattern. It is important to keep in mind that DVOA is expressed as a percentage above or below average.

Most notably the Bucs seemed to force the deep shot despite having a quarterback who struggled throwing it, completing an on-average 25 percent play at a 10 percent rate, despite having one of the worst defenses in football. Can the Bucs figure out how to consistently hit that play, or will they continue to force it? Or adjust to something that’s less explosive but more consistently yields yards? We shall see.

In Part 2 we’ll do the same thing, but this time we’ll examine the WR screen, post, comeback, broken play, fade, and seam routes. League average DVOA is in parenthesis.

WR SCREEN - (-27.5 percent)

The WR screen (which is now often run with RBs like Alvin Kamara), is one of the highest percentage plays in terms of completion percentage, but actually is a below average play. In fact, of the 25 players that were targeted on screens the most, only seven players had a positive DVOA last season running screens. This is likely because the screen is a highly variable play. One missed block means a short gain or loss of yards, but the play can also yield explosive yardage and touchdowns.

Tampa Bay has one player here, and it’s Adam Humphries (who was not one of those seven). Humphries’ DVOA was -22 percent, which is actually above average. In 2016 Humphries is again the only Buccaneer to show up, but he was actually third in total value (DYAR) and fourth in value per play (DVOA). I would like to see the Buccaneers put together a screen package for DeSean Jackson, who is far more explosive than Humphries.

POST - (36.1 percent)

The post route is another longer throw in the game (average: 21.3 yards), but once again no route produced more DYAR (2,097) in the NFL last year.

Like the Dig, the Post is one of the most fruitful plays in the NFL. It’s also one routes quarterback Jameis Winston excels at throwing. So it’s no surprise two Bucs made the list - wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate.

While Evans was third in DVOA (a whopping 125.3 percent), he was first in the NFL in DYAR - total value (he had ten targets, four more than the two players who were better per-play). Evans’ catch rate was 80 percent, and his average target depth 22 yards. But again, his YAC were a meager 1.3, much lower than all the players around him in total and per-play value, and more in line with players much farther down the list. Evans’ issues with YAC appear to be an issue him him and not quarterback play, and at this point it seems clear that Evans is leaving yards on the field.

Even though Brate makes the list he is fifth-lowest in total value, with a per play value of 33.7 percent above average (but below the NFL average among the top post receivers). His catch rate was 50 percent, his average target depth at 18.8 yards, and his YAC average 3.0, more than twice that of Evans’.

In 2016 Evans was average in DVOA at 23.6 percent among the most-targeted, with a 60 percent catch rate, 18 yard target depth, and a YAC of 2.4. As with the Go and Curl routes from Part 1, it may be the case that Tampa Bay’s offense did indeed become more vertical in 2017. Brate did not make the 2016 list, but I find it very interesting that DeSean Jackson did. Jackson was third in total value when targeted running posts, and fourth in per-play value. There has been some criticism that the Bucs are not using Jackson correctly, or more accurately to the best of his abilities; that they overwhelmingly use him on fly routes but not slants, drags, screens, and posts as much as they could. All higher-percentage plays that can still yield explosive yardage.

COMEBACK - (-6.6 percent)

These plays have the lowest average YAC (0.9) of any route type with at least 100 attempts, but when the play is well timed and the pass is accurate, it is nearly impossible to defend.

The comeback is another route Winston throws well, and it was used heavily in his rookie season in 2015. While the Bucs don’t rely on it as much as they once did, Evans still shows up here with seven targets, and that’s smart. Winston generally places it well and with Evans’ frame, it’s a great play. Evans was fourth in total value and second in per-play value; it seems a Winston-to-Evans comeback is indeed impossible to defend, corroborated by the second-highest catch percentage of 85.7 percent. The average target depth was 11 yards, and I find it highly ironic that Evans’ YAC averaged 1.5 yards, the fourth-most among the players listed.

As proof they are unstoppable when running it, Evans was third in total value and fourth in per-play value when running comebacks in 2016. His catch percentage was sixth-highest, and his YAC was exactly the league average.

BROKEN PLAYS - (-12.6 percent)

These are always fun and unpredictable. These are not broken plays like aborted snaps, but plays where the quarterback scrambles and the receivers break their original routes. This is backyard/sandlot football in number format.

Because the Bucs run a deep-drop vertical passing game that requires offensive linemen to hold their blocks longer than they otherwise normally would, and the Bucs do generally have a ton of broken plays, one would expect the Bucs to have a receiver on this list but in 2017 they did not. The player had to have a minimum of five targets to make the list. So it appears the Bucs may have spread the ball around more than in the past when Evans was far and away the best wideout and Winston may have overly relied on him.

So it’s not surprising that Evans did make the list in 2016 however, finishing eighth in DVOA (per-play value) but sixth in DYAR (total value) because he was second in targets that year with eleven, behind just Jordy Nelson. They were the only two to be targeted double-digit times.

