Before we get to specific plays, I wanted to note a couple things I saw in this game that pertains to play calling. In my personal opinion it is far better with offensive coordinator Todd Monken than it was under Dirk Koetter and each game reaffirms that belief. It really is the same scheme, but only in the sense that they’re both cheeseburgers. It’s just that one is really good and the other is not.
After seeing two games I believe there’s better usage of the dynamic talent on the roster, better management of down and distance, better mixing or balance of deep, intermediate, and short routes, they scheme players open through rub routes, they do a much better job of using the middle of the field, they throw out of heavy personnel run looks, they use running backs out wide for concepts other than screen passes, and the pass protection is far and away better than it was last season
including especially from the running backs. I also haven’t seen any plays where the quarterback’s only option is to take a sack, which is completely inexcusable and yet was all too prevalent last season.
But it’s still not a terribly creative offense either, if that makes sense. They don’t utilize a ton of motion, and the screen game doesn’t appear to play as large a role in the offense as it once did. They do use RPOs but not as much as other teams. At its most simplistic it appears to be about spreading a defense out to force one-on-one coverages and having guys you can’t cover one-on-one. This top four of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, and O.J. Howard
might be is arguably the best in the NFL right now. In the last two seasons Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate were both in the top three in targets. Not anymore. Humphries is good in short yardage and Brate is a good tight end. But...Godwin and Howard are better.
It’s a lot of little things I’ve noticed that add up to become something much better than before. In short, this offense, regardless of who is at quarterback, looks really good. Everything around the quarterback is being executed at a high level right now and it makes them very difficult to defend. That makes the quarterback’s job a lot easier. I’m not trying to take anything away from Fitzpatrick. He was godly in Week 1, and played well in Week 2. He makes quick decisions and is accurate with the football. And most importantly he’s not committing turnovers.
I’m just pointing out the protection is generally fantastic and someone is open on almost every play and these receivers are creating yards after the catch. None of those three things existed last season with any frequency. That means health will be one of the key things to watch this season, especially along the offensive line.
With that said, there were mistakes too. And the run blocking isn’t where it needs to be. And the defense is bad. But...yeah, that’s most of it, and the defense is for another article.
Want to know why Ronald Jones is inactive? My guess is his pass blocking. Fitzpatrick has been lights out on the deep ball this season with four touchdown passes of 50+ yards in two games (tying Joe Namath’s 1971 season league record), and one of the big reasons why isn’t Fitzpatrick’s accuracy (though obviously that has something to do with it); it’s Peyton Barber’s pass blocking. Let’s be honest: passes of 50+ yards are statistically random and not repeatable from one season (or game) to the next, but Fitzmagic (TM) happens and Barber has been there every time to pick up a key block.
On the play above Barber picks up the blitzing boundary corner Ronald Darby and Evans, picked up by the safety, was open on the shallow dig. Usually you throw where the blitz comes from. Koetter said after the game the Eagles’ corner blitz surprised them. The play was in fact designed to go to Evans underneath, but when Fitz saw the corner coming and the man coverage on Jackson he knew the field would be open so he threw it where Jackson could get it.
But I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. Because that doesn’t account for the other safety, Malcolm Jenkins, who clearly makes a bad guess as to where Fitzpatrick is going with the ball - Fitzpatrick didn’t really try to confuse Jenkins by holding him with his eyes or with a pump fake, nor did Jackson attempt a head fake or alter his route; it’s just horrible safety play. Fitzpatrick hitches a beat to allow Jackson to get closer to his break so he doesn’t throw it too early, before letting it go and the safety bites on what he probably thought was an out or dig route, but Jackson runs a post instead. I’m not even 100 percent certain, based on the alignment of his helmet, that Fitzpatrick even saw the other safety.
The biggest tell to this play however, is the cornerback, who has outside leverage on Jackson. That means he was expecting safety help inside; he makes a zone turn with his hips towards the field instead of having inside leverage and making a man coverage turn where his back would be to the quarterback, with Jackson between him and the sideline. So the safety gives Jackson the inside leverage with the whole field in front of him. That’s the opposite of what you want to do. I’m not sure what happens here if the safety plays this well. Regardless, it’s a 35 yard throw that Jackson takes 40 more yards for six points. That play is a microcosm of Fitzmagic if I’ve ever seen it, and highlights the difference between an interception and six points on a big play.
On Tampa Bay’s second drive, they tried to call the famous O.J. Howard PA sneak-out wheel route that scored several times last season, but the Eagles were prepared for it:
It was triple-covered. That left two receivers wide open down the field on deep crossers, but Fitzpatrick doesn’t seem them. Instead he tries to throw back across the field to Barber, but I don’t think it’s a designed screen. You can see the linemen are surprised by the throw and turn to block, but the pressure caused a bad throw. Fletcher Cox ends the drive the next play by walloping Caleb Benenoch for the sack, causing a 3rd and 18 where the Bucs throw a short screen and get off the field.
Not to be outdone, Ryan Jensen singlehandedly ended the Bucs’ next drive with a personal foul penalty. A Mike Evans drop and an inaccurate throw on 3rd down from Fitzpatrick killed the fifth drive of the day.
