The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened the 2018 season by stunning the New Orleans Saints on the road in the Superdome. The Bucs’ offense racked up 529 yards at 8.5 yards per play against last year’s eighth-best defense (fifth vs. the pass). They were led by grizzled veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 417 yards and an ungodly 14.9 yards per attempt, completing 21 of 28 attempts.
It was glorious. It was truly a special game, and should be remembered for a long time by Buccaneer fans, because it was about as close to perfection as football can get. It was so much fun to watch, and yet deep down we can admit it kind of shocked us, right?
How could a guy with a career yards per attempt average of 6.7 manage to do this? And is Fitzpatrick’s performance something he can replicate? Has anyone improved from last season? Did I mention the Bucs had a new play caller? Exactly what kind of impact could he have made?
Let’s see if we can answer any of these questions. A warning - this is a long review so strap in.
Tampa Bay ended their 2017 season with a last-second win over the Saints. It provides us a convenient way to compare what is the same and what’s different between last season’s offense and this one. This difference with offensive coordinator Todd Monken calling plays was noticeable from the game’s very first play. Or should I say, first four plays.
In 2017 Dirk Koetter called four runs to open that game. In fact, on all five 1st and 10 situations on the Bucs’ opening drive, Koetter called a run play. In order they gained eight, eight, four, no gain, and two yards. The drive ended in a touchdown, but it required two passes to convert 3rd down situations of six and eight yards. Before the offense reached 1st and goal, they had four 2nd downs. Of the four, three were passes. There’s an obvious pattern there, and that game wasn’t the first time.
Thomas Bassinger’s article in the Tampa Bay Times sums it up:
In the past, the Bucs have favored the run on first down. Since coach Dirk Koetter joined the team in 2015, Tampa Bay has run in first-and-10 situations almost 60 percent of the time, the third-highest rate in the NFL (excluding fourth quarter calls, which often are dictated by score).
Why is that important? First and 10 is one of the few situations in which a defense must account for both a run and a pass, making it more vulnerable to a pass. As a result, teams average more yards per pass on first down than any other down.
...the Bucs flipped the script. In first-and-10 situations (again, excluding the fourth quarter), they called more passes than runs. If you count his two scrambles — which were not designed runs — Fitzpatrick dropped back to pass 14 times. He handed the ball off eight times.
This is where Fitzpatrick did most of his damage, completing 11 of 12 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 146.5. Eight of those passes resulted in either a touchdown or another first down.
What kind of effect can that kind of play calling have? This game may not be the greatest example because the execution was flawless, but, on Sunday here are the Bucs’ 3rd down needed yardage on their four total drives of the first half: one, four, seven, two, and six. They didn’t even face a 3rd down on their second drive.
In 2017, the Bucs faced 3rd downs of six, five, and eleven yards on their second and third drives before they finally faced a 3rd and short situation on their fourth drive. That’s five 3rd downs of five or more yards in their first four drives in 2017, compared to just two in 2018. On 1st and 10 situations on Sunday, just to start the game, Monken called pass, pass, run, run, pass, and pass. Those runs went for 23 and twelve yards.
When an offense can stay ahead of the chains and be in what is called a standard down (as opposed to a passing down), the offense can be much more balanced and effective, simply because of the threat of the run that defenses have to respect. It’s that exact same reason why passing on 1st down is so much better and more effective than running - it lets you stay in standard downs far more often than running does. Like a feedback loop, it creates more and more standard downs where defenses have to play honest, whereas running on early downs is more likely to give you more 3rd and long passing downs.
If you want to know why the Bucs always start slow and get themselves into holes, that’s a large reason why. Winston is a rhythm, streaky passer. He starts cold because he’s not given a chance to warm up. He is asked to convert passing down situations early and often. That’s not ideal, or a recipe for success.
Alright, on to the film!
Koetter said that the first TD to #Bucs WR DeSean Jackson was game-planned. They used that play last year vs. the #Saints, but had Humphries in the slot last year. This year, they put "the fast guy" DJax in the slot for the TD.— PewterReport (@PewterReport) September 10, 2018
I went and found that play just to show you guys:
The Saints look like they are in quarters coverage here. Look at how vertical Adam Humphries’ stem is going straight up the hash marks, and how the Saints safety trails and stays with Humphries, meaning Jameis Winston has to place this ball in a bucket over his shoulder. Winston for his part tries to place this where only Humphries can get it, but he misses, overthrowing him by a couple yards.