FADE - (-12.5 percent)

I hate this play, and I think it’s hilarious it has the same per-play value as broken plays. The main reason I hate it is because it’s one of the lowest-percentage plays in football (26.8 percent catch rate in 2017, just slightly higher than the go/fly route), and while I understand that trading consistency for explosiveness is generally good, I don’t like it in the red zone where there’s no chance of an explosive play. It is generally reserved for superstar receivers, and if any receiver was built to play the fade in the red zone, it was Mike Evans (or Mike Williams). But I still hate it. It’s also a staple of the Bucs’ offense, and not just in the red zone, where it is seemingly used every time. In fact, I think the Bucs’ over-reliance on the fade in the red zone is one of the reasons they struggle mightily to score points in the red zone. I will step off my soapbox now.

Mike Evans did indeed make the list in 2017 with the second-most targets, 13, behind just Dez Bryant, who had 16. A player needed at least six targets to make the list, and of those Evans finished third-lowest in total value and seventh-lowest in per-play value (-51.9 percent). Evans’ catch rate was 16.7 percent, which tied for fifth-lowest. What’s funny is all four players who had worse catch rates all caught it at a 0.0 percent rate. Two of those players were the incredible A.J. Green, who went 0-8, and the other was Kelvin Benjamin, who went 0-7. It’s a horrible play.

In 2016 the Bucs had a little bit better luck (you need luck to complete this play) - Evans was ninth in total value and his DVOA was 8.8 percent, and his catch rate was 40 percent.

But, there is a chance this play could be useful and reliable. Football Outsiders writes (emphasis added):

The regular fade numbers are eerily similar between the two seasons [2016 and 2017] with just under zero DYAR and a DVOA around -12.5%. However, those back-shoulder fades in 2017 were actually productive with 400 DYAR and 12.5% DVOA. That’s a pretty good argument for using the fade more, but only if the quarterback can be on the same page with his receiver for a back-shoulder throw. The lazy lobs into the end zone are what we don’t want to see more of in the NFL.

If you’re not gonna run it as a back-shoulder, then don’t run it at all.

SEAM - (27 percent)

These had a great 27.0% DVOA last year, but there were only 443 of them.

Besides the post and comeback, the seam is one of Winston’s best throws, and he’s arguably one of the best post and seam route throwers in the NFL. In fact I believe the only seam route thrower clearly better than Winston is Aaron Rodgers, and perhaps maybe Drew Brees. So as expected, the seam is also heavily featured in the Bucs’ offense. All those touchdowns Brate scored in 2016? Most of them came on seam routes with Brate lined up in the slot. Winston would manipulate the safety with his eyes and with Brate’s size and their chemistry/timing it became something of an unstoppable connection. However, I think there’s an argument to be made they became too reliant on it and teams were prepared for it in 2017. I would like to see the Bucs mix things up more in the red zone in 2018.

As expected two Bucs make this list. The higher one is O.J. Howard! He finished eighth in total value and ninth in per-play value on nine targets. His catch percentage was 66.7 percent, above the average of 45.8 percent. He had decent YAC average of 4.7. The other Buccaneer isn’t Brate, but once again, Evans, who had the fifth-lowest total and per-play value out of the players listed, off of nine targets. His catch percentage was also a poor 33.3 percent. His average target depth was a few over Howard’s, but his YAC were also an anemic 1.0.

In 2016, as expected, Brate was the only Buc to qualify. He finished right around average in total value but was eighth-lowest in per-play value on 12 targets, which were tied for second-most. His catch percentage was 58.3 percent.

So what can we take away from all this?

It does appear as if the Bucs’ offense got slightly more vertical in 2017 than they were in 2016, possibly because of DeSean Jackson. The team could also be doing a lot of other things to get Jackson involved; but for now the offense clearly still runs through the Winston-to-Evans connection. I’m not arguing that it shouldn’t, only that Jackson gives you tremendous versatility and the Bucs are wasting that versatility on asking Jackson to run much of the same things over and over again - sometimes the same things their quarterback struggles a great deal to execute. From what we’ve seen in the preseason, it doesn’t appear as if those deep vertical shot plays are going away, so we will see if Winston can continue to hit them consistently over the course of a long season.

Some of their most common routes appear to be curls, digs, flys, posts, fades, and seams, with a good deal of comebacks, and by the nature of the scheme, broken plays. That all makes sense as Koetter’s offense likes to run vertical routes with wide spacing that stresses a defense horizontally, making them cover sideline to sideline. Posts and seams are the plays that yield the best value (and also happen to be throws Winston is really good at), followed by digs, slants, and then go’s and curls.

But there are also things they could do better, such as utilizing short routes that are easier to complete but can be schemed for big yardage. The three routes that featured two Bucs - the post, seam, and go; were eighth, ninth, and twelfth in average catch rate. Which does corroborate the assumption the Bucs are attempting more difficult passes at a higher frequency than most teams. Curls had the second-highest catch percentage, fades the second-lowest, comebacks the seventh, and broken plays had the tenth-highest catch percentage (or third-lowest). This context is important when grading any receiver or quarterback; this offense is difficult to execute consistently.

It will be interesting to see how the offense evolves as time goes on, or if it does. Next week Football Outsiders will be releasing these same numbers but for quarterbacks, and we will take a look at those as well when they come out.

What do you think about the Bucs offense? What jumps out to you?