But we skipped over the fourth drive, where the Bucs run this play...
Howards lines up in the slot as the No. 3 receiver to the field side, and makes the catch but loses the ball. You can see how a bunch of self-inflicted mistakes and some holes in the armor kept the Bucs off the scoreboard for a while.
But I’m noting this play because on the Bucs’ sixth drive, they run this similar play:
It’s only a twelve yard throw for Fitzpatrick right up the seam, but it’s accurate and Howard catches it on the move with room in front of him and does the rest, taking it 63 yards for the score. If we’re keeping track, that’s 103 yards and two touchdowns of Fitzpatrick’s 271-yard three touchdown first-half performance coming after the catch. Getting your dynamic receivers the ball in space is what it’s all about. You don’t have to scheme deep throws every time you want explosive yardage.
But that’s not really why I’m highlighting these plays. I’m highlighting them because they are great examples using Howard in the middle of the field, where his athleticism gives him a matchup advantage over linebackers. Last season he blocked inline approximately 70 percent of the time, and when he wasn’t blocking he was usually running routes from inline. He lined up in the slot at least three times in the second quarter alone on Sunday. There appears to be a concerted effort here to spread defenses out and to maximize or leverage the talent available.
Also, here is an example of beautiful play design in the red zone, having Godwin come across the formation:
And the pass protection was again excellent considering the opponent, and Fitzpatrick does a good job of buying extra time.
Fitzpatrick only threw for 131 yards and one touchdown in the second half, and the Bucs tried to run out the clock. Monken called twenty passes and eight runs in the first half and fifteen of each in the second half.
Fitzpatrick did throw a four-yard second-half touchdown pass to Evans, and the credit there goes to the pass protection again. Fitzpatrick holds the ball a really long time for being so close to the goal line. That was enough to make linebacker Nigel Bradham second-guess himself and get out of position, allowing Fitzpatrick the passing window to fit the ball to Evans. Late in the fourth quarter great timing and route running by Fitzpatrick and Jackson allowed the Bucs to pick up a critical third and long from deep in their own territory. Jackson started outside the numbers and his route drifted in, like a post. Then he cut a sharp out route and the soft coverage from Jalen Mills meant he was too far out to affect the catch. All game long the Eagles’ cornerbacks, Darby and Mills, could not cover Jackson and Evans one-on-one, and when they played zone the Eagles played too soft and made a ton of self-inflicted mistakes.
As for the running game, when the Bucs had numbers, they ran well! When it didn’t work, it was either because the Eagles’ excellent defensive line got pressure (Fletcher Cox is a difficult assignment for even All-Pro offensive linemen, and Brandon Graham is also really good), or because the offense didn’t have numbers in the box to run and ran anyway, or because in the fourth quarter the Bucs were trying to kill the clock and of course the Eagles knew it. Though there were a couple runs where they were outnumbered and still had good gains.
I don’t know if the quarterbacks are allowed to make a run or pass check by the staff; if they are, I think Fitzpatrick missed several I saw where they didn’t have numbers in the box to run and ran anyway. If the quarterback isn’t given that freedom, and they very well may not be cause it happened several times, well then...I don’t agree with that. It was a responsibility Winston executed at a high level in college and letting the quarterback check into the right play should be a non-starter in my opinion.
The Bucs ran some of what looked like off-tackle counters, trying to take advantage of the aggressiveness of the Eagles’ front seven. They also used a fullback a ton for the extra blocking and the extra gap, usually Antony Auclair. This running game right now is clearly better going north-south than east-west, but I would love to see the wide zone or outside zone play fixed and working. Some of those reach blocks can be difficult, however, and one missed assignment blows up the whole play. But I still want to see Ronald Jones run them with good blocking. Unfortunately that may have to wait till at least later this season, if not next season. Still, if the running game is bad, who cares? The Bucs are near the top of the league in points per drive, which is really all that matters. There’s plenty of time to get it fixed. You only need to be good in short yardage situations anyway.
Overall I think Fitzpatrick does a great job making quick decisions and delivering accurate throws, and it’s clear all the preseason reps has established excellent timing with his receivers. I think there were one or two times where veteran savvy and experience came into play and that’s great, especially against a difficult opponent. But I don’t think Fitzpatrick played nearly as well in this game as he did in Week 1. He was still good, don’t get me wrong, but he didn’t come close to his Week 1 performance. It would be unrealistic to expect him to either, but some of his stats in this game were inflated by yards after the catch. That’s how you win games, but we’re trying for an honest evaluation of his play. He played more within the system this time instead of being the one dictating.
With that said, I think the offense right now is so good outside of the quarterback that all the quarterback has to do is play mistake-free football and the offense should hum. I think it’s probably even accurate to say playing mistake-free football is easier to do in this offense than I’ve ever seen it before. Fitzpatrick made mistakes in this game, but they didn’t cost the Bucs; the mistakes others made did, and made the game closer than it should have been. It feels like right now the only thing that can stop them is themselves.