Now here’s Sunday’s play with DeSean Jackson:
Notice how Jackson bends his route inside and then back out, but has the speed to do so and not disrupt the timing of the route. That gives him a good release despite press coverage, opens up more space when coming back to the sideline, and helps to hold the safety on the wrong side of the field. The other thing here is Fitzpatrick turns more quickly and further around than Winston did, in order to also hold the free safety - the Saints started the game in what appears to be Cover 3 with just a single high safety. While the Bucs can’t control what defense the Saints call, certain plays will work better against certain coverages and anticipating what the defense will be in and knowing when to dial up a play is also a part of good play calling. Against Cover 3 there isn’t another safety to deal with. All three elements here make for a much easier throw and catch than the one attempted in 2017, and they all combine to help turn what is a low-percentage play and give it a much better chance of success.
That’s the whole thing with the Bucs’ offense. It’s after high-risk, low-percentage plays. It is trading safe passes and long drives for explosive plays. The NFL average on passes traveling at least 30+ yards in the air may be 25 percent, but the Bucs believe that hitting one in four times is worth it if you can score in four or five plays instead of having to drive ten or eleven (math actually backs them up as having the correct strategy). More plays bring a higher chance of mistakes and punts. When you operate from that aggressive mindset you realize you can live with the occasional interception (or what one might call an arm-punt), and this offense by its nature will come with more interceptions than a safe risk-averse one will.
The key is maximizing your chances as much as you can to give your players the best chance possible to succeed. Even pushing 25 percent to 30 percent is an incredible difference. The Bucs didn’t do that enough last season. Combined with Winston’s inability to hit the deep vertical (around 13 percent), the Bucs’ offense struggled. Sometimes the little things make all the difference in the world.
On the Bucs’ second drive of the game, they ran this play to Chris Godwin:
If this play is familiar to you, it should be: we saw the exact same play in the film review of the Lions preseason game, only it was Winston hitting Jackson in stride. As far as I can tell, these rub routes are brand new to the offense this season. Humphries runs a slanted curl, and Godwin uses it well to lose his man. This is the exact same concept as a screen in basketball. The key is the player running the pick, here its Humphries, must at least appear as if he’s running a route; he can’t look like he’s blocking, or it’s offensive pass interference.
If you’ve been on Bucs Nation for a while now these types of plays are exactly what I meant when I talked about adding wrinkles that can give your quarterback easier reads and throws and can also potentially yield explosive yardage without having to try another low-percentage pass. If you have an issue with Winston making bad decisions and/or throwing picks, welcome to part of the solution. Winston averages about 33 pass attempts a game. They don’t all have to be difficult low-percentage ones. Substituting about five or so of these types of plays a game should do wonders for this offense. In my opinion, that was the issue with the offense last year - it was too low-percentage, too inefficient. Like a fourteen point swing on a 100-yard pick-six, it’s possible for this offense to see a huge swing this year and be far more explosive and efficient.
The very next play was a back-shoulder fade to Evans for 21 yards. We’ve seen Winston hit Evans for a back-shoulder this preseason. It’s a much better play than a regular fade, which is another low-percentage throw that Winston and Evans were terrible at last year. A back-shoulder with Evans is almost impossible to defend and again - the theme this year is taking a low-percentage play and adding wrinkles that make it more efficient.
Ok, here we have the last play of the second drive:
This was a great play call, and it’s worth going over because announcers in the booth will be saying “RPO” a lot, and are going to be getting it wrong a lot. Here is a handy guide for this, and well worth a read.
For the Bucs, they don’t have a super-athletic quarterback, so this is a play they will only run inside the five yard line or in short yardage situations. To make this quick, as that article states:
The major difference [between RPOs and packaged plays] comes down to when the decision to pull the ball and throw happens. With an RPO, the quarterback makes the decision pre-snap based on the defense’s alignment and box count. In a packaged play, the decision happens post-snap. The quarterback must make a read of the defender who is being put into a run-pass bind.
Lets count the blockers and defenders in the box:
The Bucs have five offensive linemen, plus Howard as the tight end, which makes six blockers. Because of the compressed space, the Saints have nine defenders in the box. If you don’t include the safety, and assume the Saints have three-on-three numbers with the receivers, that’s seven defenders. Seven defenders for six blockers? That math still doesn’t work!
It does if you are going to run your quarterback though, and you use your running back as a decoy. The Bucs left the play-side defensive end unblocked. It appears as if Fitzpatrick reads him just like a zone read packaged play (an inside zone run packaged with a QB keeper); the end crashes down to take Barber, so Fitzpatrick pulls the ball and takes off. He only has to beat the safety to the goal line. But as the article notes, there’s a tell in this play. The receivers aren’t running routes - they’re blocking all the way, which usually indicates it’s just a zone run. So either this was a zone read, and Fitzpatrick really did read the end, or this was a standard zone run called for the quarterback, and the Bucs knew or expected the Saints to crash the inside zone fake to Barber. Because why would they ever expect Fitzpatrick to keep the ball? The truth here is we (read: I) don’t really know if it’s a packaged play or a regular zone run call. It has the same action as a zone read though. In the future, I would not be surprised if the Bucs used this to set up a real RPO or packaged play, say, with a bubble screen.
Howard is a beast and has definitely improved from last season. This clip is only :50 seconds long and is well worth your time:
Tampa spreading field with superior athletes at WR/TE...OJ Howard pic.twitter.com/Xt5psLhjhn— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 10, 2018
Howard probably isn’t even the first read on the play as it looks like Howard is the rub route used to get Evans open on the slant underneath. That kind of rub route didn’t really exist in the offense last season. The back-shoulder fade wasn’t either, and is something Tampa has already made much better use of this season, and to great effect. When you have freak athletes everywhere, almost everywhere is a + matchup for you.
Chris Godwin also scored a touchdown on a back-shoulder fade. I’m telling you, with this receiving corp, it’s impossible to stop. Should have been using it years ago.
Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore ran his forty-yard dash at the NFL Combine in the 92nd percentile of cornerbacks, and Mike Evans weighs thirty pounds more than Lattimore.
Mike Evans #GoBucs #TBvsNO pic.twitter.com/S57lloZPeP— Zac Blobner (@ZacOnTheMic) September 9, 2018
Evans is still listed by the Bucs at 231 lbs, but maybe he’s trimmed down some. Because as was pointed out to me on Twitter, Evans is noticeably quicker this year, and this play is an example of that. That’s a big deal, and will make him virtually impossible to cover. It also makes him more effective at stretching the field, especially if DeSean Jackson misses any time with injuries. This play was the exact same type of vertical routes Winston couldn’t hit last year. The hope is that 1) he has improved, and 2) Evans being more explosive, as he appeared to be on this play, will help open up a little bit bigger windows to make the throw a little easier.
What this Evans play signified, in the second half, was Monken kept his foot on the gas, and Fitzpatrick kept attempting them. What was incredible is they kept “hitting”.
These plays with Howard and Evans bring up another important thing about this offense. One reason why it’s so difficult, besides going deep so often, is it wants to stretch defenses horizontally, making them cover sideline to sideline. That often means farther, more difficult throws to the sidelines and in the intermediate depth of the field. But what it’s also trying to do is stretch the defense so far you get holes in zone coverage or one-on-one man coverage, and then rely on your quarterback and receiver to beat that. I believe the quarterbacks are told to look for the one-on-one coverage and take it. It’s a good strategy. But as we’ve seen, there are little things you can do to increase your chances and efficiency.
The last big touchdown play was the Mills concept to Jackson. It’s essentially pairing a dig route with a post route behind it, which is intended to put the safety in a bind. Come down and play the dig and miss the backside post, or play the post and leave the dig uncovered.
Jackson is at the bottom of the screen here, and it’s Humphries running the dig, but it could be Evans or Godiwn, makes no difference. The Saints came out playing Cover 3, and then started to try to disguise their Cover 3 by coming out in a two-deep shell (Cover 2), but would roll into Cover 3, except near the end zone. Here late in the fourth quarter, again, Monken has his foot on the gas with this call and note that the Saints are finally trying not to get burned anymore and playing straight Cover 2. This is the perfect play call for that defense (Mills is best used against Cover 2 and quarters though it can work against Cover 3/1) and Jackson splits the safeties.
In this article is a great video of Jon Gruden and Brett Favre talking about Mills, and since Favre and Winston share some similar aggressive mentalities when executing this play, it’s funny and well worth a watch.
For all the time Koetter has been in Tampa, I saw a lot of iso-dig routes, meaning it’s just a dig route with nothing else. The receiver has to get to their spot on time and Winston has to beat the coverage (usually two defenders) with his eye manipulation and throw. Don’t get me wrong, those plays are still in this offense, I saw them on this film review. But I used to look for Mills concepts hoping they would be used, and maybe I’m misremembering, but I didn’t see them as often as I wish I had. Winston is one of the best post-route throwers in the league and doesn’t struggle throwing them deep the way he does pure vertical routes outside the numbers.
Extras and Conclusion
Please check out Brandon Thorn’s thread here on the Bucs-Saints game. It has a lot of good stuff, including highlighting the blocking by Peyton Barber, Ali Marpet, Donovan Smith, and Ryan Jensen. It was indicative of everything I saw the whole game. I thought the offensive line played really well and that Barber ran really well and did a good job in pass protection. That’s something that’s really important to this offense. The key going forward will be consistency. If they can’t string together these types of games, they will hold back the rest of the offense.
7-man protection saved this play for a 58-yard TD. Rankins tossed aside Marpet, but the RB was there to pick him up: pic.twitter.com/0BZ3KLyE0x— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) September 11, 2018
Lastly, Football Outsiders wrote this about Fitzpatrick’s game:
Deep passes are supposed to produce big plays, of course, but they’re supposed to be low-percentage, high-risk throws too. Fitzpatrick went 8-of-9 for 286 yards and three touchdowns on deep passes. As a result, he finished with 14.9 yards per attempt. He’s the first player to do that on 20 or more passes since Carson Palmer in 2011; he’s the first to do it on 28 or more passes since James Harris in NINETEEN SEVENTY-SIX. (Specifically, October 3, 1976. I know most of you had not been born yet, but I celebrated my first birthday exactly one week later.) We don’t have play-by-play for that game, but it’s likely Harris hit even more deep balls against the Dolphins than Fitzpatrick did against the Saints. He averaged 25.6 yards per completion, even higher than Fitzpatrick’s 19.9-yard mark.
Everyone may have a different definition of a deep ball but Fitzpatrick hitting 88 percent, on what is on average approximately a 25 percent play, is insane. Fitzpatrick played in six games last season for an injured Winston, and he hit just one 40-yard play. He hit two in this game. In some ways it was one of the greatest games we’ve ever seen from a quarterback. It is very unlikely to be repeated any time soon, by Fitzpatrick, Winston, or any other quarterback in the NFL. Sometimes everything just goes your way.
Some of you said this offense isn’t any different than the one last year, or with Koetter calling plays, and in a sense that’s true. It’s still very much the same scheme. But in how and when you attack matters. Adding modern wrinkles to make things easier matters. And the devil is in the details. I saw the Bucs do a lot of the little things right that I didn’t see them do the last couple seasons. All of that adds up and can be more than the sum of their parts. You could argue Koetter ignored the way the game has changed and evolved for far too long, and it hurt his teams. And he absolutely deservers a ton of credit for making the right move and changing. The Bucs don’t win on Sunday without that.
I showed you almost all of the big plays in this game, and some of these wrinkles. Even if they replayed this game ten times the Bucs wouldn’t be able to hit at that rate again. And you shouldn’t expect them to, but if they can replicate the process of what they did, good results will come. The deep ball will vary from game to game, but the Bucs can no doubt be competitive in every contest.
This win against the Saints was reminiscent of the Atlanta opener two years ago. The one thing that has eluded this team, and especially their franchise quarterback, is consistency. The goal on offense between now and the bye is to play something close to that level. They know it’s possible. Raise the floor of their play to a higher baseline. Be good, not just good one week and okay the next. Be prepared to adjust when a good defense takes away the deep ball, or it’s just not hitting that day. Be aggressive early and often, attack downfield and use concepts and wrinkles that help make things a little easier to execute. Be efficient but aggressive the rest of the time. They have the potential to be one of the best, most electric offenses in the NFL.